Blue Heart sat down with Carlton Turner, Executive Director of Alternate ROOTS, a grassroots organization in the American South that serves artists and cultural organizers exploring themes of social justice. Founded in 1976, Alternate ROOTS supports the creation of original art which is rooted in a particular community of place, tradition or spirit. They are the forefront of establishing model programs for regional cultural organizing in the US. The fusion of art and anti-oppression work is at the core of their DNA and grassroots action.
Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
BLUE HEART: What is the story of how you got involved with Alternate ROOTS?
Carlton Turner: I’ll start with my time as a college student at the University of Mississippi, otherwise known as Ole Miss. Going there as a student, I didn’t really know the historical context of getting educated there. But I left that institution with a deep understanding of the way that racism, privilege, and white power manifests itself in contemporary times. I was there at a time when the University was dealing with its public image because it was still flying the confederate battle flag as its basic university symbol at sporting events. So we were dealing with this contradiction of Black bodies on a field and these white folks waving the confederate battle flag. This would have been 1992 through 1996. We are still having that conflict today in the South and across this country.
My older brother who was there with me at Ole Miss. He was a music major and I was an english major. We began to put those two things together and created a group. We were doing spoken word, hip hop, and jazz. We called our group MUGABEE which stands for Men Under Guidance Acting Before Early Extinction. Carolyn Morris, who was then working with the Mississippi Arts Commission, saw us performing and asked us if we knew anything about Alternate ROOTS. We hadn’t so she connected us with some ROOTS members in New Orleans. We immediately realized two things: it connected us to a body of artists who were doing the things that we wanted to do and who were finding a way to make it sustainable financially. And second, it expanded the way we thought about our art form. And pushed us to the boundaries of what we thought we could do musically, what we could do through a performance setting; and pushed us to think about different ways we could use our work. That was in 2000. Alternate ROOTS immediately became a home and family. In 2001, I was invited into the Alternate Roots Executive Committee. I served for in that capacity for three years and became a staff member in 2004, eventually becoming the Executive Director in 2009.
BH: What is Alternate ROOTS and what makes the organization distinct?
Carlton: For me, Alternate ROOTS is a network. It is an artist-centered, artist-led organization that focuses on providing stability, resources, critical discourse, and connectivity. It breaks the isolation of artists who are working at the intersection of art and activism, specifically in the US South. We work in states from Maryland all the way to Texas. It’s a huge geographical swathe but it is connected by a sense of shared purpose and political alignment. We believe that if we are able to shift the consciousness of the South, it will have a corresponding effect of shifting national consciousness. We have seen it happen before with the Civil Rights movement. Politically, artistically, and culturally, the South is a very important region to focus on, learn about, and invest in.
BH: One thing that strikes me as radically different than a lot of other organizations is that you seek to be an incubator for participatory democracy. Can you talk about what that looks like?
Carlton: One of ROOT’s greatest strengths is that it is an artist-led organization. We are practicing the thing we talk about so much in community-based work: those people who are most affected by a situation need to be at the center of the decision-making process about how to shift power. ROOTS is one of the few national art and culture organizations that is designed, run, and sustained by artists. Artists are at the center of all organizational policy decisions.
Every year we have a week-long annual meeting which is an artist retreat. This retreat is at the very center of the network and cultural experience that ROOTS is, and why we have been around and successful for so long. You see this intergenerational body of artists that have been gathering for 2 generations, all in the same space. You see them collaborating together, working together, and leading together. People get a real sense of what community building looks like through a set of shared values. And there are a lot of people that come to ROOTS week that are not from the South, but they come to see why the South is important.
With most nonprofit organizations, the people being served by the organization feel like there is only a certain level they can take their grievances or issues to before they get met with the bureaucracy of an institution. That barrier doesn’t exist for Roots, because the artists are involved in every aspect of the organizational development from the beginning. I think that that’s what participatory democracy in action looks like.
BH: That ideal exists is many organizations, but they often fall short. What makes it work for you?
Carlton: I had a friend come to the last retreat and she told me, “I have never been to an organization meeting where there has been such transparency and openness around finances.” We are committed to every member understanding the finances of the organization. We have an open conversation about budgets. People don’t usually feel comfortable having conversations about money, so we recognize that and give permission and encouragement.
We also strive to embrace conflict. We try to model how we can bring diversity of thought, of ethnicity, of age, of gender, religion and spiritual belief, of discipline, of gender into one space and then can actually nurture people through it. We recognize that those spaces are not void of conflict. Conflict is going to happen. It happens in regular life, and it’s going to happen when you bring together that level of diversity even, if you share values. If you shy away from the conflict then it begins to fester and rots your organization from the inside. People see and learn how to take that different attitude towards conflict at the retreat and then bring it back to their own communities and organizations.
Communication and relationship is also a priority for us, from day one. As an artist myself, I’ve submitted so many applications as an artist and then I don’t hear back till your rejection or acceptance letter. We don’t see that as a model that supports community. We are interested in helping from the moment you apply. We will start that off with a phone call: Tell us about what you are thinking, let us tell you about other partnerships to give you a better sense of what we are thinking. We will provide you with a proposal coach to think through your proposal. They are hired and paid for by ROOTS to support the artist in being able to articulate their vision. That is something that we have pioneered; I don’t know of anyone else doing that. We make the application open and flexible, too. If you are not a strong writer and you feel better expressed through an audio file, or a video or even a phone call, then do that. We aim to break down as many barriers as possible to the application process. That is really important when you are talking about building people’s ability to do creative work and countering the issues of long term systemic inequity in the art world. Those are some of the things that are important to us and how we put them into action.
BH: How has ROOTS impacted the conversation among arts organizations in the United States?
Carlton: I think ROOTS has done as much for arts and culture in the last 40 years than large organizations like the National Endowment for the Arts, because we are working to support the work of arts outside of a top down, hierarchical structure. We are turning it into one that is more equitable and transparent.
We have the ability to be in art spaces and speak truth to power. We bring up topics that normally may not get addressed. There are a lot of conversations within cultural institutions about equity, inclusion and diversity. But for so many organizations it is not about the transference or building of power. Instead, it’s about the picture — whether it looks nice, and whether it looks different than the past pictures. Let’s be clear: if you bring a person of color into your organization who thinks and acts the same way as the last person who held that position. — whether it was a white person or not — then you are not diversifying the space. If everyone thinks the same even though they look different, then you really haven’t engaged in a transformative process. What you have done is brought yourself up to the 1980s with an affirmative action process.
We often are in conversation with large historically white arts organizations. These organizations don’t rely on foundations at the same level as the organizations of color in the room. They have a much larger individual donor base, a base connected to long-term structural inequity that dates back to the days of slavery. They don’t often make the connections between why they are in a different financial situation compared to other arts organizations led by and primarily serving people of color. We are able to have those conversations with multi-generational analysis, which is not about pointing the finger or laying blame, but helping to unpack a history that has not been shared across the table. ROOTS is able to talk about what equity and diversity means and looks like in actual practice.
BH: What is an example of a collaborative project that artists have implemented because of resources and support from ROOTS?
Carlton: We work with artists and then help them partner with a community through our program called Partners in Action. It evolved from an initiative we started back in 1991. What’s important about the program is that we develop true three-way partnerships: ROOTS, the artist, and the community. When we say ROOTS as a partnership, we don’t just mean ROOTS as the staff in the office, we mean that we are taking on this body of work and we are going to figure out ways to involve as many artists as want to be a part of it and makes sense based on the needs of the project.
One example project that is getting off the ground is in Richmond, VA called ‘Performing Statistics’. We take projects that are in all phases of development — idea phase to already running. Performing Statistics is a cultural organizing project that works to bring incarcerated teens, artists, and policy experts together to produce multi-media campaigns, public performances and installations to support the abolition of juvenile prisons and the school to prison pipeline. There are two organizations involved: with the Legal Aid Justice Center and an arts organization in Richmond called Art 180. They are asking the question: “What would juvenile criminal justice reform look like if it was led by currently and formerly incarcerated teens?"
We worked with them to do a full day community visit workshop, where we brought together artists from around the community and Virginia region as well as residents from the local community. Together, we spent a day unpacking the ideas around the project and create a foundation for the project that’s grounded in the real community.
BH: What are some of the stumbling blocks that you have had with creating partnerships over time?
Carlton: We have taken some chances with some projects that weren’t quite ready to partner at a truly integrated level. What I mean is that they are used to working on their own in isolation or they are used to making decisions on behalf of their partners without the necessary conversations for everybody to be on the same page. We’ve also seen some artists that are not ready to actually see the body of work happen on the ground. So we have learned to do in-depth relationship study and understanding what the dynamics are like on the ground before we say yes. Now that doesn’t mean we don’t help and support those projects that are ready. It just means that “We don’t think your project is ready but we can give you some funding to help you get through this part, until you are ready for the deeper level of partnership.” We are learning how to help the artists grow their capacity to manage a project and partnerships.
BH: What guidance or advice you would like to offer to folks with race and/or class privilege who are trying to show up in solidarity for moments that you are a part of?
Carlton: Respect the South, and learn about it. Learning about the South is an important way to understand the legacy of struggle that has taken place in this country. A lot of the history and present moment of this country is rooted in Southern culture, Southern history, and Southern bodies. The national politics that we (on the Left) are responding to right now are designed after a white supremacist structure that was really developed in a Southern landscape. Many of the strategies in Washington are mimicking the tactics of the 60s and 50s and Jim Crow South. That black radical resistance in the South is what has brought us to civil rights movement, the fight for marriage equality, and the fight for unionization. I think that is not often recognized. Those Southern Black artists and organizers developed approaches to freedom fighting that we all benefit from, but we don’t acknowledge them or even deem them “inefficient” or “insufficient” for 21st century struggles. Southern spaces and people are often deemed slow, backwards or inarticulate. We Southerners have to resist everyday of our lives and prove our worth. Just because it doesn’t come like something you are used to looking like, doesn’t mean you should dismiss it. The sophisticated, institutional, academic approach has a place in movement work, but so does a real down-to-earth, “come and sit a while and sip some tea” relationship. I think that valuing that type of relationship is the key to our liberation.
Thank you to Jefferson Fellows for his help transcribing and editing this interview. For more about Blue Heart and to support organizations like AlternateROOTS, visit www.blueheartaction.org