Sweaty bodies stomp and clap in unison; dozens of individuals become one as they dance, share, and learn together. A scene like this promises to be a hallmark of the Summer Leadership Institute, a seven-day intensive program organized by the University’s Embodying Antiracism Initiative (EAI) and scheduled for June 2023. As interested students and community members eagerly fill out applications for this program, many may wonder who came up with this structure and methodology and why they believe this sort of embodied artistic practice is essential to understanding and imagining an anti-racist University.
The EAI is a collaborative, interdisciplinary project spearheaded by Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs Nicole Stanton. The project facilitates collaboration between anti-racist activists within and outside the University’s community, as well as opportunities for the greater student body and general public to engage with these activists. The project aims to support anti-racist community efforts while strengthening ties between activists, developing these activists into leaders, and connecting them to one another to enhance their work.
In addition to supporting the work of University students, professors, and Middletown community members, the EAI has partnered with three external organizations: Junebug Productions, Urban Bush Women, and The People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond (PISAB). I sat down with leaders from each of these organizations to better understand their work, connection with each other, and involvement with the EAI.
Each of the partnering organizations has a rich history with organizing anti-racist initiatives and artistic work stretching back decades.
Junebug Productions, a theater company founded in 1980 and based in New Orleans, is the successor to Free Southern Theater, a pioneering company created by Black artists during the civil rights movement. This history, as well as Junebug’s Black leadership, has led the company to great heights in the world of Black theater and anti-racist artistic excellence.
“Junebug is a space where storytelling is still very much the seed, and we do that storytelling from a lens of really being unapologetically Black,” Executive Artistic Director of Junebug Productions and Special Advisor to the EAI Stephanie McKee-Anderson said. “That is part of our history.… What we know now is that the work that we do helps us do a few things. It helps us understand the past and helps us be clear and rooted in where we are in the present. But more importantly, it helps us dream out a new future.”
Urban Bush Women, a New York City-based dance company founded by Jawole Willa Jo Zolar in 1984, is unique in its focus on stories of marginalized women in the African diaspora. The company’s groundbreaking work has been focused on equity for decades.
“Urban Bush Women and its methodology came out of the mind of the visionary Jawole Willa Jo Zolar, and her experiences working inside of civil rights, from the roots of her family, and from wanting to then use dance as a medium for being able to express stories that weren’t being told,” former company member and EAI Summer Institute Faculty Member Bennalldra Williams said. “She wanted us to understand that this art form that she was using could be more than just a pretty picture that people go see; the ripples of the work could go deeper.”
PISAB, a nationwide group of educators and organizers, focuses on undoing racism and oppressive social structures through community workshops and consulting.
“Our work has always been to support the development of more anti-racist community organizers, thinking beyond single issues or campaigns to undo racism and elevate humanity,” PISAB leaders wrote in an email to The Argus. “Our analysis is grounded in the Black experience in this country and we are intentionally led by people of color.”
Though Junebug Productions, Urban Bush Women, and PISAB have been brought together as partnering organizations through the EAI, collaboration between the three organizations has thrived for many years. Stanton and Associate Producer of the EAI Ariana Molokwu both emphasized that the partners were chosen as a single unit, rather than three distinct companies that the EAI hoped to bring together, since University leaders were particularly interested in the work the three organizations have done and can do together.
“The three of them have been collaborating as organizations in different modalities for decades, and have had lots of wonderful things happening with each other,” Stanton said. “One of the things they say is that they value lived knowledge as much as book knowledge. So they bring a very particular community focus and understanding of knowledge that I think broadens and deepens what we do at Wesleyan.”
Work at Wesleyan
Despite Urban Bush Women, PISAB, and Junebug Productions all being located far from Middletown, their work has been pivotal to the creation of the EAI at the University; prior initiatives by the three organizations have acted as the foundation upon which the structure of the entire EAI has been built.
“Urban Bush Women has a program called EBX, which stands for entering, building, and exiting community,” Molokwu said. “And so when they do their community organizing work, they use this method. It’s basically saying, when we do this work, we’re not just showing up, volunteering for a couple hours, and leaving.… Rather, we take our time, we establish real relationships, we enter the community, we build those relationships over time, and then we exit the community in a respectful manner. This initiative is based on that model.”
With the structure of the EAI based on the EBX model, Stanton stressed the importance of the three partnering organizations to the entire EAI project.
“They’re no longer external organizations, in my mind,” Stanton said. “They’re internal and integral to the whole process of developing the initiative.”
Anderson noted how the decades of collaboration between Urban Bush Women, PISAB, and Junebug Productions have informed the three organizations’ views about creating anti-racist change at the University and in Middletown.
“What does it mean to be beyond 40 years of partnership together?” Anderson said. “It means we’re constantly going back and working on things and learning from each other and sharing those learnings with each other. So what would it look like for Wesleyan to do the same here in this community? It seems simplistic, but it’s quite nuanced and very difficult. How do you deepen relationships as a way of growing and changing how the institution engages both with students and with folks that are outside of the University?”
In addition to creating the framework for the EAI, the three partners have been an important part of various salons, story circles, and think tanks in which fellows are encouraged to take part.
“There’s a lot of sharing that’s been happening,” Anderson said. “The salons are centered around sharing your work and your practice. It is not about a product, although some people have products…but it really is about you and your work and your curiosities…. We’re in that place of building and…understanding this university, its role, its history in this town, and how that shifted and changed over the years.”
From Monday, June 5, through Sunday, June 11, leaders from the three partnering organizations will be hosting a summer leadership conference on campus. This weeklong intensive program will be modeled after multi-day workshops that the organizations have previously held together.
“The big thing to be looking out for is our Leadership Institute,” Stanton said. “We will be having spaces for students and faculty and Middletown community members who are interested. It’s seven days in June. And it is a full undoing racism training: it’s entering, building, and exiting community. At the end of the week, everyone together, based on…shared research from the week, will create an event that will be open to the public.”
Leaders from all three partnering organizations stressed the value of the arts and embodied artistic practice when dealing with systemic and complex issues like racism in America today.
“With your artistic practice, there are things that you feel in the body,” Anderson said. “There are principles and concepts that you can actively feel inside your body. And so when we look at being anti-racist, approaching it from a perspective of feeling is important to us.”
Williams expanded on this idea, discussing the significance of movement and dance, a central element of the methodology of the Summer Leadership Institute and the EAI as a whole.
“We can get very intellectualized about things, but then how do we connect intellectually to know what we’re actually feeling?” Williams said. “Something art is able to do is to bring those two worlds together so that we can go back and inhabit our bodies because our bodies and our minds are always working together.”
Partners mentioned the power of the arts not only to reckon with anti-racism internally, but also to inspire audiences to think about the ideas embodied by artists.
“Our co-founder, Dr. Jim Dunn often said, ‘You know you have a movement when the dancers dance it, the poets write it and the singers sing it,’” PISAB leaders wrote. “We’ve partnered with Urban Bush Women for 30 years to integrate the arts with anti-racist community organizing. Art is necessary for us to maintain a vision of transformation and equity. We carry the trauma and the resilience of survival in our bodies, and through movement we can create change that cannot be found in intellectualized analysis. People are moved and inspired in many ways, and we believe we need to be organizing and reaching folks in as many ways as possible.”
Akhil Joondeph can be reached at email@example.com.