Episode 18

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Published on:

3rd Feb 2021

Episode 18: Ben Fink- A Communist Jew from the Northeast CH. 2

CSCW EP 18: Ben Fink – A Communist Jew from the Northeast – Chapter 2

Threshold Questions and Delicious Quotes

As a self described "communist Jew from the Northeast, what kind of hostility did you encounter in coal country?

Honestly, the most hostility I got was from some of the liberals who are like, this is our way of doing things and we have this way of doing activism, and this way of doing community development, and this way of, who we relate to and who we don't relate to and blah, blah, blah.

How can traditional hymn singing help build trust?

And, you know what I have been told that a lot of ice was broken at some of these events. When I got up in front of the room, I didn't need a mic cause I'm loud, and I was able to line out, Poor Wayfaring Stranger, or What Wonderous Love is This, ... and that became my identity to a lot of people. I was the shape note guy. I was the guy who could come in and lead a sing and, line out of him. And it just, it broke down some walls.

What is Performing Our Future?

Yeah. So, Performing Our Future began as a community-based research project to figure out how can people tell their stories, communities that have long resisted, systematic, organized exploitation, how those communities can collectively tell their own stories, connected to building their own power connected, to creating their own and do so in coalition with each other, both locally, as well as nationally.

"What is the difference between cooking and catering?"

As Gwen said, we never done cater and we just done cooking. What's the difference between catering and cooking? The difference is what our economist friend Fluney Hutchinson calls, bounded imagination. Cooking is something you do for yourself and your neighbors to survive. Catering is something that you can do to add value and create jobs.
And in this case, jobs for neighbors that were coming back from incarceration and addiction and serve in the armed forces overseas, with various kinds of trauma who were really having trouble finding other jobs.


How did culture figure in the Letcher County organizing effort?

A central building block was a play that roadside theater made alongside these folks, and with these folks, sharing their stories, developing this grip, performing in it called the future of Letcher County, which is literally people of all ages, ideologies backgrounds, debating about the political, cultural and economic future of Letcher County.
We've now performed this, actually performed in West Baltimore just before the pandemic hit. It was... I'll tell you what happened was, I heard somebody in the audience say "I didn't know, white people dealt with that stuff too "

Transcript


Ben Fink: What is a thing that this group of people likes to do together or cares about, and it's not just cares about, but also wants to make together like that act of making things together and owning what we make. It's so central to the work, because when you make something together, then you are changing that story because you now have a story of, we built this we have added to our world in a way that is deeply meaningful of both of us. From that foundation. It is really hard to dehumanize someone. You can disagree, you can be pissed. You can have all sorts of, all sorts of conflict, right?

Bill Cleveland: That was Ben Fink talking about how important the simple act of “making things together” is to creating trust in communities that have a history of being exploited and betrayed. In our last episode we learned how Ben, an activist theater worker and community organizer from the northeast came work for an arts-based community development organization called Appalshop, in Letcher County Kentucky. We also heard about how his hands-on approach to building partnerships panned out in his collaboration with a Trump loving, ex-coal miner, volunteer fire chief producing bluegrass concerts in the firehouse, and bringing solar energy into the heart of coal country. In this second episode with Ben, we hear more stories that confound easy us vs. them stereotypes about Appalachia and Appalshop’s work in other communities across the country.

This is Change the Story / Change the World, a chronicle of art and transformation. I’m Bill Cleveland.

Part 3: Lining Out

BC: So Ben...

BF: yeah.

 BC: Be a dramaturge here and take me into this beautiful, physical place that you spent your five years and place it geographically and talk about it in terms of,, the rich culture that you've found when you're there.

BF: Yeah. Before I do just want to say that I spent my first two to three years there really intensely. And then I spent the final years literally living on the road, building partnerships across divides, and so that, so we get to the point where we do have a van load at East Kentucky, and it's coming to the middle of Penn, North and West Baltimore.

And so, I'll focus on East Kentucky for the moment. Because I hear you asking that, but I think it's really important. For people to understand that even in this really deep and granular and local work that we'll be talking about, there was always the outward facing component. We were always thinking about how do we, not only tell our stories to others and other places, but also invite them in from the very start.

But, East Kentucky, I'd never set foot there before I interviewed at the Apple shop, I knew about it only through, media and all the other ways professional class, white guy growing up in West Hartford, Connecticut hears about a place like that. And I thought about beautiful mountains and beautiful music and terrible politics.

[When} I get there, what I find are some of the most open-minded people I've ever met and a lot, yeah. People that disagree with me in terms of, national consumer politics. But a lot of people who are as devoted to their place and their land and their neighbors as any people I'd ever met anywhere, if not more. But these are people who welcomed me in as a communist Jew, from the Northeast, and joked about it and invited me into their homes.

Since then, I have invited so many people down to the coal fields, and their reactions have been the same, that there are people who fundamentally are about hospitality and are about building their community and have had a lot of history with people, screwing them over and that has hit hard. There is a lot of distrust, a lot of inherent distrust, but that distrust has still never overshadowed the love. They are people that fundamentally lead from love and loving each other, and loving the place where they live, and that was not something I was fully prepared for, but, I kept seeing it again and again, and I'd meet people and they'd introduce me to their neighbors, and they'd introduced me to their neighbors, and I think they for a while waiting for me to get scared and run away, or waiting for me to pull up or waiting for me to impose some kind of program, and I don't blame them for any of that because that's the experience they've had for a lot of people. But nowhere in that was a hostility. Honestly, the most hostility I got was from some of the liberals who are like, can, we're this is our way of doing things and we have this way of doing activism, and this way of doing community development, and this way of, who we relate to and who we don't relate to and blah, blah, blah.

With good mentorship from my colleagues at Roadside, I said, "no, I'm not going to deal with that".

I asked one of the old guards early on "what's the limit, of who roadside we'll work with? Who do we not work with?" And the response was the question is where do you stand on organized exploitation?

If you are for organized exploitation, the intentional taking of value from people who create it, we're probably not going to work with you, but if you are against organized exploitation, we're good to work with. You turns out pretty much everybody is against organized exploitation because it's pretty much 0.1% that's doing it. So, within that framework, we were able to understand each other pretty quick.

BC: I was wondering, how did the cultural aspect show up in your work with your neighbors in East Kentucky?

BF: The other thing I would say, which is not trivial is I was surprised how many of their favorite old songs that I knew. I'm a shape note him singer, sacred, harp gospel, all that stuff. I've done it for many years.

And, you know what I have been told that a lot of ice was broken at some of these events. When I got up in front of the room, I didn't need a mic cause I'm loud, and I was able to line out, Poor Wayfaring Stranger, or What Wonderous Love is This, where in a lot of these old hymns, that again, I told them I was a communist Jew from the Northeast that was not claiming to be an old, regular Baptist or anything like that. But there was just a sense of, okay, you get us on some basic level and we started regular shape note singings and Letcher County, but are still going on. There's a long history of it there, but there was no kind of regular activity and that became my identity to a lot of people. I was the shape note guy. I was the guy who could come in and lead a sing and, line out of him. And it just, it broke down some walls.

BC: And it's called respect. You shared a common cultural experience that you loved, which is powerful.

BF: Yeah.

BC: Powerful.,

BF: Because people unite based on what they share.

BC: Exactly.

BF: Talk about difference, find out what you share. No, two human beings on God's green earth would ever become friends because of what they don't have in common. Right now, once you get to know each other, based on what you do have in common than you realize the richness and diversity of other people's experience, and that adds to it, but the kernel is what you share.

BC: Yep. Can you reach back into your portfolio of I'm sure, a thousand stories and it, is there an experience that you had, during that time that really personifies what you've, what you feel you were doing together with your neighbors?

BF: Sure. I'll tell a story in Ms. Gwen Johnson, one of my most beloved allies and friends to this day. Gwen grew up in the coal camp of Hemphill, Kentucky, in Letcher County and pretty much everybody in your family of coal miners, including her former husband. [She] didn't know how to read till she was an adult, learned alongside her kids, ended up getting a master's and is now doing early childhood program administration through the University of Kentucky.

But, you talk with Gwen and it is so clear that her accountability is to her neighbors. Gwen showed up at actually at that first Bluegrass concert that we did at the firehouse that I was telling you about, because she heard that "there was going to be a guy there and he had some money".

'Cause my title for the majority of my time, there was lead organizer of the Performing our Future Project, but when I first came on, my original title was creative placemaking project manager. I was there to manage some grants.

But  I am not a grant project manager. I'm a, I'm an organizer. If you want somebody to, administer programs, give away the money and then, we're done, then, hire somebody else. I will fully make sure these deliverables happen, but we're going to do it through building up a base that's going to continue and who knows where it's going to go.

So, I had started talking with people I've met about, we had this pot of money for partnership funds that we'd use to for instance, finance this Bluegrass concert at the firehouse and it wasn't a grant, I was super clear about that. It wasn't a mini grant, three grants, sub grants. It was a partnership contribution. We're writing you this check; you spend it however you want. We're just also attaching a basic agreement with it saying, "Hey, we both agreed., We want this concert to happen". We want these things to happen. And so we'd done that, and it was actually one of the, one of the firemen at the firehouse has said, "Hey, Gwen, you got to get over here. There's this guy with some money". And shortly after I'd lined out Poor Wayfaring Stranger there, Gwen comes up to me and says, " Hey, can we talk?", and I'd heard about her too. And so I said, yeah, let's find time to talk. So we share a lot of stories, find out what's going on with her. and the stories were hard, right? She is living with her mother, who was in her eighties because when she wasn't living with her mother, Other people in the family would come to the house and take advantage of her in order to feed their meth addictions.

 This stuff is real, and that's important to say. There's a lot of talk about asset-based developments and, I've said, you gotta start with what you've got and what you share, but you got to take the problem seriously. And so Gwen was telling me this story about how the community center her mother helped to found, and that she was running in a closed down in school and her coal camp ; they were, under threat and running out of money 'cause the coal severance tax money stopped along with the coal mining. And I could have, at that moment, asked her "what do you need and how can we help you?" That's the typical nonprofit move. Thank God I had some better mentorship, by that point, and what I asked instead was "what are you looking to build and how can we build it together?"

 A few years later, the Black Sheep Brick Oven Bakery and Catering Company opened, in a community where they'd never had a caters before.

As Gwen said, we never done cater and we just done cooking. What's the difference between catering and cooking? The difference is what our economist friend Fluney Hutchinson calls, bounded imagination. Cooking is something you do for yourself and your neighbors to survive. Catering is something that you can do to add value and create jobs.

And in this case, jobs for neighbors that were coming back from incarceration and addiction and serve in the armed forces overseas, with various kinds of trauma who were really having trouble finding other jobs, but Black Sheet Bakery and Catering Company has taken them in continues to take them in, not without hardship, not without trouble. And Gwen was also one of the people who was most staunchly pro coal and anti-environmentalist. I heard her talk at a County government meeting one time at a fellow, a nonprofit liberal was there with me and Oh boy, freaked him out. It's Whoa, boy, she's talking about that.

But she was first in line to get solar panels. Cause she knew and she actually canvas the miners in her community and said, “What do you think about this guys? Is this anti-coal”? And they said, “Honey, train's gone out on coal. We got to do what we can to survive, and if this is going to help us, and if this is going to help, this community center keep its doors open.”

BC: Yeah. And that personifies what you were talking about before. Really changing the story together. Grounded in the things that matter most of the people in the community.

BF: And that's another lesson I've learned doing this work, places like that, community center, places like that, volunteer fire department, the places that are of buy-in for communities in their full diversity, these are the places that we have got to invest in and strengthen.

They're always there. They're constantly under threat, but they're always there. And when we say meet people where they're at, and when we say work with communities, that's what we mean, work with what we call community centers of power, where people gather to imagine and build together. And I do mean community is in their full diversity. So Gwen is as Hemphill as it gets, but she's constantly, fighting with her neighbors. They all come in, she said, no, I'm putting up this, LGBT acceptance sign, I'm putting up this Black Lives Matter sign and her learning over the past years in working with more people from more places now she's offering articles for Art Place America about Appalachian solidarity with Black Lives Matter.

The values were always there, but she didn't have the language to articulate them in a way that made sense to the nonprofit industrial complex. That's part of the leadership development that we do. We work to identify when we say community leaders, we're talking about people like her. We're talking about people who their neighbors look to it's usually not the people and the positions of power. And a community leader is also somebody whose first accountability is to their neighbors. I ask this question all the time with people and institutions, who is your accountability too? Because a lot of us, our accountability is to our colleagues, other people in our field to funders that are funding as to inner city area organizations, we look for the people whose fundamental accountability is to their neighbors, and that is Gwen. She is accountable to them, and she pushes them in uncomfortable ways.

Likewise, Gwen and I built a strong relationship where we are accountable to each other and we push each other. And Gwen has become a voice, on all sorts of different scales meeting with regional and national foundations, being part of the Art Place America assembly for the allocation of the last of their creative placemaking funds. She is on the steering committee of The National Performing our Future Coalition, where she is working closely alongside leaders in West Baltimore and Milwaukee and rural Wisconsin, and the black belt of Alabama.

She's traveled to all those places. She's built her own relationships and all those places. She has attended people's action national weeklong organizing training, along with leaders from all those places and this is the work.

And so now we're still in touch. But now she's just telling me about these projects. He did, she just got this 20 plus thousand-dollar grant, and she's going to do a community mural with story circles and all that. And I don't have to be a part of it anymore. I'm still happy to hear about it, but yeah, this is, she is a leader. She was always a leader in her own. And now she is a leader on a whole different level.

Part 4: Performing Our Future

BC: So you want to tell folks a little bit, you've referenced it a number of times Performing our Future, which was in many ways, a mothership of what you are a part of or connected to.

BF: Yeah. So, Performing Our Future began as a community-based research project to figure out how can people tell their stories, communities that have long resisted, systematic, organized exploitation, how those communities can collectively tell their own stories, connected to building their own power connected, to creating their own and do so in coalition with each other, both locally, as well as nationally.

Now, it has grown into an emerging national coalition. So, you have in Letcher County, Kentucky, the organization that got built out of a lot of these relationships and projects that I've been talking about is called the Letcher County Culture Hub is language we got from that economist Flooney Hutchinson, an organization that can catalyze a community's ability to recognize it's latent assets and turn them into community wealth with culture, playing the role of a process and a product. And so the first phase of Performing Our Future was building the Letcher County culture hub. And, if you think that building a coalition within Letcher County, Kentucky is easy because it's 98% white and all rural. Oh boy, I will tell you stories. I was working, the Appleshop offices in Whitesburg and a County seat, population 1900. I was a half an hour away in a, an old coal town population, 120. And somebody there called me an outsider. Not because I'm from Connecticut, but because I'm from Whitesburg.

 BC: Could you say a bit more about the culture hub? How did art making become an organizing tool?

BF: So the first phase of performing our future really centered around building the Letcher County culture hub and building it. Through cultural organizing, what are we going to build together? A central building block was a play that roadside theater made alongside these folks, and with these folks, sharing their stories, developing this grip, performing in it called the future of Letcher County, which is literally people of all ages, ideologies backgrounds, debating about the political, cultural and economic future of Letcher County.

We've now performed this, actually performed in West Baltimore just before the pandemic hit. It was... I'll tell you what happened was, I heard somebody in the audience say "I didn't know, white people dealt with that stuff too "

So, we did this for and built this over three years so I was the initial organizer of it. Now it's got, we hired an organizer, it's got a community leadership body. And then the second phase of performing our future, which we are still in is building a national coalition, doing that same work but across lines that are more extreme geographically, more extreme, ideologically, more extreme, racially, more extreme in terms of rural and urban.

Now there is a coalition with four key delegations again in rural and urban Wisconsin in West Baltimore and the black belt of Alabama and East Kentucky. And they have spent the last two years sharing stories, building relationships. Again, we start through with the relationships. We start spending a lot of time in each other's places only now is the coalition starting to do projects together, and of course it happened right before COVID it. And so the project is being done remotely. It is building a cookbook of relationships and stories and organizing practices from all of these places and the ways that they overlap and inform each other. And that is currently happening right now, currently in production and as of about a month ago, Tiffany Turner wonderful young organizer from Mississippi with connections to our delegation and the black belt took over for me as the lead organizer of performing our future. So, now it is going with new leadership and a new organizing staff.

BC: So what's your new gig, man?

BF: Yeah, I'm working as little as possible and writing a book basically.

 I'm finally writing the book that I've threatened to write for a long time, which is how you do populism today. it's either going to be called How the Poor End Poverty or Only Populism Can Save Us or Making Radical Change with Almost Anyone. Some version of that. I have trouble with titles, but it's essentially the practices and principles of love, power, community, meaning value and work, and how we can do that now and how we can get out of these silly impasses that continue to pit us against each other and keep Charles Koch laughing all the way to the bank. And really, I've just said the same thing enough to people and they say, you gotta write this down, so I'm going to write it down.

BC: It's good to hear that your feet are both on the ground and your head is in the sky.

 BF: COVID sucks, right? You can't actually be with anybody. I'm doing all this and phone calls and zoom meetings.

Yeah.

BC: But the thing is that all the stories people are telling and all the skill sets that people are bringing to the table, they all have a through line. Many of the things that you've described have come from different people in different places, who probably would describe what they're doing in different ways than you are. But at the end of the day, what they're doing is in a sense they're in spring training for what's going to have to happen when they released the hounds here. And as we segue into whatever altered universe that is manifesting

BF: It's going to keep altering and who knows in what direction, but the fact is for a lot of the people in East Kentucky and West Baltimore and the other places I've been working, that's been their reality for a long time. How is the work changed because of the pandemic the sort of renewed attention of primarily white professional people to racial justice? And the answer is it isn't changed. The means have changed, but the end has not.

The work of building coalitions, across barriers that take different seriously, and also recognize the ways in which we're being divided and conquered and fighting against that.

BC: Yeah, this story is not a new story.

BF: No!

BC: Somebody has altered the landscape somewhat, locking us in the house, but no, the same people are bleeding in the same way with the same blood. Ben, I really appreciate your spending this time. I understand zoom fatigue very well and...

BF: Happy to be here. Great talking with you, Bill. And I'll be in touch if, I can be of help or service. Bye-bye

BC: bye-bye. And bye bye to this episode and to you folks out there. Thanks so much for tuning in and please, if you got this far and are still listening share Change the Story / Change the World with your friends and enemies.  Change the Story Change the World, is a production of the Center for the Study of Art and Community. It is written and directed by Bill Cleveland; our theme and soundscape are by Judy Munson. If you have been intrigued or provoked please subscribe and join the continuing through our show notes or at the Center's website at www art and community dot com.

 

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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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