Episode 15

Published on:

23rd Dec 2020

Episode 15: Sharnita Johnson - Queen of Community

Episode 15: Sharnita Johnson – Queen of Community

Threshold Questions & Delicious Quotes

What was the path that led you into cultural philanthropy?

I never saw anyone that looked like me, a black woman in philanthropy, in a city like Detroit, which is where I'm from, which has I think the population is like 90% African American so it just never clicked. that was something that I could do, even though I certainly had the skills and the education, et cetera. Until I did see someone who looked like me, a black woman in philanthropy, who became a mentor to me and, helped pave the way for me to get into the field, which was not easy.

You were involved in some contentious debates about the appropriateness and value of public art when you worked in Flint Michigan. What did those struggles teach you?

This commissioner at one point came up to me years later and said, I just want to apologize to you. I was a little bit confused, and I said, “Apologize for what? And he said, “I gave you so much flack about that mural, but I love it. I look at it every day. I can see it from my house and when my family and friends come to visit, it's the first thing that I showed them.”
So that was again, transformational because I just saw what the power of love and the arts can do

Are you thinking that when ... the doors reopen, when the streets repopulate, that there's a particular role for the makers and creators in our community to help with that. (pandemic reconstruction)

There is a critical role, and I'll say, as devastating as the pandemic has been for all of us, and particularly, those who have lost loved ones, and the communities that have been devastated, but the creatives are still creating. I was on a zoom earlier with some young public artists, ...and they're telling this story ... in a way that journalism isn't going to tell it. They're going to tell ... it through pictures and stories and music and poetry.


Bill Cleveland: Now, if you peel back the wrapping on a concert, play a festival, a poetry reading, or an art exhibit in most American communities. You'll find the indelible fingerprints of what arts folks call funders. These arts funders come in all shapes and sizes. There are local, state, and national funders on the public side. There are individual donors, and then there are private individuals and foundations whose contributions are often referred to as cultural philanthropy, which, in 2017, contributed nearly $3 billion to America's artists and arts organizations. Needless to say, the people who manage the programs that grant these funds have an interesting job.

Who wouldn't want to give away money to deserving folks in their communities? But, as is often the case, it's harder than it sounds. The job certainly comes with the power to influence and do good. But, also the responsibility to apply that influence judiciously with the clear understanding that gifts given with the best of intentions can do harm as well.

Throughout my career, I've worked with many funders on the giving side and as a recipient, and advisor. Along the way I've had the privilege of collaborating and learning from some truly creative and insightful souls. Shanita Johnson, who is the Arts Program Officer at the Geraldine. R Dodge Foundation, is one of these. As you will hear in this episode of Change, the Story, Change the World. She's one of those unique people who can deliver both the good news and bad inherent to her work, all the while, maintaining the trust of the people in communities she serves.

This is Change the Story, Change the World, a chronicle of art and transformation. My name is Bill Cleveland.

In my conversation with Shanita Johnson, we start off with a short discussion of prison arts and the possibility of sharing videos of prominent poets performing at the Dodge Poetry Festival with incarcerated writers. After that we explore Sharnita’s journey into the world of arts, philanthropy and her work at the Geraldine R Dodge foundation.

Part One. Call Me Community. 

BC: Yeah, I’m good. I had my first, zoom concert.

Sharnita Johnson: Oh, saw your, music stand, your guitar.

BC: Yeah. Yeah, there's a prison choir. The Oakdale Choir run by Mary Cohen. They have this thing where they have guest artists come in. They use Liz Lerman's, critical response process. And so, I played the song and then they gave me all this feedback on it, which was fantastic. Yeah, it was really cool. So, one issue with prisons, is that, outside/inside digital access doesn't exist.

SJ: Yeah.

BC: So, they have inside systems and those inside systems are like from like 1975.

SJ: Wow!

 BC: One of the things I'm thinking of doing is accessing your poetry festival videos and then trying to figure out a way to download it.

SJ: I think that would be such a beautiful thing to do with this to really get the poetry to people who are the most isolated, who need to have this inspiration and joy. yeah.

BC: And these are writers. These are people who are there. They are hungry to hear people who do what they're trying to do at the highest level. Yeah.

For our conversation this morning I reconstituted my questions, in a way that hopefully will make them a little fresher. So almost everybody I talked to, my first, subject is how they define their work and what they do. And I’ve been asking people what their street name is, what their handle is. my friend, Sandy Augustin, she said, "Oh, I'm a navigator". And of course, Leni Sloan was a gun runner for the arts. Sharnita, have you got one that pops up for you?

SJ: Actually, it's funny cause I have a very good friend that calls me "community." Like whenever I tell her about my work is "Oh my God, you are so community." And actually, when I left the Ruth Mott Foundation, they gave me a wand and I think a Tiara that said, "Queen of Community."

SJ: So, it's interesting because, I didn't grow up in a household where we volunteered, my dad had his own business, so he worked all the time. My mother worked full time. I'm the youngest of six kids. So that sort of volunteering at a soup kitchen or serving on boards, that just wasn't my life growing up. And I think it was so important. Because my family moved from public housing into, we thought we were middle class. We were probably really working class, but that was so important, and I think my parents just really felt all those battles have been won. They had made it into, the next level and they thought that the protesting and the advocacy and the marching and the community organizing and the door knocking, they maybe hope that was done.

SJ: So, I didn't experience volunteering and philanthropy and community in that way really until I was an adult, until I started to understand that things weren't equal. And things look different for, even in my own family. everybody didn't have the same opportunities and, there was disparity there. And then, I was the first college graduate in my family on both sides. proudly we have many more now, but that was quite a feat.

And so, I really think becoming aware, for my parents, it was very important for us to be in that bubble. where everything is safe. You don't have to worry about what you're going to eat. You don't have to worry about where you're going to sleep. We've arrived. and I think as an adult, I really, during undergrad, I started to see, Oh, I am in a privileged place through the hard work and sacrifice of my family. And so, I think as I got into the nonprofit sector and started to volunteer on boards is when that really started to gel for me. So, I was probably my early twenties.

BC: So, there's a, a path that led from. you're growing up in your bubble, to this world of philanthropy, and in a particular area --- not just philanthropy, but cultural philanthropy that has your street name right in the middle of it “community.”

SJ: Yeah.

BC: What's that journey.

SJ: As I reflect, I’m at the point in my life where I am thinking about legacy and what my story is. And while I'd like to think in some ways, it was because of my own hard work. And, and it was a lot of hard work., in many ways I think about it as a destiny.

Now, I'm not saying that the universe plotted out my life and said, this is what you're going to do. but it really sorta was, there were just some inflection points where I'm very clear that there was a bigger force that wanted me to be in places at tables, doing things and saying things and moving things beyond what my small mind could envision.

BC: A part of your biography is a particular, attention to the story before the story, the history. could you talk a little bit about, the role history has played, in finding your place in the world?

SJ: Sure, so, I do think, I joke, I majored in English, in undergrad and I minored in history and I didn't want to teach, and I didn't want to be a journalist and I didn't want to write novels. So, what that got me was unemployed. Like out of undergrad, and then just fell into, some writing at a publishing company and some opportunities to, work as an art assistant. And I bought art for magazines and all that fun stuff. And, and then I got into the nonprofit sector. And my first role in the nonprofit sector was at the (Charles H. Wright) Museum of African American History in Detroit. And that's a big museum that exists now, but the precursor to that museum was, which was about the third iteration of the museum. but I got there at a really important time in my life.

And I think a really important time in the, museum's life. and I learned a lot and I was surrounded by all of these incredible people. And at that point I realized that I had a bigger mission, that this job wasn’t making my career. Although it was very foundational and a first step, certainly. But. I have been again, put in places and situations where I could be a voice where I could be an advocate. That really led to a number of other positions in other arts, and cultural, and healthcare organizations on the fundraising side. And so, I was a fundraiser for sort of the first half of my career, but it never occurred to me that I could be on the philanthropy side.

Because I never saw anyone that looked like me, a black woman in philanthropy, in a city like Detroit, which is where I'm from, which has I think the population is like 90% African American so it just never clicked. that was something that I could do, even though I certainly had the skills and the education, et cetera.

Until I did see someone who looked like me, a black woman in philanthropy, who became a mentor to me and, helped pave the way for me to get into the field, which was not easy. I certainly had. some people actively, working against me getting into the field. but I certainly have lots of people who were very helpful, and opened doors for me in opening those doors and working hard and being so gratified by the work that I was able to do, led me into this really kind of crazy philanthropy career. Cause whoever works at four foundations, it's hard enough to get into one, I’ve been so lucky, and been able to do work that I still see, years later is still very active in places like Flint and Detroit. and have I've had the opportunity to. Work in all kinds of philanthropy. So, a startup foundation, a $9 billion endowment foundation, smaller foundations. And now I'm a mid-sized foundation, mostly doing arts grant making and along the way, learning so much and honestly, this journey has given me the opportunity to meet people that I can't even imagine that I even know, it's been so incredible --- people like yourself, Bill. Like why would we know each other? We're like opposite sides of the world, different generations, different paths yet you have been a constant in my life over the years since we met in Detroit, by the way,

Part Two: Animating Democracy

In the next part of our conversation, Shanita talks about a historic meeting convened in the fall of 2003 in Flint, Michigan, through an initiative called Animating Democracy. The event also sponsored by Americans for the Arts was described as a national exchange on art and civic dialogue.

Animating Democracy is an influential player in the development of the community arts movement in the United States. They're focus, at the time, was supporting artists across the country who were using arts-based tools and strategies to stimulate civic, dialogue and community organizing in communities in conflict around issues like discrimination, poverty, education, immigration and jobs.

BC: Everybody I've talked to has, you pointed to a particular moment or story where, particularly people that are involved in this nexus of art and community building community development, where a light bulb went off and they saw that it was more than just a nice thing. That there is some power there. And I'm wondering if one of those stories rise up for you? I know Flint was a, was an important moment in your life.

SJ: Definitely. And I have lots, I'll say that. cause I've been so lucky, over the years, but I think something that was really transformational for me was the final convening of the Animating Democracy Initiative, which was a Ford funded initiative. They had their convening, and there was some work in the community up to that point. So, there were some projects happening. There were, internationally renowned artists coming to Flint, working with community and actually, writing plays, performing, writing music. Doing visual arts. and it was at that point that I really understood the impact of the arts to just regular people. Like it doesn't have to be a thing that you have to get dressed up to buy a ticket to.

That is something that is inherently existing in communities and neighborhoods. and then a place like Flint that is, again, a working-class blue-collar town. But they have a world-class museum. There's a symphony, and then to compliment that all of these community-based organizations that are doing, tap dance and African dance and folkloric dance and music. And so, it really shifted what I considered what was the value of community and the arts and the way that the arts can impact community in a transformational not a transactional way? And so that kind of really shifted my thinking and really led to a big public art project that was pretty contested at first. It was a grant to an organization that was doing community murals around the city, which meant in some instances, regular people, not artists were actually doing the art making.

And some of the pieces were contested by some folks because the aesthetic wasn't what they expected. And the culminating project was a large-scale mural in a prominent downtown location. So, there was a lot of push back because people were really worried. Like how big, how prominent, where is it going to be?

And who's going to actually paint it. so fast forward, there were a number of community meetings were pretty hostile. People came to the meetings to meet the muralists who actually happened to be from the Flint area, from Beecher. Hubert Massey and they were mad and then the next meeting, some more mad people would come.

And then he just had such a way with people and he's so personable and he's such an advocate for public art. He believes that so important.

Hubert Massey: When you give functionality to artwork, it has it a very important role other than just being a piece of artwork that hangs up on the wall.

BC: That was Hubert Massey describing his work, the Crossroads of Innovation at the TCF center in Detroit. 

HM: This right here is the, uh, the tile piece that's on the side. Hopefully here. This is the strength of the community and the suitcase represents the deportations of Mexicans back down to, um, Mexico during the thirties or so. I listen to people's stories and I translate those stories into pieces of our work.

My thing is to talk about the revitalization of the city. And how to, uh, sort of give a, uh, a visual narrative on the positive things about communities, on how we can make a difference. Yes,

SJ: So, around the third meeting, people were warming up to him. And he was asking them, what's important about the city to you? What do you love about the city? How'd you get here? And by the fourth or fifth meeting, people were coming to the meetings with photographs of their parents saying, “My parents, my dad came here to lay the bricks on the downtown thoroughfare,” which is made out of red bricks, or “My parents, my grandparents came here, and my grandfather worked in the factory,” or whatever the story was.

And he incorporated all of those stories, into the mural. And, over time really became an important fixture. We set him up in a downtown studio. And folks could just wander in and ask him what he was doing and sharing the story. And that culminated in, an amazing mural that is in a prominent downtown location and is quite a source of pride, I think, for many people in the city. But that again influenced me in so many ways because we had so much opposition, even from elected officials around it.

So, it really gave me some pause to think about what, how do we make something as maybe amorphous as a large-scale mural that nobody knew what it was going to look like important. To everybody in Flint and particularly the people in the neighborhood that it is located in. And I think we were pretty successful with that. And in fact, one of the commissioners from the Historic Commission who was a very vocal opponent of the mural, because it was in a historic neighborhood, we found out that when we went to the hearing and he said, “Murals are graffiti, and they should not be painted on buildings.”

So again, fast forward, we were able to get the mural on the building because somebody brought to that little studio on Saginaw

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About the Podcast

Change the Story / Change the World
A Chronicle of Art & Transformation
Poets, dancers, and painters at war with white supremacy, COVID, criminal militias, and Milosevic? Muralists, musicians, and actors, making a difference in homeless shelters, planning departments, emergency rooms, and death row? Sound delusional? Yea, sure, but also true! And when creativity confronts destruction, and imagination faces fear, in places like Ferguson, Johannesburg, Belfast and San Quentin surprising things happen.

Our stories help shape and sustain our beliefs and actions. Bill Cleveland believes that meeting the challenges of the 21st century will require a revolution of thought and deed— in essence, a new set of stories powerful enough to change beliefs and behaviors.

Change the Story/ Change the World is a chronicle of art and community transformation across the globe. In each episode, Bill will introduce listeners to creative change agents working to re-imagine and recreate the social, political, and cultural narratives that define their communities. Join us
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