A Conversation - On Belonging Working and Learning

By Chrissie Orr, Molly Sturges and Valerie Martínez

Chrissie Orr, Molly Sturges and Valerie Martínez are peers in socially engaged artistic practice and have been working in the field for many years. They rely on one another for insight, accountability, guidance and support as well as making individual and collective meaning of the work. This informal dialogue occurred, like many before, around a kitchen table and in the presence of animals, kids and family members. These conversations are an important element of each project and vital to collective learning within the field of arts and community engagement. Like this collection of essays, webs of reciprocal learning between artists, peers, community participants, funders and other partners are essential.

VALERIE: Last week I met a woman who works with families in the International District of Albuquerque, one of the most diverse, culturally rich and challenged sectors of the city. Littleglobe has been asked to consider working in the area. It’s a neighborhood of immigrants and refugees—from Vietnam, China, Mexico, Afghanistan, Bhutan, Sudan—and people struggle with feeling a sense of belonging in a new city, a new country. There are 27 languages spoken just in this four-square-mile area, and the community is fragmented. I asked her when and how people do manage to connect and she said, “by sweeping.” A street, a sidewalk needs to be swept; everyone recognizes it, and they do it together. “We don’t speak the same language,” she said, “We ‘talk’ in sign language, and we sweep. We all sweep.” Her answer seemed so profound to me, and true. Start with the smallest building block—something that already exists within a community. We can get lost in the complexities but connecting—the first step toward belonging—can begin so simply.

MOLLY: We often work with people who experience marginalization and who are distressed in many ways. We encounter their trauma patterns and their amazing resources, capacities and wisdom. By working together creatively, we are able to find a common language by which we can explore, navigate, unravel group complexities, transform the narratives that inform our lives, and make meaning together.

CHRISSIE: It’s about creating spaces where people are able to come together interactively, allowing us to see each other as human beings. Maybe we have differences that divide us but if we, as artists/animateurs, create the right spaces where all collaborators feel a sense of belonging, we can navigate our way into and beyond these differences and begin the process of knowing one another. Then, the alchemy can arise.

MOLLY: Many of the people we work with are so accustomed to having their agency diminished by multiple forces and are used to giving their power away. In these communities we know we can come together as creative ensembles to nurture our expressive capacities and to listen and witness each other. When a person feels they are witnessed and supported, incredible things happen.

CHRISSIE: Recently I was back in my homeland of Scotland and went to a pub one night. I heard music coming from a back room. Gathered there were people from all over the world, singing and playing music together. The connecting flow of this diverse community gathering was so natural and easy. This natural connection happens here in New Mexico—at the annual cleaning of the acequias and at the Pueblo Feast days—but it seems that the forces that isolate people are getting stronger and more challenging, so it’s time to offer more collective opportunities for people to fully and truthfully express themselves.

VALERIE: I think of exploration and discovery, how important these are in creating an environment where people feel capable of expressing themselves, and in their own ways. This is at the core of our work—creative exploration—making movement, song, poetry, drawing, video—in ways that emerge organically from each person and from the group. This process is the opposite of conducting meetings with an agenda, with pre-conceived outcomes, which often suppress voice and identity.

CHRISSIE: Everything unfolds in its own time. We work to find ways of breaking down assumptions and creating a space where emergent creativity is valued. Trusting one another is often hard at first but with time and gentle nudging the trust can emerge.

MOLLY: What is the importance of discovery and exploration? We have ideas of who we are and what we assume about each other, how we are different or alike. If we are truly in a process of discovery together, trust and respect occur. In true open-ended discovery, we don't assume positions, expectation and assumptions are suspended. We expand.

VALERIE: And expanding is only possible in a space that allows it, a trusting space. I was at a conference, recently, and the facilitator said to our large group—we had just come together for the first time—this is a safe space. And I thought to myself, you can’t just say this. It has to become a safe space. This takes time. Trust has to be generated. So we eat together, make art together, find our way to knowing and trusting each other gradually.

MOLLY: We talk a lot about creating a safe space. It is a cornerstone of community creative practice. It takes time. It takes building trust and meaningful relationships. How do we do this?

VALERIE: I believe in sharing something about myself. This is one way. I know this is something that other practitioners avoid. But I feel that all of us should be taking risks together. Our creative exercises often result in people sharing personal things. So, I need to do the same. I try to be honest about who I am, sharing something of my personal life, too. And the fact that we work in multiple mediums helps—people see me trying to sing and dance when it’s not my specialty—this makes me more human, I hope.

CHRISSIE: It is important, how we, as animateurs, describe ourselves, how we name ourselves, how we name our privileges. Our process often invites people to be vulnerable so we have to be willing to be vulnerable ourselves. This sharing is a key to opening the collective trust, the sharing is so important.

MOLLY: We often say we take shared risks. I do know the three of us are profoundly changed by the work we do—we do risk. I know that we also have privilege in similar and different ways. We come and go. We have access and choices many of our participants don't have. I come and go from the nursing home, for example, before and after sessions. I can choose what I eat. I have an extended community of support. I have privileges based upon my race, culture, economics and more. This is all very important to acknowledge. I believe this is a part of creating honesty and safety.

VALERIE: We are facilitators but we must also be collaborators. I never let myself forget that we walk into the sessions with a kind of inherent authority and power. I learned to recognize this long ago, in my training as a university teacher with John and Tillie Warnock. Power and authority is inherently associated with who is leading the session, no matter how gentle and collaborative the process will be. My practice is about pushing against that inherent “authority,” finding ways to distribute the power and authority to others in the room.

CHRISSIE: Do we go into these situations as a facilitator/director? Or, are we animateurs? What is the difference? Animateurs do not push an agenda. We are not going in with a preconceived idea, only hoping to create a liminal space to allow for the emergent, to allow for the creative powers to emerge from within the group.

MOLLY: I’m not sure about that. I think that there are emergent and generative practices that are being cultivated all the time. But I also suspect that as artists and facilitators we have larger ideas or goals such as, we all want and need healthy communities, or this world is more beautiful when each individual feels valued, supported and cared for. I think we all have deep reasons why we do this work.

VALERIE: Yes, this is honest. We know why we do the work (if this can be called an “agenda”) and we know lots of ways—the how, I guess—to encourage all sorts of creative expressions, but we do not want to pre-determine what will be created. This needs to emerge organically so that it will belong to each person, to the group. Why? As artists and facilitators, we don’t know what life is really like for someone else. I think and care about a refugee’s experience, for example, but I have in no way lived it. So, if our goal is to allow a community to determine what kind of performance or work of art that truly expresses who they are, I need to step away from my own expectations.

MOLLY: How do we let go of our expectations, our assumptions? How does this happen? For me, part of this is creating liminal experiences where renegotiation of our assumptions, these constructs, can occur, for myself and for everyone in the room.

VALERIE: It’s about closing the distances between us. It’s easier to hold pre-conceived ideas about someone if we don’t sit and eat with them, talk with them, work with them. Making art together means we close the distance; we can feel each other—sometimes literally, when we dance together, for example—we come to know each other’s lives.

CHRISSIE: I think about the beauty of each individual. When each person’s true being is revealed we can at last see the “other”; we can perceive the “other” in their own beauty. When we recognize this shared experience the difficult connection to “other” becomes possible. It is a radical act.

MOLLY: And it’s very, very hard work. It is powerful work. It is hard to be enemies with someone whose story we feel inside of ourselves. One impact of this work is that it becomes very hard to divide and conquer. It is unifying and often very profound.

VALERIE: Liz Lerman says that she’s sick and tired of people calling our work “touchy-feely, as if something were wrong with touching and feeling.” As if touching and feeling weren’t profound tools for learning and practicing connection. During the making of “Memorylines,” a turning point in our community process was the session after the immigration raids had taken place in Santa Fe. Some of the families in the group were directly affected and they came into the session traumatized. The teenagers were in tears; children were confused; parents were shaken. That room held people with every opinion on immigration, from the most conservative to the most liberal. It didn’t matter. We all felt the fear and grief of people we had come to know over the months; we all knew immigration in a deeper way. We had closed the distance, and we were there for each other, all of us.

CHRISSIE: I return to the power of belonging and how important this yearning to belong is to each of us. It can help us find our place in this upside-down world.

MOLLY: I read a socio-biology article some years back. It was all about the fact that belonging is our primary need and impulse. We need to feel belonging as a means of survival. I reflect on this often and the fact that we are relational, social animals. For me this is the center of the work. To come into good relations with ourselves and each other, to that which is larger than all of us and includes us. We facilitate relational practices within and across these realms.

VALERIE: This is foundational development, community development in the deepest sense of the word, and it requires care and attention.

CHRISSIE: The practice is working with layered meaning. At any one moment we are processing what people are talking about, who is looking where, what is happening in that corner, what just happened. We are listening. We are processing so much information; it is a state of high alert. Antennas extended and skin-sensing everything. I love that feeling.

MOLLY: These are great traits for an artist, and necessary for someone doing relational practices. We also have to be good with not-knowing and facilitating the experience of being OK with not-knowing. If we know everything we can’t grow or allow things to expand, can we?

CHRISSIE: Can one teach these things? How do artists learn to do this? I know you can’t teach someone how to become an artist or poet. Maybe all we can do is guide with our eyes wide open and tap into the roots of who we truly are.

MOLLY: I do think we can share these practices, and by doing the work we learn—doing and reflecting both alone and within a community of practitioners is very helpful. At Littleglobe, we work with practitioners who come from many different impulses, passions, skills and commitments. This diversity strengthens us as a team. We learn by doing, by watching, by integrating what we learn from others into our own practice. Again, it’s hard work.

VALERIE: A community of practitioners is so important. I wouldn’t know much if I hadn’t watched others do what they do. I’ve learned so much from you two, from others. It’s the way I grow myself and grow my practice, the way I learn to navigate the incredible complexity of this work. It’s like poetry, why I love poetry—all the layers, complexities, metaphors, nuances. It’s just as complicated and equally beautiful.