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G-Sync: How Grand becomes great

Illustration by Deborah Rockman

Rapid Growth's Publisher Tommy Allen on how we, as a community, can, through local art and honest dialogue, provide the necessary space to process the violence that has happened in our country. Here, "thing global, act local" gets a much-needed new spin.
About 15 years ago a local artist and arts educator from Kendall College of Arts and Design, Deborah Rockman, said to me that her work represented the uncomfortable conscious of our community. 

As we discussed her work, which explores how we treat or mistreat children, she reminded me that these images are not the kind of art that will fit comfortably above one's sofa. 

Art may not save us, but it can provide a vital platform from which we in society can begin to create the space for dialogue necessary to make movement begin. 

Rockman, like so many other artists before and after, have banished fear with a watchful eye on our time, which is racing, as she uses her bold voice as an artist. 

Knowing where you are in the story is vital — just as is the banishing ego — in the pursuit of the ideals rooted in the faith that we can have better days ahead if we would only as society be moved towards greatness.

Many artists can, and do, take us to the forefront of the conversations as they bear witness of our place in time. Sometimes the best works are those not concerned with protecting destructive systems of our culture but operate outside the norms, forcing us to react or vibrate internally, like a Quaker moved by a deep spiritual trembling. 

But how can any of us even begin to process a four week period that includes a mass shooting by a lone gunman in an Orlando nightclub filled with mainly Latino gay men to the suicide bombings in Baghdad and Istanbul (that went largely unnoticed by the West) to the camera phone footage of the assignations of two more black American men — one in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and the other in Falcon Heights, Minnesota — to the ambush by a lone gunman of police protecting Black Lives Matters protesters in Dallas, Texas. The world turned upside down, and humanity’s blood spilled out again as ours ran cold. 

If at the end of the week you were not a bit in shock or grieving, I would ask you to check your pulse to see if you are indeed dead inside. While these last few weeks have been some of the most bloodiest in modern memory, we, like most who have become all too accustomed to these headlines, secretly doubt they will be the last.

Locally, I have been proud of the many people who have stepped forward to bear witness of the pain they are experiencing as artists in their own right.  

I want to use this space to salute the coming together last Friday of Grand Rapids Mayor Rosalynn Bliss who, alongside Grand Rapids Police Chief David Rahinsky and our local NAACP’s Cle Jackson, reminded us of the work we have been conducting locally as we enact a new citizen-driven 12-point modernizing plan of our GRPD.  

The press conference enabled us as a city to hear firsthand how far we have come already with this 12-point plan as Chief David Rahinsky — who recently returned from the White House 21st Century Policing Briefing —  shared observations as to how much further we are than most cities invited to be a part of the historic national briefing on the state of modern policing. 

As I read the release this week of Black Lives Matter’s 10-point manifesto, I am proud that we have not only begun the work as a community in January 2015 but that many of the points of this Campaign Zero manifesto line up with what we in Grand Rapids have already begun to enact here. It is my hope we see our surrounding police departments join us in these goals, like the addition of body cameras to implicit bias training to traffic studies, which lead to greater transparency and accountability to the public they are hired to protect and serve.

Jackson especially drove home the critical point that we need to engage all of our citizens of this city to dive deeper beyond the headlines of bloodshed, inviting us to explore the root causes of racism and the resulting societal imbalances they produce.

This somber press conference moment sought as well to build up our community by encouraging all of us to take steps to create space for peaceful protest but also to engage in fellowship with one another encouraging us to think on our humanity.

As I trained my ear to overpower my oft-too-quick to reply mouth to fall silent, I actively listened to area business leaders and nonprofit institutions who shared stories of a workplace overflowing with shock and grief. 

And out of it came something remarkable that I am sure is happening in tiny ways all around our city as I would learn of local firms’ employees of color sharing their stories with their white co-workers.  

It is not easy to check one’s privilege because we are trained to ride in to fix things. And the time to fix things will come, but when it does, it must not simply be to check a box off a list. 

And it needs to happen if we value the voices of our community whose American experience is shockingly different than many of ours.  

If your workplace is not able to offer a safe space for you to comfortably explore these kinds of dialogues, then maybe a visit to the Am I Next? rally* being held on Saturday, July 16 at 12 p.m. in Rosa Parks Circle would provide a space for you to observe, listen and learn firsthand from others. 

Maybe you want to experience it differently, and through the luck of timing, we have locally two artistic offerings which seek to increase our dialogue on the topics of violence, guns and being black in America, which will be available as well this week.

UNLOADEDThe Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts presents “UNLOADED,” a traveling art exhibition exploring “the historical and social issues surrounding the availability, use and impact of guns on culture and public health.” It is on display until July 30.

THE TALKAlso next week is the debut of a new theatrical play, “THE TALK” by Randy Wyatt, being workshopped by Mixed Roots Collective with Actors’ Theatre at Dog Story Theater. This new work, which addresses the delicate topic as to why Black Lives Matter in an All-Lives-Matter world, will include nightly talkback sessions after each performance where dialogue will help create new paths of empathy in our city.

And while I might come across strongly that, locally, somehow the arts can save us, I want to stress that the experience of art and allowing us each space for introspection and one-to-one dialogue to occur is how we build upon our shared stories of the American experience. 

In the 1980s my own post-Calvin College art career began as I explored topics in my exhibition at Sons and Daughters addressing topics like the misconceptions about AIDS and the human body as a modern battlefield.  Later in 2009 I would debut “The Kissing Booth” - a social practice artwork entry at ArtPrize - that despite my own artistic evolution was deemed along with a handful of others works that year as one of the top 25 most controversial works.

The Kissing BoothBut the people still came in large numbers to see and experience this “controversial” work firsthand to make up their own mind on the matter.

In our modern world I still see the power and potential of art, like the “UNLOADED” exhibition and “THE TALK” as a continuation and a reminder of art’s raw power to nudge us as a society forward to sew our histories back together in attempt to move us forward, not backward.

It is not easy to take these first steps as a community during a time of such pain and bloodshed. They are painful considering the hardness we have witnessed or experienced firsthand. Empathy is a bit easier for me since I already experienced firsthand what it is like to be invisible and unheard in the 1980s as gay men were dying and no one heard our cries.  

But I am reminded that out of the darkest of our history can come a light of hope.  

In closing, the great challenge from Nelson Mandela, who knew firsthand the suffering of living in a two system society, is something maybe we should revisit again today. 

Despite all the pain he witnessed and suffered firsthand at the hands of his oppressors, his voice like poetry delivered a modern mantra for each of us to whisper as we wake and before taking our first steps of the morning in our world: “Sometimes it falls upon a generation to be great, you can be that generation. Let your greatness blossom.” 

It is at once a prayer for our darkest hours and yet also a vision to inspire us to rally our weary feet to be bold with the limited time we have in this life together. 

We have seen what is possible in the destruction of so many over the years. So why not choose creation like an artist?  I, for one, want to live. And I want you to live, too. Let our better days truly be before us and our greatness begin here in a city already known for being Grand.  

(Do you believe) The Future Needs All of Us?

Tommy Allen
Rapid Growth

*Editor's update: The Am I Next rally was originally billed as a Black Lives Matter event. Rapid Growth understands that members of Black Lives Matter Grand Rapids will be attending in support of the four youth's efforts but not addressing the audience from the stage.
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