Changing Hearts and Culture Through Art
Igniting the Sacred Power of the Arts for Social Change
Interview of Ahmane' Glover and Erik W. Martínez Resly by Eleanor Goldfield
Ahmane’ Glover and Rev. Erik W. Martínez Resly co-direct The Sanctuaries, a racially and religiously diverse arts community in Washington, DC. Through their work at The Sanctuaries, they organize artists in sacred communities of mutual care and equip them to work on the front lines of grassroots justice campaigns.
Recently, they spoke with Eleanor Goldfield of Act Out! about what they’re learning. Excerpts from the interview have been categorized by headings and reprinted below. The full conversation can be viewed here.
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On the Pain of Justice
Justice, at its roots, is painful. We are moving through an unjust world. And we have been moving through an unjust world for generations and generations. Now it’s just up, pulsing at the surface. In order to move through that with my sanity intact, I need people with me, who are also focused on that same calling to reckon with the injustice that I face in the world — and how I can use art and spirituality, and my own justice mindedness, to approach that.
So what we’re calling it is multicultural organizing. Cultural organizing has been around since the beginning of time. It’s how we be with each other. We all have a different culture and a different frame of understanding that we come to the table with. How can we use that to build a community in which we can all flourish and thrive? That’s what The Sanctuaries is — a living, breathing example of how we can live and be together in a time such as now, when it’s painful to walk around and see these reflections that are our shadow sides, really.
Multicultural organizing is: How do I shift the culture of a space with arts and culture? How do I shift policy? How do I shift environmental change? How do I shift racial inequality? How do I create equitable spaces?
On the Role of Discipline
Rev. Erik W. Martínez Resly:
Over the past year, it’s become more and more clear to me how important it is to have artists doing this work. And how much of a gap exists — in terms of tools, skills, knowledge — between artists and grassroots justice campaigns.
As we look back in history and lift up movements and campaigns that were successful, one of the pieces that, at least in my reading, is so clear is the importance of preparation and discipline. This isn’t something where you just wake up one day and say, “Great! Now I’m an activist. Now I’m an organizer.” Maybe that spirit and that excitement and that sense of calling shows up. But to actually do it is this long process of rigorous and vigilant preparation.
On the Place of the Sacred
Values are based on how we be with each other. So we have our own honor code and our own value system for how we be with each other, whether you show up as an Atheist or a Muslim or a practicing Christian or devout in your faith in any other form. It’s how I choose to be with you. And respect that you matter, and that I matter.
There’s a culture of politeness that’s present in the world. So, if you’re going to build an intentionally multicultural space, you have to understand that we need to address that culture of politeness head on. That means that if someone is speaking based on the understanding that “I’m going to say this just to say it so it won’t hurt your feelings,” then we want to reshape that into, “Sometimes feelings get hurt in authentic relationships.” It’s about how do I respect you and also honor the perspective that I bring to the table?
That’s what the sacred is in this community in my experience. It’s me bringing to the table that I am a sacred being and that I matter. And how can I be with someone else and also uplift that they matter too?
Being able to companion people in a deep way is one of the most beautiful expressions of the spiritual life. Just being fully present. Simone Weil talked about prayer in terms of full attention. How do we fully give our attention to someone or to something?
I have to make space and I have to be disciplined. It’s a practice, choosing time and time again to be aligned with that way of moving through the world, as opposed to the many other ways that I’m constantly being told to move through the world — one of competition, one of antagonism, one of scarcity, one of white supremacy — these are the narratives that I’m constantly consuming, so it’s hard work to choose a source of ultimacy and authority that is different than that.
I need people to help me do that — a community that is inviting me to reconnect to those deeper sources of authority and purpose. I know I wouldn’t be able to do this work without it.
On the Challenge of Difference
Yes it is a challenge. And it’s a necessary challenge. That’s the beauty of artistry. How do I face challenges in an innovative way?
I am not an artist to hold up the mirror to the world. I am to be a hammer shaping it. We are a hammer constantly shaping it, so we run into different challenges along the way — whether it be language, whether it be how we communicate something, whether it be an understanding or a perspective or racial bias or any other kind of bias that’s present. So, the opportunity there is to address those uncomfortable spaces, instead of run from them. It would be easy for me to hide from it, but art can support me in being a hammer in shaping it: “Ok, I’m coming up with my own personal bias of how I see you and how I view you. So I have the opportunity to face that using my art, or run away.” Sometimes, I can run away and come back. There’s just so many multiple truths that exist.
The number one crux of the community is that I come back.
On the Power of the Arts
There’s a statement that one of our artists, Erin Johnson Bevel, made a couple years ago that’s really stuck with me. She said, “Look, I was trained as a lawyer and practice law, because I believe that law can change people’s minds. I’m also a singer because I believe that the arts can change people’s hearts.”
She offered that not as: choose one! One’s better than the other! No, there was a kind of honoring of the ways in which these things work together.
The power of the arts is the power to stir people to action. The power to give people experiential knowledge of something, or experiential awareness of something, that otherwise might reside only up here, in my head. There’s something about being moved — that word, in itself, is significant. We say, “I was moved by that piece of art.” And implied by that is then the movement to take action, the movement to do something about it. And the arts have an incredible power to do that.
Header Photo: Nicolas Raymond, C.c. 2.0