Why do you think Organize Your Own has resonated with communities in Philadelphia and beyond?
When I started thinking about the project nearly five years ago, I was a bit nervous about how to frame it because I did not want to produce another 1960s nostalgia trip. It is not that I dislike history, but that I wanted to insist that the history be in dialogue with the present. This is sometimes implied, but not achieved. And so it took a while to mull over the history that was inspiring Organize Your Own—both the 1966 Black Power mandate to white activists to organize against racism in their own communities, and some of the inspiring manifestations of that work that were led by poor and working-class white activists who had largely been written out of the official history of the 60s. It wasn’t until I went to a Black Lives Matter rally in 2014 here in Philadelphia that I heard one of the speakers give a similar directive to white activists that I knew how to frame this project as one that actually quotes from history, rather than focuses on it. It then became important to emphasize that this project was about artists and poets in 2016 using that history as a prompt to consider what relevance the directive to organize your own had for the present.
This seemed to be a rich enough terrain to attract large and enthusiastic audiences to our programs in Philly and Chicago, but it was not until the 2016 election happened that we started to get serious inquiries from other organizations and venues that really wanted to host the project. I think that the people running the exhibition venues that will host the new touring version of Organize Your Own are trying to grapple with all the public discussion about backlash against Obama, the Dreamers, and Black Lives Matter, combined with this seemingly mythical category of organized voters called ‘the white working class’ which nobody seems to understand.
Both the Philadelphia and Chicago iterations of Organize Your Own took place in academic institutions. This raises the question of audiences. How were different audiences able to access the content of the project?
University art galleries and campus cultural centers are some of the only places that those of us who have research-intensive, event-based, and dialogical curatorial and art practices are able to develop our projects. This is somewhat opened up in a city like Philadelphia where there is support through entities like The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage for ambitious projects of this kind. But still, these spaces are often unique public-facing entities on the campuses they inhabit, and the two venues where Organize Your Own started are premier examples of that kind of accessible space that equally serves the campus and the community at large. With that in mind, it was important that in each city there were off-campus events. In Philadelphia, that included programs at the Slought Foundation and Asian Arts Initiative, and in Chicago it included the Museum of Contemporary Art and a walking tour that ended at a country music bar.
It cannot be overstated how important the participating artists were in making this project resonate with communities. Sometimes that gets lost in group projects that involve a lot of people, but it was absolutely crucial in this case. The artists really took a prompt from me and brought themselves and their particular concerns into that framework. They really answered the question of what does it mean to organize your own, what is your own, and critiqued that premise with their contributions as much as they clarified it. Through that range of perspectives, our audiences saw their own questions being asked in the work of the participating artists and poets, which helped to extend the project well beyond academic audiences into many communities.