On Friday, November 17, about 60 arts educators and representatives from organizations that make up the Partnership for Arts and Humanities in Milwaukee gathered at MIAD (Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design) for the inaugural Connected Roots Summit. The gathering, organized by Milwaukee Recreation, was inspired by Emergent Strategies: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds a radical “self-help/society-help” guide, written by Durham-based writer, organizer, poet, activist, and multidisciplinary artist adrienne maree brown. Using examples from the natural world to explore principles including adaptation, interdependence, and resilience—brown outlines and theorizes how these phenomena can function when applied in human communities for the advancement of social justice movements, self-development, and network-building.
The book’s content empowers readers with biomimicry analogies, tools, and practices to explore and cultivate leadership qualities within themselves, in order
to promote healthier organizations, networks, and communities. The Connected Roots Summit was a kind of primer, developed to put lessons from the book into the hands of nonprofit arts leaders and educators who work directly with the public.
Each of the participants was a representative from an organization supported by the Partnership for the Arts and Humanities, an allocation of 1.83 million dollars approved annually by the Milwaukee Board of School Directors and managed by Milwaukee Recreation to support after-school, weekend, and summer arts and humanities-related opportunities for youth and families throughout Milwaukee.
“This is not a normal PD (professional development) event,” said April Heding, Manager - Afterschool Arts & Humanities, at Milwaukee Recreation, in her opening remarks. “The 15,000 young people served by our programs deserve for us to be connected.”
Rather than a preconceived set of outcomes of the day’s workshops and presentations, Heding expressed hope that the programs would generate “new ideas, new connections,” and “spark a choose your-own-adventure,” of next steps and results.
“We are the roots” added presenter Symphony Swan. “And the youth are the plants.”
The afternoon was carved into presentations from Symphony Swan, Madam Chino, and a musical demonstration by Klassik to diversly bring to life some of the book’s concepts. Throughout the afternoon, creative activities were peppered in to give participants a chance to process material, and later in the afternoon attendees were matched with one another to collaborate in a creative pairing.
But before attendees even had a chance to settle in, presenter, artist, entrepreneur and the newly named Manager of Program Initiatives at Ruth Arts Symphony Swan invited everyone to stand up and form a circle for an activity. Participants were invited to share their name and a fact about themselves while passing a skein of marigold yarn around and across the large circle. Each person revealed something personal, for example, their zodiac sign, and then found someone within the circle who shared their personal fact, and then passed or tossed the yarn tangle on to them, creating an illustration of a network of commonalities. Meanwhile, an inflated ball was covered by participants with pieces of tape with words that represented a burden faced by them in their work in arts education.
The exercise underscored that burdens experienced by individuals and organizations might be relieved when the connections, represented by crisscrossing yarn, become dense enough to physically hold the ball. Many of the challenges cited were based around the idea of scarcity or lack, and ironically, the skein of yarn was not long enough to make a dense network to hold the ball. Still, the effect was thought-provoking as an icebreaker, and a demonstration of an interactive activity that might be replicated.
Next, Swan gave an energetic curated overview of some of the principles of Emergent Strategies. Her talk and slideshow centered on select topics and quotes from the book, paired with evocative images and illustrations. She highlighted examples of natural phenomena, including starling birds, how they move together in a decentralized murmuration—sensing and flowing as one in their passages. In another slide, Swan showed a photo of a tree that had grown with full foliage on only one side, the other side, next to a powerline, was devoid of branches or leaves. Swan asked the group to interpret the image. One participant noted how the tree appeared to have not “grown into its full potential” because of the impediment and being cut back by factors in the environment: a powerful metaphor for a room full of educators who engage with learners, some of whom are working under stressful, challenging or otherwise constraining life conditions. The metaphor extended, too, to those who came to the summit as learners themselves.
One element of Emergent Strategies that surfaced as a refrain throughout the afternoon was the concept of fractals: how the micro translates into to the macro.
“Patterns of the universe repeat at scale,” said Swan, quoting brown. She framed this concept an invitation for participants to be intentional and careful— and to think about the qualities that they bring to the things they do and how they show up, no matter how simple or small the action.
Another concept that Swan highlighted was that change is inevitable.
“Animals that don’t adapt go away,” she commented.
The analogy felt prescient. Arts education itself is routinely at risk of elimination in the United States, like an endangered species, through lack of consistent funding and investment. According to Americans for the Arts, students who take four years of arts and music classes score an average of over 150 points higher on the SAT than students who take only one-half year or less. Despite youth arts education being associated with positive outcomes for individuals and communities, arts programming is often framed as expendable. The threat of their elimination is ongoing. Recently, Republican Representative Scott Perry proposed two amendments to the House Interior Appropriations bill (H.R. 4821) that would eliminate the NEA and the NEH from the national budget. The motion was eventually struck down with bipartisan rejection of the amendments. The NEA and NEH are each funders of many arts and cultural organizations and educational programs in Milwaukee and nationwide, including programs from Artists Working in Education, Bembé Drum and Dance, the City of Milwaukee/Milwaukee Public Library, and many more.
A searchable database of recipients of NEA grants since 1998 is available, here.
Note: you can also send messages to lawmakers in support of NEA and NEH funding, here.
Next came a thoughtful presentation from Vanessa Andrew, known by her business name, Madam Chino. Andrew shared her story as an artist: a graduate of Peck School of the Arts, she became fascinated by the artistry and expression of fashion, but was horrified by the waste, child labor practices, and the devastation of the natural world she saw, all in the name of fashion production. She presented an overview of her journey as a found object artist and entrepreneur, and explained how her work is emergent strategy in action. Andrew creates unique, one-of-a-kind fashions from found materials. She also does alterations for clients, and empowers others through workshops on how to sew, create, mend, and alter clothing. Andrew describes her work overarchingly as interacting with or “channeling” existing materials and needs, rather than controlling or producing to execute on her own top down, capitalistic vision. With a sensitivity to the “magic” of material, Andrew lets the qualities of the materials themselves shape the garments she creates and the needs of the community dictate the outputs of the Madam Chino brand.
After Andrew, Klassik took the stage for a performance of his song “Active,” followed by a live improvisation of a new song with a pre-developed chorus and instrumental backing tracks inspired by the themes of Emergent Strategies.
“This book gave language to things I was already thinking and feeling,” he remarked.
Klassik is a proud graduate of MPS, and Milwaukee's art scene has been a huge influence on and continues to be a cornerstone of his identity. When he was growing up, his dad taught theatre to youth, and his own introduction to music was through studying the saxophone at the WI Conservatory of Music. He now leads and shapes the arts and culture of the city from within it in profound ways as an artist, performer, producer, mentor, arts leader and educator.
In his opening comments, Klassik encouraged the group to seek presence instead of being mired in their own minds, to open up the way improvisational jazz musicians are comfortable flowing in musical communication, and to “lean into the unknown.” He cautioned the group, too, to do what they need to do first to learn how to show up authentically.
“Systems take a while to change. Start with changing yourself,” he offered.
Then, for a few climactic minutes, wireless mic in hand, Klassik came down from the stage and moved through the audience freestyle rapping and singing in response to participants’ notes from presentations including his own. A captivated audience marveled as he responded to prompts in real time, weaving topical lyrics with grace, insight, and at times, humor.
In the afterglow of the performance, the group was invited to share reactions. Swan reflected on the feeling inspired in her by Klassik’s vulnerable performance.
“I was really moved by Klassik. I’ve seen him perform a thousand times. There’s something about attaching this to emergent strategy that leaves me inspired. I wrote down ‘be like jazz,’” said Swan. She continued. “I don’t know, I got nervous when he came to look at my work, and then even more nervous about how he was gonna transform what I wrote into this bigger thing. But I sat with my discomfort and allowed it to happen, and I think what we just saw was so beautiful. I think that’s like a parallel to how we should be allowing ourselves to sit with the discomfort. Go with it. Because then magic happens. Thank you for creating a representation of what it means to be uncomfortable and adaptable. Be like jazz.”
“Klassik's presentation was really special,” remarked Tracey LoMenzo, Program Manager at Artworks for Milwaukee. “I felt like the entire experience truly modeled how different parts of nature can interact with one another and come together to create change. Everyone in the room had a role, whether it was large or small. Using his music, movement, and charm, Klassik was able to help us see how separate moving parts can interact to create.”
Phillip Salat, the Program Director at Arts @ Large offered an appreciation of the multifaceted approach of the summit’s programming.
“Everyone learns in different ways,” he reflected. “(Today) we saw emergent strategy in a straightforward ‘this is what the book says,’ sort a way, in an example in a business, and then we saw it in action,” said Salat.
Next, the group moved into a session called Creative Pairings, a workshop that offered participants the chance to work closely in dyads to reflect and explore possibilities for partnership, collaboration, and strategies to better connect to the audiences they serve.
As the summit came to a close, I asked participant Danielle Burrell, the Arts Coordinator and mentor at Running Rebels, to reflect on how the concepts presented might ripple out into the community from this point, and what she would take with her from the event.
“I think that it can be especially easy for social justice-oriented creatives to get caught up in the ringing echoes of fear and doubt,” said Burrell. “The ‘did we do enough?’ and ‘do our smaller efforts and attempts at change actually matter?’ thoughts swoop in and we question our abilities. But all of the knowledge and ways of thinking the emergent strategies reveal for us serves as affirmation that what we offer is enough, especially when we collectively trust and believe that.”
Brett Henzig, Director of Programming at Artists Working in Education, reflected on how the day was also a reminder of the multitudes contained within arts education in Milwaukee.
“We spend so much time within our own silos, within our areas of practice,” he remarked. “But it’s interesting to think that through the lens of the nature metaphor, that we’re in this ecosystem, and we probably have more skills and strategies for adaptation, locally...the idea that even though our disciplines are different among the arts organizations, that there’s probably a lot more in common than we assume, being from the same community, with the same perspectives, and having people (participating in our programs) who are responding to similar challenges.”
I asked Henzig how he thought the themes from Emergent Strategies: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds might already be present in his work.
“Adaptability is key,” he continued. “For the work that we do at AWE in particular, being so responsive to the communities and the partners that we work with, when it comes to schools or teachers, we need to be adaptable because we're not leading the conversation, we’re guiding the conversation, and responding what people are looking for through their artistic vision,” he continued. “It’s practiced very frequently and commonly within our organization, and it’s nice to now have this structure around it”
Looking back, Henzig was especially impacted by Klassik’s challenge to the audience to take the time to figure out their intentions as leaders when engaging with community arts education; that intentionality can help inform purpose and magnify impact.
“When people take the time to figure out their personal mission and vision, it really amplifies the work that they’re doing.”