TBQ interviews Brooklyn activist Ora Wise
TBQ: How did you get involved in Between the Door and the Street?
ORA WISE: It was very serendipitous. For the past six years, I’ve been the director of education at Kolot Chayeinu in Park Slope. At the moment I heard about Between the Door and the Street, it was my first month into stepping away from this position; I was training lead teachers to take over, preparing to leave my job to make space for other ways of being in the world. A colleague [Arthur Strimling] who had worked with Suzanne [Lacy] for years knew that I was a community organizer and educator who happened to have some time to work on new projects. For me, it was an exciting opportunity; I would never have had the time to participate otherwise, if I weren’t already in transition. My background is in collective creative projects, collective grassroots media and community organizing.
What are some of your impressions from Between the Door at the Street, now that it’s over?
I was particularly touched by the visual and physical experience, as well as political and conceptual experience of what felt like condensing the city into one block. One of the most impactful elements of the whole project was thinking about how these groups would normally be sitting in all these different parts of New York. As someone who loves New York and loves to see how people hang out in their space—stoops, sidewalks, wherever it is—I was so excited by the experience of having them brought into one block, a mini-version of the whole city, because there are so many different worlds within this whole city, that if people aren’t taking the time to see them, they won’t. It’s very powerful to show that to people in a city in which certain versions of the city are trumping others’… certain people’s Brooklyns are getting destroyed or pushed out. You can live in a certain part of New York City and never have to experience or see or process what other parts of the city are going through.
I also think that it was really powerful to engage with a whole block, for people to let us use their stoops. That was my job to coordinate and it was really powerful. Before [Between the Door and the Street] I might have walked along that block and say, I wonder who lives here? And now I know everyone who lives there. In this city, where public space is so tightly controlled, property is so expensive, with so many millions of people, there isn’t a lot of meaningful interaction. It was so powerful to engage a block full of people and to say, “Can we bring people here?” To cross those boundaries between private and public and to say, “We can share.” In a city where space is a really precious commodity, that was really moving.
What do you think about art as an opportunity for social engagement?
I very much believe in and am committed to collaborative creative processes as the way to do smart community organizing. I think that if you really think about it, when we’re talking about creative social change or building social movement, we’re talking about the need to engage people’s imaginations beyond the status quo. Also, we’re asking for people to get involved in community organizing and social justice movements, which can mean giving up privilege, safety, ease. So it’s also about what people need to get in return. They need to have a transformative experience, a different kind of experience than they have in the dominant society. It’s really important for social justice work to be based in the creative, the imaginative, the collaborative.
In some ways, [Between the Door and the Street] was “organizing as art,” but in general, I think the life that I live is art as organizing. This was a way to expose a lot of people to the possibilities of creative community work, re-imagining public space, to let them see different ways of having conversations and the power of convergence. But for us it’s about continuing on the rest of the 364 days a year, building the world that we want to see that involves imagination and collaboration.
Are there artists or organizations that you feel are doing great work in this area in Brooklyn or elsewhere?
People who are doing that work here in Brooklyn? There is a collaborative duo that I’ve been really inspired by and had opportunity to work with called Climbing PoeTree. They did a piece called “Hurricane Season” about Katrina, which is a great example of seeing connections between art and social engagement; they use performance to travel around the country to create forums for people to come together in a way that does the work and is ongoing. They’re artists—dancers, spoken word, visual—they wouldn’t consider making art that wasn’t about purpose and about bringing people together.
A project based outside of New York that has really brought me a lot of experiences is Detroit-based: Allied Media Projects, through which I honed a much of the skill set I applied in Between the Door and the Street. They have a project in particular that I’ve gotten to be the curriculum specialist for, the Detroit Future Media Project. It’s a program for people who are interested in Detroit’s media ecologies and community cultural production. It provides intensive training with a focus on supporting participants in doing projects that focuses on an issue in a community they’re connected to and helps them take that project into schools, local businesses or local community organizations.
It’s a model I would very much like to see in New York, based on digital justice principle—that if we’re interested in doing it, we can use art and media for more a just, collaborative, creative society. Part of building a healthy ecology of a city is making sure that media creation, tech design, and cultural spaces are designed as processes of speaking and listening that allow us to investigate processes that shape realities and make new realities. These ideas are based in the history of popular education and theater of the oppressed, historical movements based in Brazil and civil rights movements globally that have used theater, art, and movement as the ways that people investigate community problems and develop strategies for changing them.
That’s fascinating; can you describe how that work with the Detroit Future Media project in particular has impacted your own projects?
The Detroit Future Media Program grew out of a 20-week program developed over the past thirteen years at the Allied Media Conference, which for the past eight or nine years has been in Detroit (before that it was in Ohio). This conference has, over the years, nurtured this network of people using specifically using tech, media and other creative processes to do social change work. I went to this conference for the first time nine years ago and have gone every single year since. In some ways, you could barely describe it as a conference because it’s so participatory. It’s a gathering of makers, with a youth video lab, collaborative meals from urban farms, a fashion show—very much about making and doing and practicing in alternative space.
I got very involved and became an advisor to the conference; at the same time, the projects I was working on elsewhere were really nurtured by that conference. One in particular is the Palestine Education Project (PEP), which led to a documentary film called Slingshot Hiphop. We distributed the film ourselves—it was made collaboratively with rappers in Palestine. We gave these rappers cameras and the film premiered at Sundance in 2008, in part because we screened and generated support for it at the conference in Detroit. From there, we used the film to design courses for 17- to 21-year-olds in Brooklyn who had a second chance to get their high school diplomas. As part of the course, they all learned about the histories of hip hop and the histories of Palestine. They all had final media projects and produced videos for songs they wrote. These were translated into Arabic.
Students from Brooklyn then went to conference to share the media they created. This is a great example of the cycle of leadership development: after learning from other people, these Brooklyn students became teachers, became artists. The Allied Media Conference has really become a space for fundraising and building networks. We have organized indigenous youth and Chicano youth delegations to Palestine, and the Allied Media Conference was a place for them to learn and prepare for that experience for two years. SNAG magazine, for example, has published pieces back and forth among different youth communities, all about organizing.
What’s up next for you?
I’m moving in the direction of focusing on the culinary arts more, which is about community and culture and the stories we tell and history and boundaries and translating them. I left my job in order to pursue my life-long interest in food culture and food making. One tiny nascent project I started while working one and a half jobs is a food blog that focuses on politics, culture and ritual of food. I’m hoping to invest in that more, to revamp it and to re-engage the collective, write more for it. I’m also moving toward doing more cooking. The culture of food, food’s role in culture and the literature and media around that—it’s definitely a collaborative effort.