Episode 21: Justin Laing - Taking Back the Land

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Episode 21: Justin Laing: - Taking Back The Land

Justin Laing

Before starting Hillombo in 2017, Justin worked as a Senior Program Officer of Arts & Culture at The Heinz Endowments for more than a decade. His work focused on small and midsized arts organizations, out-of-school time arts education, and Black arts organizations, with a particular interest in participatory grantmaking. He came to philanthropy having worked for ten years as the Assistant Director of Nego Gato, Inc, an Afro Brazilian Music, Dance, and Martial Arts company where he taught, performed, and ran the day-to-day operations. Justin has a BA in Black Studies from the University of Pittsburgh and a Masters Degree in Public Management from Carnegie Mellon University.

Justin serves as the co-chair of ArtsinHD, an arts planning and creation process in Pittsburgh’s Hill District to support the neighborhood’s master plan and mark the neighborhood as a place for liberatory Black culture. Justin is the son of Susan and Clarence Laing, the father of Kufere, Etana, and Adeyemi Laing, and a member of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity.

Threshold Questions And Delicious Quotes

What does "taking back the land mean?

the idea ... was ...from a person named Amilcar Cabral. This idea that you work in small territories. [...] you try to take back the land, like square mile by square mile. So, I was working in one major place called the Hill District... And culture was a critical piece to liberate our minds and the way that European culture oppressed black people was through this indoctrination of its art, its culture is everything is being superior. And so, culture had to be part of the strategy.

You talk about working constructively with the tensions that are present in many organizations. What does this entail?

So, one of the ways that I've tried to do that is by naming some of these frameworks, whether it's white supremacy, culture, what fragility, white privilege, and like you said, trying to bring that into the organization so that, that can be part of the official speak. Because again, going back to that black studies beginning, there was a whole lot of language that wasn't allowed that I didn't see being taken advantage of the nonprofit arts sector at all.

You see racism and capitalism as intrinsically connected in our society. How does this play out in your work with nonprofit arts organizations?

...we're supposed to be the bravest ones, the creatives... and I've been starting to see, the class contradictions battle inside an organization. Cause you're raising issues that people have different interests in and I think that’s, that's a bit of the tension that you're facing, one thing I've been trying to understand more is the intersections of patriarchy, capitalism, racism inside organizations. And to the extent that we are talking about racism, there's some level of tension. I think the extent that we include capitalism in that, there's even more tension about that.

What is the meta-message of a Euro-centric culture?

...all of the things that are happening when you go into an orchestra performance. And the way that you step into space and you engage the regal-ness of it, and the carpet, and the chandelier's and everything is sending a message that you are now in sacred space. And I think if you take this idea of ideology, that is its own aggression,

Transcript

Bill Cleveland: [00:00:00] Hey there. Ponder, if you will, a few unlikely juxtapositions: Capoeira the Brazilian martial arts, spiritual and dance practice, Karl Marx, The Pittsburgh Penguins. How about the Heinz Endowments, white supremacy anti-racism, and the Minnesota Orchestra?

If you're curious, keep listening. This is Change the Story, Change the World, a Chronicle of Art and Community Transformation. My name is Bill Cleveland.

Now, Justin Laing is a pioneer of sorts in that he helps arts and philanthropic organizations examine their place In the systems that perpetuate structural racism in our country. In our conversation with him, I liken this to wrestling with a tiger. Which is probably unfair to tigers, given their beauty and endangered status. Nonetheless, Justin has taken on a potent and dangerous force in his life's work. His ability to do this well, has as much to do with his courage as it does his unique capacity to help the people in the organizations he works with accept the inescapable link between owning the hard truths of their histories, and fulfilling the promises and ideals that embody their missions.

At the end of the day, Justin, like many of our guests, is a creative change agent. And like them, he brings an interesting mix of skills, experiences, and sensibilities to the task.

We hear about all that and more in our conversation, which took place shortly after the historic 2020 election.

Part One: Hillombo

So, let me begin with my first more basic question, which is, when you think about your path in the world, particularly right now, what is it that, that you do?

What's your work as you see it?

Justin Laing: [00:01:59] I think ultimately my work is about trying to live my highest purpose. And so that's still always being, revealed to me more and understanding more about that as I go, and then in terms of some of the things that I'm doing now, my work is about trying to partner and work with people around the ways that culture reproduces oppression, the ways that we can use it to disrupt, ways we can use it to engage with it, to create steps towards something that our much more proud to be a part of, and that's the work that I'm trying to figure out.

BC: [00:02:38] And given your history beginning working with Nego Gato, how did you come to that, and where do you see the question of culture and anti-racist work coming together?

JL: [00:02:54] So I would say I really came to Capoeira out of, the black studies tradition. So, I was a black studies major at the University of Pittsburgh and had some really important professors there who were also artists, Dennis Brutus, who's a really great poet out of South Africa, and Rob Penny, who's a poet, a playwright out of the Hill district. And then other teachers who are educators like Dr. Barbara Sizemore. And so I was influenced to see education and art and culture all as connected in the work I wanted, to do. And I was always surprised by how much information there was at the university that felt like it'd be really useful, but it was really not in the general public, and that seemed just so designed, that you'd have this plethora of information and it was as though it didn't exist, or it wasn't well known. And I grew up in a house where this was all also totally unknown when I was a teenager, a gentleman named Peter Claire gave me a book called There is a River by Vincent Harding, which really changed my whole understanding of history and all these things. I did not know. It was shocking to me around our histories of black people and the connection between various different pieces.

So, I was with a group that was trying to create an African cultural center at the University of Pittsburgh. We weren't successful in that, but the group stayed together, and when I came across, Capoeira due to a friend of mine named Shaka, I thought, oh, this would be great for me to learn personally. And this really is a connection that I'm trying to stay in more as well, which is around gender and masculinity. Cause they're real men can fight, which I could and was afraid to do. So, like a martial art, like this was going to really shore me up, so I was going to do this and I was going to get it all done at one time

And so, I decided to start doing this capoeira but then I would also bring it to other people could learn from it and they could join it and I asked Gato, “Oh, Can I go take us back in Pittsburgh.” And I just assumed that I could, because Pittsburgh had a thousand dojo, no, it's not there, but if you organize people, I'll come.

So, then I thought, oh, this could be one of the things that the village for an African culture center does, and it would also be a way that I would learn this Capoeira, so it became this part of our programming and the idea there was again, take it from a person named Amilcar Cabral.

This idea that you work in small territories. You work in [...] you try to take back the land, like square mile by square mile. So, I was working in one major place, like called the Hill District and I stayed there and I still, my office is still there. And culture was a critical piece to liberate our minds and the way that European culture oppressed black people was through this indoctrination of its art, its culture is everything is being superior. And so, culture had to be part of the strategy. And with the idea that Capoeira's story was also thinking you could embody, and it would also say that you could engage with people on it. You didn't have to talk it, but you could do it. That is how I got interested in and started working in Capoeira and began doing little demonstrations with the group and doing classes. And that's how I saw those things as connected.

BC: [00:05:59] So now you have a contemporary practice, with your organization Hillombo and yeah. Do those roots still speak to your work?

JL: [00:06:08] They do well for sure in the terms of, the name Hillombo. Hillombo is taken as a merger of two words, Chilombo and the Hill district, the Chilombo’s being these places that Africans escaped and built these freer communities in Brazil, some lasting a hundred years in the midst of the Portuguese colonizing and enslaving in Brazil.

So, the idea was that this company would be still interested in that same idea. So, it's still in the same neighborhood that I was talking about. And it's still trying to take on the role of arts in marketing the Hill District as a place of black liberatory culture, and we're doing the planning process for that, and that's still there.

So, I'm doing that work now, and that, so I would say there's still a... you can see a line through there to that. And then, what's changed is as I was working with Nego Gato and ran into a ceiling. Both in terms of some of the relationships in the organization, but then also in terms of money, and then went to go work for the Heinz endowments and in that ended up working more clearly for a predominantly white organization, and although I can, I'll say, I think when you work in the arts, in the nonprofit arts, You may have your own company, but I still think you still work for philanthropy, even when you have your own, you know what I'm saying?

So I think I worked closely for them, but I still think I worked for them even when I was running an organization in part, just because of the influence that they have on the choice that we make. And now I would say that where there's the difference I think is that now I work with many more predominantly white arts organizations on things like anti-racism and other people might call it sometimes DEI work and that work I think is different, and I think that's related to the economy of our art sector.

BC: [00:07:57] So say more about what I call the three-legged stool, which is the foundation, the organization, and the audience or the community.

JL: [00:08:07] I just think that if you look at the work that Holly Sidford, as done over the last eight or so years and see who has money in the art sector, to hire people like myself, it's predominantly white organizations. So, I think that has an influence on where I end up working. You know what I mean?

And so...

BC: [00:08:27] So, one of the things you talk about- I've gone through... I like your blog. Yeah, some blogs are I guess what I would call is too shiny. I feel like you're talking to me, so

JL: [00:08:41] Oh good. I appreciate that. Thanks, Bill

BC: [00:08:44] Part Two Wrestling with Tigers.

00:08:48] So, you talk about bringing frames like white fragility, white supremacy, and critical race theory into the real-life mechanism of a nonprofit or a foundation into the boardroom, where the human beings who hold the influence and power actually in it viscerally. The image that came to my mind was a tiger and a tail. And maybe there's a capoeira metaphor for the way you have to work in that environment in order to do something other than give people a pass cause they went through the workshop or feel insulted. Something in between that gives people an opportunity to actually calm the tiger maybe.

JL: [00:09:33] Yeah. is the tiger in this case here, is this tiger-like, like racial capitalist part or something like that, or something?

BC: [00:09:39] Power influence. I don't need to change, so why are you here?

JL: [00:09:43] Yeah, that's for sure. I think if you, a few thoughts about that, I've definitely been interested in this adaptive leadership framework. I'm feeling like that has some really valuable ways of working and I just did a shoutout to Eric Martin, and he has a book out now, Your Leadership Moment.

When I was working at Heinz, I had a chance to spend some time being a part of a group that was trying to think through the adaptive leadership model, and one of its core ideas is exactly how I think you were offering it to me, which is there's this top level of tension that one can create and a lower level of tension. And below it no one pays attention and above it, the larger system will shut down the work. And so, you're trying to find that level of tension.

So, one of the ways that I've tried to do that is by naming some of these frameworks, whether it's white supremacy, culture, what fragility, white privilege, and like you said, trying to bring that into the organization so that, that can be part of the official speak. Because again, going back to that black studies beginning, there was a whole lot of language that wasn't allowed that I didn't see being taken advantage of the nonprofit arts sector at all.

It was as though no one was even aware, which of course we are aware, we're just ignoring. And usually, you're partnering with somebody who feels the same way. So, I would say that's also part of that issue is that I'm not alone in that. There's a number of people who, I think, who feel similarly, and I think where I end up going is where someone's (saying) “I could use another partner. I think this way too, but I'm somewhat isolated in my organization, and I could use someone who could work with me, maybe bring some credibility to assist.” But that's ultimately what I find I end up doing is I end up partnering with people who have this, just to stay with the tiger analogy for a second. I think that they're also working on that.

BC: [00:11:31] But that boardroom, often the reason they want you there is cause they want you to sit next to them in that boardroom. And there's a lot of people around the table who are going, “What's this about?”

JL: [00:11:43] Yeah. Yeah. And I'll tell you that this, go back again to again, to the things that we're not allowed to talk about and things we're not allowed to say.

And we're supposed to be the bravest ones, the creatives... and I've been starting to see, the class contradictions battle inside an organization. Cause you're raising issues that people have different interests in and I think that’s, that's a bit of the tension that you're facing, one thing I've been trying to understand more is the intersections of patriarchy, capitalism, racism inside organizations. And to the extent that we are talking about racism, there's some level of tension. I think the extent that we include capitalism in that, there's even more tension about that.

BC: [00:12:30] Oh yeah, especially in a foundation, right?

JL: [00:12:33] Yes. At this point I don't do as much work in foundations anymore actually. My work has actually moved. When I first left the (Heinz) Endowments that's primarily where I was working. But I'm not working in that many foundations anymore. Actually, I'm mainly working with arts organization. So, that probably says something about that drift.

BC: [00:12:50] So I'm going to ask you to tell a story. But before I do that, I was thinking about your work. And I've been, the people who came to mind is a kind of interesting cast of characters. There's a thing in the New York times Magazine, where somebody gets asked, “Who do you want to have dinner with?” And the cast of characters that came to mind when I was thinking about you were James McBride and Octavia Butler.

JL: [00:13:13] Is the author Color of Water?

BC: [00:13:14] Yeah, and then the book I just finished, which is The Good Lord Bird, and here are artists who are story storytellers, and they're taking on the same things you talked about that we're not supposed to talk about. But they bring them through characters, through drama, through humor, through a narrative, [and] through conflict. And actually, another that came to mind, Ta Nehisi Coates who just tried his hand at fiction. And, having heard him talk about it, for a particular reason, because there are certain ways you can say things in fiction that are harder in the “sitting around the board room” conversation.

So the question is, is there a...

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