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Live Blogging Discussions of Collective Bargaining and Language Justice in the Arts

The 2019 Common Field Convening in Philadelphia (photo by Constance Mensh, design by Margaret Anderson, Piping Hot Press)

Welcome to day three of the Common Field Convening, originally slated to take place in person in Houston, Texas. The gathering of more than 500 arts organizers in the US includes panels, workshops, and conversations touching upon topics of equity, collaboration, and sustainability across various arts fields.

With the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, the conferences have shifted online, taking place on April 23-25; April 30; and May 1-3. A full program, along with links to sign up for each conference, can be found on Common Field’s website

Hyperallergic will be live-blogging select conferences on every day of the convening. (Read our commentary on sessions from day one and two.)

The ongoing health crisis, which has had a devastating impact on the cultural sector, means some of the issues addressed in the Common Field Convening are more urgent than ever before. Read about day three’s discussions, below:

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Building Language Justice for Artists and Arts Organizations, 6-8pm EDT

Live-blogged by Valentina Di Liscia

Speakers: JD Pluecker (Houston, TX) and José Eduardo Sánchez (Houston, TX)

5:55pm EDT: We haven’t quite started yet, but to give you guys some background, this is a special two-hour workshop for nonprofits and artists interested in working with multilingual communities.

6:01pm EDT: José Eduardo Sánchez is starting off the meeting. Him and JD Pluecker work at Antena, a collective of interpreters and language justice organizers in Houston, TX.

6:03pm EDT: We’re starting by all listing the city where we currently are or are from in the chat box. There’s people here from all over, from Canada to Iowa to Florida to Japan!

6:06pm EDT: Pluecker has taken the mic and is going over the agenda. We’re going to talk about some “language justice basics” and then go over some tools for equitable communication.

6:07pm EDT: As a native Spanish speaker and a person who is generally always lost in translation, I like what I hear so far.

6:08pm EDT: Sánchez is back. He starts some of his sentences with “bueno,” which makes me feel at home.

6:10pm EDT: One goal of this workshop is for each of us to come away with one way of helping build language justice in our jobs, organizations, or our “corners of the universe.”

6:13pm EDT: Okay so we’re now doing an interactive activity where they ask us questions and we have to keep our camera on for “yes” and turn it off for “no.” One of the questions is whether we’re wearing pants. LOL, guilty as charged.

6:15pm EDT: Next question: Keep your camera on if you speak another language with family and friends that’s not English. Lots of cameras stayed on for this one.

6:16pm EDT: And now: keep your camera on if you’ve had to interpret or translate for a family member. Again, lots of screens lit up.

6:17pm EDT: We’re moving on to a short little writing assignment: write about your experiences being discriminated against or silenced because of the language you speak (if we’ve had those experiences.) If not, write about someone you know who has been. I’m really surprised, in a positive way, at how quickly this workshop is getting hands-on and real.

6:23pm EDT: Some people are stepping up to share their experiences.

6:25pm EDT: Natalia, one participant, says her family is from Colombia and she always had to translate for her relatives as a kid. Sometimes people weren’t so friendly about it, annoyed at the extra step of having to wait for her to interpret or be an intermediary. Sánchez says this response, sadly, is really common.

6:28pm EDT: Another participant, who is French Canadian, says there’s a lot of tension between the different regions in Canada. And she’s had to deal with assumptions about who she is because of her accent.

6:30pm EDT: Sánchez: “When I hear this, I always ask myself, what is language a stand-in for in this situation? Language is a stand-in for ability, for geopolitics, for social or political identity.”

6:35pm EDT: Some additional experiences being shared in the chat. It’s truly astonishing how many different forms this very specific kind of discrimination (language-based) can take.

Participants of the conference share their experiences with language-based discrimination.

6:38pm EDT: One experience in the chat mentioned being a North American tourist in Europe and feeling “othered” for speaking English. Pluecker says that’s a good example, because while it is a real negative emotional experience, it’s not exactly “linguicism”; i.e., an English tourist in Europe is not a structurally disadvantaged group.

6:41pm EDT: A poignant quote comes up on the screen: “Language is personal, visceral, powerful. It’s tied to our lands and our bodies.”

6:45pm EDT: We’re moving on to discussing what “language” and “justice” mean to us. We’re all sharing our thoughts in the chat. What do you smell, taste, feel when you hear those words?

6:50pm EDT: “Centering from the margins,
” “movement,” “myth,” and “empathy” are among some of the expressions popping up in the chat box. Illustrates how large these concepts are to all of us, says Sánchez, and how big the challenges we are facing.

6:50pm EDT: Pluecker and Sánchez share a definition of language justice, an important and complex term:

A definition of “language justice.”

6:53pm EDT: “This is making me think of how happy a patient was when she found out that I spoke Haitian Kreyol. You could automatically see her guard go down and she felt seen,” Tasha just shared in the chat box.

7pm EDT: Sánchez is talking about their organization, Antena. They do “social justice interpreting,” so they view interpretation as contributing to the different grassroots movements occurring in their city and region.

7:03pm EDT: FYI they have two sister collectives, Antena Los Angeles and Antena Aire, here.

7:06pm EDT: Different configuration/models for how to approach more than one language in a room: inclusion, exclusion, segregation, and integration. I.e., a segregation model would have the event happening in the dominant language. Maybe someone grabs a staff member who is bilingual to interpret, but they have no experience doing it, training, or support, and they’re not getting paid or compensated for that work. 

7:07pm EDT: I saw this happen once at an exhibition of Haitian art. A woman who happened to speak Haitian stepped in to interpret for the artists who were present. Obviously it was great having her, but I couldn’t help wondering why there wasn’t someone there to do that job. Because it is a job.

7:13pm EDT: A question for the group: what is your experience with language justice or interpreting? What are the multilingual contexts you work in? Answers range from visitor services departments at museums to immigrant law.

7:18pm EDT: There are some good tips being shared now for translation of written materials. Texts in all languages should be equivalent in content and quality. Avoid using Google translate (ugh yes, please.) Develop a consistent style guide.

7:21pm EDT: We’re moving into a very interesting topic: how can organizations fund/budget for interpreters? One piece of advice: be realistic. Maybe you can’t do all seven top languages in your city at once, but you may be able to do two of them.

7:23pm EDT: The question of pro-bono interpreting comes up. There may be collectives of volunteers in your community. “But if you’re a giant institution with millions of dollars, please don’t ask folks to volunteer their time, pay them,” says Sánchez. Exactly.

7:25pm EDT: I’m glad Sánchez made this point. While it’s great that multilingual people want to give their skills and time for a good cause, their work shouldn’t be devalued. (As a writer, it stirs up the same feelings I get when organizations ask people to write pro-bono.)

7:30pm EDT: We’re going into breakout groups.

7:35pm EDT: Each group has been given a “scenario” they have to discuss. Here’s my group’s: “You are an artist-organizer working for a community organization that wants to use oral histories as a way to preserve some of the cultural knowledge rooted in a neighborhood undergoing significant changes. Many residents in the neighborhood speak diverse varieties of Spanish, Kiché, and/or English. You are tasked with organizing a publicity campaign and community event to solicit participants in the project.
”

7:37pm EDT: The three of us in my group are bouncing off ideas. Different kinds of media/shareables can have varying degrees of inclusivity (visuals versus text, for instance.)

7:42pm EDT: J Kim, who is an artist, says we need to be informed of where people get their information from. For some people it might be from Facebook, but for others it could be from flyers or knocking door-to-door.

7:43pm EDT: Sánchez just popped into our group in a surprise visit. It’s tricky to live-blog and be an active participant of this conversation at the same time, so I’ve just given my new friends a heads up.

7:46pm EDT: Angelique just made a great point. She brought up an example of a political poster that might include text in five languages or even more. That means the font has to be smaller to fit all the material, so people who have trouble with small text might be left out. Communication formats should be rotated so that the same people aren’t left out every time.

7:49pm EDT: “It’s all about negotiating access,” says Angelique.

7:52pm EDT: We’ve all been taken back to the main “room” to share our discussions.

7:54pm EDT: The ideas for increasing language justice in these different scenarios are really varied. One group mentioned partnering with public school teachers, integrating performance-based art, multi-sensory experiences, maybe touchable art for people with different abilities. It’s a reminder of how important intersectionality is for language interpretation.

7:54pm EDT: The ideas for increasing language justice in these different scenarios are really varied. One group mentioned partnering with public school teachers, integrating performance-based art, multi-sensory experiences, maybe touchable art for people with different abilities. It’s a reminder of how important intersectionality is for language interpretation.

8pm EDT: The workshop is coming to an end. There was so much thoughtfulness and empathy brought by the speakers and the participants present, it was almost therapeutic and meditative to be a part of it.

Matching Minorities//Doubtful Doubles: A Conversation on Institutionalized Racism, Tokenism, Microaggressions, and Inclusion vs. Optics in the Art World, 4-5:30pm EDT

Live-blogged by Jasmine Weber

Speakers: Astria Suparak (Oakland, CA), Jen Delos Reyes (Chicago, IL), Lisa Lee (Chicago, IL)

4:07pm EDT: Lee says while the topic of institutional racism is a hefty one, they will use the next 90 minutes to explore its personal and political implications.

4:09pm EDT: All three of the hosts have chosen incredible backgrounds/settings for the session — Reyes nods to Zach Galifianakis and introduces herself as “Between Two Palms.”

4:11pm EDT: Reyes began her presentation by listing a number of egregious micro- and macroaggressions shes experiences. She is now citing aftor John Cho’s opinion article for the LA Times: “Please don’t minimize the hate or assume it’s somewhere far away. It’s happening close to you.”

4:13pm EDT: Reyes says she, Lee, and Suparak have been consistently confused for one another by white curators (along with other Asian-American curators, celebrities, artists … the list goes on).

A text conversation between Astria Suparak (gray) and Jen Delos Reyes (blue).

4:16pm EDT: The moderators are all asking one another questions as a means of facilitating discussion — this is a really useful way to get to know them. The first question, from Reyes to Lee, is how her mother feels about her work in the museum sector.

4:20pm EDT: Lee says her parents have never come to an exhibition she’s curated or museum she’s directed; they don’t know about the details of her career. Her mother was a poet in Taiwan before her parents immigrated to the US in the 1950s. “It’s not that they don’t love or appreciate arts and culture, because they’re the ones who introduced me to museums,” she explains, “but that activity was very much part of what they understood as necessary to pass as a middle class white American, and to be proficient in the white world.”

Lee’s family photos.

4:23pm EDT: Reyes says disparaging comments from her professor, who asked her to use menstrual blood or Chinese cultural objects to represent herself in her work, pressured her into making work solely about her Asian-American identity for the entirety of her thesis year.

4:25pm EDT: Throughout the conversation, anonymous polls are going to pop up. The first question was whether or not each audience member  identifies as a person of color. The results: 49% Yes, 51% No.

4:27pm EDT: Lee shares June Jordan’s poem “Calling All Silent Minorities.”

4:34pm EDT: Lee mentions the Baltimore Museum of Art’s initiative to only acquire works by women artists, and asks if we can imagine HR initiatives of solely hiring people of color for museum roles.

4:36pm EDT: Lee discusses the overwhelming homogeny of museum boards and references Darren Walker’s op-ed for the New York Times, “Museums Need to Step Into the Future.” She does, however, critique Walker’s lack of acknowledgment of the staff and activists of color who have done so much of the work to reform museums as we know them. “Real change has never simply taken place from the top down,” she notes, and shouts out workers at Guggenheim Museum, W.A.G.E., and #MuseumsAreNotNeutral, among many other organizations and initiatives.

4:40pm EDT: The next poll asks POC if they feel they’ve been passed over for a job with fewer qualifications, and white folks if they feel they’ve lost out on a job prospect for a POC with fewer qualifications. It seems that most POC are either not sure, or feel that they have. Meanwhile, most white folks feel that they are not sure, or that they have not.

4:42pm EDT: This is a pretty interesting experiment in real-time, and an extraordinary way to utilize Zoom. I think this is the most engaging Zoom conference I’ve attended since events have started to moved online.

93% of the POC attendees feel they have been tasked with educating coworkers and peers.

4:44pm EDT: We’re moving onto section three: “Optics Versus Inclusion.”

4:46pm EDT: Suparak explains some of the times she’s been tokenized, and explains: “The positions most often offered to people of color are often precarious, prefaced by ‘adjunct, visiting, or guest.’ One time invites that diversify the lineup of an organization temporarily or superficial, or are lower in status and pay, such as maintenance, education, visitor services, and middle management. White people remain in most of the leadership, permanent, and tenured positions.” Preach. All of the speakers are spot-on and incredibly compelling.

4:49pm EDT: Apparently, when the MCA Chicago held its first solo exhibition for a woman of color artist (in 2018…), instead of using a photo of Howardena Pindell’s work, they chose to advertise with a portrait of the artist herself, exploiting her likeness and Black womanhood. This is the first I’ve heard of it, but it sounds astonishingly egregious — though I’m not too surprised.

4:51pm EDT: A big question has entered the conversation: “How do you resist tokenism while simultaneously moving towards real inclusion and equity?” This is something the presenters are thinking about as they move into section four, on resistance and justice.

4:46pm EDT: Quoting Cathy Park Hong, Reyes says: “Racial trauma is not a competitive sport.”

4:48pm EDT: Attendees have been given a prompt to submit in the chat: ”
Take a minute to think of a racist work scenario that you want the group to come up with solutions for.” Certain attendees will have a chance to unmute their microphones and discuss.

5:00pm EDT: Lee says that women of color are almost always the ones to clean up after an event, even if they’re the invited guest speaker, and that white men rarely volunteer to lend a hand.

5:07pm EDT: Here’s one example from an attendee: “I was in a show and had submitted my bio with my background as an Asian-born person right at the end. The exhibition manager rewrote my bio with my background in the first line, ahead of my valid accomplishments. They would never have done that to a white person. I got my way in the end, but never pointed it out that it was a racist thing to do.”

5:12pm EDT: The speakers are discussing white allyship, and suggest that white employees use their privilege to speak up against workplace discrimination in support of their colleagues of color.

5:16pm EDT: Lee calls HR “false shelters” that can often be hung up on the legality, rather than the morality, or problematic altercations in the workplace.

5:17pm EDT: Final question for the chat: “What are tips that you’d like to see allies use to address racism in the art world and academy?”

5:19pm EDT: A few notable responses: “I would like white colleagues to demand BIPOC in leadership roles” and “Promote the dismantling of hierarchical leadership! It is a strategic arm of white supremacy!” (by Lissa Corona); “We should have systems in place to support each other through the hiring process, how to find jobs, how to interview, and how to negotiate” (by PJ Gubatina Policarpio); and “Tell administration that inclusivity efforts have to include money. We as POC cannot pay our bills with ‘exposure and experience’” (by Jojo Galvan Mora). It’s heartening to see such a keen and engaged audience. Lee, Suparak, and Reyes have set up a really successful platform for exchange.

5:28pm EDT: Things are wrapping up. We’re each asked to share one word that we want to hold as we leave and ruminate on this discussion. Mine?: Seen.

Collectivizing Cultural Work, 2-3:30pm EDT

Live-blogged by Hakim Bishara

Speakers: Cordelia Istel (Los Angeles, CA), Jillian Grant (San Diego, CA), Kaitlyn Chandler (Brooklyn, NY), Yasmin Adele Majeed (Queens, NY)

2:01pm EDT: Panelists are waiting for a “critical mass” of viewers to begin the meeting.

2:04pm EDT: Chris Tyler, a Los Angeles-based artist and organizer, and Emily Searles, a worker at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM), begin the meeting.

2:07pm EDT: The workshop will offer tools for unionizing in the time of the pandemic against the backdrop of mass layoffs and furloughs at cultural institutions.

2:08pm EDT: “You only need two workers to create a union,” says Tyler.

2:12pm EDT: Cordelia Istel, an LA-based artist and labor organizer, is giving an overview of the unionization process, warning that many technical terms will be thrown out.

2:15pm EDT: Why unionize? First of all, because most workers in the United States are “at-will employees”, meaning they’re “at the whim of their employers,” says Istel.

2:19pm EDT: Steps in forming a union: filing for election; voting to form a union; bargaining for a contract; enforcing the contract.

Steps of forming a union

2:22pm EDT: Istel goes into the details of each step.

2:24pm EDT: Istel with a recommendation for leaders of cultural institutions: “voluntarily recognize your workers’ union!”

2:26pm EDT: “It’s illegal to fire a worker for wanting to unionize,” informs Istel.

“It’s illegal to fire a worker for wanting to unionize,” informs Istel

2:30pm EDT: The group chat is being flooded with questions.

2:32pm EDT: Yasmin Adele Majeed from the Asian American Writers’ Workshop is describing how she and her colleagues formed their union.

2:35pm EDT: “Never use your work email or Slack to discuss the union,” Adele Majeed recommends.

2:38pm EDT: Another tip from Adele Majeed: “Reach out to local unionized organizations in your field.”

2:40pm EDT: Kaitlyn Chandler, a union organizer at BAM, is presenting. BAM employs more than 700 workers.

2:42pm EDT: People who have the power to hire and fire people in an organization cannot be on a union’s organizing committee, according to Chandler.

2:44pm EDT: BAM workers successfully unionized in June of 2019. Read Hyperallergic’s coverage here.

Workers who have joined Local 2110 in 2019, starting with workers at MoMA

2:49pm EDT: It’s normal to “lose steam” while fighting for a union, Chandler says. “Remember why you’re doing this,” she recommends.

2:53pm EDT: Tyler and Searles are role-playing how to talk with a co-worker about forming a union, guided by Istel. “Be human,” Istel recommends.

2:56pm EDT: Searles is the union organizer in the role play. Tyler is a skeptic worker. “I don’t want to lose my job,” he says.

2:58pm EDT: Istel suggests following a prewritten script for these conversations.

3:00pm EDT: Breakout sessions begin.

3:02pm EDT: I’m in a breakout room with 15 people, moderated by Searles.

3:05pm EDT: Curator Nikki Columbus is in the room. Columbus settled a lawsuit with MoMA PS1 last year over her claim of gender, pregnancy, and caregiver discrimination. According to Columbus’s complaint, PS1’s management rescinded her work offer after they found out that she’s pregnant.

3:13pm EDT: Everyone got abruptly kicked back to the main room.

3:15pm EDT: Jill Grant, an organizer within the New Children’s Museum Union in San Diego, is speaking about going public with a union drive.

3:18pm EDT: Management might “spread information and lies,” according to Grant. She shows a “Dirty Dozen Bingo” game to play during all-staff, “captive audience” meetings with management.

The “Dirty Dozen Bingo” union game

3:22pm EDT: Use social media, reach out to the press, and throw a party. These are some of the steps that Grant recommends for going public with a union drive.

Unions to follow on social media

3:27pm EDT: Answering a question from the audience about the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, Grant says that forming a union at her workplace helped prevent management from laying off workers.

3:28pm EDT: Chalnder says her union had less success, as some workers at BAM have been laid off.

3:30pm EDT: An audience member asks: How do you hold a union election while sheltering in place? Is it possible to mail votes? The panelists agree that it’s probably not a feasible solution. “Use this time to prepare for the next step,” Grant suggests.

3:36pm EDT: Tyler and Searles wrap up the session. It went fast.