ART IN PRAXIS: A CONVERSATION WITH JESSICA SOLOMON

WORDS: GRACE WINGO

IMAGE: OLIVIA OBINEME 

EXCERPTED FROM LOAM SUMMER 2016: A WOMAN'S WORK

In search of something new to read one rainy Sunday evening, I grabbed “Mystical Hope” by Cynthia Bourgeault off of my shelf. Since winter, I’ve been on somewhat of an inner spiritual journey, inspired by a food and sustainable self-care educator that I met last fall. Although our encounter was brief, I felt inspired to cook more, compost more, and interact with nature more through learning about plant medicine and gardening, among other things. Essentially, I’m finding ways to deepen my relationship to myself, others, and the planet in ways that align with my values. As a result, one of the things I’m curious about reading are diverse spiritual texts that range from the New Age to Buddhism and books on the Kabbalah. 

In “Mystical Hope,” Bourgeault talks about hope as an “abiding state of being.” For Bourgeault, hope evokes a physical quality, a sensation of “lightness of being,” a presence, a feeling of joy, an energy. It’s not tied to an outcome. It is rooted in an experience. 

Her language reminds me of the the way I feel when I seek to live sustainably. The idea that hope comes from within us resonates with my desire to tune into the abundance of possibility, spontaneity, and joy that exists within the Universe.

“Mystical Hope” also inspired me to reflect on the ways in which I choose to cultivate a sustainable life. As stewards of creation, how do we create mindful systems and organizations? How can we take on meaningful work and relate to people in ways that are conscious? 

And so, curious to explore the power of stories, community building, and culture, I reached out to my friend (and badass entrepreneur) Jessica Solomon of Art in Praxis. Art in Praxis melds arts and culture into the work of organizational capacity building, transformation, and community engagement. Throughout our conversation, Jessica and I talked about everything from June Jordan to systems change to being unapologetic about who you are.

Grace Wingo: Tell me about what you’re currently doing for a living and/or for pleasure. 

Jessica Solomon: I’m a practitioner and I work with organizations and changemakers around ways that they can be more intentionally strategic in their work. My work is really around people, supporting people who are doing movement work. How can you be most impactful in your work as a changemaker? That’s a question that guides a lot of my work.

One of the methodologies I use in supporting people in being more strategic is leveraging culture and the arts to do that work. How can we use the power of story, the power of ritual, the power of the narrative of who we are and what we believe in, how can we leverage that to be more intentional about our work? How can we think about communities as ecosystems? And how can we use the network to do more work, to be more effectual?

I’m really invested in systems change. I had a conversation with somebody, interestingly enough an artist, who in some ways was being co-opted, a black male artist was being co-opted by a white male artist, and there was a really intense conversation around this person and I asked him to look at the structures that had permitted this artist, this white man, to do this work over time. So many of my questions and a lot of my interrogations and inquiries are around systems at play that allow injustice, oppression, and racism to happen. How can we dismantle a lot of that? How can we break those down? A lot of my work is working with changemakers and organizations who are committed to that kind of work and who are intentional in doing that kind of work.

There’s a commitment to social change. And we also recognize that as an organization they may need some support in being their best selves. And they also have an interest in leveraging arts and culture as a way to get to that. 

GW: So something I want to know is you do this awesome work, and it’s pretty, major, in systems change and dismantling systems that create injustices. One of the things I’m interested in is how do you stay hopeful in the work that you do?

JS: I think part of it is bringing in the idea that none of this is new. If we open ourselves up enough we can go back and look at lessons from our ancestors and people that came before us, and in some ways it’s all a blueprint and there’s also a space to create and carve out new spaces. But in some instances, we can learn from the past and we don’t have to recreate a lot of that. I think a lot of people have learned those lessons for us in some ways. Knowing that I can go back and just remember that “oh, I’m not crazy, this happened, something like this happened before.” This isn’t me necessarily struggling up against this huge thing. This is the thing I was born into.

What keeps me hopeful is to engage with young people who are unapologetically who they are and don’t have that baggage. A friend of mine calls it “unmolested blackness.” Which means pride and comfortability in your skin that a lot of us don’t have. I don’t know if this is a good or bad thing, but I think a lot of young people don’t have the same burden that I have, this notion of being Black in America and what this might mean and the implications that might come with that. And it’s refreshing to see young people stepping up. And also remembering in the Civil Rights Movement, young people ran that. The elders were there but young people were at the frontlines, especially in Baltimore, and seeing that played out is really inspiring and gives me hope. It definitely gives me hope. And none of this is new and we always have an opportunity to tap into history. 

An example of this for me is June Jordan. She was an amazing scholar, poet, and lover of young people who lived in Harlem in the sixties. She was also good friends with this futurist white man named Buckminster Fuller who was brilliant and came up with all kinds of crazy stuff before people could even handle it. And she was like, you know what? My neighborhood is decaying and it’s really not safe. And I want to do something about it. She was also an architect.

The only reason I know about June Jordan of course, about this project that she did, was because a friend of mine wrote about it in an obscure-ass blog, and I actually Googled it, to see who wrote it, and realized that oh, people have been collaborating on projects around space and place and race since at least the sixties, if not before. So it just reminded me that “Jess, the stuff you’re doing is not new, it’s just called something different.” And I’m actually glad about that. I’m actually really glad about that. She was a radical black woman. So she documented this project but it never happened. For me, the lesson, and there are so many lessons, is about being open to something because I might be set in my ways.

GW: I can definitely understand the wisdom of people who have come before us. I read something about how your design principle is to make new words and make new worlds. Can you tell me more about that? What does that mean and the part about designing for inclusion?

JS: So oftentimes, a lot of my work is about strategy. And for me that requires the organization or person to really imagine a vision for what the world will look like if they achieve the thing that they want to do. So we start with that vision. Which for some people is a stretch. Because we are not invited to imagine in general. Most of us are not invited to fully, actively imagine the world that we want. So when I tell people to do that, it requires them to take a step back and really kind of own the concept that we could do this. That’s part of the idea of building new worlds. What does it mean for the people you work with if you actually do the thing you’ve set out to do? What does that look like? And now that we have that, let’s work backwards. What are the things that you’re going to do today, a year from now, three years from now, to get toward that vision?

Because, borrowing from Adrienne Maree Brown, all of this is science fiction. All of this social justice stuff, we’re making it up and we’re building new worlds, so what kind of world do you want to build? Knowing that you are building one, regardless, where do you actually want to go? It’s an invitation for people to envision [the world that] they want. 


And designing for inclusion will require and call in different skill sets that you might not have and I won’t, so how do we create spaces for everybody? How can we be more mindful in the way that we use spaces? Sometimes, it’s just education and making people aware, and sometimes, it’s dealing with our own implicit bias. And that’s a challenge for me as a facilitator. I was telling someone that I have more edges around ability. That’s been a challenge for me. It’s something I’m working on, how can I recognize when I’m being ablest? And how does that show up in the way that I facilitate spaces? How am I showing up for my trans brothers and sisters? How does that show up in the way I facilitate? We all have our raw edges, and for me, I want to be more transparent about it so that I can invite other people to do their work

GW: What advice can you give to other women who are thinking of or want to take the path toward becoming an entrepreneur? 

JS: I think the lesson, would be, for any woman, anybody interested in entrepreneurship, is just being ready for what that means, and how everything falls squarely on you. The thing about a job that is great is that your work is spread out over time. But you know because you are on contract with this organization, you’re going to get paid. You can make up for the time on another day or another project. Or it’s just you and everything boils down to you. If you don’t produce what you need to produce, then that could have repercussions on your livelihood and you have to be ready for that. I don’t think entrepreneurship is for everybody, and that’s not a bad thing. If I found a job that aligned with my values and was a match, I might take it. There’s no question. It’s just what I feel I’m being called to be in this moment. And I’m being open to that. I feel so incredibly blessed and fortunate to have people around me who support me and hold me down. I also have people who don’t understand it and that’s hard. And I realize that I can’t really engage with people who see it as “that’s cute” or “you’re so different.” That’s not where I’m at. It’s important. So just being ready. 

Oh, another thing. Today a lesson came up for me. I’m about to take on a longer-term project right now, and I’m excited about that. The way that that project came about was by me showing up fully. And because I showed up fully, people around me were able to recognize who I was and what I could bring and that over time turned into a job. So that idea of being bold and brave is important. You know when you’re brave, and still showing up. Even when you’re afraid. Even more importantly when you’re afraid, that’s when you show up. That takes being grounded.

And having a spiritual practice that helps me get grounded and guides me [is vital]. Some kind of practice to ground yourself and who you are and why you chose this path and why this path chose you. Find community, think about strategies, and just know that it’s a ride.

GW: I think you’re awesome. Is there anything else that you want to share?

JS: I think as women we’re not necessarily groomed to be entrepreneurs. I know for me, it was already embedded in my family. My grandma would post bus trips to New Jersey. She would make fish dinners and people would pay. I think a lot of it is already embedded in culture, but it wasn’t called entrepreneurship, it wasn’t called sustainability. It was called taking care of family. And I think a lot of us need to go back to that. And recognize it for what it is and maybe update it and call it sustainability or environmental justice, but [recognize that] it was passed down to us.

 

As Jessica so aptly puts, these ideas and plans and motions are embedded in culture. It’s exciting to know that the work of creating social change comes from a deeper place within us. Just like Bourgeault’s vision of mystical hope, these qualities were passed down to us,  inherent within the “wellsprings of our beings.” 

In a time of innovation during this massive digital age, it can be easy to forget the social, emotional, psychological and physical processes of our elders that guided us to this moment. There is wisdom embedded in the work of social change. Wisdom is a steady stream of consciousness moving through us, always available to tap into. What draws me to the work of Art in Praxis is the acknowledgement to our ancestors and the honoring of our roots and where we came from. Honoring the past because that is how we got to this present moment? I think that is radical.