Cultural Equity Dialogues: Sustainability

ACTA - Posted on 10 August 2010

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Photo of Cultural Equity Forum participantsEditor’s Note: Sustainability is the fourth article in ACTA’s Cultural Equity Dialogues.  Based on ACTA's community forum, Building Cultural Equity Through the Traditional Arts, held in Los Angeles in February 2010, the Cultural Equity Dialogues are a series of online, interactive articles exploring topics relating to cultural equity and folk & traditional arts.  You are invited to join this conversation by posting your own comments and stories below.

Jerry Yoshitomi, Meaning Matters LLC
How do you as individuals sustain the work you do to perpetuating cultural equity – advocacy, activism, and policy change?  What are strategies for institutionalizing cultural equity policies?

Leslie Ito, Program Officer – Arts, California Community Foundation
In terms of long-term sustainability, I assume we're talking about resources.  I wanted to share one of the things I've been doing in my spare time; I started a Los Angeles Asian Pacific Giving Circle.  So, over a six- to eight-month period, we gathered about sixteen people to give $500 and above – pretty significant donations.  We raised $16,000 to give to four organizations in the Asian Pacific Islander community that have budgets under $100,000.  Last night we had a great discussion about how to support organizations or artists that don't have the kind of infrastructure for which traditional funders are looking.  And I feel that we need to take this into our own hands and be empowered within our own communities to set up new streams of income.  A giving circle is a really good model to do that.

We sought really simple applications for funding.  It was simply: tell us what you do and what you want to do.  Only organizations with budgets under $100,000 were eligible, so our $4,000 to each of the four organizations really made a difference.  For most of them, it was the most money that they had ever received and it was really going to help propel their ideas.  And we were excited because we funded projects that traditional funders wouldn't even touch because they knew they were too risky or too grassroots in nature.  If we start to think about this model, it's a great way to be able to seed new projects, or maintain projects or activities that fall below the funding radar.

Dr. Anna Scott, Department of Dance, UC Riverside
For some reason that question just made me really sad.  Your response was really awesome.  There are two models that I was thinking about when I looked at the question.  I was thinking about bees, and what we can learn from bees in terms of what's sustainable.  But then, I guess the part of what's making me sad about long-term sustainability, in a lot of practices that I do, people who are originators are being pushed off of their land or space, so that they no longer have access to the correct roots and the correct seeds.  There's no access.  And so, it's already impossible.  But not impossible.  It's hyper-unsustainable.

So to get those things, there's an intense amount of oil that's engaged to import materials.  There’s governmental back and forth around whether you can bring things into the country.  There's smuggling.  There are all kinds of deep issues around traditional African arts.  And then traditional African arts even being called "cults," or being hunted down.  People having their stuff burned.  Folks trying to grow herbs someplace and having everything turned over so a sidewalk can be put there.  All of these literal, physical things that are really disturbing.

Then there's capital.  Capital is kind of easy to play with and to get, which is interesting, that we have that struggle around getting it.  Because it's much easier to lay your hands on some paper than it is to grow the tree that you need to have the flower that you need for this particular time of the year.

I was working for the dance community in L.A., the non-commercial dance community in L.A.  There's a high level of despair because there's no money, right?  There's no money.  There's no space.  There's no money.  There's no space.  You just get this mantra going, and then it's true: there's no money, there's no space.  And before you even start thinking about it, I have to buy my lei's at the grocery store.  Before you get there, I get my raffia from wherever.  Before that, there's no money, there's no space.

One of the things that I've done with Meg Wolfe Show Box and the itch dance journal is Soup Kitchen.  And we've only managed to run it once because it's kind of hectic, but it works well.  Please run it, somebody.  You make a pot of soup, literally.  You invite everyone you know, and everyone that you don't know.  You’ve sent an announcement beforehand, asking artists to send in a one-paragraph description of something they’re working on for which they would love a little push of money.  Guests pay $5 at the door and you give them a ticket.  And you have little cans out.  And then you have the descriptions posted, and you have little cans in front of them.  You make it anonymous, you put up the descriptions around the space.  It helps if it's a pretty house.  People bring their own bowls, you've got the soup.

And you give people that one ticket, the $5 ticket.  And then, people get to choose which project they'd like to receive the money.  At the end of the night, the whole door goes to the person with the most tickets.  So that there's no accounting, it's like an anonymous gift circle.  And it's quick.  And often, people will put money in the can.  Because they know they only gave $5 at the door and they want everybody to get something.  So they put money in the can with their tickets, and artists leave with $100, and they might not have had $25 to start with.  But they were already working on their little project.

Another thing is Kickstarter.  I have to tell everybody about this.  If you haven't heard of Kickstarter, you need to go find out what is.  It's winner-take-all online fundraising.  You have to find and invite.  So that means you have to open your networks to begin with to find someone who might have an invite.  Once you get an invite, you're allowed to put up a proposal online.  And it's actually a very interesting process.  You set the amount that you want to raise and you take pledges from whomever.  It helps if you have a network and you've alerted your network that you're putting the page up.  If you miss and you're $5 off or $100 off, you don't get anything.  The pledges are only collected once you hit your goal or you pass your goal.

But again, I think we need to think about bees and what it means to collectively swarm around things.  So there's the money thing – that's easy.  But what about the stuff that's gone-gone?

Danielle Brazell, Executive Director, Arts for LA
I think this is one of the critical roles municipal arts funding plays, and I think it's a really important part of our cultural infrastructure.  This is why Arts for L.A. really focuses on grants; it's the most cost-effective way to divide in the most equitable way, with a fair and above-board panel process, a pot of money.  And with the way the City of Los Angeles has created its grants program, all of that money was initially generated through the Transient and Occupancy Tax (TOT), it's a 1% tax.  And all of that money was going to grants, about $10 million.  We have about four million people in Los Angeles, right?  So we were at about 2.5 per capita in 2004.

Right now the TOT's being split and there was just a motion to remove the TOT from the arts budget, from the Department of Cultural Affairs, and put it into the General Fund.  And one of the things that is happening now in Los Angeles, with term limits, is that we are losing our institutional knowledge.  And so, a couple of council members put forward a motion to take away that funding and revenue stream without really giving any thought to the impact it would have on arts and cultural organizations, and artists, throughout the city.

And so, I really feel that for public funding for arts and culture, the pendulum is swinging back the other way: we’re losing it.  I feel it's a national trend.  The new NEA budget is much lower than what we've seen in the past ten years.  We don't have a state arts council that is really providing any substantive grants.  We were at $30 million dollars in 2004.  And now, the City of Los Angeles is facing a major $200 million deficit.  There are so many hands trying to get into that TOT money that we need to be the cultural memory of this really important pool of money.  And we need to be vigilant in making sure that arts and culture is seen as part of a healthy society.  And that's part of the work that we've been doing.

I think that other aspects, such as the giving circles, are really important.  My focus, really, is on that public dollar and making sure that that public dollar gets out to the hands of the communities that need it, so that you can do the work that you need for your communities.

Cindi Alvitre (Tongva), PhD Candidate, UCLA Department of World Arts and Cultures
Like Anna, I hear the word sustainability, and I get very sad.  Because when it comes to the California Indian community – in particular my community, but also many other Native communities – we have to define what we mean by this word: sustainable.  What defines that? What level does a cultural community have to be at to be deemed sustainable?  What are we trying to sustain?  In our situation here in Los Angeles—and most southern Native California tribes, with the exception of the casino tribes, and that tends to be the new stereotype of Native Americans: that we're all Casino People – my people are non-federally recognized tribes and we don't rely on our brothers and sisters to carry us through, although they can be very generous.

Our resource?  Is the land.  And I'll give you two examples of this.  My first example, Mrs. Sandoval asked me about my tattoo.  She asked me, “What's that tattoo about?”  And I told her, “Well that's the genealogy of the momadahiko, our traditional plank canoe.”  A tradition that was revived back in the late 1980’s after I had a dream, twenty years prior to that.  We have one canoe.  Anybody who's familiar with Island of the Blue Dolphins?  That story comes from a true story of our people.

Those canoes?  That's what it is, this is the warrior in my dream who emerged out of the mountain, with lava spewing out of his third eye.  In between mountains, as many of us have imagined these monstrous or phenomenal beings that emerge out of the mountains.  And in front of it was a lake, water – odd.  And suddenly, there were these boats that I had never seen, these plank canoes.  All of our people were there, and we were speaking our language.  Our language is pretty much extinct.  We were singing.  And when everybody was paddling in unison, the warrior opened his eyes, the mountains parted, and there was Catalina Island and we were paddling there.  So this is the abalone hook, which represents a warrior.  These are the mountains that the warrior came out of to give me the vision, the dream.

So we have one canoe, one tiat momadahiko, which means “breath of the ocean.”  But she's in Ontario, dry-docked.  We launch from the beach.  This last year, we've been launching at Belmont Shore.  It's polluted, it's dirty, we have no place to store our tiat.  We have no place to paddle.  Before, the planks used to come from the redwood trees that would wash down naturally the coast of California.  There's no more of that.  It takes three miles of cordage.  That's an art in itself, to make rope.  It takes three miles of that, made out of dogbane.  Well, there's no dogbane around.  It's the same with our basketry tradition, which is what my Ph.D. dissertation is about, the revitalization of the basketry tradition as a healing tradition.

So what do we do as people who are not post-colonial?  We're in the process of decolonizing.  I reject this word, post-colonial.  And the institutions, the agencies, the government, we're still overwhelmed, imposed by the restrictions, their rules to comply to access-particular resources.  So you spend much of our time trying to access these resources.  I call myself a coyotist sometimes – making the unhumanly possible humanly possible.  Renegotiating space, being able to make things happen on the land.

So long story short, how do we define sustainable within the communities?  And for funding agencies, this is part of it, recognizing that communities are not all at a sustainable level.

Hirokazu Kosaka, Director, Japanese American Cultural & Community Center
Anna talked about bees, I'm going to talk about birds now.  In fact, I have feathers here.  One is hawk and one is owl.  And recently, the Governor signed on a high-speed train, going from San Francisco to Los Angeles.  And I was at a conference in Sacramento, talking about these feathers.  A friend of mine and I practice Japanese archery.  And the arrows have these feathers on them.  And different feathers.  Eagle feathers and hawk feathers, and others.

But recently, over the past twenty years or so, the Japanese bullet train company has created a very high-speed train, called linear cars.  And they do not have wheels, but they levitate and run on a magnet.  And their speed is about 600 to 700 miles per hour.  You could even imagine the bullet train going through your neighborhood in Japan, it's quite noisy.  And you can imagine a 600 mile-an-hour train going behind your backyard, it makes incredible noise.

So we shot arrows through these soundproof areas, different arrows, to study the frictions for different feathers.  And we noticed that the most quiet arrow flight is the owl.  So with the new bullet trains, we mimicked the lines or the texture of this owl's feather onto the facade of the train.  And when we tested it, 50% of the sound was gone.  It's amazing what this feather could do for our technology.

I think of another anecdote, this one about the idea of longevity.  In my home in Japan, right behind my bedroom, there is a seventeenth-century gravel garden.  And the person who created this garden kept a manuscript of hundreds and hundreds of layers of these very meticulously drawn pebbles.  And he drew it.  I found it in the volumes of these paintings.  On the back page of it, from the seventeenth century, he wrote, “Five hundred years from now, these pebbles will be mature for everyone to see.”  That is a sense of Japanese traditional gardening.  And I think I echo everyone's sentiment about longevity.  And I think for me, to see that pebble today, it will need another 200 years to be ripened.  This is my comment.

We invite you to think about this topic and post your own comments and stories.  What does sustainability mean to you?  How do you maintain sustainability for the work you do?

ACTA's Comment Disclaimer

I am so sorry to have missed this seminar/meeting. And I consideer Cinde Alvitre A very Dear Friend. In our past we have been dedicated to helping the Urban Native Americans - who has many problems not even ever mentioned anywhere else. However these past 2 years I have become very interested in our culture thougth our arts.  As we have been in the process of aiding Urban peoles I could not help but become aware of their hunger for their own Native arts. It has been very hard trying to susatin at them at any level. However with some very good Native artist friends we are in the process of gaining a foothold in sustianing them all. With a large work place where their work can be created, shown and if the individalu wants to - sold. A safe place for the whole affair.  Please count me in on any future talks. Especially if it does not cost much to get there. LOL !

Carol, thank you for your comment.  If you would email your contact information to, we will definitely add you to our contact list for any future forums or events in your area!

Sustainability is an excellent topic.  I work with the Hmong Association of Long Beach on cultural preservation. For ten years the organization has run a Sunday cultural arts school at a Long Beach Park space called Homeland.  We have space.  We have master atists and we use small grants to pay them honorariums.  Most of our master artists have changed over time.  The leaders have recruited new master artists to teach.  The devotion and commitment of the volunteers and students continues to amaze me.  Maybe a people who have lost their country, their traditional farms, family members, and many of the traditional arts have more endurance.  They worry about attendance, loss of master artists, money.  But new and old volunteers come through year after year.  I think it is devotion to community and devotion to art that creates continued miracles.  But there is another important layer.  One woman, Dixie Swift, insisted that Long Beach Parks and Recreation, create a space where diverse community artists could sustain their work. One woman forced an institution to change.  So far Homeland vivsion and support continues but pressure on the city has to be maintained.

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