How the Arts Can Help Bring Change

Back Commentary May 1, 2019 By Stacey Shelnut-Hendrick

As they say, timing is everything. I’m writing this on the one-year anniversary of the death of Stephon Clark, an unarmed African American man who was shot by two Sacramento police officers in his grandmother’s backyard. However you feel regarding the circumstances surrounding Clark’s death and the district attorney’s decision March 2 not to pursue charges against the officers, you likely felt the cloud of despair that seemed to hover over the city that week.

I felt it, but I am an African American woman and the mother of a 14-year-old son. I have become accustomed to constantly feeling concerned over my son’s safety. But the D.A.’s decision, followed two weeks later by the anniversary of Clark’s death on March 18, and the resulting protests had all combined to create a sense of frustration in me that felt truly palpable. I had so many unanswerable questions: Where is the justice? Who will protect my son and other defenseless brown children? How can I help the city I love heal and change? Overwhelmed and feeling a bit helpless, I went about the “normal” business of life, but things were not right — not with me and definitely not within Sacramento. 

Looking for answers, I attended a community healing circle held by Safe Black Space at Unity of Sacramento where I experienced a spoken-word performance — a work of art. It jolted me back to what I know to be true: Art has always been an essential way people come together, find common ground and express our shared humanity. I realized that if Sacramento is going to be a city that not only works but thrives, the arts are key to laying the foundation for what the Thriving Cities Group (an organization focused on urban revival) describes as the four C’s — conditions, connections, collaborations and commitment — that form a community’s civic substructure.

Conditions: From cave drawings to singer Marian Anderson’s performance at the Lincoln Memorial in 1939 to Shepard Fairey’s Barack Obama “Hope” poster, art has been a way for people to share their truths and aspirations. The arts help us understand societal issues like racism and economic inequality. They allow us to sow the seeds of trust and to converse in a socio-emotive state, rather than from a place of fear. In Sacramento, arts organizations such as Sojourner Truth African Heritage Museum, Sol Collective and Celebration Arts give voice to the underserved and use the arts to inspire social change. But these organizations struggle  to stay open. Rather than investing in them and the type of social capital they create, as a city, we have elected to place our energy on reacting, such as with more police, rather than on efforts to form a shared sense of community. 

Connections: In “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community,” author Robert D. Putnam argues that as Americans have become wealthier, their sense of community has dwindled. As people spend more time working, commuting and being on smart devices, they spend less time volunteering, joining community groups, socializing with neighbors and enjoying collective experiences. In 2015, the Crocker Art Museum began its Block by Block initiative that exemplifies how arts organizations can engage and build social capital. Block by Block focuses on co-creating experiences in and with communities that have traditionally not visited the museum. 

Now working primarily in Sacramento’s Promise Zone — federally designated areas disproportionately under-resourced compared to other areas of the city — Block by Block has served more than  35,000 people through block parties, art activities at community events and smaller pop-up experiences. To do this, the Crocker employs a team of teens and emerging community art and activism professionals to elevate the profile of the arts in these neighborhoods.

Last year, the Crocker attended 22 community meetings, participated in 59 events, co-created six pop-up experiences and conducted art activities at eight youth-violence-reduction programs. And the initiative emphasizes giving neighborhood artists paid opportunities to perform. Through art, community members can develop the sense of pride, security and well-being that leads to a thriving city. Art will not necessarily fix the lack of affordable housing or the legacy of racism and current divides, but it can build understanding and provide forums for conversations that alter the attitudes and conditions necessary for productive civic engagement. 

Collaborations: The change we want in Sacramento will come from a flourishing creative community that partners with government, businesses, philanthropic forces and individuals — all working together to shape our city. We’ve already seen what can happen when creative and community-centric voices come together. One example is the concert series produced by SOFAR Sounds Sacramento, the local offshoot of a London-based startup that invites music lovers to unusual spaces — like Phono Select Records in south Sacramento or Shift Coffee on Del Paso Boulevard. The simple idea that a musical experience can and should happen anywhere and everywhere builds on the best models related to inclusivity, access and empowerment.

Commitment: Sacramento could become a phenomenal art and cultural mecca in a way that promotes cultural equity and a creative economy. A survey of 1,709 Sacramentans in 2018 led to the Creative Edge: Sacramento’s Arts, Culture and Creative Economy Plan and affirmed 77 percent of residents believe it’s important to celebrate and recognize diverse communities and that the arts are a key mechanism to do so. Creative Edge details six goals and a host of action steps, but it’s essentially a toothless tiger without a financial investment from the City of Sacramento, which could inspire investments from other sources. We need to offer pathways for cultural activities that provide a vital economy for performers, musicians, writers, artists, designers, art galleries, historical sites, museums, broadcasters, filmmakers, instrument technicians and so much more.

As I was reminded during that healing circle, when change needs to happen, and a path forward feels unclear and uncertain, the arts are a good place to begin. But it takes all of us coming together and being willing to do things differently to truly make a change.


Allison CagleyMay 14, 2019 - 10:20am

Bravo for such a well-written and thoughtful article. Every City Council member and City Management staff should read this and consider their role in making a civic and financial commitment to the arts. Thank you, Stacey, for your intelligent commentary.