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.