I Went Looking for Artists in the Inclusive Economy, and They Were Already There
AmbitioUS is a new initiative of the Center for Cultural Innovation to act as an experimental arm of the artist-support sector. Throughout the initiative’s launch, Angie Kim, President and CEO, will share her observations and reflections related to this cross-sector, experimental, and systems level work.
When we started AmbitioUS, I expected to confront alternative economy trailblazers who needed convincing that artists and culture matter. I have yet to make that case to them. (Although I have, on the other hand, had to do the opposite; that is, make the case to arts and culture funders about why economics matter to artists.)
I am surprised every time I sit down with an economic trailblazer and find out that she is also an artist, pursues a creative practice, has worked in the arts, or is recognized within her community as a cultural anchor. There have been a lot of these serendipitous and joyful moments. Take Village Financial founder Me’Lea Connelly, for example. She describes the origin story of the start-up (now on track to become Minnesota’s only black-owned credit union) as rooted in artists working together to start a bank. She herself is a singer (check out her powerfully inspiring song “POWER: An Anthem for Black Evolutionaries”). According to Connelly, artists founding financial institutions makes sense, as they have already been actively working on and know their community’s issues. Moreover, they take an iconoclastic approach to looking for root causes and coming up with bold solutions. There’s also Aaron Tanaka of Center for Economic Democracy and the Boston Ujima Project. Not only is he a renowned wunderkind when it comes to advancing inclusive economy, he’s also a cook and a musician. Jessica Norwood, founder of The Runway Project, worked for the Hip Hop Archive at the DuBois Institute of Harvard University and is well known for intersecting culture with community investing. Noni Sessions, head of East Bay Permanent Real Estate Cooperative (EB PREC) is a trained cultural anthropologist who uses that knowledge to inform the work of EB PREC. Kat Taylor, founder of Beneficial State Bank and Foundation, begins public presentations by singing a song. It goes the other way too. I’ve known Jeff Chang as an author, cultural historian, and music critic on hip hop and its culture for years, but it’s only recently (and because we were talking about AmbitioUS) that I learned that he got his start as an economics major.
We started AmbitioUS because we were worried that in the widespread search for an alternative to capitalism new economic solutions would persist in excluding or harming artists, cultural producers, and creative entrepreneurs — people who struggle with poor credit or insufficient collateral to qualify for loans and are ineligible for private grants as independent workers. Instead, we’re finding that there are many economic trailblazers who completely “get” the arts. These are the people AmbitioUS is starting to support. For them, their work is not about economically developing a place or innovating economic systems; it’s about tailoring financial possibilities to heal, strengthen, redress, and empower people who share a cultural identity, which manifests through artistic expressions, practice, and traditions. Their work is exemplifying what the intersections of racial justice, economic justice, inclusive economy infrastructure-building, and culture look like. And, because so many of them are artists, their efforts should be re-defining what constitutes “social practice art.” I’ve come to consider these efforts — Village Financial, Ujima, EB PREC, Runway Project, and others like them — to be a part of a wider movement to spark a “culturally specific economics”(my own term, not theirs)that is diverse and not homogenous, distributed and not centralized, and centered by people and not institutions.
The people behind Boston Ujima Project, Village Financial, Runway Project, and EB PREC acknowledge that, without artists, their communities wouldn’t behave like a community. With the leadership and involvement of artists, their financial interventions move from being transactional to becoming a dynamic part of shaping their communities in meaningful ways. Consequently, their efforts are removing traditional barriers to capital so that artists and all those who share artists’ challenging financial conditions — unpredictable income, little credit, large debt, few assets — can benefit and participate. This has resulted in these projects now lending to artists’ businesses based on community credibility, protecting from risk the community-based investors (the musician as well as the local nonprofit leader, the restaurant owner, and the mom) by making those with wealth act as the source for first-loss capital, and making possible permanent space for cultural institutions through community-based ownership shares.
The search for a viable alternative to the capitalist paradigm cannot be about adjusting capital flows and distributions (i.e., supply and demand). Rather, the alternative is already taking shape, and it looks diverse and customized, culturally contextualized, and aimed at community-wide empowerment and well-being.
When we launched AmbitioUS, I did not anticipate what we’d find by intersecting new economy with arts and culture. Now that we see so many emerging efforts at this intersection, with none of their leaders needing convincing from us about including artists, we’re now encouraging trailblazers to be more overt and public about how arts and culture have been a key ingredient in their secret sauce. Nia Evans of Boston Ujima Project, for instance, shared that artists help them avoid the tactics of conventional political organizing (i.e., a top-down approach of convincing people what to champion and what to say) and, instead, artists help lift up the voices of their community. As she put it, artists are what ensures that Ujima is enacting the “community” in “community organizing.”
Loren Harris, Kenneth Rainin Foundation’s Chief Program and Strategy Officer, synthesized these ideas for me as the concept of “cultural finance” — that economies should be owned by and uniquely reflective of culturally connected communities. Given his two decades in racial and economic justice work, it was affirming to hear how essential culture is to realizing justice aims.
I hope my excitement to be on this learning journey comes across. The only thing that would make this journey even better would be that the junction point of where racial and economic justice meets arts and culture would be less lonely. We absolutely need the paradigm of culturally specific economies to take off in faster ways!