Episode 18: Ben Fink- A Communist Jew from the Northeast CH. 2

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CSCW EP 18: Ben Fink – A Communist Jew from the Northeast – Chapter 2

Threshold Questions and Delicious Quotes

As a self described "communist Jew from the Northeast, what kind of hostility did you encounter in coal country?

Honestly, the most hostility I got was from some of the liberals who are like, this is our way of doing things and we have this way of doing activism, and this way of doing community development, and this way of, who we relate to and who we don't relate to and blah, blah, blah.

How can traditional hymn singing help build trust?

And, you know what I have been told that a lot of ice was broken at some of these events. When I got up in front of the room, I didn't need a mic cause I'm loud, and I was able to line out, Poor Wayfaring Stranger, or What Wonderous Love is This, ... and that became my identity to a lot of people. I was the shape note guy. I was the guy who could come in and lead a sing and, line out of him. And it just, it broke down some walls.

What is Performing Our Future?

Yeah. So, Performing Our Future began as a community-based research project to figure out how can people tell their stories, communities that have long resisted, systematic, organized exploitation, how those communities can collectively tell their own stories, connected to building their own power connected, to creating their own and do so in coalition with each other, both locally, as well as nationally.

"What is the difference between cooking and catering?"

As Gwen said, we never done cater and we just done cooking. What's the difference between catering and cooking? The difference is what our economist friend Fluney Hutchinson calls, bounded imagination. Cooking is something you do for yourself and your neighbors to survive. Catering is something that you can do to add value and create jobs.
And in this case, jobs for neighbors that were coming back from incarceration and addiction and serve in the armed forces overseas, with various kinds of trauma who were really having trouble finding other jobs.

How did culture figure in the Letcher County organizing effort?

A central building block was a play that roadside theater made alongside these folks, and with these folks, sharing their stories, developing this grip, performing in it called the future of Letcher County, which is literally people of all ages, ideologies backgrounds, debating about the political, cultural and economic future of Letcher County.
We've now performed this, actually performed in West Baltimore just before the pandemic hit. It was... I'll tell you what happened was, I heard somebody in the audience say "I didn't know, white people dealt with that stuff too "

Transcript

Ben Fink: What is a thing that this group of people likes to do together or cares about, and it's not just cares about, but also wants to make together like 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. You can disagree, you can be pissed. You can have all sorts of, all sorts of conflict, right?

Bill Cleveland: That was Ben Fink talking about how important the simple act of “making things together” is to creating trust in communities that have a history of being exploited and betrayed. In our last episode we learned how Ben, an activist theater worker and community organizer from the northeast came work for an arts-based community development organization called Appalshop, in Letcher County Kentucky. We also heard about how his hands-on approach to building partnerships panned out in his collaboration with a Trump loving, ex-coal miner, volunteer fire chief producing bluegrass concerts in the firehouse, and bringing solar energy into the heart of coal country. In this second episode with Ben, we hear more stories that confound easy us vs. them stereotypes about Appalachia and Appalshop’s work in other communities across the country.

This is Change the Story / Change the World, a chronicle of art and transformation. I’m Bill Cleveland.

Part 3: Lining Out

BC: So Ben...

BF: yeah.

BC: Be a dramaturge here and take me into this beautiful, physical place that you spent your five years and place it geographically and talk about it in terms of,, the rich culture that you've found when you're there.

BF: Yeah. Before I do just want to say that I spent my first two to three years there really intensely. And then I spent the final years literally living on the road, building partnerships across divides, and so that, so we get to the point where we do have a van load at East Kentucky, and it's coming to the middle of Penn, North and West Baltimore.

And so, I'll focus on East Kentucky for the moment. Because I hear you asking that, but I think it's really important. For people to understand that even in this really deep and granular and local work that we'll be talking about, there was always the outward facing component. We were always thinking about how do we, not only tell our stories to others and other places, but also invite them in from the very start.

But, East Kentucky, I'd never set foot there before I interviewed at the Apple shop, I knew about it only through, media and all the other ways professional class, white guy growing up in West Hartford, Connecticut hears about a place like that. And I thought about beautiful mountains and beautiful music and terrible politics.

[When} I get there, what I find are some of the most open-minded people I've ever met and a lot, yeah. People that disagree with me in terms of, national consumer politics. But a lot of people who are as devoted to their place and their land and their neighbors as any people I'd ever met anywhere, if not more. But these are people who welcomed me in as a communist Jew, from the Northeast, and joked about it and invited me into their homes.

Since then, I have invited so many people down to the coal fields, and their reactions have been the same, that there are people who fundamentally are about hospitality and are about building their community and have had a lot of history with people, screwing them over and that has hit hard. There is a lot of distrust, a lot of inherent distrust, but that distrust has still never overshadowed the love. They are people that fundamentally lead from love and loving each other, and loving the place where they live, and that was not something I was fully prepared for, but, I kept seeing it again and again, and I'd meet people and they'd introduce me to their neighbors, and they'd introduced me to their neighbors, and I think they for a while waiting for me to get scared and run away, or waiting for me to pull up or waiting for me to impose some kind of program, and I don't blame them for any of that because that's the experience they've had for a lot of people. But nowhere in that was a hostility. Honestly, the most hostility I got was from some of the liberals who are like, can, we're this is our way of doing things and we have this way of doing activism, and this way of doing community development, and this way of, who we relate to and who we don't relate to and blah, blah, blah.

With good mentorship from my colleagues at Roadside, I said, "no, I'm not going to deal with that".

I asked one of the old guards early on "what's the limit, of who roadside we'll work with? Who do we not work with?" And the response was the question is where do you stand on organized exploitation?

If you are for organized exploitation, the intentional taking of value from people who create it, we're probably not going to work with you, but if you are against organized exploitation, we're good to work with. You turns out pretty much everybody is against organized exploitation because it's pretty much 0.1% that's doing it. So, within that framework, we were able to understand each other pretty quick.

BC: I was wondering, how did the cultural aspect show up in your work with your neighbors in East Kentucky?

BF: The other thing I would say, which is not trivial is I was surprised how many of their favorite old songs that I knew. I'm a shape note him singer, sacred, harp gospel, all that stuff. I've done it for many years.

And, you know what I have been told that a lot of ice was broken at some of these events. When I got up in front of the room, I didn't need a mic cause I'm loud, and I was able to line out, Poor Wayfaring Stranger, or What Wonderous Love is This, where in a lot of these old hymns, that again, I told them I was a communist Jew from the Northeast that was not claiming to be an old, regular Baptist or anything like that. But there was just a sense of, okay, you get us on some basic level and we started regular shape note singings and Letcher County, but are still going on. There's a long history of it there, but there was no kind of regular activity and that became my identity to a lot of people. I was the shape note guy. I was the guy who could come in and lead a sing and, line out of him. And it just, it broke down some walls.

BC: And it's called respect. You shared a common cultural experience that you loved, which is powerful.

BF: Yeah.

BC: Powerful.,

BF: Because people unite based on what they share.

BC: Exactly.

BF: Talk about difference, find out what you share. No, two human beings on God's green earth would ever become friends because of what they don't have in common. Right now, once you get to know each other, based on what you do have in common than you realize the richness and diversity of other people's experience, and that adds to it, but the kernel is what you share.

BC: Yep. Can you reach back into your portfolio of I'm sure, a thousand stories and it, is there an experience that you had, during that time that really personifies what you've, what you feel you were doing together with your neighbors?

BF: Sure. I'll tell a story in Ms. Gwen Johnson, one of my most beloved allies and friends to this day. Gwen grew up in the coal camp of Hemphill, Kentucky, in Letcher County and pretty much everybody in your family of coal miners, including her former husband. [She] didn't know how to read till she was an adult, learned alongside her kids, ended up getting a master's and is now doing early childhood program administration through the University of Kentucky.

But, you talk with Gwen and it is so clear that her accountability is to her neighbors. Gwen showed up at actually at that first Bluegrass concert that we did at the firehouse that I was telling you about, because she heard that "there was going to be a guy there and he had some money".

'Cause my title for the majority of my time, there was lead organizer of the Performing our Future Project, but when I first came on, my original title was creative placemaking project manager. I was there to manage some grants.

But I am not a grant project manager. I'm a, I'm an organizer. If you want somebody to, administer programs, give away the money and then, we're done, then, hire somebody else. I will fully make sure these deliverables happen, but we're going to do it through building up a base that's going to continue and who knows where it's going to go.

So, I had started talking with people I've met about, we had this pot of money for partnership funds that we'd use to for instance, finance this Bluegrass concert at the firehouse and it wasn't a grant, I was super clear about that. It wasn't a mini grant, three grants, sub grants. It was a partnership contribution. We're writing you this check; you spend it however you want. We're just also attaching a basic agreement with it saying, "Hey, we both agreed., We want this concert to happen". We want these things to happen. And so we'd done that, and it was actually one of the, one of the firemen at the firehouse has said, "Hey, Gwen, you got to get over here. There's this guy with some money". And shortly after I'd lined out Poor Wayfaring Stranger there, Gwen comes up to me and says, " Hey, can we talk?", and I'd heard about her too. And so I said, yeah, let's find time to talk. So we share a lot of stories, find out what's going on with her. and the stories were hard, right? She is living with her mother, who was in her eighties because when she wasn't living with her mother, Other people in the family would come to the house and take advantage of her in order to feed their meth addictions.

This stuff is real, and that's important to say. There's a lot of talk about asset-based developments and, I've said, you gotta start with what you've got and what you share, but you got to take the problem seriously. And so Gwen was telling me this story about how the community center her mother helped to found, and that she was running in a closed down in school and her coal camp ; they were, under threat and running out of money 'cause the coal severance tax money stopped along with the coal mining. And I could have, at that moment, asked her "what do you need and how can we help you?" That's the typical nonprofit move. Thank God I had some better mentorship, by that point, and what I asked instead was "what are you looking to build and how can we build it together?"

A few years later, the Black Sheep Brick Oven Bakery and Catering Company opened, in a community where they'd never had a caters before.

As Gwen said, we never done cater and we just done cooking. What's the difference between catering and cooking? The difference is what our economist friend Fluney Hutchinson calls, bounded imagination. Cooking is something you do for yourself and your neighbors to survive. Catering is something that you can do to add value and create jobs.

And in this case, jobs for neighbors that were coming back from incarceration and addiction and serve in the armed forces overseas, with various kinds of trauma who were really having trouble finding other jobs, but Black Sheet Bakery and Catering Company has taken them in continues to take them in, not without hardship, not without trouble. And Gwen was also one of the people who was most staunchly pro coal and anti-environmentalist. I heard her talk at a County government meeting one time at a fellow, a nonprofit liberal was there with me and Oh boy, freaked him out. It's Whoa, boy, she's talking about that.

But she was first in line to get solar panels. Cause she knew and she actually canvas the miners in her community and said, “What do you think about this guys? Is this anti-coal”? And they said, “Honey, train's gone out on coal. We got to do what we can to survive, and if this is going to help us, and if this is going to help, this community center keep its doors open.”

BC: Yeah. And that personifies what you were talking about before. Really changing the story together. Grounded in the things that matter most of the people in the community.

BF: And that's another lesson I've learned doing this work, places like that, community center, places like that, volunteer fire department, the places that are of buy-in for communities in their full diversity, these are the places that we have got to invest in and strengthen.

They're always there. They're constantly under threat, but they're always there. And when we say meet people where they're at, and when we say work with communities, that's what we mean, work with what we call community centers of power, where people gather to imagine and build together. And I do mean community is in their full diversity. So Gwen is as Hemphill as it gets, but she's constantly, fighting with her neighbors. They all come in, she said, no, I'm putting up this, LGBT acceptance sign, I'm putting up this Black Lives Matter sign and her learning over the past years in working with more people from more places now she's offering articles for Art Place America about Appalachian solidarity with Black Lives Matter.

The values were always there, but she didn't have the language to articulate them in a way that made sense to the nonprofit industrial complex. That's part of the leadership development that we do. We work to identify when we say community leaders, we're talking about people like her. We're talking about people who their neighbors look to it's usually not the people and the positions of power. And a community leader is also somebody whose first accountability is to their neighbors. I ask this question all the time with people and institutions, who is your accountability too? Because a lot of us, our accountability is to our colleagues, other people in our field to funders that are funding as to inner city area organizations, we look for the people whose fundamental accountability is to their neighbors, and that is Gwen. She is accountable to them, and she pushes them in uncomfortable ways.

Likewise, Gwen and I built a strong relationship where we are accountable to each other and we push each other. And Gwen has become a voice, on all sorts of different scales meeting with regional and national foundations, being part of the Art Place America assembly for the allocation of the last of their creative placemaking funds. She is on the steering committee of The National Performing our Future Coalition, where she is...

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