Centering ourselves

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For centuries philosophers and scientists have contemplated variations of this question: If a tree falls and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?

This may seem like an odd introduction to WOC (pronounced “woke”) Art Collaborative, the multigenerational collective I founded with 10 other Black women and women of color creators in Rochester. These women are committed to bringing the power of our individual accomplishments, visions and social justice practices to create an institution rooted in intersectional equity for women, femme, gender-variant and nonbinary artists of color.

Rachel DeGuzman

I am going to tell you why it doesn’t matter so much anymore if we’re heard by the presiding powers that be or not.

Why are so few women of color in leadership positions in the arts in Rochester? Or at decision-making tables? Knowing so many brilliant women of color creatives in Rochester, I have been asking this question for at least seven years.

The most common replies I have heard are:

• We have really tried to diversify our senior leadership but can’t find anyone with the right qualifications.
• We didn’t receive any applications from people of color.
• Yes, she is great at her job but is not ready for promotion or, in truth, even director material. Do you know anybody?
• The organization she leads is not ready for funding from XYZ because it doesn’t have the capacity to ZXY.
• We are not granting monies for its infrastructure because we don’t think it is qualified to do the artmaking it has presented in the community for the last 15 years.
• We are concerned because it doesn’t have paid staff.

Then when pressed, I’ve heard mutterings of “We know we need to do better so we are building pipelines and establishing internship programs.” Pipelines and access to internships are important components of comprehensive equity and inclusion efforts, but systemic change happens only when women of color have agency and are decision makers. It happens when the institutions that compose the field make intersectional race and gender equity a priority and then follow through by developing strategies, tactics and metrics of success for which they are held accountable.

We are out here, working hard, innovating—making sounds in neighborhoods and in venues all over Monroe County, around the country and in the world. We help make the city vibrant. Can you hear us now?

Women of color in the arts and culture sector are leaders. Some of us are budget, marketing or organizational development wizards; others create exquisite lighting design for dance. We are social entrepreneurs, performers, writers, curators, mentors, storytellers and arts educators. Just because the mainstream arts community has not recognized this reality with jobs, funding, awards and other forms of professional recognition does not mean it isn’t so.

We stand shoulder to shoulder with the latest wave of change agents in a city well known for both its arts and social justice activism, Black and female. We are the city’s greatest under-leveraged resource.

WOC Art Collaborative members are N’Jelle Gage-Thorne, Reenah Golden, W. Michelle Harris, Tamara Leigh, Tianna Mañón, Rachel McKibbens, Nydia Padilla-Rodriguez, Danielle Ponder, KaeLyn Rich and I. We know the situations that have brought us together, so we don’t spend a lot of time talking about what is. We are focused on what can be. How we can support each other and women and femmes like us in the community?

At WOC Art Collaborative we’re asking what happens when we shift our focuses from deficits that exist for us in arts in Rochester to our collective assets and shared vision. What if we build our own, inclusive table? What can we accomplish if we, as women of color creators, come together and employ the collaborative practices we have honed over time—our hard-won abilities to multitask and to create something fabulous with little—and with our commitment to building community as a collective, center ourselves?

Centering ourselves makes a lot of sense because we are the experts not only of the exclusion and oppression we experience as women of color in a segregated field but of our dreams for what’s possible in a more equitable arts and culture landscape.

WOC Art Collaborative has launched with its own space—an almost 800-square-foot loft adjacent to a 2,700-square-foot space we can use 240 days a year for exhibitions, performances, salons, receptions and other types of presentations. These are spaces where the voices of women of color will be centered whether they shout or whisper. The greater community is welcome to join us.

As Audre Lorde once said, “We can join together to effect a future the world has not yet conceived, let alone seen.”

Rachel Y. DeGuzman is the president and CEO of 21st Century Arts, founder and curator of At the Crossroads: Activating the Intersection of Art and Justice, host of Up Close and Cultural, and the founder of WOC Art Collaborative.

WOC Art Collaborative members

Rachel Y. DeGuzman is CEO of 21st Century Arts and ARTivist in Residence at Gallery Seventy Four. The focus of her work is decentering whiteness in arts/culture by centering the art, narratives and voices of people of color—especially women and marginalized LGBTQ communities. In fulfillment of that vision, she established “At the Crossroads: Activating the Intersection of Art and Justice” and then organized and initiated the founding of WOCˑArt Collaborative.

N’Jelle Gage-Thorne is president of FuturPointe Dance, which she co-founded in 2009 with the vision to reintroduce Caribbean creative diversity in the dance community and to promote cross-cultural dialogue and conviviality. Born in Jamaica, N’Jelle has performed on stages throughout North America, Europe, Africa, and the Caribbean. She is an in-demand choreographer and educator.

Reenah Golden has spent her life cultivating experiences that reflect her passion for arts, culture, and education in ways that redefine womanhood and purpose. Her primary mediums as an artist are pen, page, and stage. She is a native of Rochester where she is the founder and managing artistic director of The Avenue Blackbox Theatre, a creative bold space with a mission to elevate the voices, interests and art of the marginalize.

W. Michelle Harris is a digital media artist and associate professor at RIT. Harris creates both interactive video installations for gallery settings and live-mixed visuals for music and dance performances. Her work often explores lives lived in the context of patriarchy and racism.

Delores Jackson-Radney is an actor, director, art historian, educator, curator, writer, and founding partner of Kuumba Consultants, an arts-in-education agency providing arts and cultural programming for school and youth organizations throughout the Greater Rochester region.

Tamara Leigh, a Rochester native, is the current director of communications at the Out Alliance, an agency that champions the rights and lifestyles of the LGBTQ+ community and editor of their publication, The Empty Closet. Leigh also acts as co-host of radio show, Brunchin’ With Dee & T. on WAYO 104.3FM and CEO of Roc Candy Media, an urban public relations, brand development and media management firm. Tamara co-chairs, Rochester Black Pride and is a published author of “A Young Thug’s Heart” and “Love and Loyalty, Not Just Another ’Hood Love Story.” Her most sacred accomplishment, however, is being mom to her two young sons, Zaire and Zayden, who have already begun a movement to change the world all their own.

Tianna Mañón is a multimedia journalist based in Rochester. She enjoys covering political and policy decisions and making them approachable for the average reader.

Rachel McKibbens is an acclaimed poet and resister. She is a two-time New York Foundation for the Arts poetry fellow and the author of three critically acclaimed books of poetry, “blud,” “Into the Dark & Emptying Field,” and “Pink Elephant.” In 2009, she became the first Latina to win the Women of the World Poetry Slam championship title. In 2012, McKibbens founded the Pink Door Writing Retreat, an annual retreat exclusively for femme, trans and gender-variant writers of color. She co-curates the reading series Poetry & Pie Night and co-owns the Spirit Room in downtown Rochester.

Nydia Padilla-Rodriguez is artistic director of Borinquen Dance Theatre, which she founded in 1981 as well as an administrator with the Rochester City School District. She is an expert on the traditions of dance in Latin culture.

Danielle Ponder is a musician and attorney. A native of Rochester, she performs internationally with her band Danielle Ponder & The Tomorrow People. She was previously employed by the Monroe County public defender’s office where she provided criminal defense for the indigent community. She is involved in several community initiatives and sits on the board of Teen Empowerment.

KaeLyn Rich is an intersectional feminist, a direct-action organizer, a nonprofit leader, a teacher, and author of “Girls Resist!: A Guide to Activism, Leadership, and Starting a Revolution.” She’s an adoptee immigrant from South Korea, a comfort food foodie, and a working queer mama.

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