Panelist from the Unapologetically Radical event. Top Row: Brittany Cooper and Tyler McElrath. Bottom Row: Nico Wheadon. Screenshot from Zoom.
Nico Wheadon remembers one of her first lessons in taking joy from an accidental offense. While on a panel at Princeton University, she compared artists to entrepreneurs. In her eyes, artists approach a canvas in the same way that entrepreneurs approach a strategic plan.
A white man on the panel insisted it wasn’t that simple. She didn't let his protestations get to her.
“Every time I offend someone, there is someone I have been brought closer to because of that,” she said.
In the spirit of the conference, each of the panels addressed dismantling systems of racial oppression and applying immediate and direct change to arts organizations and communities across the state. Excerpts from the panels are available here.
For McElrath, the conversation around history and joy started by acknowledging the toll of Covid-19 on Black and Brown communities. On Monday, Gov. Ned Lamont announced that vaccines will now be determined by age, rather than in categories grouped by profession and potential level of exposure. While Connecticut remains a national leader in the percentage of people who have been vaccinated, vaccinated white residents now far outnumber their peers of color.
“It [Covid-19] really forced a sense of unity that we needed as a nation and people,” he said. “There is an inspiration coming around that is amazing.”
Cooper echoed the sentiment by adding that joy cannot come without recognizing the collective trauma Black and Brown communities have been through. That same trauma can distract people from their own lives.
“I think we hold so much generational trauma that we forget that presently in our moment,” she said. “We are responsible for writing that story and narrative .. .at some point, we are going to be looked at as the ancestors.”
The three discussed how to be truthful to themselves and to their values in professional environments. McElrath, who ran for mayor of Waterbury in 2019, emphasized the importance of speaking out against systems that have oppressed and continue to oppress Black people.
“Speak out truth unfiltered and call things out for what they are,” he said. “We have to say that because these are systems that have been put against our people.”
Wheadon spoke about the challenges of showing up as her full self to every occasion.
“I think about leading from a place of value,” she said. “If we don’t speak the same language, I’m not trying to work with you. It’s an honesty that is hard to exercise.”
Cooper said she prepares in advance for certain discussion in professional settings. She added that it is important for individuals and communities to celebrate milestones both large and small against work that aims to dismantle oppressive systems.
“Being a truthful conversation especially in a professional setting is not a bad thing to do,” she said. “We don’t need to reframe how we’re feeling. It will help us in our forward movement as a community.”
In many ways, panelists said, art can close the gaps in language around discussion, joy, unity, and progress. Wheadon reminded attendees that art can be a force that challenges perspectives when the existing language has failed.
“Most art doesn’t come with an essay,” she said. “If it doesn’t ask me to ask a question, that’s not for me.”
Cooper added that competition can kill that sense of communication. She suggested that attendees do their research and support Black-owned artists and businesses instead of asking those businesses to compete with each other.
“Our systems put us in a competitive nature,” she said. “We can’t forget the big picture, you and me doing the same song in a different way is a great thing.That’s another person we get to connect with.”
Wheadon added that organizations need to be ready to do the long work of anti-racism. Right now, she said, institutions treat Black art as a hot commodity without any further intention to support Black artists and employees. Cultural organizations in the city remain disproportionately white, despite a pool of talented Black, Latinx and Indigenous artists.
“These institutions hire to hire Black and Brown people in positions of power that have come out of thin air,” she said. “Is there infrastructure to make this Black person feel included and supported at your institution?”