colby caldwell

Interview with Alternate Roots

colby caldwell
Interview with Alternate Roots

by Anna Helgeson

ROOTS Week Dance Party.jpg

The morning after Trump was elected I woke in a cold sweat, with puffy eyes and a life-changing decision: I will quit all creative pursuits and become a lawyer. The United States is fucked and more than art we need litigation. As the day wore on, I slowly remembered all the reasons I would not become a lawyer–no money for law school, a disdain for logic and legalese, my disinterest in looking professional, etc. As that idea quickly faded, it was replaced with just a question: Does art really matter? 

There is one regional organization that would answer that question with a loud, “Heck Yes!” Alternative ROOTS was founded in 1976 at the Highlander Center in New Market, Tennessee, to respond to the specific needs of theater artists committed to social justice work (ROOTS is an acronym for “Regional Organization of Theaters in the South”). The organization quickly grew to include artists and activists of all stripes who were using creative ways to generate change and initiate world-changing conversations. 

In their own words:

Alternate ROOTS is an organization based in the Southern USA* whose mission is to support the creation and presentation of original art, in all its forms, which is rooted in a particular community of place, tradition or spirit. As a coalition of cultural workers we strive to be allies in the elimination of all forms of oppression. ROOTS is committed to social and economic justice and the protection of the natural world and addresses these concerns through its programs and services.

The organization is perhaps best known for ROOTS Week, a six day annual meeting and artists’ retreat in Arden, North Carolina. For six days and nights hundreds of artists and activists from around the country gather to perform, sing, dance, discuss, organize, and heal together. This year’s theme is Re/New:

In this political climate we need to RENEW: to pull the wisdom from the past forward with us, to make it – and ourselves – new again. We’ll gather at ROOTS Week to renew our spirits, recover our histories, revive our arts/organizing practices, replenish our Creating-a-Better-World toolkits, and re-vision the future that we are working towards, together.

I recently had the opportunity to meet the new ROOTS Executive Director, Michelle Ramos, and ROOTS board member, Tamiko Ambrose Murray, for a thoughtful and passionate discussion about this inspiring organization.

How did each of you become involved with Alternate ROOTS?

Tamiko: I had just finished graduate school when I was invited to be a camp counselor for ROOTS week. I had never heard of them, but decided to take the offer. The very first meeting I attended was brought to order by singing…and I thought…wow…where am I? 

That day was incredible. I witnessed people being open, brilliant artists and talking about eliminating oppression and building community. I left at the end of the day feeling like I had come home, that I had been a ROOTS member, and a cultural worker, before I even knew what that was. I also remember being a little bit upset, because ROOTS week had been happening for decades, 20 minutes from my house, and I was just now learning about it.

Michelle: I have been involved in arts advocacy, policy work, and activism nationally for many years, both as an attorney and as a retired dancer. In this world of advocacy there was this buzz about ROOTS week and Alternate ROOTS that would frequently surface. Alternate ROOTS was considered the gold standard and was something that everyone wanted to emulate or be a part of. I would also find myself in situations–on panels, conferences, etc.–with the then-director of Alternate ROOTS, Carlton Turner. Carlton was a great leader and a really big reason why the organization was so highly regarded. I admired him a great deal. So when I heard that he was stepping down, my first thought was, “Oh no!” But then my next thought was, “Who could fill this very important role?”

I started making a list of all the attributes the person would need. Who do I know with a background in arts advocacy, knowledge of policy and data, who is well connected at the national level? Who could be a good conduit for funding? When I finished the list I looked it over and thought, “Umm, this sounds like me!”

At first I talked myself out of applying because I am not from the South, and it was clear to me that whoever took on this role would need to have that background.  But eventually I decided to throw my hat in the ring anyway. When they called me in for an interview I thought, “Oh how nice, they are being very gracious.” And even when they called to offer me the job I was sure they had intended to call the other candidate, I could not believe it! It was that overwhelming.

I now understand they recognized that I am someone who would honor the legacy of the organization while also getting it out into the broader world. Because the world needs what ROOTS has. ROOTS is a Southern organization that has national impact but is in a bit of denial about it.  

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Why is it important that ROOTS is a Southern organization? 

Tamiko: Let me first say, I was not born in the South, I was born in Chicago. I lived there until I was 10, then lived in Los Angeles until I was 20. But I’ve been in Asheville for 23 years. And my family roots are from the South. I am a granddaughter of the Great Migration returning home. The South is a place with a lot of history related to oppressing poor people and people of color. I also think that the South is a breeding place for cooking up strategies that impact the nation. 

Michelle: ROOTS was born out of necessity for people in this region. One of the first executive directors of ROOTS puts it beautifully: People in the South have had to face their demons. Children of the South have had to face these demons in ways that people elsewhere have not.  And that fact alone makes them significantly distinguished and impactful. 

How do you see the role of the arts in activism?

Tamiko: We are human beings in the middle of this structure, right? So arts and culture have the power to impact people, as humans first, in a way that activism in other forms does not. When I think about the civil rights movement I think about how important song and food was. At the core of how we mobilize people around change is culture and art. When I think specifically of racism, it is our stories that motivate people. Not everyone is going to be sitting in a City Council meeting or town hall meeting, but they can find another entry point another way to contribute.

Michelle: Making art for art’s sake is a privilege. Members of ROOTS are making art that is impacting lives, that is impacting change–from housing, to food, to civil rights, immigration, the environment. And it is based in action. They use their artistry to create movements. To get people to pay attention and think differently. There was no arts organization like this 40 years ago. Until fairly recently, most art that was recognized as such had a European framework, it was grounded in aesthetic as a value proposition. No one knew what to do with activist artists 40 years ago.

Here’s an example of how we are trying to do things differently: When reviewing our grant applications, we recognized that the process of applying for a grant is oppressive, because it rewards people with advanced educations, or a bigger staff, with more time. Just applying for a grant is oppressive and the framework is set up in a white supremacist structure. It rewards whiteness, frankly. So we created a way for applicants to apply for a grant via video. So you have a choice: You can write your grant application or apply by video. I was sitting in this national conference for dance last week and I mentioned this to some people, and guess what? Now a bunch of these organizations are considering accepting video applications! These are huge white institutions! This is an example of how ROOTs impacts the arts nationally. 

That is great! I understand ROOTS is a membership organization. Could you talk a little more about how many members there are and what the balance of performing artists to visual artists to activists is?

Michelle: We have about 350-400 paying members and a listserv of 3,500  people. Because we were founded as a performing arts organization, we definitely have more performance artists involved. We are constantly working to get more visual artists involved and we are also getting more activists, or people who don’t yet know they are artists! For so many years, art was defined in such a narrow way that some folks don’t realize they are artists until after they join.

Anna: Alternate ROOTS has been around for 42 years. That is a long time–what do you attribute its longevity to?

Tamiko:  When I first arrived at ROOTS I thought it was utopia. There were performing artists with disabilities, people from all over, doing all sorts of thing. You know, there was just such a broad representation of people. It felt authentically diverse…talking about equity and oppression...but what I came to learn is that in fact ROOTS is not utopia. It is very much part of the real world. We make mistakes, we all learn from each other. People allow themselves to be vulnerable and listen. It is much better than utopia, and better than any other arts organization I’ve been a part of.

Michelle: What attracts people to ROOTS is pretty fundamental: networking with like-minded folks, working towards similar goals. ROOTS is brilliant at being responsive to its artists and members. I think that is what keeps us ahead of the curve. For example, we have folks in New Orleans working to remove Confederate statues and folks in Mississippi trying to remove the Confederate flag from the state flag. So we can connect those people to each other so they can learn from each other’s experience and get advice. 

There is also a respect for the legacy and history of the organization. In my first 30 days, the very first thing I did was to speak to 15 ROOTS elders. I needed to hear from them to really know what ROOTS was all about. So I think this combination of respecting history and legacy while still being able to look forward and be responsive to changing times and younger members is key. 

I have been trying to get a ticket for ROOTS week for a few years now and it always sells out! Tell me a little bit more about what goes on during this week.  

Michelle: I have never actually been! What I can tell you is this, I just finished a tour in 14 cities interviewing members, and ROOTS week is why people become members. ROOTS week is what it is all about. It is everything. It is the #1 benefit of their membership. The thing that I hear is that the work our artists do is so stressful and emotional, ROOTS week is a time when they can let go and reenergize. Where they can be in a safe and healing space and engage in some self-care.  

Tamiko: I agree with everything you said and I would just add that ROOTS puts healing at the center of all activities. Which is why there is massage, Zumba, all sorts of ways to relax and reconnect. There is something meaningful about sharing space with others who are doing difficult work in the world and healing in community. There are also lots of performances at ROOTS–poetry, dance, theater, and in recent years there has been more effort to bring visual arts into the space as well. Another great aspect is that it is a space for emerging artists to show work and get feedback in a safe space, in a space that will help them grow. 

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Is there an artist you have been impacted by recently? Or an artist you can point to as demonstrating art as activism in a powerful way?  

Michelle: One artists I think about a lot is Jackie Sumell. She communicates with people in solitary confinement and recreates the space of a cell, its exact dimensions and design, and then in that space creates a garden. So, for example, if she learns that daffodils were meaningful to a person’s grandmother, or that they use sage as part of ceremonial arts, she will plant daffodils and sage. She then asks visitors to step inside the space before telling them the story of the incarcerated person. Most people have no idea how small solitary confinement is. 

The thing about her work that I love is that she communicates about incarceration in a really beautiful way. It’s one thing to recreate a cell, but it is another to plant a garden with plants that are meaningful to the person in prison. Her work is super meaningful to me because my uncle was incarcerated, so I know personally what it is like to have a family member incarcerated and how it impacts families. I know what it’s like getting letters from him in solitary confinement. 

Tamiko: I am really inspired by the artwork created by my daughter, Liana Ambrose Murray.  She created the design for the ROOTS week poster this year based on a work we saw in Jacksonville. (A sculpture by Augusta Savage called The Harp. Augusta Savage was an African-American woman born in 1892. She was a talented sculptor, but never got the recognition she deserved in her lifetime. Savage was offered a scholarship to study in France in 1922, but the offer was rescinded when white students from Alabama who had received similar grants refused to travel to France unless she was removed from the group). The Harp was never finished because she could not afford to have it cast in bronze. It is important that we carry this work forward and share it with the world. I think that ROOTS’ efforts to support young artists is powerful, artists of color especially.  I am also inspired by Valeria Watson, because she creates these entire rooms that are like alternate universes. I really want her to come to ROOTS week. And I feel like we do need to create an alternative universe. We do need to use our imaginations to create a world we want to see.

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So yes, I am very grateful to lawyers who are doing what they can to fight injustice. I am equally grateful to artists who are connecting us to our shared humanity and helping us imagine a future we want to inhabit.

For more information about Alternate ROOTS visit: https://alternateroots.org