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From the Heartland of KC: An Artful Spin on Social Justice

Heartland Arts KC hosted their annual Fellowship Showcase last week. What is Heartland Arts KC, you ask? I was in the same boat until I got to see their show. Their mission, “to train performing artists to become advocates of social justice”, is clear and apparent in everything from that simple sentence pulled from their website, to their full engagement in the process of listening and learning as they form and reform their opinions. I was thrilled to discover that their Mission Statement is directly tied to their accompanying Vision Statement, “to position Kansas City as a hub for arts advocacy”. It raises the whole bar to a level that inspires our souls to become involved, or at least aware, of how easily we can effect change when we turn the conversation to things that truly matter to us – starting with our own inner dialogue. It really hit me where I live.

I only knew about the show because a good friend is the mom of one of the Fellows, and she invited me to come with her. She sent me the link to their website, but I'll admit I didn’t really attach to the organization or their cause until I heard from them directly. This particular Fellowship class studied violence in Kansas City as part of their preparation, and I was impressed by their thoughtful perspectives. In particular, their honest admission that gaining new information altered their opinions. They all attended the weekly meetings of KC360 (modeled after Omaha’s proven program) while they designed and built their showcase, and I got a sense that some of them will stay involved with that group, even after the Fellowship has ended. 

I can only imagine how personal the shooting at the end of our Superbowl Celebration felt to them, because it was so public. I’m sure it was difficult to see first hand what types of violent acts get media attention and which remain publicly ‘hidden’, unless you’re close to the scene. They had already become part of the ongoing conversation about the violence that happens in our communities every single day, so they were immersed in the effects of the lingering pain that keeps the scars of violence from allowing true healing. Advocates for social justice are paving the way for those scars to become acknowledged reminders of how far off the path of civil humanity we have been willing/forced to travel. The disparities are real.

Unlike our legal justice system, which is clearly suffering a structural breakdown under the weight of its convoluted architecture, social justice is still seeking to define itself in ways that invite more participation than push back from the people who are in a solid position to help. It is very difficult for the people who are in need of support services to organize on their own behalf unless they have a lot of time on their hands. And being busy trying to keep their basic needs met, most of them just don’t. This is an oversimplification to be sure, but it sits at the root of our multi-faceted problems and issues with how we receive, respond and react to the violence we live with and/or hear about in our own communities. Our willingness to truly understand where it comes from generally dictates how engaged we are in spreading awareness and becoming active towards finding and implementing solutions.

Heartland Arts KC is not only a self-energizing resource for their own members. They bring a fresh approach to helping their audiences understand how many ways we can all participate at some level within the social justice system. The Q&A that followed last week’s performance was powerfully moving and it was obvious that each Fellow had learned a lot more than they expected through the 12 week process of creating their show. They were openly emotional and grateful for the experience, and they were each able to articulate a slightly different spin on how they grew, personally. At Our Raw Material, we know a lot about how quickly 12 weeks can change your entire outlook, and I was excited by the natural similarities that had them all talking about the ORM Pillars organically, without even knowing they were doing it.

The audience was stacked with incredible energy, including some previous Fellows whose support and encouragement was palpable. Having gone through the program themselves, they understand the intensive nature of the inner work that each performer is doing, as well as the collective effort of bringing a cohesive message that calls back their original mission - to encourage performers to stand for what they believe in and advocate on its behalf. It’s good advice for everyone, and I really only had one sticky thought throughout the night: I found myself wishing that the audience had been a little larger, because this program deserves a bigger reach within our community. I have no doubt that Heartland Arts KC will grow as a grassroots organization, because of the ways they have intentionally organized themselves in Wholeness. At the same time, my impatience was on full display idealing about what they will look like in another three years, or 10 or 20. It’s exciting to think about!

In my life, the shift from Ignorance Week to Emotion Week never fails to offer a personal reality check. It always comes with some deep awareness about my own privileges and biases, but also, the ability to see them with increasing objectivity. The low-key defensiveness that used to show up when this type of discussion came before me has pretty much left the building. I no longer feel the need to separate myself from the false preconceptions of other people or explain how I am different from what they see. I know who I am today, and I learn more about what that means every single day as my thoughts and opinions shift with each new thing I learn. My curiosity takes the lead, and that part of me that wants to already be in the know has the chance to listen, breathe and absorb whatever is before me.

I learned from this performance that when a police officer kills someone in Kansas City, it is not counted among the homicides. It makes me wonder how many times per year a local officer feels compelled to fire a potentially fatal shot, and how many times that shot finds its target. What is the difference between that number and the official reporting? I have no idea at all. Our Kansas City Metro Area comprises several different counties and cities, as well as two states, that share an often-contested history of rivalry and conflicting beliefs. Without a central reporting effort, we are missing the data that would have us understanding the scope of the problem as it lays out across our metro area. As it stands, we all have our own idea about what is a good or bad part of town, and how safe we feel in our surrounding communities. It is largely subjective to our experience, our fears and our ignorance.

It is important to note that how safe we feel has very little to do with how safe we are, and even less to do with being able to protect ourselves from random acts of violence. As reports of violence increase, so do the fears of the people who believe there is nothing they can do to affect the situation, so they don’t. Our health and safety, even with the best intentional care, are still subject to events beyond our control. Until we find a way to incorporate the health and safety of all human beings, there will be a potential backlash of violence from the people who have had enough of not having enough. 

We all know that when we are faced with a lot of difficulties, our patience wears thin and we simply don’t have the bandwidth required to be a great listener for other people. When we are lonely, or feel unappreciated, or abandoned, it becomes a greater effort to reason with great success or to come up with brilliant, creative solutions for the many problems we face. If we have a community of people to support us, we are less likely to erupt in behaviors that are destructive to ourselves, other people, or property. When we feel like someone understands what we are going through, it increases the chance that we can find peaceful ways to make our points. Absent those things, the frontal lobe is far more likely to detach from the amygdala, leaving our actions wide open to anything in the heat of the moment, and often ending in something violent.

The reasons why a person might become violent are as varied as we are, individually, but in most cases they stem from unresolved emotions that eventually reach a boiling point within our bodies and finally explode with a physical expression of some kind. The belief that a person should be able to control themselves when their body is reacting in trauma is truly misleading and has created a great deal more shame that anyone should ever be carrying with them. I’m not saying “let it be” about violence, but I am asking that we back up and recognize the truths that exist under whatever we have chosen to believe about the roots of violence in our own cities. 

Heartland Arts KC serves heavy subject matter with a wide open heart and a deep well of humor and sadness that skillfully skirts the lines of what is appropriate and acceptable. It’s an artistic choice – specifically designed to drive the same point home, over and over again. With ongoing awareness and passion, we can all become an active part of affecting the changes we want to see in our communities. Social justice is both theoretical and practical in nature, so I believe most humans can find their own niche within the system that supports access, equity, participation and human rights. I am eager to find out how many organizations in our community are hoping to harness the obviously powerful energies that are coming out of Kansas City right now, and make them all aware of each other's efforts and interests. 

As part of their own research, Heartland Arts KC invited the leadership of other foundations to come speak about their own drive and passion in order to inspire creativity for the Fellows. They specifically mentioned the team at Lyrik’s Institution, whose mission is to “reduce crime and violence by targeting destructive thinking errors and reworking them into productive behaviors.” Learning about both of these organizations has put a lot of wind in my Our Raw Material sails. I love the idea of growing something that can be taken and used in other cities, much like 360 KC has been able to adapt from Omaha’s solution to their escalating violence. 

After the Chiefs Parade, I wrote a blog about Kansas City, not knowing what to do, but wanting to do SOMETHING. This Showcase, these Fellows, and their insight has made me excited to become more of a participant in the efforts around me to affect the way we view justice, punitively and socially. More importantly, it’s made me aware of my own ignorance regarding how many groups and foundations are out there trying with everything they’ve got to do helpful and progressive things for our world. For now, my mission, outside of promoting Our Raw Material, is to help raise awareness about opportunities to affect social changes. No matter who you are, there is a cause that could benefit from your unique perspective, resources and passions.



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