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CSCW EP 17: Ben Fink – A Communist Jew from the Northeast – Chapter 1
Threshold Questions and Delicious Quotes
What defines the work of Appalshop and Performing our Future?
The work is creating the conditions, for people in communities to tell their own stories, build their own power, and create their own wealth, and doing it really intensely locally rooted in local traditions and local values
What is the difference between community engagement and working with your neighbor?
...What I'll usually say, I come in, I'm supposed to talk to a group about community engagement. First thing you got to know, fuck community engagement. And then they say, oh, what do you mean? Ben now, how do you describe your work if you don't talk about community engagement? I said, "I work with my neighbors". Sometimes my neighbors are across the street. Sometimes my neighbors are across the country. We are neighbors. We are living together and we're going to work together. Does that mean we're all the same? Hell no. What community is composed of all people that are the same.
How can working with your neighbor help change a community's story?
...that act of making things together and owning what we make. It's so central to the work, because when you make something together, then you are changing that story, because you now have a story of, "we built this we have added to our world in a way that is deeply meaningful of both of us." From that foundation. It is really hard to dehumanize someone.
So, where do I start. I think I start by asking your help. by joining in a little song. This may seem crazy on a podcast – but here is the lyric:
We who believe in freedom cannot rest.
Before we sing it, please take a moment to ponder what these words mean to YOU, in your life, or in your work,
OK here we go. Here is the beat ………and the melody.
We who believe in freedom cannot rest.
Now you: We who believe in freedom cannot rest.
Again: We who believe in freedom cannot rest.
If you actually did sing while listening here … Give yourself a hand.
So, what have we just done: In a little over a minute we have manifested the three human behaviors that many believe have most contributed to survival and proliferation of the human species. They also happen to be three of the THINGS, that artists are particularly good at making happen in the world. So, what are they?
First, if we were in a group, what we just did would have captured and focused the attention of those folks. If you are not alone, you may have had that experience just now. Of course, this singing thing is not new. In fact, our singing here, was a reprise of one of the first strategies that our early ancestors used maybe 100,000 years ago to capture and focus the attention of the tribe to support what we now call ----building community,
Now next Beyond focusing attention, our singing together also provided a very simple and direct way of connecting our heads and our hearts — inside, individually, and with each other. This visceral, bodily connecting, is no small thing This is because we humans need nudges like these to begin forging the bonds, the trust we all need to join with others outside of our families and kinship circles to work together. There are no cultures that do not sing.
Music…. A Wayfaring Stranger
And finally our singing connected OUR STORIES: if we were singing these words together at the same place and time with others, like the members of the Indian Bottom Old Regular Baptist Church you hear in the background, singing A Wayfaring Stranger, we would have added one more tiny layer to the growing web of stories that we spin together every day to define our community—in this case a congregation in Letcher County Kentucky whose faith and hymn singing and sense of mutual support are viscerally connected to the stories they make and share together.
Now, a bonus, those ten words we sang have also connected you and your stories to the extraordinary life of Ella Baker. Ella’s words are memorialized in the line you sang from “Ella’s Song” by Bernice Johnson Reagon, who worked with Ella at the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in the early days of the civil rights movement.
Bernice went on to found the extraordinary acapella group Sweet Honey in the Rock, and Ella became a prominent player in the civil rights struggle. She was also a contrarian of sorts, in that she felt that the hierarchical leadership model of the church-based civil rights movement was, largely undemocratic and unaccountable
The reason that I share Ella’s story with you today is that her belief in bottom up, community accountable, leadership very much informs the story you are about to hear.
This is Change the Story / Change the World, a chronicle of art and transformation. My name is Bill Cleveland.
Our guest for our next two episodes is, Ben Fink, who sometimes introduces himself as a "communist Jew from the northeast". In it we will hear about a theater company called Roadside, a community building project called Performing Our Future, and a culturally centered economic development initiative called Culture Hub all of which operate under the auspices of a mother ship known as Appalshop. From its home in Whitesburg Kentucky, Appalshop has been a powerful agent of arts-based, community driven social change in Appalachia for the past 50 years. It would take 10 episodes to just scratch the surface of the full Appalshop story and they tell it best. So if you want to know more go to Appalshop.org. That’s A p p a l shop.org. or find the link in this episode’s show notes.
Speaking of Appalshop, Ben, who recently left his position there wants to make it clear that he is sharing his own unique perspective here and not that of any of the organizations mentioned in our talk,
Now on to Mr. Fink
Part 1: Finding Roadside
Bill Cleveland: [00:00:00] Yeah. So, Ben, how are you doing?
Ben Fink: [00:00:03] I'm all over the place. I left Roadside after almost five years, and I'm living in a new place doing different work and just feeling general whiplash, and just not entirely figuring out where I belong in the world. But I imagine a lot of people are feeling that right now.
BC: [00:00:22] Did you, imagine yourself spending five years?
BF: [00:00:25] I was hired on a two-year contract and the work continued to grow an, I was continuing to learn. So, I, I chose to stay.
BC: [00:00:36] This podcast is fairly new. Conversations with fellow travelers in the world of art and community development, and organizing, and activism. And the podcast follows on in a path that I've been on my entire, life, which is to tell the stories of, heroes and heroines that I encounter in my work. So, you're one of them Mr. Fink
BF: [00:01:02] I will, I'll take that as a compliment.
BC: [00:01:06] So when you show up at a Thanksgiving, gathering what do you describe your work as?
BF: [00:01:12] The work is creating the conditions, for people in communities to tell their own stories, build their own power, and create their own wealth, and doing it really intensely locally rooted in local traditions and local values, and then as people build that collective power wealth story on a local level create opportunities for them to recognize that other communities that they may never have met before hey may even have been told, are their enemies, that they are doing the same work and they can do that work together.
BC: [00:01:53] What is the the story of how you came to be in a position to be doing what you just described?
BF: [00:01:59] Yeah, so two things to know about me. One is that I grew up in a household with a lawyer and former Planned Parenthood, social worker for a mother, and a political journalist for a father. And so the idea that anything I did was going to be divorced from a serious grounding in political context. It just didn't even register as a possibility in my childhood. I remember when I would go to elementary school and students and even teachers would say, "oh, I don't really follow politics" and it just didn't make sense to me. Because that's just the world, that's just the most important and exciting parts of the world.
And then the other thing is partially for maybe for that reason, I had trouble making friends growing up. But what I was really good at is getting on stage and I was a singer and a theater maker and. I didn't get cast in high school plays. So I started directing and doing dramaturgy and analysis and all that. I was the smart ass that directed The Cradle Will Rock as a student directed high school production at 17. And so, I was on my way toward doing political theater, Agitprop theater. Theater with a justice and liberation lens. And as I got more into doing that, I discovered that some of the most important work was being done in participatory traditions, where we weren't telling people what to think, but working with them and learning together.
BC: [00:04:02] So, did you find that participatory theater was a more respectful way of working? With communities?
BF: [00:04:10] A lot in those participatory traditions. And I'm thinking about theater of the oppressed and playback theater and a lot of educational theater. There was a kind of what I might call sadomasochism in the communities that practiced them, because we were always very worried about our privilege and very worried about the ways that, oh, we could never reach the community.
And there was a fundamental divide between us and the community. Which meant that we were not recognizing ourselves as part of the community. That as much as we were trying hard to, check our privilege we still fundamentally saw ourselves being above the community, trying to administer something onto them, or just as bad below the community, just trying to selflessly help. And neither of those things produced very good politics, or good art, or good feelings. The small number of people that I met in that world that were actually taking themselves and their stories and their power and their contributions equally seriously to those they were working side-by-side, were all people that came out of the tradition of populism. And by populism, I don't mean demagoguery and racism and xenophobia. That's pseudo populism that it's got a long history too. I mean the actual tradition of people coming together in their communities, standing proud in their traditions to create together and own what they make.
Which is deeply political, both in the micro sense of we are building something together, and we are insisting on our rights to create together, and to own what we make. And then also macro political, because of course there will always be the exploiters that are coming in to try to plunder that Commonwealth, and to take away what we have made from us, and generally the way that they do that is by sewing divisions among us and there's obviously a long history of that too.
So in discovering the people that have that analysis and we're working in it, and I'm talking about theater makers, I'm talking about organizers, I'm talking about teachers. Those were the people that I realized, okay, these are the people I want to work with. Not only because. They were doing the most effective work and making change, but also because in working that way, we could all act with dignity, and it was directly through working with those people that I encountered, roadside theater. Which absolutely comes out of that tradition with roots in the civil rights movement.
BC: [00:07:26] So, when was this, when did you cross paths with roadside?
BF: [00:07:32] We ended up working together when roadside was in New York city in 2015. Doing a play off Broadway in collaboration with our long-time colleagues at Pregones Theater, a Puerto Rican theater company in the Bronx.
I was working in New Jersey at the time and ended up working with them on that production. And then a few months later, I got a text saying, "hey, there's this job open doing this art and community development stuff" or creative placemaking as they were calling it, and would I be interested in applying and potentially moving to the rural coalfields of East Kentucky?
Honestly, I didn't hesitate for very long because I knew that is where I needed to go in order to keep doing this kind of work in this legacy and continue to learn it, and hone it, and practice it, and grow it. So that's how I got here.
BC: [00:08:29] And, as you said, you signed a two-year contract, you stayed for five years. When I visited you...
BF: [00:08:36] yes.
BC: [00:08:36]...it was so clear to me that, that condition that you talked about, which is the pulling back of the us-them, and the sense of, we have a show to put on here, here's a story to tell who's going to do what it felt very much like you were part and parcel of a community that had discovered its voice, and that you were in it, deeply in it. So, could you talk about what you encountered when you first began to, find your feet. Discover what was going on?
BF: [00:09:09] Absolutely. So first, just to say I was invited in, and that's actually a really important point to make. Because again, there is so much handwringing in the art community development, social justice organizing field about, "oh, how do we as outsiders do this?" It's one of these things that Roadside is very clear on, which is we go where we are invited. Period. And likewise, I went to East Kentucky because I was invited there. Did that mean? Yeah, everyone was super happy that I was there? Of course not, but I was invited there, and that's really important.
Part 2: “Working with My Neighbors”
BC: [00:09:50] So, how do you go from being a fresh face newcomer in Eastern Kentucky to a five-year relationship?
BF: [00:10:02] We work in reciprocal relationships of trust over a long term with the people that invite us places, and so I came down there. I had basically no relationships, the relationships with the people at roadside was about it. So the first thing I did was show up. I just showed up everywhere I could.
And if there was a community meeting, I was there. If there was an event, I was there. If there was a concert or a square dance or a punk show or whatever was going on, I just showed up and I watched, and I participated, and that ended up being probably the most important thing I ever did. So often we get stuck talking to each other, being in our bubble, whether it be a class bubble or a profession bubble or a workplace bubble, but just showing up. I made a rough pact that I wouldn't spend more than two days a week in the office for any length of time, I'm going to be out there, both attending events and then also meeting people. ThIs is really part of the basic work of organizing, which is one-to-one relational meetings, and spending time hearing people's stories, and then the other important point is sharing my own story when asked. Again, when asked, because I ask people for meetings, I'm generally interested in them. I don't want to be so cocky to think they necessarily want to hear a lot from me. But they got to hear a little bit for me, because again, the point is I'm here and I'm not pretending not to be. And I would routinely in a first meeting drop in a reference to myself as a communist Jew from the Northeast. The farther right someone is, the more likely I was to do it, or at least the farther, I suspected that person to be. And their reaction was inevitably exactly the same as yours Bill. It was like a moment of what? And then they laughed. And then we laughed together, and what that demonstrated is this is not bullshit. I am claiming and owning who I am, and what I'm about. And for most, people in a community, that's what they're looking for.
BC: [00:12:35] The real story, an authentic engagement that just respected them enough not to pretend...
BF: [00:12:42] Yeah, a thing that I noticed [...] so years later, one of my very beloved colleagues who I've done a ton of work with, [who] is a former strip mine boss turned, volunteer fire chief, who is all sorts of right-wing, loves him. some Donald Trump thinks global warming is a hoax, not so sure about COVID-19 either. All of those things. And we met exactly the way that just talked about meeting and we shared stories for a couple of hours. And by the end of it, we were working together, and we were working together on his terms. I felt because I found out what he wants to do right now. He wants to have bluegrass concerts at his firehouse. It's got nothing to do with politics or culture, war, and he's he wants to make his firehouse, a place where his community can gather and wants to gather. And this is something I didn't have to in any way, deceive demure in order to say yes, that's awesome.
BC: [00:13:50] Let's do that. That's how you build trust.
BF: [00:13:52] Two years later, we're working on a solar energy project nd he is advocating with his fellow Republicans to stop this bill that would have made it harder for rooftop, solar energy to happen in Kentucky. Because, and again, not because he'd become a convert to...