By Barney Blakeney
My Aunt Sarah used to say getting old is a blessing, but it’s sometimes inconvenient. For two weeks I had planned the late Friday afternoon meeting with the folks from the Charleston Rhizome Collective. The Charleston Rhizome Collective last year received a grant from ArtPlace America which will be used to provide an assortment of initiatives that continues their efforts in using art as a medium for expediting social change. They’re a phenomenal group, actually one of the few which works from the bottom up to serve people. They wanted to talk about some perspectives.
Friday was a crazy day. I finally took a walk – for the first time in six months. Old folks, we need to walk. It keeps stuff working and it’s an easy exercise. You see people and stuff. My mom used to walk. The slickster would walk past my house to see what I had going on. She wouldn’t stop, just walk by and watch. Boy, I miss that old lady wit her slick self!
My walk started the ball rolling and it just kept rolling from there. I ended up in the office early. By 5 p.m., the time we’d scheduled the meeting, I was ready for the weekend, baby! In my rush to start the party, I forgot all about my Rhizome meeting. I had a senior moment.
I had just arrived at the yard with a cold beer when Gwylene Gallimard called. She, Pamella Gibbs and Lasheia Oubre were at the office. Fortunately I was just minutes away. They were okay with my forgetfulness, but I got mad with myself. Over the years I’ve come to realize other people’s time is just as important as yours. John All, one of my best editors, once criticized that he could teach me to write, but couldn’t teach me to be on time. It’s a trait I encourage young people to develop.
That meeting – one that should only have lasted an hour, but lasted two – probably was the most productive thing I’d done all day! I’m a talker. Don’t expect short answers from me, I tell stories. I’ve come to identify my best friends as those who are patient with me and my stories. It takes a lot of love to let a guy go all around the mulberry bush to get to the point. My friends do that. They cuss and cajole me, but they give me that luxury.
I’m glad my new friends with Rhizome allowed me the freedom of that expression. Although I’ve written a couple of stories about their efforts, the conversation the other day gave me a better understanding of what they’re doing. I think Rhizome is one of the most progressive things to happen in our community.
Rhizome last summer presented “conNECKted: Imaginings for Truth and Reconciliation” at the City Gallery. The presentation was an expression of art as activism. Local artists Gallimard and Jean-Marie Mauclet, social activists and educators Debra Holt, Gibbs and Oubre along with an ensemble of apprentice artists created the platform where artists and activists met, discussed and shared their perceptions of Charleston in transition.
That was a launch. The ArtPlace America grant allows the partnership that began in 2015 to continue on its mission to promote social and economic justice for all in Charleston, using art to build a bridge between the past of a society deeply divided around race, class, geography, education, justice and a future founded on equal rights, equal opportunities, equal respect. I’m, quite frankly, amazed at the systematic and visionary leadership these folks are demonstrating.
Part of their current effort is to now engage small “tiny” minority businesses with arts and culture to impact economic development that can challenge some of the disparities facing our community. Rhizome has an ambitious plan to cumulate buying and selling power and engaging residents in decisions over business ownership, loans, job training, hiring practices, wholesale prices, schooling and housing to address needs using art installations, visuals, forums, a tour, an interactive map app and youth entrepreneurship. Over the years I’ve seen numerous organizations advocate social change, but have not exhibited the leadership to get much done. The goals were noble, but the methodology was flawed. I don’t know that Rhizome has the magic bullet, but it’s demonstrating the commitment and the right approach – going to people asking what they think and then developing strategies to impact what people see.
“All of Charleston commends the conNECKted team on their ArtPlace America award,” said Charleston Mayor John J. Tecklenburg. “Their past projects and recent efforts build confidence that the arts can be effectively put to work in new and creative ways to sustain and strengthen our local communities.”
Everybody advocates youth employment; Rhizome facilitates it. One project of Rhizome’s conNECKted team is its third apprenticeship program for young people ages 16-24 called ‘Belonging and Becoming’ which highlights ‘Tiny’ businesses and entrepreneurship. The program wants self-motivated apprentices who will work with mentors in an inter-generational, inter-racial team to; research and conduct interviews; research the history of ‘Tiny’ businesses as well as their presence and impact; do art studio work; document work; perform administrative tasks; do performances and conduct tours. Apprentices will be paid a stipend depending on their age and number of hours worked. For information call (843) 723-1018 or email at conNECKtedTOO@gmail.com.
After having that conversation for about two hours, I was more than impressed. ArtPlace’s National Creative Placemaking Fund which provided the grant, is a highly competitive national program, which invests money in community development projects where artists, arts organizations, and arts and culture activity work to strengthen communities across 10 sectors of community planning and development. Obviously they too are impressed with Rhizome. Nationally, only 23 projects were funded.
Ken May, Executive Director of the South Carolina Arts Commission said, “Congratulations to the Charleston Rhizome Collective on its successful application to ArtPlace America. For the last five years, the commission has been actively promoting this opportunity for South Carolina organizations to join the cadre of creative place making efforts that ArtPlace America funds. It is a rigorous and competitive process; many have applied and only a few South Carolina organizations have made it to the finalist level. Clearly, conNECKtedTOO had the right ingredients—authenticity, local engagement, artistic sensibility and a compelling need— to bring home this prestigious award.”
My Aunt Sarah was right. Getting older, and more forgetful, is a blessing. But missing that meeting certainly would have been an inconvenience.