Rogue Public Folklore: Some Recipes for Community-Collaborative Cultural Organizing as Divestment
This piece was originally meant as an accessibility supplement to an unpaid, paywalled talk given on October 17th, 2020, at the digital iteration of the American Folklore Society Conference. This work owes so much to the work of BIPOC activists in my community, and the many BIPOC scholars & activists who have long pushed against the extractive, colonial, white-supremacist praxes that undergird public folklore + allied cultural work praxis — some who remain in the field, & so many more who have left or done this work fully outside and beyond these narrow spaces. I will continue to edit the piece to try to get a little closer to what needs to be said; + thanks for your forbearance in the meantime!!!
I’m here today to share a little about a relatively young & ambitious community-collaborative folklife project for racial & social justice that I’ve helped create in Marion County, Ohio: the Marion Voices Folklife + Oral History Program. This project involves dozens of incredible community organizers and organizations, and a dedicated core team of community scholars, a community co-ordinator, and the executive director of a fifty-year old, historically white-serving county historical society. Why is it me you’re getting up here, and not all of us? Echoing the many important calls of BIPOC folklorists & allied cultural workers for decades now, I want us to think, for a moment, about the logics & economics of this conference model.
My work with Marion Voices — like the transformative work of so many community-baed cultural organizers — is unsalaried. Yet many of us had to pay to be here. Luckily, this year, AFS launched a no-questions asked fee waiver and pay-what-you-can option. That’s a good start; historically, however, conferences haven’t been accessible spaces to community-based practitioners, and professional meetings and journals replicate extractive academic modes of service-work that are not only inaccessible & undesirable to community-based practitioners, but are also increasingly impossible for precarious academics, too.
Unpaid service work doesn’t count in the same ways under non-academic models: working for “exposure” or the “good of the field,” for many of us, often means time away from the multiple gigs we need to sustain to pay our rent, and keep on doing the partially-paid or sometimes-paid or not-paid-at-all work that’s critical to our communities. Look around the room today, and know: these economic and material structures in the history & organization of “professional” societies like this one, and across the allied cultural work field, are part of the reason the practice of public-sector folklore, so-named & so-identified here, has remained the purview of the wealthy & the white.
I’ve also requested that my portion of this panel *not* be recorded. Giving such a talk on the core praxes of our Marion Voices Folklife + Oral History Program is, in many real ways, at fundamental ethical odds of so much of what our program stands for: it is the exact sort of expected free labor that encourages extractive, exploitative dues-paying dynamics in the cultural work field, part of a culture of working for “exposure.” Furthermore, for programs like ours, without permanent operating budgets or salary lines, and for practitioners like myself and my collaborators, consultancy to help other folklife programs replicate some of what we’re doing is our major survival line. We charge for talks & workshops like this one; and need to. It’s not greediness — it’s part of a deliberate strategy, that recognizes that, in the fields of allied community-based cultural work, racial justice requires economic justice: a fundamental, material re-organization of how we think about and how we value the labor of cultural work. You’re welcome to reach out to me and the project team if you’d like to learn more; and I offer capacity-building consultancies for non-profit cultural organizatons as a part of my offerings at my consultancy, Caledonia Northern Folk Studios. I’m happy to share more, under contract ;)
With that caveat, I’ll be sharing, today, ten lessons in community-collaborative public folklife work for divestment from the trenches of the Marion Voices Folklife + Oral History Program. Though I’ll share briefly about our program model, location, and the vibrant community of activists, cultural organizers, culture keepers & memory-bearers we work with, I will not, primarily, be sharing photographs or documentary work from the field. This is because I don’t think it’s appropriate for me, a white cultural worker directing this project, to stand before you here & traffic in images of my BIPOC & white working-class friends & neighbors for academic woke-cache. We need to start — as I’m hoping to do here — by being aware of the work of these economies; and the dangers and often-alluring mechanizations of shallow, virtue-signaling neoliberal modes of “diversity & inclusion” that promote tokenizing, and, work, in documentary cultural work, the trafficking in the bodies, images, and stories of already-marginalized communities.
My methods & ethics, in this talk, are irreparably indebted to two fields of study, which have deeply inflected my public program design, born & exchanged in multiple networks of practice: critical race theory — and Afro-Pessimist theory (esp. Frank Wilderson), and its warnings, to gloss Sylvia Wynter, against the “neoliberal project of the human’s” ready absorption & defanging of radical Black praxis; and indigenous feminist decolonial scholarship and the body of literature on ethnographic refusals (esp. Eve Tuck & Audra Simpson), in particular, which has grounded so many of Marion Voices’ praxes. These works also actively warns against the neoliberal window-dressing claiming of work as “decolonizing,” and “just.” I do not think the work of Marion Voices is my any means, perfect, done, decolonized, just, or finished; rather, these texts and theories and canons, metabolized in community, have formed an important counter-legacy to many of the core neo-liberal texts from public folklore & oral history canons, which often assume the fundamental good of extractive documentary & university program models.
I have learned this work almost entirely from, with, and alongside an incredible crew of truly radical anti-cultural workers I’ve had the privilege to think & scream & march alongside for almost half a decade now: the remnants of & future of the Oral History Undercommons (including my dear friends Danielle Dulken, Sam Prendergast, Fanny Garcia, and Shakti Castro), with whom I have organized against oral history & ethnography for years; Sarah Dziedzic, with whom I co-run the Independent Oral Historians’ Task Force at the Oral History Association, who has helped me think so much about organizing the labor of cultural workers; various iterations of the Public History & Economic Justice Working Group with the National Council for Public History; and the Emerging Professionals’ Committee at AASLH, where, in 2018, I first began surveying & writing about cultures of “paying dues” & economic injustice in the public history field.
Finally, most critically, I want to thank my collaborators in Marion County: Brandi Wilson, who directs the Marion County Historical Society and says yes to all my crazy ideas; anti-racism educator Whitney Gherman, media artist & serial entrepeneur Anthony Marks, Jr.; life-long community activists, educators, & visionaries Ms. Tara Dyer and Pastor Jackie Peterson and the entire Logos Christian Ministries community. and, above all, my partner in North-Central Ohio organizing since we met at a protest to tear down Columbus, Ohio’s Columbus statue in 2017: the inimitable heir of the Black radical tradition, my friend & comrade Johnnie Lewis Jackson, who moonlights as Marion Voices Community Coordinator while he leads the community as Diversity & Equity Supervisor at Marion City Schools.
I realize that most of this is prologue: and that’s OK. If there’s anything I’ve learned from most of a decade of community-based cultural organizing, it’s that praxis is the work itself: it is the scholarship, it is the activism, it is what matters. So these prologues aren’t nothing — they’re actually the part that matters.
Why is this talk, then, called ROGUE PUBLIC FOLKLORE? This was the name I accidentally gave to a version of this talk about Marion Voices I gave two years ago at an AFS-China Folklore Society summer Intangible Cultural Heritage exchange in Guangzhou, China (thanks to the invitation of AFS); the term caused considerable consternation & amusement for our Chinese hosts, and I think the multiple valences of the term actually work well for what I’ll be talking about: essentially, a trojan horse model of public folklore program that works to actively divest & transform the historically white-led & white-serving institutions into which it’s brought. Today, I’ll talk briefly about how & we’ve grown the Marion Voices Folklife + Oral History Project — a social & racial justice folklife + oral history program — in some perhaps unlikely soil: at a fifty-year old, historically white-led and white-serving county historical society with no record of diversity, inclusion, or equity programming, and which, at the time our program launched, had actively been refusing donations & collaborations with Marion County’s Black communities for decades.
So — what is the Marion Voices Folklife + Oral History Program? I mentioned that I won’t, primarily, be showing images or sounds from our years of field documentation with & in primarily Black & working-class white communities across Marion County. I’ll briefly share an anecdote about why not. Once, I was younger, and very white (I am still very white), and believed in the salvific power of cultural documentation, and particularly, in myself, as a documentarian-savior. On a summer during my graduate program in public folklore, I took an internship as a “story-gatherer” for a national farmers’ market incentive program — a program that doubled EBT dollars at farmers’ markets. My job was to capture the stories of farmers, market managers, and, primarily, EBT users across fourteen Columbus, Ohio farmers’ markets. One day, visiting a relatively new market at a long-running Black cultural center in the disastrously-rapidly gentrifying East-Side Columbus neighborhood of Linden, I asked to take pictures of the market manager, her booth, and the high school student volunteers caring for the on-site community garden. NOPE, she said. Taken aback, I asked why. She said: “Because you’ll have our Black faces on some shiny brochure passed around by politicians in Washington, D.C. to make them feel good about serving Black & Brown communities, and I can’t even get Kroger to donate water bottles so my student volunteers can stay hydrated this summer.” Early on, we decided that Marion Voices would be about the water bottles, while working steadily to erode the culture that puts pictures of BIPOC communities on brochure-covers as a stay against any deeper, structural, material divestment from white supremacy culture — and its manifestations in non-profit economies.
The Story of the Marion Voices Folklife + Oral History Program
Marion Voices, like most good things, has multiple origin stories. In the Summer of 2017, I cold-called the Marion County Historical Society, and proposed partnering with them to create an ambitious, county-wide folklife, oral history, & documentary/cultural arts program focused on amplifying the underheard stories of Marion County’s underserved populations: beginning with working-class white communities in Marion County’s seven rural villages. A month later, I attended a protest at City Hall in Columbus, to tear down the Columbus statue. There, out of a crowd of maybe sixty people, I met a young man with a posterboard that said “WHITE SUPREMACY = TERRORISM.” We spoke for maybe three minutes before the protest broke up: his name was Johnnie Jackson, he too was from Marion County, and he too was interested in the transformative power of working-class and Black oral history programming. Strangely, and unbeknowst to me at the time, he’d also approached the Marion County Historical Society that summer: to propose an exhibit on Black mobilities and his experiences as a Black teacher abroad in Korea and Argentina. At my next meeting with Brandi at the historical society, she showed me Johnnie’s photo-books. Many, many late nights and confusing state & federal grant applications later, we have a community-based folklife program, with a mission to mobilize documentary & cultural arts to catalyze critical conversations about more just Marion County futures.
In 2018–2019, we were funded by Ohio Humanities to launch a year-long community planning process for Marion Voices, where we hosted open meetings with cheese trays and sometimes cake until we’d built a vibrant, and truly unexpected, coalition: including an incredible team, with Johnnie Jackson as Community Coordinator, and long-time Black educator & activist Ms. Tara Dyer and local Black congregation-leader Pastor Jackie Peterson as project community scholars. From the beginning, these public open-house planning meetings, plus an emergent design/strategy praxis inspired by adrienne maree brown, became the bread & butter of Marion Voices work. We went on, with support from the Ohio Arts Council, to launch a year-long countywide folklife survey pilot + needs assessment in 2020 — which documented over 35+ artists across Marion County, and concluded just as the pandemic hit; and mobilized that survey to develop the Marion Voices Culture Keepers’ Artists’ Roster — modeled on the Oregon Folklife Networks’ roster of the same name — and to sponsor & co-produce Marion County’s 2020 Juneteenth celebration. This year, with the support of Ohio Humanities, the Ohio Arts Council, the Marion Community Foundation, United Way of North-Central Ohio, and the Marion County Rotary, we’re thrilled to be launching into three nine-week community co-curation cycles — one this fall, one in Spring 2021, and one in Summer 2021 — which will produce two entirely community-determined pop-up exhibits or event series focused on themes in Marion Black history, cultural arts, & experience. Our Summer 2021 community co-curation series will culminate in the Marion County Historical Society’s first-ever permanent exhibit on Black life, history, cultural arts, and futures in Marion County, slated to open in November 2021.
This is what we do, but the more interesting part is how and why we do what we do: the praxis. The rest of my talk will focus on that.
Marion Voices is a “rogue” public folklore program because we’re not based in an arts organization. We’re not seed-funded or incubated by any university, and we’re happening in a part of Ohio where there hasn’t, to my knowledge, ever been dedicated folklife organizing in that name. Most remarkably, I think, is that we are a program currently focused mainly on Black memory-keeping and radical cultural arts — and in explicitly mobilizing cultural documentation & community-based cultural arts & memory-keeping for social & racial justice — supported and formed by a network of over nine community organizations, but housed at a historically white-serving, white-led county historical society in a county mostly known, to the outside world, for Warren G. Harding and the Marion Power Shovel. There’s been an important question, al along, on why we don’t just form our own non-profit for this work? Why work within and seek to rehabilitate a historically white supremacist organization? Doesn’t such work ultimately, as Afro-Pessimist theorist Frank Wilderson warns, just constitute a “sustainability move for whiteness”: a way for white-serving organizations to parade around, traffic in, and tokenize BIPOC stories, histories, collections, without digging out the rot at the roots, stepping down, *radically* divesting?
At the same time, as so many BIPOC folklorists & theorists have made clear for decades, white supremacy is also a culture. White supremacy is also a tradition. The long-standing work of public folklore practice is conservation, maintenance, sustaining of “good” traditions — but what if we also have an obligation, if we do want to do racial justice work, to disrupt, interrupt, & usher out these harmful legacies, practices, & sticking-places of white supremacy culture? Does white supremacy culture need a death doula to die?
It’s a good question. I don’t have answers for it today, but want each of you here today to think about — to ask yourself — how many organizations there are like this in your community. And what their fates will, should, must be? Mostly volunteer-run, white-serving, telling uncritical stories about barons & settler-colonists & praising them as “pioneers,” completely out of touch with their county’s histories of violent dispossession, of racism, and intentionally cut-off from BIPOC communities. Is it worth this kind of work?
I want to suggest that rogue public folklore projects, maybe more than anything else, ultimately change the organizations that house them, in major ways. And maybe that is part of the work. When Marion Voices started working with MCHS, we were told, how could the historical society display & interpret Black history in Marion County, if no Black community members wanted to donate or collaborate? Three years later, we share a vocabulary about structural racism with MCHS: we’ve explored the reasons — the practices, or lack thereof — that made it historically hostile, horrifying, impossible, for BIPOC community members to donate; and we’ve tried to build & model new practices of true community-collaboration & deeply listening that model anti-racist praxis and the possibilities for transformation. MCHS has been a fantastic partner to us throughout: supporting our unusual initiatives, like equity budgeting, which challenge norms in the public history, museum, & cultural work fields — especially for small, low-budget organizations — and growing along with us to build capacity for showing up for racial justice work. There is a nimbleness to small, community-based organizations like local historical societies which can make them the perfect home for this sort of organizing work.
There are problems with collaborating with historically white-led institutions to do racial justice community-based cultural work. There is much more work to do than in partnering with BIPOC organizations — much more education. And, as a white folklorist passionate about cultural work for racial justice, I believe that is part of the work I can, ethically, do: put in that exhausting labor, as a less-exhausted person, and help to educate towards divestment. As a white working-class person from Marion County, when I hear my BIPOC organizer comrades say, talk to your people, I think: these are my people. There are audiences there who need to hear it.
Another thing that has made MCHS so good to work with is their humbleness about how much they don’t know. Well-funded non-profits in urban centers tend to be aggressively neoliberal: up on shallow DEI initiatives, defensive about their legacy, and extremely slick about quotation work to claim commitment to racial justice work while refusing to actually divest in real, material ways. Marion Voices was blessed from the beginning in our partnership with MCHS because they refused to posture, to act woke, to make excuses for the past. They owned their culpability in the white-washing of Marion County’s history, and and, thanks to the incredible leadership of my dear friend Brandi Wilson, Executive Director at MCHS, have done the most radically beautiful thing any white-led organization can do for racial justice work: stayed out of our way & letting us do what needs done, while also being incredibly supportive. From the day she took the helm as Executive Director, Brandi recognized the gap between the ambition & the reality of MCHS’s mission to serve all of Marion County, and committed to a thing few cultural non-profits do: figuring out why, and working to fix it.
There you have it — who we are, where we came from, what we do, and what I mean by rogue public folklore! In the remaining time, I’m going to — quickly — trace out ten principles for public folklore as divestment from the trenches of Marion Voices’ organizing work.
Ten Principles for Community-Collaborative Public Folklore Work as Social Justice + Divestment:
1. EQUITY BUDGETING: PAYING NARRATORS, ARTISTS, COMMUNITY MEMBERS, *and* CULTURAL WORKERS
Equity budgeting is probably the core praxis Marion Voices is best known for: our primary form of advocacy & activism is the way we write our budgets. It grows out of years of organizing myself and many colleagues to recognize that the field of folklore + oral history’s refusals to pay documented artists & memory-keepers is a core part of what makes these practices so extractive. Equity budgeting insists that fighting for payment for documented communities, community scholars, and precarious/contract/non-salaried cultural workers must go hand-in hand. At Marion Voices, *we pay everyone we work with.* We pay the people we interview, we pay our community coordinator & community scholars, and, finally, we have enough grant funding to offer stipends to community members to attend our co-curation cycles. And yes — although not fully — we pay me. Equity Budgeting recognizes that economic injustice is the main barrier to truly equitable, revolutionary community-based cultural work models; and honors the time, childcare, and labor required of community members — especially BIPOC and working-class community members — to be able to participate in projects and help them not fuck up. PAY PEOPLE FOR THAT TIME. Yes, it was strange, at first, to explain this to funders. Now they love us. The more of us who do this, the more we can normalize Equity Budgeting as a basic requirement for just project praxis across the field.
2. COMMUNITY CO-CURATION // EMERGENT STRATEGY
Following the work of Detroit-based healer & organizer adrienne maree brown, and inspired by the powerful community-based praxis & models of the Philadelphia Folklore Project, Marion Voices follows a community co-curation model. That means almost everything we do is determined by our extended project community via public open-house meetings (now on Zoom). When we pitch for grants for our program, for the most part, we pitch for emergent design, with project themes and even public humanities/arts event formats to be determined by community members. We talk about radical “sharing authority” & divestment: the first way to do that is get the funding & then hand over the determination for program ideas to the communities who most urgently want & need to do that programming.
At Marion Voices, consent forms are a key site of praxis. We acknowledge the way that Creative Commons and commoning models are commonly abused by universities, neo-liberal organizations & extractive non-profits as a way to steal stories, artistic work, and labor from both communities and cultural workers employed as documentarians alike. As such, Marion Voices employs a post-custodial archival relationship with the Marion County Historical Society and an iterative consent form which recognizes that interviewers and interviewees co-own the rights to all documentary materials. Anyone can say no at any time, only the Marion Voices team and community members can steward what happens with documentary materials, community members own and get copies of their materials, and refusal and redaction are not only possible, but encouraged.
4. AGAINST (UNIVERSITY) COLLABORATION
This is a spicy one!!! As cultural workers, as the popular TikTok meme goes, we have got to stop assuming that universities are forces of good in our communities. In this current moment, community-collaborative and highly extractive university-community “partnerships” are sexy AF — universities love this work becaue it’s excellent cover (so they think!) for their perpetuation of bad enslaver-settler-colonial-gentrifyer legacies and pracies. Moreover, “free” student labor often ends up scabbing the work of equity budgeting & concerted efforts to raise wages in the field & pay marginalized community members for their labor — plus, many students are marginalized themselves! Don’t let universities absorb & claim what your community-based project is doing; and think twice about calls to “collaborate.” Demand payment. See: Moten & Harney on the “Undercommons” model: steal, steal, steal from the university; but lots of money has strings attached — ask, will you be doing DEI PR for a university with a history of exploiting & gentrifying the communities your project is trying to serve? Are you OK with that?
5. PRAXIS AS/AGAINST SCHOLARSHIP
We’re often asked, at Marion Voices, if we can send along ~*~ s O m E t H i N G w E ‘ v E p U b L i S h E D ~*~ on equity budgeting; when we reply, nope, we’ve been busy with praxis — making budgets, getting our community paid — and that publications (LOL) actually don’t matter in worlds beyond academia anyway, we’ve sometimes had professors scoop in and excitedly proclaim: Aha! Well, I can publish on that for you! That’s called stealing. We need, as a field ostensibly committed to community-based cultural organizing, to recogize praxis and organizing as critical “scholarship.” We need to look to alternative forms and modes — multimodal praxis, but also budgets, payrolls, HR practices, meeting facilitation structures, as worthy not only of respect, but of citation, as critical contributions to the field: and as the ones that actually matter in working-class communities beyond the ivory tower.
6. AMPLIFY EXISTING LOCAL ORGANIZING
I learned this one from Ms. Tara Dyer, Marion Voices Community Scholar and life-long educator & activist in Marion County. As, how can emergent social & racial justice public folklore & cultural arts projects amplify EXISTING efforts, and channel resources to them? Don’t reduplicate work. Find out what is already happening — what is most urgent, & needful — and build to amplify. Also, cite those efforts!
7. EDUCATIONAL OUTREACH BEYOND THE DOCUMENTARIAN SAVIOR COMPLEX; OR, ETHNOGRAPHERS, WHY DON’T YOU JUST BECOME ARTISTS? MAYBE IT’S MORE ETHICAL
Grow your programs to teach community-based cultural documentation. Divest from the professional documentarian-savior: this model mistakes skill/ability/”qualifications” for what’s really on display: privilege, prestige, access, equipment. Growing folklife programs to support community cultural artists *as* documentarians beyond program staff is one of the only ways to avoid this extractive dynamic. Also, folklorists who love taking photographs, recording audio, making video, should maybe just become their own artists, instead of rooting that practice only through ethnography and documentary as “giving voice” to marginalized peoples who are assumed not to be capable of or not already producing their own self-documentary media.
8. BUILD LIVELIHOODS FOR CULTURAL ARTISTS // FOLKLIFE PROGRAMS AS COMMUNITY-DETERMINED ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT
Invest in & channel $$$ to culture keepers & artists at all costs. Liberate funds from state & federal arts funders & local foundations, and find ways to build programs that grow, sustain, & amplify livelihoods in cultural arts & memory-keeping in marginalized communities.
9. EDUCATE FUNDERS
… about liberatory/equitable/just futures budgets & project modesl/praxis. The more of us push for this, & the more we organize & demand that our professional organizations mobile & advocate for equity budgeting, emergent design, & beyond, the more we can change grants & foundation applications to allow programming to be more radically community-determined & more accessible to all.
10. BE REFLEXIVE; BE CULPABLE
And that doesn’t mean being guilty. Have conversations. Often. Ask what’s working & shift when something’s not. White cultural workers: understand your own complicity. It’s not personal, it’s structural. And it also might be personal. If you’re committed to this work, be prepared to constantly question whether anything you’re doing is ethical. Shut up. Sit back. Get the money for your communities & drop the reins. This is part of this work.
Ultimately, I’ve left a ton of unanswered, and critical questions: what does it mean for white cultural workers to be involved in racial justice folklife work? What does it mean to need to get paid and to try to do a career doing this work? Does capacity-building work depend on a deficiency model? Does “rogue” work to turn the ships of historically white-serving organizations play into funders’ own internalized racism & deprive long-term and under-funded BIPOC-led organizations? SHOULD WE EVEN BE DOING ETHNOGRAPHY/DOCUMENTATION AT ALL?
It’s up to all of us to wrestle with these questions, everyday — especially white cultural workers who still, like me, believe there might be more ethical ways of praxis, even within a recognition that whiteness will always be unethical. Can we imagine ways of working that are less harmful, towards speculative justice futures, without seeking or needing redemption?
And ultimately, what is DIVESTMENT AS PRAXIS? What do we do about the Bad Old White Organizations with the “pioneers” on the wall and no BIPOC anywhere in the museum? They can burn, they can be ignored, but sometimes, they can divest. White folklorists, if you’re wondering what to do right now, I humbly submit: shut up & listen to Black organizers in your community. Put in the labor. See what is needful & most urgent. Find a place to start doing the work. Try to proof your work to resist shallow DEI quotation-work & virtue-signaling. And maybe turning these ships can be a part of the work.
— JESS LAMAR REECE HOLLER
Founding Project Director
The Marion Voices Folklife + Oral History Program
Marion County, Ohio