Sunday, March 11, 2012

When praxis bites

I have been involved with an art and cultural nonprofit org for many years. In fact, I am now the president of our board. The center is located in one of the poorest and oldest parts of town. We believe that the people of the neighborhood should have an outlet for creative expression. We hold afterschool art classes for kids and adults. We hold music and language classes. We employ juvenile offenders who learn landscape design and gardening in support of the neighborhood gardens that we sponsor. They learn to use tools and measurement (to build Day of the Dead altars, raised flower boxes, bird houses for gardens, speaker stands for our sound system, etc.).

Agencies and philanthropic groups blow in with grant money promising great things then leave after a year or two. We struggle from fundraiser to fundraiser trying to make sure our director gets paid and keep our programs afloat.

But this post isn’t about our programs or our resources; it’s about working with other members of the board. Like me, some are professionals working at a local university, two are attorneys with the city and others work at local businesses. All are passionate about the arts and about preserving, honoring and promoting our respective Latin@ heritages.

In many ways, the board reflects aspects of our ethnicity. No matter when a meeting time is posted, the meeting begins 30-40 minutes after that. It is more important to have warm tamales (even for a 9:00 a.m. meeting) than it is to have an agenda. One board member has his daughter-in-law on the board; there is another couple on the board, another member brings his wife to meetings, the director’s cousin is on the board, and another member is madrina to the director’s daughter. People remember who was mad at whom 15 years ago.

Everyone knows we need a strategic plan to get bigger grants, but it has taken a year to get one composed and approved. Some members still wink when they say “plan” because we all know we are going to improvise our way through as always.

Every time I enter this space, I keep hearing in my brain “collectivist culture,” “family oriented,” “present orientation.”  As someone who subscribes to the ideals of action research and dialogic communication, I let all of this play out. I struggle against imposing my standards or preferences. My approach is to let members drive our action and only take individual action when they turn to me to fix something or object on behalf of the board to some city interest. In fact, I am drawn to this org because it is so unlike the university where I work—everyone is warm and giving and we truly enjoy each other’s company. It’s like growing up with my primos.

I accept that our board work is highly social in nature. Yet the org could do much more for the community if it used its resources differently, if it used time efficiently and if it partnered with other arts orgs differently. We could remove so many obstacles to our progress if members returned emails and voicemail messages instead of waiting to see someone at the gas station or at zumba class.
I feel guilty for wanting us to be different and yet I am accepted and trusted because I am the same as everyone else. I want to intervene and create change and yet I want us to stay as we are. Even in this “safe” space, I feel torn by competing prescriptions and practices.

I don’t have the same comfort, like AnzaldĂșa, “to rebel and to rail at my culture.”  

Anyway, my point is this: Don’t worry that as an academic you will somehow abandon our hybrid/border sensibility—it will hunt you down and find you wherever you go.