Episode 23

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Published on:

16th Apr 2021

Episode 23: Alice Lovelace - A Peaceful Distrupter

Episode 23: Alice Lovelace - A Peaceful Disrupter


Threshold Questions and Delicious Quotes

What is "This Poem" really about?

This poem is a cultural hybrid
Travelin' everywhere
Belongin' nowhere
Irresponsible, Irreverent
And totally irrelevant


What do you mean by Peaceful Disrupter?

I am never happy with the status quo. So, I'm always looking for ways to disrupt the status quo and to move it in a more progressive [way] or [by] empowering those who I see are being left behind.
And that has to happen a lot, they have to be those who make other people uncomfortable, so that in their discomfort they actually deeply contemplate change. Because when we are comfortable, we don't contemplate change.
... I'm a peaceful disruptor. I don't get loud. I don't, I definitely look for opportunities to shift power and to shift the conversation,


What does "asking permission" mean in a classroom?

When I walk into a classroom, the first thing I say to my class is I asked permission to be there. And often the teachers don't understand that, but I will say to the students, “this is your community, and I am an interloper, and other adults have made a decision that I should be here, but the rightful decision-makers are you because you were the one who had the power to make this a success or to make it a failure”. So, I always ask their permission.


How can you fight the power of the false narrative?

I've never forgot the lesson of. Standing up to bullies, not getting into the stories people are telling about you, ...the moment that you try to speak to that story, all it's going to do is keep that story spinning. So, I would never address it.


Alice Lovelace: This Poem is for reading only after I'm dead, as the weight of the words could kill

This poem is full of blood, fornication, guts, and guns

This poem hates nationalists, sexists, racists, factionalists and fundamentalists of all ilk's 

However, this poem encourages creative lies when those lies are in line with this poem’s politics 

This poem, This poem, This poem is about starvation in Ethiopia, tribal warfare in Rwanda, ethnic cleansing in Yugoslavia, oil workers striking in Nigeria, starvation, re-classification, indoctrination, stagnation, and the return of the colonialists to oversee our freedom

This poem, This poem, This poem is about moving forward but you goin' nowhere, you goin' nowhere, you goin' nowhere

Bill Cleveland:  Well, the first time I laid eyes and ears on Alice Lovelace, she was standing in bright blue lights on a stage in Atlanta, Georgia. She was a diminutive presence in a delicate white dress, who, from the second she began to speak, literally took over the theater.

AL: This poem is about arming for peace

While withholding food until those ungodly hordes Recognize the salvation of Capitalists ideals 

This poem is about the salvation of Russia...Not

The unification of Europe...Not

The liberation of Africa...Not 

This poem shits on other poems

This poem is about psychobabble posing as Art

And Art so fuckin' pure it offends

This poem is about dropping the bombs on Iraq for border aggressions

While patting the Serbs on the back

About boycotting Cuba 'cause they won't be like us

While rewarding China 'cause they won't be like us 

This poem advocates shitting on the Queen's English and the Queen

This poem sanctions the shooting of Career politicians on sight

This poem is a cultural hybrid Travelin' everywhere

Belongin' nowhere

Irresponsible               Irreverent And totally irrelevant

This poem is

About Jesus prostitutes

Mt. Sinai

swindlers

Jerusalem

junkies

Trashin' the airwave Foulin' up my system Pissin' on my poverty

This poem is about

About gettin' a fix on the problems Without gettin' your

hands dirty

About Klansmen giving out free ammunition

To convicted felons to protest gun control

About withholding abortion rights to teach those

Unwed teenage welfare cheats a lesson in humility

BC: Well, we weren't referring to it as spoken word back then, but as far as I was concerned, at that moment, in that space, it was THE word. And that word was commanding, no grabbing my attention as though the lyrics to that Screaming Jay Hawkins song were coming true. “I Put a Spell on You”

AL: This poem is about the need

To write poetry while the people

Starve and imagine your words feeding the masses

When in reality, man you just you movin' 'n groovin

Goin' nowhere

Movin' n' grovin' Goin'

no where

Movin' n' grovin'

Goin'                   Goin'                    Goin'

Goin'                   Gone

 

BC: But, since then we've become friends, colleagues, collaborators. I have to say. That spell that power to teach the moment to help you see life's vexing puzzle pieces in a new way that reveals something hot, something that will feed you and those you love. Well, that power is still there. If you don't believe me, then just listen up.

This is Change the Story, Change the World, A Chronicle of Art and Community Transformation. My name is Bill Cleveland.

BC: Alice and I held our conversation over two days in early 2021. We started with me as the guest on her new podcast, from the Arts Exchange in Atlanta. […] Then, we zoomed on over here to The Center for the Study of Art and Community to record this episode

 

Part One: Organizing is a Tool of Culture.

BC: Hey, Alice Lovelace.

AL: Oh, there you are

BC: I see you. You haven't aged a bit since yesterday.

AL: Thank God.

BC: Yeah, I want to thank you for just a marvelous conversation, and I just I'm excited that you're doing this show. Tell me a little bit about the show before we start into our regular interview. What, where did come from?

AL:  So doing the Arts Exchange and Atlanta, so it was an organization that I helped to found back in 83, 84. We are still going strong. Actually, I retired, went back on the board and sold the building and Grant Park, bought a building in East Point, renovated it and moved us in there.

Once the. virus hit, we had to go with, everything online. And so, they came to me a couple months ago and asked me what I do a podcast, because we'd been doing some little conversations, but they thought that this might build a build on that audience and expand it.

And so, I said, sure I'll do the podcast.

BC: I don't know why they pick a person that's shy as you to do it, though.

{laughter…}

AL: Yeah, I have to hold back, my enthusiasm sometimes.

BC: And I actually, I found the same thing. I miss being with my brothers and sisters so badly, and it's just a breath of fresh air to be able to have conversations with people about things other than how bad it is

AL: Amen. And the fact that with this medium, they can be anywhere, like you said, in the country or in the world, and that really expands the pallet. It's great. It is, I'm looking forward to reaching out to a lot of people. Some I know, and some I don't know.

BC: Absolutely. Right. Yeah, absolutely. Let me begin. It's interesting. I have a good friend named Sandy Agustin and she was a principal over there at intermediate arts in Minneapolis.

She's a wonderful artist and she was one of the first people I interviewed, and I said, “Sandy Do you have a street name?” She says “yeah, I got to handle” And I said, “so is it connected to your work?” She said, “Oh yeah, absolutely. They call me the navigator.”

So, Alice if you had one or if you do have one, what would your handle be? What would your street name be?

AL: It's not a street name is one that I only use discreetly, but I think it's one that really defines how I move. And that is, I am a disruptor.

BC: Okay. You want to say more about that and what that means?

AL: Yeah. Yeah. I think a lot of people take that in a negative way, but I am never happy with the status quo. So, I'm always looking for ways to disrupt the status quo and to move it in a more progressive [way] or [by] empowering those who I see are being left behind.

And that has to happen a lot, they have to be those who make other people uncomfortable so that in their discomfort they actually deeply contemplate change. Because when we are comfortable, we don't contemplate change.

So, I know that I am a disruptor. I'm a peaceful disruptor. I don't get loud. I don't, I definitely look for opportunities to shift power and to shift the conversation,

BC: The good trouble, nudge, poke, I'm not going away. This story will not disappear. Let's handle it in the best way possible. You know what it reminds me of… I think about you're a poet, you're an artist. You spend time with yourself. And my guess is a part of your practice is self-disruption.

AL: Yes. Yes. I'm always, I am hypercritical of myself, and in particularly if I've been in a situation, I always go back and I have to ask why did you do that? Why'd you ask that question? Why did you think that was necessary? And yes…

BC: I'm always in the place. Where, when I get self-critical, it's usually like bill, I'm sorry, you have more imagination than that, but you got to get going right?

AL: I think I'm always trying to make sure that what I've done wasn't out of destruction. That it was out of some sense of a movement forward. And if I find myself having said something destructive, I try to say, you can't address it that way. The next time you have to moderate this, so I try to get better at it the next time. So that maybe I get some positive changes out of it.

BC: Yeah. So, for people who don't know Alice Lovelace as a disruptor, what are your tools and how do you put them to use?

AL: I'm an organizer first and foremost. I'm an organizer, and I'm a cultural worker and organizing is a tool of cultural work. Art is a tool of cultural work. These are the tools that I use to move society in different ways. I think people would be most surprised at breadth of the way that I work.

Most people know me as an arts and education, teacher for 35 years traveling the country teaching in jails, schools, churches, senior citizen homes. Anywhere that that they invite me. But then I'm also an organizer. So, I was the national lead staff organizer for the First United States Social Forum. Coordinated and did all the logistics for that. That was 11 locations, 15,000 people in attendance, 2,500 workshops. And I was the head organizer for all of that, that pulled it off and made it happen.

But to me, all of this work is the same work. Even running the arts exchange, managing the sale, managing the purchase of the new building, overseeing the renovations, all of that is a part of that cultural work of building culture, strengthening culture, as a means of strengthening art. And I always remember that these two are intimately connected. So I'm always aware of the cultural environment that I'm in, and what my art can do in that cultural environment. And the role that I can play, and sometimes it's a supportive role, and sometimes if I don't see the leadership that will lead us to success, I will step in.

BC: So, one of your other tools that is one of my favorites things that you do is you are an extraordinary writer. The first moment that I met you was seeing you take over a stage and blowback the eyelids of the people in the audience with your spoken word. Could you talk a bit about your artistry and how that works?

AL: Again, it came out of organizing. I first started writing poetry when I slipped into a really serious depression. But I was only writing for myself. One of the things that helped me when I began to emerge out of it was going to teach at an Episcopal church. They had an afterschool program for youth, and it was the very first time I ever did that. But I stepped in there and I said, I want to volunteer, and I started teaching a poetry class for young people and watching them grow. It helped me understand that writing was all I wanted to do that my depression was not so much a mental depression, as it was not satisfying my own inner self. And from that point forward that said, I will never deny my voice. And I would never deny myself that opportunity, but I never called myself a poet. I actually took great Umbrage to people calling me a poet. I didn't not think it was an honorific.

I am in the oral tradition, and I come out of the oral tradition. I never would publish my poems for took Toni Cade Bambara to finally push me, and push me, to make me write poems down and publish them I thought a poem should be brand new for every audience that every audience deserves to hear something that was crafted for them, and to be between me and them. And know if you weren't there in that audience, then you couldn't share that experience, and I didn't want you to have that experience.

But I began to morph over the years and more and more write down what I was writing and accepted that position. And then when I started teaching in the state arts programs, I definitely embraced it.

BC: Tell me, you weren't born a poet, and you weren’t be born an organizer or maybe you were, but what was the path that led you to knowing that, that was your purpose on this earth is to do those things?

AL: I see it's two little stories. One was, I was born in St. Louis and I had the fortune of wonderful parents. I come from a very large family. My mother was my father's second wife. My father had 17 children. I was his 13th child. But we lived in a neighborhood, and directly across the street from my house, a half a block to my left was my elementary school directly in front of my house was the huge city recreation center, and to the right of that was the high school. Our church was two blocks away and this was an extraordinary and supportive community.

That community center I learned tap dance. Rumba, Samba, I took ballet, I learned modern dance. We had a big Peruvian loom. I learned how to make rugs on a loom. I learned how to crochet. I took acting classes. I traveled the city during the summer doing a theater at other community centers. And so, I actually thought everybody grew up like that. I thought everybody had this opportunity. I never called it art. It was just what we did. And I sang, and I was in talent shows, and that had an extraordinary impact on my not putting barriers on my art. Like I work with visual artists, I work with dancers, and I cross all kinds of lines in art because that's the way it was brought up.

But then when it came to being a writer in my own home, my mother was from Arkansas, only child, very hard life and she did not approve of idleness. So, to sit and write in her eyes was to be idle.

So, we had a walk-in closet, [and] I used to put on my coat and pretend I was going outdoors to play, go to the hallway, sneak down to the closet and all the way in the back of that closet, behind all the coats, I had a little table, and I had my notes, books and paper, and that's where I would go and write.

So, it was a really weird thing in public I was okay to do all of these artistic things. But at home, it was seen as an idleness. And I think that's where my own conflicts of accepting myself as an artist came from.

BC: What was the name of that neighborhood?

AL: I lived in Mill Creek. The first urban renewal project in the nation. The Bay Shaun Community Center was right across the street from my house. I'll never forget it an extraordinary childhood.

BC: It's interesting, the description of your neighborhood as you well know, there are a number of historic African American communities in the St. Louis area, that were very self-sufficient, and had extraordinary resources. They were isolated from the larger downtown community, but amazing institutions, amazing support structure, and I know one thing that's going on in St. Louis right now is that some of those communities are trying to, rekindle and rebuild a lot of that infrastructure. And what you just described is it's what every kid in the world ought to be exposed to as they grow up.

AL: I totally agree. Yes. And then, in those days, your next-door neighbor could be a doctor or a lawyer, a laundrywoman, factory worker, but you had a holistic community

BC: …and people they looked after each other.

AL: Oh my gosh, you couldn't get, you couldn't go five blocks, 10 blocks from my home, without somebody calling out your parents' name and saying you better be on your best behavior, or if you weren't on your best behavior telling you they were going to call your parents, and by the time you got home, you knew what that meant.

BC: Yep, absolutely.

AL: Yeah. Everybody was your parent.

 

Part Two: Changing the Story

BC: So, you have I would say probably thousands of stories that you could tell. But I would love to pick your brain and have you told a story or two that, that you think brings it home to things that, something that, that you'd say yeah, that, that was that was good trouble. That was disruption at its best.

AL: One comes to mind. In 1996, I was teaching in a little town called Evans, Georgia, which is right outside of Augusta. Evans, Georgia was best known for a piece of land that was donated to the city and with the caveat that black people were not to ever step foot on it. The city took that land and turned it into a public park with public funds, and put up a sign that said, ‘no blacks allowed’, and that case went all the way up to the Supreme court for all 15 years, that case was fought.

I didn't know that when I showed up in Evans, Georgia. And Evans, Georgia had a lot of problems. So, I showed up to teach. They asked me to teach West African poetry. Usually, when I show up, there's a big bulletin board with the covers of my books and, different things, publicity stuff saying, visiting artists coming showed up and there was none of that. I talked to the principal and they were supposed to give me a studio, and she shows me to a closet it off of the library. And she tells me that's my studio. I was like, this is not right.

So, I go to my first class and teachers acted like they never knew I was supposed to be there. Everybody was surprised that I showed up, and after a couple of days, I decided I would not teach the curriculum that I had come there to teach. Something was really off, and so I started doing something else, and the teachers came to me and asked me what I, so I did. I kept getting these strange reactions. So, after a couple of weeks, I had to go home on a Thursday because I was rehearsing for a plate, I was in.

So, I came back to Atlanta to do my rehearsals, and I had a meeting at the state Arts Council (Georgia) that Monday morning. So, I showed and everybody's looking at me like I died like there was a funeral I didn't know about it. And so, I cornered them and said, what is going on? And they pull a newspaper out from up under the desk, and it says my picture and across the Columbia times newspaper, it says ‘Witch teaching in our school’, and that's me.

Oh, and so this has gone out all over that part of South Carolina and Georgia up there around Augusta and Evans.  I called my host family that I was living with up there and asked them what was going on, and they told me…. you might remember Pat Robertson had been running for president about that time, he had already had one campaign.

So, two of Pat Robertson's campaign people had decided to hold this press conference on that Friday after I left about me being a witch, and the children were afraid of me, and Satan worship and teaching this West African poetry, these praise poems, nobody should be praised, but God, and so, this was proof that I was the devil. It was just really interesting. And they had a new flyer out for this big press thing that they were going to do. My, my host family got a copy of it. And I asked them to go to the meeting and they did well. They were the only black people to show up at the meeting.

So, the moment they showed up all of the material, the flyers, and all of my books and everything that they were going to damn me with disappeared. But they still went on talking about these ungodly people in our schools. I got a call from the school was teaching at and they were in an uproar. I had to come back up there, it was all this trouble and I needed to come back. And so, I called the National Lawyers Association, and I talked to them and we talked it over and they. They gave me some strategy. I called people for the American way and we talked about it, because this had happened to several friends of mine already, and they told me what to do. So, I called them back and I said, okay, this is the situation. Whatever happened up there is about you guys. It couldn't be about me because they don't know me. They're trying to use me as a lightning rod and I'm not going to do that.

I said, but what you will do, you will hold a press conference, and at that press conference, you will assure that community that I am no way what these people have said that I am. And I won't say a word. So, three days later I showed up. They had the full board of education. They had the superintendents from the city and every one of them had to go up into that microphone and I said, back in the back, and one by one, all of these white men had to go up to that microphone and sing my praises and the praises of this program because I had made it very clear, I would Sue the people who had the deepest pockets, and they had the deepest pockets.

And they sang my praises, and it forced a whole new telling of a story; they could not continue with the story that had started. They had to write a new story...

So, after that press conference was a big meeting at the arts council and the parents from that school showed up. And they insisted one by one, 200 of them stood up and insisted that fund, that program would be fully funded and show their support for me, and as a result, that program was funded for three years straight for the first time ever.

The parents and the community made it very clear that this was not who they were. The newspapers ran over 75 letters to the editor. People started to tell on each other, which Republicans had supported this and how they expected to use it to influence the board of education race.

But the greatest lesson that I learned. That Thursday, when I left to go to Atlanta, I had finished my sixth-grade class and the little girl, a little black girl in the class, asked the teacher if she could walk me to my car. And she did, she walked me to my car, and as I was getting in, she said, "Ms. Lovelace, you're always who you are aren't you?" And I said, "Yeah, ‘pretty much don't know how to be anybody else". She said, “Oh, I really like that. But Ms. Lovelace, you don't know where you are" and closed the door and walked away.

After this was all over with, and I went back to say goodbye to the children, she came up to me afterward and she said, Ms. Lovelace, ‘do you understand what I was saying to you?’ And I said, “I totally do understand what you said. I totally understand what you saying." And she said, "Think about it, Ms. Lovelace. I have to live here”, and she walked away, and I never got the lesson of that. I've never forgotten the lesson of standing up to bullies, not getting into the stories people are telling about you, because one of the things that they advise me at the moment that you try to speak to that story, all it's going to do is keep that story spinning. So, I would never address it. And I made them tell a new story and I forced them to write a new story and I, and it caused a profound change in that community. That school, the minute those who were voted out, and there was a ripple effect that when went on and on beyond them.

When I would go to Gainesville, Georgia, and other little towns around there, people knew who I was. It was like, Oh, okay. Because they felt like they'd been terrorized and bullied by these people for so long. And this was the first time that someone had actually put them in their place.

BC: Yes. So, here's a follow-up question. And that is so there's two, two strategies here. One of them is understanding that the system in which the school operates in, the community operates in, and even the parents have to function in is one of a lot of self-interest, and a lot of power that is vested in people that are used to having their way.

So, one strategy was, is to call that question and say, “I understand what's important to you and you don't want to risk that, so I need for you to do this”. That's that was one strategy. But the other one is that the proof in the pudding was those kids loved you, and cared about you, and those parents were willing to say, “I don't care about any politics here. This is an important thing in my child's life”.

AL:  Those children, and I have to say those children did love me. It got so bad that the right-wing radio stations were actually doing call-in programs about me, and my students were the ones calling in and they were very proud of themselves when they saw me and said, “Ms. Lovelace, I called him. I told him; do you know Ms. Lovelace? ‘Cause I do. And if you don't know Ms. Lovelace, you shouldn't be talking about her.” So yeah, those kids were very adamant because I was a great teacher. I really was. I could take any audience and teaching them how to explore their creative selves and tell their own stories. That was what I was good at. And, I had worked in every little, small white town in the South that you can think of.

My typical town that I worked in was 2000-3000 people with a 0.5% black population. So, all these little towns started calling them going, “ooh, y’all really got the wrong person. It's really not going to work with Alice. I don't, they just pick the wrong person”. And I found out they had tried it a year before with a dancer and had gotten some success, and I guess that's why they thought they could come after me. They thought I was just an isolated black woman up in this white community all by myself. But you, build allies wherever you can. And teachers and students have always been my greatest ally.

 

Part Three: The Canaries in the Mine.

BC: And one of the things that brings to mind is that and we were talking about Georgia. The shift. in the power dynamic that is taking place is just basically an exponential increase of more and more people recognizing, I have a voice, I have an idea. I have power in this system. Not alone, but together for sure. I know you did a lot of this solo and which is a challenge and there's more and more people in the parade now.

AL: Yeah. The schools are such a Battlefront even when I would visit international, the first places I go are schools because children are like the Canary in the mine. If there's an issue, if there's something wrong, it is going to show up first they're in the schools, you're going to see it. You're going to see it in the curriculum. You're going to see it in the approach and attitudes of the teachers, what the teachers talk about in the lounge when they're on break and they think no one's listening. Young people are a lot more honest. When I would ask them a question, they would actually lay the truth on me. So they were always educating me and you could see the troubles ruining a lot of the problems we're having now that they were, signaled by our educational system. The dropping of the history, and the dropping of geography from our schools because everybody is a winner, it was just this yeah. Going on for years.

And I think that young people, that's why this election was so exciting to see all of the young people, 17-year-olds, extraordinary campaign here in Georgia to register 17-year-old’s over 800,000 teenagers were registered to vote, and because if you were 17, but you turned 18 by the date of the election, you could cast your vote, and I was just, it was just so heartwarming for me to see all these young people taking their power.

BC: So here we are in this odd world That in many ways, what you just described, which is Georgia is a place that has fault lines for a long time. And we all know if there are fault lines, they're going to crack, and they're going to spread, and stuff's going to happen one way or the other, and it's happening. This pandemic is another stress test, right? It's pointing out where the wounds already are that need healing. It's emphasizing places that have had historic problems just making them more obvious so people can avoid them. And one of the things that I think, and I'd just like to know what you think is, if the story going forward has any chance of actually marshaling the better angels of people in our community, there is going to need to be not only a political reckoning, but a cultural reckoning, and I'm just wondering what is the job going forward?

AL: When I look at the Arts Exchange, that definitely is a part of what that struggle was about. We were the only black run, own our own facility, every penny of it… we're the only one in the in the state of Georgia that I know of, and so it was very important to preserve that as a place where black artists are nurtured and can present, but also where the fuller and larger community is welcomed in to help us celebrate and be a part of that.

I do believe in controlling your own story. And I think part of controlling your own story, if you want to see a change as you don't use the language of your oppressor to tell your story. And so, we have to come up with the language to tell our own story, and we have to come up with the faith in ourselves to tell our own stories, without referencing them.

So, a few things like, I never say slaves. I say those who were enslaved. And I even teach this to performing artists, cause’ I have a lot of artists who do stories and I talk about the power of that word and the backlash of it. You think you're saying one thing, but the power invested in the word actually translates to the audience. Totally different. I never say the word master. I say those who would be mastered, or those who fashion themselves as masters because I have to put them in of my cultural context, not referenced them in a cultural context. So, it's taking back those cultural frames. I never talked about globalism because I didn't think it was an evil thing. So, things that you don't believe, and you shouldn't repeat, and the words of your oppressors, you shouldn't repeat, and we have to tell our own stories and build powerful stories.

One of the things that I love here in Atlanta is also the young people they are coming out of the woodworks starting arts organizations, starting their own coalitions of artists. There's just an explosion here. Someone sent me a list recently and it had over 200 black organizations, and it just, and I can remember a time when there were like three of us in the entire city, and it was just so yes, this is how you do it. You own your culture, you possess it, and that's it. And then that is what you put out into the world and you don't accept anybody else's variation on you, and you don't accept anyone else's story about you. You simply don't accept it.

That's also what I learned from Evans. The power of that silence of not repeating what they said this, and this is what I think never reference them because it is not about them. It's about telling that new story, turning over that new page, creating a new path forward.

BC: So, in many ways, yeah, if you think of it as, oxygen, if someone owns the oxygen tank and all you're doing is re-breathing and then recycling, you can't help but end up in it in a toxic environment. So, you're going to have to get some new plants and trees and create some new oxygen.

AL: You may have to struggle for breath for a little while there until you get that new oxygen, but that new oxygen is coming.

BC: Yeah, absolutely.

 

Part Four: A Little Respect.

I know, you are a teacher not by vocation or profession, but as a soul, a teaching soul. I know that you pay a lot of attention to those young people coming up, and obviously, we don't have the five months that it would take for you to pass on all your wisdom, but for young people who would love to follow in your path and make the kind of good trouble that you do, could you pass on a few things that you think are particularly important.

AL: I can only speak to. The practices that informed me, which came out of many years of training and to self-reflect and some of the things that I do.

@ When I go into a classroom to teach, I'm very clearly the teacher, I do not attempt to create a cult of personality, so I never use my own work. I never used myself as the point of excellence. Because I don't want them to admire me. I want them to admire the work they created coming out of themselves. So, my emphasis is always on the students.

@ When I walk into a classroom, the first thing I say to my class is I asked permission to be there. And often the teachers don't understand that, but I will say to the students, “this is your community, and I am an interloper, and other adults have made a decision that I should be here, but the rightful decision-makers are you because you were the one who had the power to make this a success or to make it a failure”. So, I always ask their permission, and they are so struck by that, and it takes them a minute to think I'm running. But then once I get their permission, they give themselves over totally to it because it's their idea. And so often the kids that are labeled disruptive or non-achievers are some of my highest achievers because in order to get respect, you have to give respect.

@ And I don't think people give young people enough respect. They don't understand that just because you're older, you don't automatically get respect. It's a two-way street.

@ Also respect the culture of the classroom. So, the first thing I do is I read, I look at the bulletin boards. I look at all the work that kids are doing. I go through their textbooks and I try to make sure that whatever I'm teaching directly connects to what's happening in their life, in that classroom, so that it lifts up some piece of learning there that they could actually use and employ.

@ I don't bring politics to children. Children are not tools of politics. So, I don't bring politics into the classroom. And I learned that from two experiences. The first time […] it wasn't politics, but I talked about being black and. And I would say in a predominantly white or as usual community, but there were a few black kids there. And as I spoke, I looked at the faces of the couple of black kids that were in there and the pain on their faces, and I could immediately see that this is something that's used against them so much and I totally backed off and I never did that again. But what I would do was offer myself so they could ask me questions about myself. Why is your hair like that? Because I'm an African person. My hair grows inward towards myself. So why? Because it would protect my skull from the sun and kept me from getting brain damage. That's why we have kinky hair. And I would talk about loving myself and loving my own hair. And then the difference in those children would be the smile. It was like, yes. And it taught me to never try to politicize a situation with children, and if I wanted to offer an example, it was myself. That was the example.

The other thing that I learned is that quite often, you have to put the teacher out of the classroom. Teachers believe they control the classroom, and they really don't. So, I would give these instructions, we'd go through the class. And my last words to my students always before they start writing, is that “everything I've said is absolutely up to you, whether you accept it or not say, when you pick up that piece of paper, you are the writer, you are the owner of it. And if you decide to do something different, doesn’t matter because that's your power and you should always play to your power”, and the teachers would have a fit, and occasionally I would see teachers going around the room and they'd pick up a student's work.

And they'd say, “that's not what Ms. Lovelace told you to do” when they ball the paper up and throw it in the trash can. So, I'd say, “Oh, why don't you go get me a cup of coffee”, and I'd send the teacher out and I'd go the trashcan, pull the workout, smooth it out, put it on the student's desk. And I'd go, I really liked that line. I want you; you need to go ahead and finish that line for me, because I want to know where this is going. And I had to put the power back into that child's hand. And I don't think teachers understand how demoralizing they can be at times that if they've got a bad student is usually because they've cast that student in a way, and they fixed it in their mind and they can't see another way for the student to be.

Talk about recognizing their power. As in this all-white school, no black students and I'm teaching a class has got all the football players, I'm teaching poetry, and you can about imagine how well these football players. So, every time I go to talk, I noticed the kids look over to this one guy. So, I stopped the class. I got them busy, and I asked him to go outside, and I stood outside with him. I said, “okay, look, I recognize who has the power in that room? And that power is yours. And he was like no. I said, oh no, that power is yours”. And so, he was like “oh no”, he told me he was the captain of the football team. I said, “okay, I still, okay. So, this is my deal. All I'm asking for is a chance, and I want you to listen, and I want you to respond. And if you find this beneficial to you, I want you to, respond in the affirmative and let them know that you find this beneficial”. I said, “but I can't do this without you”. So, we went back into the classroom and I started talking and when I would say something, he would say, “yeah Ms. Lovelace, that's right”. And all of a sudden, the kids are like, he did that a couple of times and everything, total, everything shifted the entire room, shifted our work, shifted our ability to get deep shifted, and we were really successful.

So, I also would say to them you have to honor the power that young people have. And you have to understand where that power is vested and how to use that power to get good things for them.

BC: Yeah Alice, and everything that you just described. You could just take that, and you could say “Here's some principles for good organizing in a community”. And I can also say that all those lessons were learned by me in my work, in the prison system. That the guy in the class who's, everybody looks to, it’s a power game, and so unless you get really clear about where power is and who owns what.

One of the things that I'll never forget is prisoners in a class maybe learning how to draw. And the teacher tells them to draw this thing. And then, the teacher might say today you get to choose. You pick anything in this whole class. And I'll never forget when a prisoner looks up at the teacher, I was in the classroom, and he picked up his chair, threw it against the wall, and. Said “oh, you're setting me up. I know there's a wrong answer here. And I am not going to be put in that position, right?”

Yeah. And what that meant was they're so used to being, set up in so many different ways. And that moment I learned that the imagination is a delicate thing, and it can be hijacked by systems and toxic culture, and one of the jobs sometimes in the classroom is to just ease that imaginative muscle into a better shape so they feel a little bit more confident that they could take responsibility for whatever shows up, in their imagination. It's a powerful thing.

AL: Do you know what was my most difficult classes with that? Who escribed to that ideology were the gifted classes?

And I used to, I hated to teach gifted classes. So, I would negotiate with the schools because they will usually bring me in for the gifted classes, and I would only teach gifted classes if they allowed me to teach an equal number of remedial classes. Because remedial students were actually much more creative and free thinkers and the reason I didn't like gifted classes was because of that. […] They’d say “What's the rubric?” …There is no rubric. “How many similes’s do I have to use?” …There is no such thing. “What's the subject matter?” …There is no subject matter. You choose it. They couldn't deal with it. They needed all of these criteria set by the teacher. Like you said, so they wouldn't feel set up, so they could get that A, or get that…. And it was very frustrating for them because I wouldn't give it to them. I always thought that was the greatest gift I ever gave to gifted students was to understand that sometimes you have to fly on your own.

BC: Yeah, you do, you do, absolutely!

Well, you've been flying on your own for quite a while Alice, and I know that we could have many conversations that could go on a long way. It's an honor and a privilege to have spent two days in conversation with you.

AL: Oh it’s so [great], I’m telling you. Thanks for being on my show ever having me on yours.

BC: Absolutely. I will also put a link to your show on my show and vice versa, back and forth, build a community.

AL: Yeah, for sure. All right. Thanks Bill.

BC: Alice. Stay well

AL:  You Too. Bye, Bye.

BC: Bye, bye!

BC: And that brings an end to this hopefully peacefully, disruptive episode of Change the Story, Change the World, which is a production of The Center for the Study of Art and Community. And just so you know, we do a lot more than podcast training research publishing to name a few.

So, check us out at www.artandcommunity.com, and thanks to all of you for tuning in, and finally, thanks to the incomparable Judy Munsen and for our theme song and soundscape and for all of us at the center, I'm Bill Cleveland, adios. 

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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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