In a SOCAP Virtual Session, Panelists Discuss the Future of the Creative Economy
Artists are hailed and given stature for the art they make: a musical composition, a performance piece, a painting, a poem. However, artists are also masters of process, uniquely gifted to understand how to engage deeply in their communities, how to guide inquiry, how to lift up unseen cultural assets and unheard voices. Artists frequently are gifted technologists and scientists, using their skills across multiple disciplines to design the future of work.
“I feel like there’s a real ethos in there, a real ethos toward the polymath, towards multiple intelligences, as well as an ethos of make it happen, move forward,” says Meklit Hadero in a SOCAP Virtual session. “That’s not only something that’s very, I feel, natural to the artistic and creative mind, but can also pose challenges, but also which poses so many potentials for the way we need to think to step into the future.”
As more work becomes automated or relegated to machines, creativity is an increasingly important attribute. Creatives can use their unique talents in ways that machines are incapable of replicating and in ways that can help bring vibrance to communities. In the SOCAP Virtual session, four such individuals talk together about the future of artists’ work in the creative economy and the intersection of creativity, race, innovation, and other areas. The panelists included:
- Kamal Sinclair, Executive Director, Guild of Future Architects
- Meklit Hadero, Chief of Program, YBCA
- Lauren Ruffin, Co-Founder, Crux
- Michael O’Bryan, Director of Youth and Young Adult Programs, The Village of Arts and Humanities
Watch the session or read the full transcript below.
Watch Arts, Technology & the Creative Economy
Meklit Hadero: All right, everyone. Well, the clock has chimed 11:30 AM, and I see a whole bunch of folks have joined us, one by one, entered this space that we will turn into a living room for you. Here we are, we’re going to have a conversation about the future of work and creative economies. We are so happy that you joined us. My name is Meklit Hadero. I am the panel moderator. I’m an Ethiopian American, Ethio-jazz singer, songwriter, and composer, and cultural activist, and also chief of program at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, YBCA, in San Francisco.
Thank you for joining us. Thank you for being with us. As I said, this is our living room. This is our conversation space. This is a space for call and response, as much as it is for dialogue and conversations. So, you have thoughts along the way, questions, please feel free to put them in the chat. We would love to be in dialogue and call and respond with you. And so, as we begin our Future of Work session focused on creative economies, let’s have our beautiful speakers introduce themselves. And I will call on y’all one by one, just at this beginning stage. Let us begin with Lauren Ruffin.
Lauren Ruffin: Sure. You’re in support of those Socratic method panels, I see. Okay. So, I’m Lauren Ruffin. I’ll start with an audio description. So, I’m brown skin, Black woman with half a head of shoulder-length dreadlocks. I’m wearing a black knit cap and a gray striped sweatshirt or sweater, whatever this is. I’m in a room that’s sparsely decorated. I’ve got a painting of a dark skin, Black boy blowing bubble gum behind me, and a white dresser. So, I’m one of the co-founders of Crux. We are a movement of Black artists working in AR/VR, primarily. We also help folks, since the pandemic, design immersive experiences that are intimate and social, while being distant. I’m also one of the co-CEOs of Fractured Atlas, which is the largest association of artists in the US. And we spend a lot of time thinking about how we’re working and why we’re working, and how we can create people-centered and human-centered organizations. So, super stoked to be talking with a couple of my favorite people. And Michael, by the time this is done, we’ll be super tight too. So, I’m excited.
Kamal Sinclair: Beautiful.
Meklit Hadero: Thank you, Lauren. And how about Kamal?
Kamal Sinclair: I’m so excited to be on this panel. My name is Kamal Sinclair, and my description is, I am a mixed-race, African American, Irish American person, so my skin is kind of tan peachy. I’ve got also a shoulder-length, a little bit past my shoulders curly hair, brown, and then I’m wearing a red shirt with a black sweater cardigan, and I’m sitting in a room with some photos behind me of a show I did back in the 90s with Fractured Atlas, way before they became an artist services organization and they were still producing theater. And I’m delighted to be here. I have some glasses on my face as well. And I am the executive director of an organization called the Guild of Future Architects. This is a membership organization of people that are really creating coalitions and collaborations to boldly imagine the future from a lens of justice and from a lens of beauty.
This is a home and a refuge for people that identify as understanding that, in order to be radically about the present, we also have to be thinking about how we are good ancestors today. And we’re providing as much support we can for people that identify in that way, to connect, collaborate, and create value for the commons. Formerly, I had the great pleasure of being the director of a program called New Frontier Labs Programs at the Sundance Institute and got to spend some real incredible time with over a thousand artists, working with their keen passion for storytelling at the intersection of science and technology, like Lauren. So, innovating and creating space for the way we make meaning in the world. So, that’s another experience that I bring to this conversation.
Meklit Hadero: Thank you so much, Kamal. And Michael O’Bryan.
Michael O’Bryan: Hi everyone. So, unfortunately, I am off-camera. I have some business center restrictions that keep me from being visually recorded, but I am here with you in full spirit, and I love this starting of a visual description. I’ve never done this before, but I love modeling accessibility. So, I’m really excited to be learning this. So, I am a six-foot-three-tall guy with brown skin, Black man with, well, I used to have locks. I loved describing myself with these long locks that touch my back, but two months ago, I cut my hair off. So, I am learning to even re-imagine and see myself with this short cut. I am regrowing them, for those that care for that piece of the description of my future. So, a year from now, I will be relocked and regrowing. I am wearing all-white, actually, with a white kufi on my head.
And I’m actually in an all-white room, I just looked around, that has some art on the walls, and the art is — I love animals — so there’s a whole slew of animals. I’ve got a cheetah, I got a tiger, I’ve got an elephant up. And then I have a bunch of whiteboards around me, because, in 21st-century fashion, you cannot be a creative and not have a whiteboard somewhere near you at some point, or a sketchpad, you got to have something. And so, my work background is in the intersections of developmental science, and that includes trauma theory but also the science of human flourishing, it includes work in policy advocacy around issues of justice and equity, and more importantly, how do you operationalize that stuff. Because, we got a lot of folks writing pretty letters and pretty statements, but if you can’t map those that leads to budget-line items and to prestigious policies and operations, then we just got cute words and cute expository pieces of writing.
And so, I help people think about that through consulting work and through work as a fellow at our think tank here in Philadelphia called the Lindy Institute for Urban Innovation, which looks at metro economies across the globe, and I like to say that I look at the humanity underpinning metro economies, and again, how do you operationalize that equity world or equitable life. And so, the last area of my life is, I am director of learning at a non-profit in Philadelphia called The Village of Arts and Humanities. The Village sits at the intersection of arts and culture and community economic development. We have been doing that work successfully for over 53 years. 30-plus as The Village of Arts and Humanities, but hearkening back to its origins, it was founded in the late sixties as the Ile Ife Black Humanitarian Center by a gentleman named Arthur Hall, whose belief was that if Black people had access to reimagine their history and their future through the lens of arts and culture, that he could do two things for the neighborhood: he could help bring them to the world and help bring the world to them.
And he made good on all those promises and really co-design and co-created with a neighborhood in north Philadelphia. It was an early example of creative place-making and really creative place-keeping because it was not about utilizing arts and development to invite people in to, maybe, we’ll take over land, it was about keeping people in place and using that ideology to then help people really be anchored in an idea of place that’s on the inside. And so we continue that work, and as director of learning, I oversee that work for folks 26 and under, and I also special manage a number of projects focused on the future of work, and here to join my new friends in dialogue.
Meklit Hadero: Thank you so much, Michael. And thank you also to Lauren, yes, indeed, for modeling accessibility in a way that I hope we can all take on and replicate as we move through our now very virtual meeting worlds. So, I will add to that. I am a Black woman with a short Afro, it’s about two inches. I am in a room that is yellow. It’s a soundboard that comes to a gently sloped point behind me. It almost looks like I’m in front of the hull of a ship. I’m wearing a gray sweater with a sort of circular or oval neck, and I have silver earrings on that have two little circles dangling down, that my momma gave me. So, thank you once again to everybody who’s joined us. And I see more folks have come in as we were doing our introductions.
So, I thought that I would start with a subject that is near and dear to my heart, but also one that focuses and homes arts, technology, and creative economy all into one, through a lens of Blackness, as we are for Black people in this space together. And that is around Afrofuturism. And I was wondering if we could talk about Afrofuturism. And particularly, I think of it as this creative lens that, once you sort of embrace it as a world, it can become a lens that informs many practices and ways of working. And I know that all of you, in very different ways, are inspired by and really incorporate Afrofuturism into your work. And I want to throw that out as the first question and see where that lands with all of you.
Lauren Ruffin: Go for it, Kamal.
Kamal Sinclair: You know I can’t take that.
Lauren Ruffin: No, you got to on this one.
Kamal Sinclair: Okay. Well, I have to just pay respect to Allied Media Projects and particularly Adrienne Maree Brown. When I was at Sundance, we did a collaboration in 2015 at the big Allied Media Conference, and Adrienne was one of our panelists talking about this innovation space and, although I’ve always understood the power of vision — I grew up in a religious division where we understood Black people to be the people of the eye, where the black is the darkest part of your eye but attracts the light for the world to see. And so, this Black foresight, this Black insight has always been part of my framework around this incredible contribution that Black people bring to our local society, knowing that every group brings particular gifts to our global society in a way that humanity moves and changes and metamorphosizes.
But there was a particular moment when Adrienne was talking, that it just clicked for me. I grew up thinking a lot about multi-generational trauma and healing, but the way that she framed part of that healing, that I hadn’t fully understood in that way before, was about when you can actually go through the process of envisioning a future. What does it look like when Black bodies are not in trauma? What does it look like when we’re fully realizing our potential because we’re not having those potentials limited through systematized racism and all of the other issues that come along with that? And it was a moment that it just really clicked, and quite frankly, I did a change in my trajectory around the work that I wanted to be supporting.
And also, while we were at Sundance, Myra Griffin, who was the head of our diversity program at the time, was really clear about saying, “Yes, we’ve done very well at advocating for the injustices, in different ways, around Black and brown bodies in trauma.” And I understood this from when we were doing Question Bridge. I used to be an artist on the project, Question Bridge: Black Males, and looking a lot at the identities that Black men have been framed in throughout our history in this country, and all the ways in which that is an agenda and politicized, and how it has created implicit bias and a very deep history of systematized social control and oppression.
And it was just this moment that, even at Sundance, we had this conversation around how, even if your intentions are good, and you’re only showing images of Black bodies in trauma, and even if you’re trying to advocate for not having Black bodies in trauma, it’s still part of the programming of all of our brains, our neurology, our psychology, that not only impact how the world sees us but the way we see ourselves and the way we perform, the way we program all of our behaviors around this concept of Blackness. And it just was a moment where I realized that this is a really critical piece of the puzzle, of making sure that we are creating space for that bold imagination of, “What does it look like when Black and brown bodies, Black and brown people, Black and brown minds, hearts, and spirits are not only imaged in deficit identities?” And that is a powerful paradigm shift if we can achieve those images as normal, that it has such a deep impact on even our epigenetics. So, that’s why Afrofuturism to me is such a critical movement at this point in our history.
Lauren Ruffin: Yes to everything there, Kamal. The other thing that I’d add is, in addition to Afrofuturism, I learned so much from Indigenous communities and their stories. I spent a lot of time thinking about how capital flows into systems. And when we think about sort of economies and what we need to do with capitalism, I’m informed by both sort of Afrofuturism and some of the work of Indigenous communities to think about, “How do we get to a place where scale isn’t the goal, both individually and as collectives, as organizations? How do we get to a place where we really value these relationships that we’re forming here, that people in this room are sharing with us over the need to get ahead?” And how do we really start to ask ourselves these questions.
Because capitalism actually demands that you don’t ever take a breath to pause on what is enough for you personally. Capitalism actually demands that we ask, “What does that person over there have? And how can I get it? What does this person over there — whether it’s my parents, my cousins, my teachers — what do they want me to do?” And then let’s go into debt, generally, to go get it. So, once we start to center on our own personal happiness, which is radical. It is a radical idea to think that what we should do are the things that make us happy, as long as it’s not hurting anyone else, but really valuing the relationships over money, making sure that the economy stays circular, and that we’re finding ways to provide everything that our communities need without having to rely on other metrics for capitalism. So, I mean, that’s sort of where that question took my head. Did we lose Michael?
Meklit Hadero: Micheal, did you want to chip in on that? Michael, you are muted.
Michael O’Bryan: So, in true fashion of just technology 101, I just had way too many things opened and lost the screen, and was like, “Where did they go?” Okay. This is why you can’t have tabs in browsers opened. Sorry. So, I agree with the brilliance and the wisdom that’s definitely been shared. And so, just to build on it and augment a bit, taking a little bit of a different perspective, I knew Afrofuturism as Octavia Butler novels, but which, at one point, I had never read one. And I think I even shared this when we were preparing for this. It was someone else, a colleague of ours, that used the term futurist on me, and I was like, “What does that even mean?” This was 40 years ago.
And it’s interesting because it never dawned on me that there was a collection of people, and a space of thought and research and practice in the arts, and all this other, not only just in futurism, but in a space of futurism focused on Black people extending forward in time, in a variety of ways, and looking at a variety of life outcomes. And I call it social alchemy. The ways that people can relate with and be in relationship with one another. And for me, I approached it through the lens of great clinical work and public health-centered work dealing with trauma, and research and practice in that area and looking at, again, human thriving and wellbeing.
I will call it technologies, and not just digital technology, but again, back to this idea of social alchemy relationships, design of process, design of how people interact with one another, interact with space, what is the technology for healing in the 21st century that we really need to be keyed into in places and spaces like Philadelphia. And when jobs are such a necessity, are there ways to be thinking about monetizing some of that in ways that don’t extract the true value and meaning from it, but can literally put money into people’s hands in legitimate ways that support them having access to create family-sustaining opportunities? And so, that kind of thinking, I didn’t know was Afrofuturism. And so, I was excited to learn that not only is there a space for that, but there are hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands of people around the globe, in our country, thinking like this.
And so, to be in relationship now with you all to think like this and want to probe these things is very, very exciting. And I think it’s opened up both in my practice of research and practice of just doing, I think it’s opened up ways for me to think about the future of work, in ways that, to Lauren’s point, include Indigenous wisdom and technologies, but it’s completely also centered on imagining ourselves 15 minutes into the future, which for some people and groups can be very difficult because of the immediacy of now and the stressors of now, and the way that we come to learn to manage our expectations because of the things that many groups are routinely having to navigate at the policy level, at the local level, whatever. And then also imagining ourselves 200 years into the future, both are a part of futurism at varying scales but are still a part of that world, and it’s exciting to be in a community to think about those things with folks and do. Not just think, but do.
Meklit Hadero: Absolutely.
Kamal Sinclair: So, a quick quote that I think speaks to what you just shared, Michael, is by Zora Neale Hurston, and it says the present was an egg laid by the past and had the future inside its shell. And I just think that’s the perfect analogy for it. I mean, I would say, just thinking about how time works and what our relationship is to time like you’re saying, within the moment, within 15 minutes, within a hundred years or so. So, I just wanted to amplify on it.
Michael O’Bryan: I love that.
Meklit Hadero: I love that as well. And I just want to reflect back some of the things that y’all said. Vision-centered, a full vision of healed Black bodies not informed by trauma, centering Indigenous wisdom, being happy, social alchemy, ways of relating that prioritize relationship over outcome, and a real technology for healing. I just thought that was beautiful. So many beautiful pieces came out of that discussion. The reason that I wanted to start with the Afrofuturism question was, I’m really interested in a specific creative practice that can become a lens that focuses and directs our work, no matter what it is. So, creative practice that can do that for us, that can give us that kind of freedom and liberation to step forward and follow through and act. And I think Afrofuturism is one of those powerful technologies, as y’all said. But it’s not only about a creative practice that can do that, but you all, yourselves, do that through your own work and creative practices. I was really struck when learning more about you, that each of you are people who sit at an incredible breadth of intersections.
So, Lauren, you’re co-CEO of Fractured Atlas and founder of Crux, but you’re also a lawyer and a founder, and you’ve done PR and fundraising, and you’re focused on joy. Kamal, you’re a future architect, a dancer, a transmedia producer, a senior consultant, executive director. Mike, you’re a social practice artist, a musician, a professor, an innovation fellow, a trauma specialist focused on flourishing and development. I feel like there’s a real ethos in there, a real ethos towards the polymath, towards multiple intelligences, as well as an ethos of make it happen, move forward. And I was wondering how you all navigate those intersections of creative practice in multiple intelligences, ways of thinking. That’s not only something that’s very, I feel, natural to the artistic and creative mind, but can also pose challenges, but also which poses so many potentials for the way we need to think to step into the future. So, I just wondered if you could talk about how you navigate those intersections and also how you nourished those in yourselves.
Lauren Ruffin: As you were saying that, I was like, “Maybe we all have a hard time making decisions and commitments.” Maybe that’s a commonality that I haven’t thought about. I mean I think it’s always struck me as weird that we’re taught to be multitaskers and multidisciplinary, and then you go from walking to running, and sort of trying out all these other things, and then you become an adult and they tell you, “Pick one major in college. Go to law school. Pick this one type of law that you’re going to go deep with.” And I guess I never accepted that because I’m really curious about learning new things and trying new things. Now, I mean, I think being brave enough to not push back on whether I’m a creative or not, which I didn’t do officially yet, but it might happen before we’re done.
But I think the world demands that of us right now. This, where we are right now as capitalism reaches its apex, and perhaps maybe a little bit past the apex, I think we’re going to have to be multidisciplinary, a little bit of everything. I’m starting to garden more intensely. I’m like, “Am I going to have some sheep at some point?” I feel like it requires those sort of questions that are pretty far out, to really help us understand that we’re navigating this world that really hasn’t existed, and it’s happening in real-time now, and if nothing, other than climate change, is going to push us to become experts in areas that we just never thought we would have to. Yeah.
Kamal Sinclair: I have to second that. When I got an opportunity to do a research project, it ended up being called Making a New Reality for the Ford Foundation. And I interviewed all these amazing people, and Lauren, I believe you were one of those people, right?
Lauren Ruffin: I think so.
Kamal Sinclair: So long ago. 2016. And one of the things that kept coming up over and over again, and this is pre-Cambridge Analytica, pre-Facebook going on trial in front of Congress. It was even at the very beginning of Tristan Harris doing this central command technology, and these tech won’t build it movement, and I just remember so many people saying we are designing into our silos and we’re designing with these perceptual limitations, and it was getting more and more and more dangerous. I interviewed one Silicon Valley executive who said, the head of one of the branches of a major tech company, didn’t even know about the Civil Rights Movement in any depth or capacity.
We’re dealing with the most abundant, complex, dynamic technical infrastructure in human history, so, it does require hyper-specialization, but if you’re only focusing on that hyper-specialization and not understanding at least in a cursory level, the other aspects of the human systems, then we’re definitely not designing well and not to the optimal design that could be possible, especially when we’re coming to the end of capitalism in the way that we know it, and really needing to be bold and understanding that we can’t continue in this exploitive nonstop growth passage. There’s just no more room to go anywhere. We have got to understand the circular economy. We got to understand regenerative systems. And so, I almost think about it like theater directors at the dawn of film, having to get in the room with someone who knows how to operate a camera or what an editing machine might look like at that time. It was just completely out of what would be the silo that they’re supposed to be in, but in order for these new ways in which systems developed, we needed to break out of it.
So, I’m working with a lot of universities, rethinking curriculums for interdisciplinary work, working a lot. We’re curating in and we’re finding magic. The alchemy that you’re talking about, like, at the guild where we’re bringing somebody who might be a top scholar on coastal colleges, put in a room with somebody who is a regenerative farming expert, in the room with someone who knows about VR and AR, I mean, stuff happens when you create those mixes. But if they don’t even have a language to be in a room together, we miss the opportunity for those serendipitous magic to be created. So, anyway, that’s my take on why intersectionality not only from demographic background and identity backgrounds but also from fields and disciplinary backgrounds are important.
Lauren Ruffin: Yeah. I just wanted to add one thing, Kamal, because I think that’s so spot-on. And particular around this idea, sort of, we’ve made this big push on STEM and STEAM, and that focus, what we’re realizing now in 2020 is that things like having a sophisticated understanding of the systems of oppression in the United States, is actually a core leadership competency. And you can’t lead an organization in the future if you don’t understand that history. So, if you don’t know that the MOVE bombing happened in Philadelphia in 1986, and you can’t support employees on November 4th after this election because there’s a direct line from state-sanctioned violence that predates the MOVE bombing to two weeks from now. And I think that whole thread there, Kamala, was really tight.
Michael O’Bryan: Yeah. I think that’s a fantastic point. And for me, I think we’re becoming experts either silo styled or global whole level of systems’ complexity style about everything but our humanity, which is fascinating to me and terrifying at the same time. And what I mean by that is, we have not fully, at a national level, sat in the fact that every system, essentially as we know it, that has been designed to function at a macro level, and by default, then to influence a lot of the micro-level systems and processes, and within our society, they’ve all been built on the back of dehumanization, whether that’s racism, classism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, we go down a list there. But the fact of the matter is, we are steeping ourselves in so much knowledge, minus to me, what’s probably the most robust area of knowledge, coming forward, I was excited to hear Kamal talk about epigenetics.
There are so many areas of understanding that are breaking forward in specific silos of research in academia that are forcing new sectors to emerge that are completely multidisciplinary, like the science of learning, which is at least eight different siloed areas of academic research converging into one because of how complex it is just to be a freaking human being and to do something as “simple as learning,” which is not simple. So, making statements like learning is a complex memory system is for many people recentering, they’re like, “Oh my God, I’ve never thought about it like that.” Because it opens up a whole series of other questions. How does this complex memory system work? How is it positively influenced? How has it negatively influenced? How does it interact with the body’s stress mechanism?
We’ve got all these things to start talking about, “What is it like to have systems of oppression running amok in a workplace?” And I’m expected to be learning and being up-skilled and re-skilled for a 21st-century economy, and nobody wants to talk about my Blackness in a positive way? Nobody wants to honor the fact that I’m a mother, and it’s not a bad thing, because, if we didn’t have mothers, we wouldn’t have humanity. There are so many things that people have to go through at the intersections of their identities to just accomplish the “normative things” in the 21st-century economy, and we can now actually start to dig into these complexities and think about the real costs. And then, so to your point around care, I use the developmental science frame for all of this, not just for care, but for even classifying constructs of harm, health, wellbeing, cost, risk, and that’s to look at humans as developing in four dimensions that have inputs and outputs and outcomes connected to them.
So, that’s the biological or the physical, the psychological or the emotional, the social or relational, and the spiritual and, or moral space. But that last one is not about religion, it’s about the fact that human beings are meaning-making creatures and we’re going to make meaning even when there is no meaning. That’s provided for us. We will legitimately fill it up, whatever the hell comes to mind, based on our experiences, the way we even socialize, larger media narratives, family narratives. There’s just a convergence of things colliding in that space, but you are going to make meaning whether you want to or not. And you don’t have a choice. That’s the other thing about these dimensions of input around our development. They’re dynamic, they’re interdimensional, they impact each other, influence each other, and you don’t have a choice on like, “Okay, I’m only going to focus on my psychological development.” It don’t work like that.
And as systems designers, holders, thinkers, architects of the future, policymakers, whatever it is, we’ve got to also consider that you don’t just get to pick one area to impact with policy. That’s not how it works either, neither do learning spaces. So, that complexity of our humanity, I’m astonished at how far behind philanthropy is, how far behind policy making is, how far behind so many systems and players are, how far behind the freaking future of work folks even are. And considering this space that I’m talking about, I spend more time in rooms with people yelling about automation, and I’m like, “Oh my God, guys, just do a lit review. We’ve been screaming about automation for years.”
There are so many articles, there are periodicals of all the jobs that are leaving. And what really tends to happen is that new jobs pop up that we were not prepared for. We didn’t prepare anyone to partner with technology in these new ways. We didn’t prepare. And we have this opportunity now, and I’ll close out here with my long statement. We have this opportunity now. Go back to the Indigenous wisdom piece. We are watching Indigenous wisdom become sucked up into capitalism. We can stop that and do something that both lifts up humanity and provides real access for people to have wages connected to things that they know from a place of being right, as opposed to having to pay to go to school to get a thing, or having to figure out more complex financial instruments to get somebody educated in some way, with a degree and a stamp of approval on them, for us to have to then again, realize that we really need to decentralize expertise.
Kamal Sinclair: Okay. I want to piggyback on what both of you guys have said, and particularly, as, Lauren, you brought up this idea of hyper-capitalism and coming to this apex, I think that circling back to what we started with in the conversation, was why Black folks need to be in these conversations, why Indigenous folks need to be in these conversations. And when I was doing those interviews, I was talking to a lot of people about the future of work and all the swing pendulums of fear to all the things were being expressed, but Skawennati, who’s an artist in Canada, who runs Indigenous Futures, gave a particular answer that really stuck with me.
She’s a Mohawk Iroquois, and she was saying, “I can’t wait till there’s a four-hour workday, four days a week, because then I can go back to the balance of what is the cultural balance that my community, my culture has always identified as a balanced life, where you’re supposed to have time in work and service to your community, that you’re creating value for all of our mutual survival and thriving and shared prosperity because you also have to have equal time with community and family, and equal time in nature, and equal time in creativity.” And I was like, “That was so interesting, bringing that perspective.” And then when I think about artists, I interviewed a venture capitalist who was talking about when there is no more traditional work and was saying that when all of our needs can essentially get met because of automation and all these things in partnership with technology, what creates this driving force?
And he was saying, in his estimation, the only people that work and do things without getting either time, money, or leisure, were artists that worked hard for something that was in triumphantly more valuable. And he said he thought would be the currency of the future. And so, when I think about that with what she’s talking about, and then the last piece of the puzzle, I’m trying to weave something together here, is this idea of equatorial communities, globally, who have lived in abundance as a norm over history — obviously, there’s been all kinds of shifts, and I’m not a geological expert on the different pro-scenes epochs that we’ve had in our history.
When I studied cultural anthropology back in my undergrad, there was a particular tribe that we studied that was a hunter-gathering tribe, and in the axiological system, the value system of that tribe, the more items and objects you had and hoarded, the poorer you were considered because you had to carry those things from one place to another. And there was an environment of survival that, over time, that community knew that they could shed and leave and let something re-compost into the earth in one place because they knew that there would be the tools, the resources in the next place. But if you’re coming from a scarcity-based mentality where hoarding, exponential growth, and protection of object, and that need to get what the other person has, when there is a legitimate scarcity environment, that model of survival has been so dominant that it has gone to a point of extremes, and in moderation that is obviously doing the opposite now, where it’s killing us.
And so, that’s where marginalized voices like Indigenous voices or equatorial communities, recentering them in a legitimate way, not in a tokenized way of like, “Let’s let somebody come to the table,” but the reality is we need us at this table, because, without those complex ideas at the table, we’re going to continue to design into our perceptual limitations. So, I just wanted to put that out there that I think artists have something to contribute because of the relationship that artists have to work, that is something beyond just a transactional relationship, and that people from potentially marginalized communities have something incredibly valuable to contribute to this future of work. And to your point, Michael, I don’t think it is, I hope it’s not just transferring hypomanic activity to new types of jobs. I really hope that we can find a balance in well-being in that future of work scenario that’s regenerative.
Lauren Ruffin: Yeah. I think it takes a level of boldness and intentionality. So, one of the things that shocks people about what we’re doing at Crux is we pay Black artists $125 an hour for their work. And folks are always like, “That’s a really high wage.” And I said, “Well, I’m not showing up for less than that. And I got to build a company that I’d worked for someday.” So, I mean, I think once you start thinking about building entrepreneurial creative businesses, we’re really clear our sweet spot is having an artist work part-time for us. Everybody makes a wage of around $55,000 a year, and at the beginning of 2021, we’ll start offering benefits for folks at part-time because that gives them the freedom to explore whatever else they want because we still haven’t figured out that the gig economy has necessitated that we decouple healthcare, basic health and wellness from a job that is actually causing a good chunk of our health and wellness issues as Black and brown people.
So, I just think that being brave enough. And then folks are like, “Well, if you pay people too much, you might fail.” And then I’m like, “Well, then next year, I’m looking up, and I paid Black people a lot of money, and we didn’t work.” There’s no downside to that. We failed because we paid people too much.” Full of shit. Who cares? So, I just think, again, having organizations that exist forever might not be the goal. Your thing might not need to last forever, but it might only be a year or two, and I’m actually a huge fan of time-limited work because I think that keeps the energy in it.
Michael O’Bryan: Yeah. No, I love what you just brought up. And just piggybacking on that, and the work, I mean, I think that’s exactly right. There’s a project we’re doing at The Village of Arts and Humanities that actually partners my consulting firm with my employer, which is a fascinating opportunity. And we have a funder that stepped in to help make sure we could do that in ways that’s fair to everybody. But part of the goal is to make sure that we are modeling for people, the same things that we’re preaching, and that if we’re bringing in community experts, and by community experts, I mean, folks that are from a demographic that we’re targeting this feet of work project to benefit, if they’re going to come in on the project, they’re not getting a $25 gift card, the goal is $125 an hour because that’s what we would pay, baseline any consultant.
And it’s a way for us to model recentering of expertise or decentering certain kinds of expertise because the framework in basic research projects or the framework that we’re told to use, in these kinds of design-based initiatives, it’s like you stipend the community, you give them a $20 gift card to Starbucks, I’m like, “That is just so wild to take someone’s lived experience and the kind of wisdom that you don’t get from reading books or doing grad-based projects, you take that wisdom, you design with it, you make with it, you bring it back to them, you get more opinion, just extraction of value, one moment after the other, after the other, which we still haven’t really based in the fact, to your point, Lauren, learning around histories of oppression, that that kind of extraction comes from a way that we’ve been viewed as being part and parcel, cogs and wheels, to the economic system, but not worthy of benefiting from the things that it produces and creates.
And I think there’s an opportunity for us to be disrupting that right now as a technology. There is such a thing as disruptive technology, we tend to talk about it in terms of products, but it’s also about process. And that’s something that artists and thinkers like us as multidisciplinarians, we’re able to bring that kind of framing to different things where people would never think about it. And it’s not necessarily the most revolutionary idea when we bring it to those spaces. Like you said, it’s not revolutionary necessarily to pay someone a rate that you would want to be paid, except maybe it’s revolutionary in terms of the practice of just doing it, versus theorizing about it and writing equations and looking at it in this abstract way and going, “Well maybe one day in 10 years.”
Meklit Hadero: Yeah. I really like that. I loved that practice of actually institutionalizing the values in these organizational processes that also, once it’s institutionalized, you don’t have to be in the room to make it happen. It’s in the DNA of the space and the structure. And I have to shout out right now. Sorry, y’all, I have to shout out our YBCA Giving Circle, our SOCAP artists cohort Giving Circle that was just launched this week because I’m so proud of being a part of this. And it’s one of the ways that YBCA, that we’re trying to do exactly that, so we just launched on Monday. I see some of the members of the Giving Circle talking in the chat right now, but we’re seeding the Giving Circle with $250,000. These are artists who make a direct impact on their communities, BICOP artists from across the United States.
And we’re putting that money in their hands to decide what to do with that, how they want to become philanthropists, to actually put the power in their hands to make the decisions, to design the giving circle. That money is theirs, and we’re in a support role to those artists who are themselves changing systems, who are themselves every day in the trenches doing this work in communities around the country. But I really appreciate what you said, Lauren, and also Mike, about the ways that y’all are turning those values into, well, one, maybe it’s making common wisdom into common practice, something like that? And then thank you for giving me the space to talk about the way that YBCA is approaching that right now.
Lauren Ruffin: Yeah. I mean I think part of the intentionality is understanding how the market is going to shift the next couple of years, and how labor is going to be valued and how skills are going to be valued. We’re at that tipping point with technology where we went from, now let’s say, typewriters to word processors to Microsoft Word. And we’re still talking to Black and brown kids about needing to learn how to code, meanwhile, the no-code revolution is happening. So we’ll have all these kids who know how to code, but they won’t be able to do anything because we’ve already moved on to Microsoft Word. Nobody’s set to type anymore unless you’re trying to be really cool, but that’s what we’re training these kids to do right now.
And I worry about us not being intentional about how we value the labor of creatives because what’ll happen is, certain industries will develop and have a large number of Black and brown folks in creative industries, and they’ll consistently be undervalued. And the market’s off to the races and I want us to keep up. And I think part of this conversation around wages requires a level of just seeing the future, I guess, and understanding how cyclical it is. Whenever we get into something, whether it’s wearing fur or coding, it’s devalued, and it’s a hard thing to deal with.
Kamal Sinclair: So, I want to just even complicate that more. One, I want to acknowledge that Lauren did a presentation at a center foundation event of, little over a year ago, that really gave me language, that if you want to talk about it so that I’m not quoting you in front of you.
Lauren Ruffin: No, you can do it better than I will.
Kamal Sinclair: I think part of the fair wage ask issue is the fact that African-American families in this country are 225 years behind in the wealth gap than the average white family, Latinx are 87 years behind, and Asian families are 57 years. Now, that’s a couple of years old of a report on the wealth gap. But when you think about a 225-year wealth gap, and then you go into environments where, to get a leg in the door in certain, especially creative industries, you’ve got to work for nothing at internships, and you’ve got to take an entry level job at a prestigious nonprofit in the arts for $38,000 a year in LA or New York, where people are living 9, 10, 12 people to these tiny spaces to even survive.
I mean, not that people don’t need to pay their dues and they don’t need to have all that part of it. But we had, I would just say, a wonderful conversation, transparent conversation about this when I was at Sundance, like, “Why do you look around the room and we’re mostly white women being able to do this work?” And that’s a big part of that. It’s because if you’re not paying a living wage for the city in which you’re employing people, then people have to take a different job. They can’t afford to take that prestigious arts non-profit gig for two years, and then that catapults them into a studio gig or something that would really catapult their career.
And I saw that happen over and over again, particularly in technology, where — Lauren, you basically said — you can’t be an entrepreneur or even a nonprofit entrepreneur if you don’t have friends, family, and fools round of wealth in your ecosystem to leverage. You want to talk about co-ops?
Lauren Ruffin: Yeah. I mean, well, co-ops, they serve a number of functions. One, it’s immediate input and investment from the community, and you get to grow alongside the community at the same time. But beyond that, the level of engagement and commitment people have becomes a snowball effect in a cooperative. And that’s what we found because we moved really, really slowly for two years. We’ve picked up in service to community, but we’re finding that we’re able to, in particular, recognize how many brilliant Black people were laid off immediately as disposable human capital, at the beginning of the pandemic.
We’ve been able to provide a source of income for Black and brown creative workers that just wasn’t out there before. But it’s all because we’re not trying to profit on their backs, their owners. So, there’s an equity share that you have immediately, the second you start working with us in the growth and bringing your creative projects and your brilliance into it. And that investment, what I’m thinking about right now is how do I put a value on that as an asset? Because it hasn’t been marked yet, and it’s not quite patronage, but it’s something that has value, that again, isn’t monetary value, it’s not capital. And I think the traditional capital staff doesn’t value that.
Kamal Sinclair: So, something to be said about the role philanthropy can play here. Because we need systems of transition as much as we’re concerned about the future, the question that I have to Lauren’s point is, while we are figuring out the next thing that we could be doing, or a couple of things we could be doing, what would it be like to underwrite co-ops being developed in local Black and brown neighborhoods where there’s 225-year gap is a serious thing, and we don’t have the friends, family, and fools around the capital, et cetera, this is where philanthropy can step in. Some of these endowments are so big that they could legitimately throw 5% of it away and still be here in perpetuity. And this idea that “We’re going to give 1% above 5% as our stretch,” I’m just like, “Guys, that’s just not okay in many cases.”
And I’m switching hats as someone who is onboard for local philanthropy, even in Philadelphia, and I’m doing consulting with some national philanthropies, and this is a conversation that we’re having. This conversation around equity and justice, and we want to be anti-racist, et cetera, but you want to do that through the methodologies and technologies that created the trash we’re in, it’s not going to work that way. The giving has got to get bolder, it’s got to be more intentional, to Lauren’s point, and it’s got to be directed and point in spaces and places where the risk, they can absorb. There’s huge risk factors that a lot of philanthropies, social impact funders, because, non-traditional philanthropy, the philanthropic LLC is the new move in the 21st century, where they can tuck billions of assets.
So, there are ways to be thinking about how to get capital to these places for the purpose of seeding, if you will, access to family-sustaining wages and opportunities for people to generate family-sustaining wages that takes into consideration issues or discrepancies and a wide range of diversity and abilities and the whole nine, but we’ve got to be thoughtful about what is this, or what are these systems of transition as we’re maneuvering, even the moment we’re in now? And the reason I keep going back to the systems of transitions, prior to six, seven months ago, was by 2030, I believe, that 70% of all jobs might be sucked up by automation, either 2030 or 2050, I think the stat was. But that’s sped up enormously, exponentially, so much so that, if you will, an atomic bomb has gone off in our economy, and we’ve got to wait till the dust settles to actually make sense of where we’re at.
And so, people are talking about recovery and I’m like, “The dust isn’t even close to settling. In fact, it’s only getting more complicated with fires on the west coast and all this other stuff.” So, we need real thoughtful, sometimes 18-month, two-year interim solutions that are just — and I love Lauren’s points — some of these ideas are not going to need to last forever. They need to be here now to address a real transition that is happening much quicker than people ever expected. We are losing industries left and right. And a bunch of these are the industries that Black and brown people use just to get by. They’re disappearing. So, we don’t have time, and philanthropies got to step up, traditional and non-traditional.
Lauren Ruffin: Yeah. I’ve just dropped a link to a book I read over the summer, “Collective Courage.” It’s about Black cooperatives in the United States. Great read if anybody’s interested. But I don’t think philanthropy has figured out what the value is, what the value could be to Black communities. You think about CDFI funding has dried up for our businesses, banks don’t lend to us, but the reality is, for so many Black and brown people, the only source of capital we get in our lives is the student loan that we get when we’re 18 years old.
They’ll give you $250,000 to go to school but won’t give you $2,500 to start a business. And philanthropy hasn’t yet realized the potential they have to be able to see businesses, we don’t get it anywhere else. Again, the entire capital stack has failed us. And the 225 years behind, is so spot on. But I mean, to me, cooperatives are the answer for us to be able to pull wealth. And the structure, it’s been there for history. So, I mean, it’s not a new idea at all. Yeah. But thank you for that point.
Kamal Sinclair: To your point, let’s think about resources beyond just cash. You were talking about reskilling, upskilling, the gap in skills, basically. And I was really struck when I met a gentleman, Omar Wasow, who is a professor at Princeton, and he’s amazing. I met him for a fellowship he was doing at the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute at Harvard years and years ago. He was advising Question Bridge Black Males, the interactive media project. And I learned there that him and his collaborators created the very first social media site that was circular social media, it’s not just chat rooms. And that’s what, literally, Myspace literally copied to go forward. It was in the 90s, pre-Facebook pre-Friendster, pre-Myspace, and it was BlackPlanet.
And so, when I asked him, I was like, “Man, that’s crazy that Black people are so overrepresented on social media, and you’re a Black man that actually created social media.” And I said, “Was there somewhere in the back of your head that you were calling on the African ethos of call and response?” And he said, “Absolutely. I was trying to create a call and response website in the 90s.” And I did a compare and contrast between him and Palmer Luckey, who created Oculus Rift, and the levels of support and funding, and where he was supported, and where Palmer Luckey was supported in terms of really getting resourced on an exponentially crazy scale. When you’re talking about the talent, and also going back to this Afrofuturism and this narrative shift, we’re always being positioned as people that need to catch up, when in actuality, he was on the cutting edge that got replicated and got appropriated and then did not get the value out of that.
So, how do we also think about the future of these creative economies around justice and equity. The social media we know today is very much a capital instrument in a way where we see addiction design intentionally. Those kinds of things that were intentionally put into the system that was to keep people in a mode of addiction. That was not the original intention of what he was doing. So I just think about, where do we also think about pulling the intellectual resources, the creative resources, the capital resources, and also protecting the appropriation of those resources.
Meklit Hadero: So, I want to just call out that we have about one minute left in this session, and we, unfortunately, didn’t get to many of the questions that came in the chat, but if there’s any final words that you want to give on the subject of arts, technology, and the creative economy, we would welcome that. And just a couple of things in the chat in case it inspires some of those final comments, Darryl Ratcliff says, “What are your thoughts on artists and creators of color navigating digital divides and using platforms that aren’t built by us? Are there any suggestions?” Nishaun Boston says, “What are your thoughts on the ROI measuring impact with philanthropy or grantsmanship?” And Olivia Houser says, “Philanthropy can be a tool for reparations, but that’s not the way it traditionally functions.” Just a couple of thoughts to finish if perhaps inspired by the chat, and if not, then we thank you anyway.
Lauren Ruffin: I’ll go first. I guess, Darryl, I think that’s a really good question. I was a lobbyist for a certain large internet provider nationally, who will remain nameless, right when the digital divide started. So, I think it’s complicated. I think there’s history. I think the system is working the way it was designed to, which was to not build out high-speed internet for our communities. Those platforms, our infrastructure, and how we use them, is up to us. And I think, for me, it’s mostly, are we aware of the profit that’s being made on us, on our content, on our voices, on our opinions, on these platforms, and how are we getting compensated?
So, one of the things we do at Crux is, when we’re approached by large tech companies for our ideas on feature requests, we make sure we’re signing very, very narrow NDAs because that’s a thing. And then we talk about what compensation looks like up front, because, I know that we work with brilliant people and if they’re going to have great ideas. I don’t have platforms to suggest because they’re all pretty corrupt right now. But I think we’re at a point where we have to organize for things that are better. And that’s my last word. It’s just around organizing and really calling on folks to do so, moving forward.
Kamal Sinclair: I think community benefits agreements, which is something that has been modeled in different environments, is, in ways, very effective for what you were talking about, Lauren, like setting some boundaries before going into those spaces where you’re vulnerable to that type of exploit. But again, that’s where you have desperation. Am I desperate for this money? Am I desperate for this gig? If I am, am I going to negotiate away my rights? And that’s part of what we need to be thinking about. And maybe this co-op approach is a way to make us less vulnerable to giving away our power and our resources for such low prices. And I have to say, when I was at Sundance, we had an organization that we were going to partner with, and they had to sign a community benefits agreement. And it was such an evolution for us. It was just such a great reciprocal relationship of growth around these kinds of issues.
Michael O’Bryan: Really quickly, the return on investment question is one that I spend a lot of time with in both my consulting work and my involvement with philanthropy, happy to talk offline with anybody about that, feel free to hit me up, but it’s a huge conversation because people tend to have the right visionary outcomes as a place to hang up things like, “We want great jobs and money for everybody,” but they have no indicators on how to actually get there that make any sense. Particularly over the 12-month to six-month mark. And from a public health perspective, if you’re trying to tackle something like smoking cessation, you know it’s going to take three to five years worth of work before you’re really going to see the kind of outcome you’re hoping for, the large visionary outcome.
But if you have the right indicators along the way, it makes a world of a difference. So, as a quick example, I said earlier, if you want innovation and creativity out of your workspace or out of your workers in a workspace, if people don’t trust each other, it’s not going to happen, because if you can’t have free-flowing ideas, you don’t really have the creative thing popping up in the team. So, understanding those relationships and then reverse engineering your outcomes and the kind of return on investments you really should be looking for, connected to these human-centered outcomes, is really important where I think philanthropy could really be making strides instead of that whole, “How do you end poverty with $50,000 in two years?” Because that’s just stupid. Thanks.
Meklit Hadero: Thank you, Michael, thank you, Kamal, thank you, Lauren. Thank you for this really inspiring panel session, and thank you to everyone who joined us. It’s been great to spend this hour with you. Thank you to SOCAP for having us. Be well everybody and have a wonderful conference session.