A Black Aquatic: An Artist Explores the Relationship Between Black People and Water

“A Black Aquatic” by Kenya (Robinson) is an essay commissioned by PROTODISPATCH, a new digital publication featuring personal perspectives by artists addressing transcontinental concerns, filtered by where they are in the world. It was originally published by the international nonprofit Protocinema and appears here as part of a collaboration between Protocinema and Midnight Publishing Group News.


Through a hyperlinked lyric essay, and a month-long social media takeover on Protocinema channels, Kenya (Robinson) explores the relationship between Black people and water—both fresh and saltwater—as an essential part of the storytelling of U.S. histories.


I was shipwrecked once. Boat wrecked? Marooned. On St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands. The unfortunate end to a failed romantic encounter—we slept on a rocky beach until sunrise, leaving a borrowed dinghy behind. My skin was textured with so many mosquito bites that I’ve retained a lingering immunity for more than a decade; a handy trick, having returned to my Florida homestate. The hike back to the eco-resort where I was participating in a work exchange program was purposefully… unchatty. “It’s just around the bend,” he said. “It’ll take no more than 15 minutes,” he said. “Can you call the Coast Guard?” he said. I was grateful for the full moon as the sun slipped beneath the horizon leaving the water a vast undulating black surface. The boat felt two sizes too small. And, of course, it started to rain. The neighboring Tortola loomed closer than I’d ever seen it. Officially we were in international waters. Cell phone dead. I recall his weak attempts to include me as a co-pilot, but I’d set out with sex on the brain and left my glasses in the cabin. Fortunately, I was so damn mad that it edged out the fear outlining the scenario. I cussed him out goodt.

I was mostly mad at the sea, though.

Like many, I’ve been on a jet more times than I’ve been on a boat. And paid good money for the privilege of the inevitable bit of turbulence that comes along with it. Practiced at keeping my face calm as the sphincter contracts. Babies crying, foil bagged snacks, popping ears—alternately and simultaneous. But this liquid leviathan that looked so lovely in the daytime or sparkling with bioluminescence along the shore at night, could easily gobble me, and Whatshisname, up. Without a trace, or belched and blanched, sandy side. On a plane, I can always blame the vehicle, the pilot, the weather. But the ocean can kill you just by being what it is. Kind of like the IZM. I be mad at that too.

More than a few years ago The Innanet algorithimed me a message through a picture. In black and white, with Blacks and whites. Fully dressed Huite police officers in frothy conflict at St. Augustine Beach. I liked the picture. It was sublime, even when I deciphered what was actually going on. Protest. Pugilism. Peckerwoods. Poetic. Absurd. Colored. Chaotic. Choreographic. It’s a place I’ve been to many times. An Atlantic sunrise service for Easter, a day trip through Palatka or Starke (of Old Sparky infamy and while-you-wait concealed weapon permits).

You can go either way; it’s an hour-forty-five from Gainesville, irregardless. These waterfront Civil Rights Era confrontations were called Wade-Ins, and, similar to the lunch counters in Carolina, lots of folks ended up ‘wet.’ Not that there weren’t beaches for Black folks, or lakes, or springs, but leisure is a kind of learning too. Brown v. Diving Board of Education. Archival snaps of red-faced motel managers dumping acid in pools, a conditioned response to black gold in the cement pond. You never realize how ridiculous wingtips look poolside until you see it. Anyway, I like the beach shots better. More angry instead of scared. I always wondered why the one first-person account that I remember, from a kidnapped and imprisoned African, details the Middle Passage mostly in terms of depressive sadness, not a hint of rage to be found. Still, too many grown Black folks are relegated to wading. Members of the can’t-swim-crew. Feet gotta touch the bottom, and taste level at the waist level. Lest your hair revert kinky, in the age(s) before waterproof wig glue and microbraids.  Maybe that’s what that anger, tamped down in 18th century text, looks like generations later: maximum depth, three feet.

Still, there is magic in the deep too. Escape. Covert missions and scent washed away from hound dog pursuits and Confederate ships commandeered. The Underground Railroad™ wasn’t only northbound, contingent upon Abolitionists with hidden motives, histories obscured by narratives of power. Florida census records from the turn of the 20th century recognize a hidden story of self-manumission that rivals that of more popularized tales. With a sizable Native population and many topographical and geographical features to recommend it, the state became a satellite within the deep south, a consistent challenge to European colonial powers until its statehood in 1845. The journey from Southern fields to Florida wasn’t nearly as long in comparison to The North™, and the mild weather guaranteed relative ease in travel year-round, but most significantly Black people could avoid relying on white folks to foster their journey. All positive logistics for “stealing” yourself. Sometimes you left along the 1,350+ miles of Florida coastline or traversed over 11,000 miles of rivers, streams, and waterways in the state. Maybe, if you was Gullah, or Geechee, or James Brown, all you knew was water and rice; island life. Or you simply went back to the indigeneity that was stolen from you by the Dawes Rolls or the five dollar registration fee, or the assessment of hair texture as identity, Mississippi Goddamn. Sometimes you went even further, only to return a hundred years later as an immigrant from Mexico, or Cuba, or the Bahamas, knowledge of self-determination.

I minnow patched to YMCA swim safety on a 9-year-old-summer visit with my dad in Hampton, Virginia. I had this lavender bathing suit, spots radiating from a leopard’s face across my chest, and a collection of black rubber bracelets distributed on both wrists. It was the ‘80s. I could hold my breath under water, so I assumed I could swim. After failing the assessment test, a floatation belt was strapped around my middle. Three Styrofoam blocks, then two, then one. Then none. There is magic in the deep end. Plastic rings sunk to the bottom for retrieval. That’s where the mermaids live, according to Disney, and its subsidiary, Touchstone Films; made defunct in 2017—the same year as Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria.

My birthday is in just a few days, the cusp of Gemini and Cancer. Air and Water. It’s no surprise that I’ll be heading to St. Augustine Beach. But me and the Atlantic got beef. I Indulge it occasionally for sentimental reasons. My mother, of Easter Sunday Sunrise services, died in 2011. I much prefer the Gulf. It serves fantasy realness with its sugar sand beaches and clear Clearwater. My Dad lives there now. In St. Petersburg actually, near where there’s an inexplicable monument to Tadeusz Kościuszko, the unwitting sponsor of Thomas Jefferson’s Southern Planter Lifestyle. My Dad keeps a folding chair in the trunk of his car these days, his skin now a tanned caramel, after years of high-latitude high-yellow. A Florida native, he tells me that his first visit to the beach (Daytona), at age 25, was a date he’d arranged for my Mother. One in a collection of firsts, apparently. I am my parents’ only child. I mimic his leisure, seaside, as often as I can. For myself, and for my Mother too; grief sometimes reads the loss as a sacrifice. Might as well complete the ritual by living goodt. There are a number of photographs from that day. My father isn’t in any of the pictures, just his snaps of my mother in a pale fuchsia bikini. The camera worships her, as the eye behind it. She the sea nymph and sable goddess. My Mami Wata. Silver spoon rings and bangles, droplets of water clinging to her free form ‘fro. She’s the one who told me that European sailors mistook manatees for mermaids, and indulged my creekside fantasies—imagined creatures formed from the exposed clay deposits that I found there. She’s the one who explained the origin of my birthstone, “the only living gemstone,” she said, formed by irritating an oyster’s insides. Told me of the tether between the moon and the tides, explained the Doppler Effect from the cars with the booming systems. Box Chevys and Cutlass Supremes. Landlocked in Gainesville, we still tracked hurricanes using the coordinates broadcast by the evening news. Gridded maps printed on the sides of brown paper grocery bags.

“Drink water and mind your business,” so says the meme-ability of the Black American Vernacular. But the Black interns, working for the solar companies on the outskirts of Alachua County, only drink stuff with an -ade on the end. I know because I play house auntie for their Airbnb summers. I offer up a bit of unasked-for advice, suggesting that hydration from the water cooler housed in the kitchen is freer than the bottled stuff. I don’t even mention our high-quality city punch anymore, aquifer-fed. And the pool key remains on the hook week after week. Heat index 101. Still, when I go to Indian Rocks or Siesta Key, Daytona or Clearwater, St. Pete or St. Augustine, I scan for jeweled water beads on kinky hair. I tune my ears for the music so elemental that I can’t remember learning the lyrics that I’m singing. Reveling in the collective vulnerability of swimwear. Nourished in the mixing of it all; frothy and fine.

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The U.K. Government’s Decision to Slash Arts Funding in Higher Education Is Short-Sighted. We Must Remind Our Politicians Why Art Is Essential

With the news that the U.K. government will be progressing with their brutal 50 percent cuts to arts and design courses across higher education in England, you might ask why, in the 21st century, the year 2021, the culture sector has to keep defending its obvious value to society.

It is certainly not that the U.K. government does not understand arts and culture’s economic worth, when it adds more than £10.8 billion to the economy, and creates hundreds of thousands of jobs every year. The government acknowledged this value when it established protective measures for the sector through the Culture Recovery Fund during the pandemic. However, when workers in our sector—especially independent art workers, artists, curators, producers and academics—are barely surviving, it is clear that the government still doesn’t understand the essential role our industry plays in society.

Halving subsidies to all arts courses in higher education will save the government just over £20 million while causing long-lasting changes to the face of one of the U.K.’s most important and vibrant industries. With the ratification of these cuts, the Conservative government has made an incredibly short-sighted decision that betrays its lack of overall vision of arts and culture in our society.

To begin with, that £20 million saved is a drop in the ocean considering the GDP impact of the arts sector. Research has shown that for every 10 jobs in creative industries, a further seven are supported through supply chains.

Further, the department for education has made a decision that sets sciences and the arts at opposite poles, and fails to recognize the important interdisciplinary experimentation that has helped to inspire, progress, and innovate both industries for centuries.

Arts education is not exclusive to artists. Being arts educated means you are a critical thinker who can distil, question, challenge, and strive for change. These are transferable attributes that benefit many sectors. Challenging ideas, constructs, and the way our society works, is what makes for innovative enterprise, which is why this country can thank its art schools for nurturing some of the most recognized innovators of our time—with figures from James Dyson having studied at the Royal College of Art to Apple designer Jonathan Ive, who studied art and design at Northumbria University. By cutting funding in this way, we risk extinguishing the talent of tomorrow.

The impact of the cuts on both students and institutions across the country will be vast. On top of the financial devastation of the pandemic on specialist art schools and colleges across the country, this will see higher education provision shrink. Not only does this devalue the sector at the academic level; it creates inequality for people who are marginalized, and will have less access to high-quality arts education on their doorstep.

“Levelling up”—referring to investment in improving life beyond the capital city of London—is the key buzz word of this government, but it has failed to recognize that arts colleges and universities have been truly levelling up their hometowns and making vital contributions to placemaking and investments through sports and culture for generations. Ensuring regional hubs such as Plymouth, Southampton, or Coventry have a future post-industrial age or disinvestment has historically been a core role of their universities and arts colleges. It has changed many people’s real-life experiences in these places: both social and economic. So, if a regional university cuts its art course, it cuts its value in that place.

It seems this policy decision has been based solely on the graduate income and the repayment of student loans. But a creative career does not follow a linear path. This process of discovery and development is part of the nature of the arts, and it should not compromise our ability to maintain excellence in our arts education system. The high standard of culture in the U.K. has been taken for granted by those in leadership, and while they may sit on the boards of our national galleries and museums, these cuts demonstrate their disregard toward those who have brought the U.K.’s art sector to the world-leading position it occupies today.

To unite the sector and advocate for ourselves as an industry during the pandemic, my organization established the #ArtIsEssential campaign, supported by a newly formed Visual Arts Alliance. Our discussions have brought people together, and revealed some of the tough challenges colleagues face in managing the weight of the pandemic financially and emotionally with loss of income, community, future projects, and a lack of support. More than 4,000 people contributed to our online campaign inviting people to share visual representations of why art is essential in their lives.

Our campaign has now evolved to a vocal protest against the devaluing of the arts by our own government. The higher education arts sector is concerned that further considerable policy challenges will damage a world-class higher education system, without involving the sector itself in any discussion or democratic role in this step change to our industry.

When the education secretary Gavin Williamson first proposed to reduce subsidies for art and design students in higher education by 50 percent, we activated the network. Leaders of galleries, universities, museums, and institutions across the country from the Tate, Serpentine and BALTIC to Goldsmiths, Central Saint Martin’s, and the Slade signed an open letter decrying the move.

The Visual Arts Alliance will be challenging this decision, and there will be a rebuttal. We urge people across the U.K. to keep talking to your local representatives explaining why Art Is Essential. We need leaders across industries to continue to articulate and reinforce why the arts are so important to society, and remind those in power that culture is for everybody, and must never be taken for granted.

Paula Orrell is the director of the Contemporary Visual Arts Network, England.

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As a Belgian Politician, I Feel a Responsibility to Restitute Stolen Artifacts to the Congo. Here’s Why My Fellow Citizens Should, Too

Thomas Dermine is Belgium’s State Secretary for Scientific Policy, Recovery Program, and Strategic Investments. This month, he made a proposal that was accepted by the federal government to create a bilateral accord with the Democratic Republic of the Congo—the aim is to create a collaborative approach on objects acquired illegitimately during the colonial era. The region that is today the Democratic Republic of the Congo was once a colony of Belgium, existing as the Congo Free State and then Belgian Congo, between 1885 and 1960.

Belgium’s King Philippe addressed the two nations during a ceremony last year to mark the 60th anniversary of independence of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, once a colony of Belgium. “Our history is made up of common achievements but has also known painful episodes,” he said. “During the era of the independent state of Congo, acts of violence and cruelty were committed, which still weigh on our collective memory. The colonial period which followed also caused suffering and humiliation.”

Time does not erase anything. At best, it covers faded memories with a veil, which are rekindled with the first breeze. It was time for these apologies from the highest level of the state. Further on in his speech, the King emphasized that in order to “further strengthen our ties and develop an even more fruitful friendship, we must be able to talk to each other about our long common history in all truth and in all serenity.”

I am convinced that colonialism was a fundamentally unjust system of territorial occupation, economic exploitation, and physical and mental violence. It is essential to avoid a facelift of colonialism and we therefore have to abolish the historical and structural inequality of knowledge. Concrete actions such as the restitution of illegitimately acquired colonial collections can help us achieve this. They can also influence the attitude and behavior of our population towards racism, xenophobia, and intolerance. That is why I propose that we need a formal accord on restitution—we need practical and concrete action.

Africa Museum in Tervuren, Belgium. © David Plas.

Africa Museum in Tervuren, Belgium. © David Plas.


Today, the population in the Democratic Republic of the Congo is characterized by the importance of its youth: 60 percent of the inhabitants are under 20 years old. The access of youth to their own culture is of foremost importance, as is access to the creativity and spirituality of eras whose knowledge and recognition cannot be reserved for Western societies or diasporas living in Europe. We cannot enjoy our museums without completely ignoring the hidden side of certain objects. There are objects that were taken, with or without the consent of the country of origin, during scientific missions and military expeditions, and as a result of the movement of territorial agents or evangelizing activities. It is important that visitors of our museums know how certain objects got into these display cases.

Victor Hugo once said that “nothing is stronger than an idea whose time has come,” and I think that the time has come for the return of looted objects to the Congo. Objects illegitimately acquired by our ancestors do not belong to us. They are not ours. They belong to the Congolese people. Period.

The objective of our proposition to the government, which we formally made earlier this month, first addresses the holdings of the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren. The approach is based on two principles. First, we need to separate the issue of the legal transfer of property from the issue of physical restitution. Too often in the past, discussions about colonial objects have been stopped by concerns around conservation—to enable the transfer of property, the alienable character of all the objects for which it has not yet been possible to determine that Belgium has acquired them legitimately, must first be legally recognized.

A view from the gallery Rituals and Ceremonies at the Africa Museum in Tervuren, Belgium. © RMCA, Tervuren, photo Jo Van de Vijver.

This allows us to solve the question of ownership and to give ourselves time in a bilateral framework to build the conditions for return and conservation. The second principle of our approach is to create a dialogue between the two countries, which must be the common thread of the entire process—the material transfer of these objects must be part of a bilateral diplomatic framework. This will ideally be done in a cooperation that strengthens conditions for conservation.

This two-pronged approach will be applied to three categories of objects that were acquired during the colonial period in Congo. There are objects for which we know they were acquired illegitimately. These objects must be made alienable for restitution purposes. An agreement between Belgium and the Democratic Republic of Congo would set out the conditions under which the Congo could require—if they so wished—the physical transfer of the objects to its territory.

The second category includes objects for which we know they have been legitimately acquired. These are obviously kept in the public domain of the state, within our collections.

A view from the gallery Rituals and Ceremonies © RMCA, Tervuren, photo Jo Van de Vijver

A view from the gallery Rituals and Ceremonies at the Africa Museum in Tervuren, Belgium. © RMCA, Tervuren, photo Jo Van de Vijver.

The third category includes objects where it is not clear if they were acquired illegitimately or not. Regarding these objects, it will be necessary to accelerate the studies of provenance with scientific teams from both nations. Objects awaiting investigation or those whose investigation would not make it possible to determine the legitimate or illegitimate nature of the acquisition would be alienable, which would symbolically distinguish them from legitimately acquired objects.

We cannot change the past, and Belgium will have to live with this troubled colonial history and heritage. However, it is our collective responsibility to act on the present in order to modify our future and that of the coming generations—here in Belgium, but also in Congo. Colonization and certain abuses committed in this context have long deprived generations of Congolese of access to their heritage, history, culture, creativity, and to the spirituality of their ancestors.

Through this work on restitution, we want to engage in this direction—hand in hand with the Congolese people.

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Arts Philanthropists Need to Change the Way They Think About Disability. Let’s Start by Collaborating With Disabled Artists

Traditional thinking tends to frame disability in the arts as a deficit of one form or another. It acknowledges a lack of disability visibility, a lack of professional and training opportunities, a lack of support, and a plenitude of longstanding, seemingly unsolvable problems. It recognizes that the challenges disabled creatives face, from employment to access to resources, have been laid bare and made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic. According to Americans for the Arts’s pandemic research, disabled creatives are anticipating lower annual income ($16,000 total annually) and higher full unemployment (67 percent) than their nondisabled peers.

But these data points are only part of the story. And if, as a culture, we allow this information to be the primary determinant of contemporary philanthropic and artistic practices, it risks further compounding inequity. 

<i>Hi, Are You Single?</i> (2017). Production still from Ryan Haddad's solo play Hi, Are You Single? Photo by Michael Bernstein. Image description: Under cool stage lighting, Ryan Haddad sits at the end of a bed beside his metallic walker. He wears square glasses, a teal polo, patterned shorts, and lower leg braces.

Hi, Are You Single? (2017). Production still from Ryan Haddad’s solo play, “Hi, Are You Single?” Photo by Michael Bernstein. Image description: Under cool stage lighting, Ryan Haddad sits at the end of a bed beside his metallic walker. He wears square glasses, a teal polo, patterned shorts, and lower leg braces.

The Real Problem

Framing disability in this way—as a series of deficits—adds to the problematic thinking that interprets access as questions of patron services, facilities, or technology. Disabled artists have been identified as absences, and, with the best will in the world, some organizations with the means to do so have sought to address this absence by welcoming select disabled artists. But inclusion or the presence of a few disabled artists does not redress years of inequity and inattention. Such gestures are performative and tokenizing.   

If we focus on disability as a problem, we will never know the artistry, ideas, and pure brilliance of a large part of the creative world. The question is not how to include disabled artists. The fundamental question is, how do we build our cultural spaces and aesthetic frames in such a way that we move towards equity and adopt a Disability Justice framework? 

We want to consider intersectional disability in the arts in all of its raw, conflicting, and provocative multiplicity, and draw attention to our history of cultural production, our artistic sensibilities, and aesthetic intuitions. The wisdom of disability and expertise of disabled artists are in part that we are not monoliths subject to single cultural narratives.

What might the future hold if we commit to disability as an artistic and generative force? What does it look like if artistic, disability, and philanthropic communities work together? 

Time is something disabled people experience expansively, and dreaming our future should not have to be a radical act. 

We’re writing this together, as an artist and a funder, to invite you to dream big with us. We’re a part of Disability Futures, a new fellowship initiative funded by the Ford Foundation and Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and administered by United States Artists. The learnings of the first year of this fellowship could offer a template for change that would transform the practice of support for disabled artists. 

Alice Sheppard. Image description: A Black woman leans forward and smiles brightly, teeth showing and eyes closed, as she rests her chin in her palm. She has light brown skin, curly shoulder-length hair with subtle highlights, and wears a black blouse and sleek gold necklace.

Artist Alice Sheppard. Image description: A Black woman leans forward and smiles brightly, teeth showing and eyes closed, as she rests her chin in her palm. She has light brown skin, curly shoulder-length hair with subtle highlights, and wears a black blouse and sleek gold necklace.

Nothing Without Disabled Creatives

There is a mantra, “nothing about us without us,” coined by disability advocates in South Africa in the 1980s. Reframed by contemporary activists as “nothing without us,” this principle attests to the fact that disabled people know what is best for ourselves and our communities. When it comes to the arts, this means reimagining everything about the way that business has been done. 

There are some easy recommendations: employers must hire disabled staff. Boards must elect disabled members. Funders must invite disabled creatives to join advisory groups and the panels that decide funding allocations, and compensate us for our time. 

But even before we arrive in these places, there must be space and willingness to transform. Adding disabled staff does not create change unless an organization and its people are willing to change. Deep structural transformation is necessary. Deep reeducation is necessary. Complex re-envisioning of the very things that seem unchangeable is necessary. Now is not the time for stopgap measures or window dressing.

Lane Harwell. Image description: A nondisabled presenting white person with short blond hair and blue eyes behind black rim glasses smiles at the camera. They are wearing a white collared shirt with a light blue bowtie and a dark blue blazer against a red background.

The Ford Foundation’s Lane Harwell. Image description: A nondisabled-presenting white person with short blond hair and blue eyes behind black rim glasses smiles at the camera. They are wearing a white collared shirt with a light blue bowtie and a dark blue blazer against a red background.

To build a new future, funders must collaborate with disabled creatives to reimagine such fundamentals as application and review processes, restricted and unrestricted funding, time, process and product, as well as other creative support structures. Nothing can be assumed. Nothing should be left unexamined. Everything is—and should be—open to reimagination.

Disability Futures is for, by, and with disabled creatives on many levels. Each of the 20 inaugural fellows received an unrestricted grant. For the Disability Futures Festival, which runs July 19–20, Ford and United States Artists employed a “nothing without us” curatorial approach, inviting the fellows to spotlight their artistry and saying yes to the production, access, and financial resources they need. The result is a disability-led dance party, performances, and conversations that could spark a new kind of dialogue between creatives, funders, and gatekeepers.


Understanding What Access Really Means 

Transforming support for disabled creatives may start by looking inward. We need to educate ourselves about ableism and audism, be vulnerable, and understand how our personal relationships to disability have influenced our public work. 

For Lane, the work has shifted them from identifying as nondisabled to claiming their disability identity and anxiety and depressive disorders, and mining how this identity is bound up with their white privilege, queerness, and gender expression. Showing up is an ongoing process; it can be joyous, it can be painful. Everything that we learn will affect the ways we work.   

(do not) despair solo (2018). Performance, Abrons Art Center. Image credit: Ian Douglas. Image Description: On stage, Perel leans across their cane in front of an X-Ray projection showing screws and a rod inside of a hip socket. They wear black leather pants, and a golden sleeveless top lit up by a pink light from the side.

(do not) despair solo (2018). Performance, Abrons Art Center. Image credit: Ian Douglas. Image Description: On stage, Perel leans across their cane in front of an X-Ray projection showing screws and a rod inside of a hip socket. They wear black leather pants, and a golden sleeveless top lit up by a pink light from the side.

Disability intersects with every contemporary issue, from abolition and education to healthcare, policing, transportation, and climate justice. Through Disability Futures, Ford has had to learn to think of access as a language, not a solution, and work through how it impacts the institution as a whole. 

Access is fundamental to our human connection with one another. If funders cannot invest in that, there is no point.

Investment and innovation in this space, including disability-led technology, is one way to connect disabled creatives and audiences. But we cannot rely on technology as a fix; access is more than a matter of compliance, checklists, or technologies tacked on to make creative work accessible to patrons. Instead, we must put aside our assumptions about what works and prepare for a time of artist-led discovery. 

Disability Futures was conceived prior to COVID-19, but the meaning, the configuration, and experience of the fellowship took place during the pandemic. The virtual festival of conversations and gatherings invites audiences to meet a powerful group of Deaf and disabled artists in a format well-known to the disability community even before the pandemic. And so it’s with the intersection of the festival, funders, the pandemic, and disabled artists that we begin.


Lane Harwell is a program officer at Ford Foundation. Alice Sheppard is a choreographer and an inaugural Disability Futures Fellow.

The Disability Futures Festival will take place online from July 19 to 20.

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Anti-Black Discrimination and Toxic Workplaces Are All Too Common in the Arts Administration Field

For the last 15 years, I have been creating artwork about systemic racism and have shown it in major museums across the country. I gave a TED talk on the topic that’s been viewed almost 2 million times. I’ve given lectures, been on panels, and led workshops on the long-term impact of enslavement in this country and its racist legacy. But I’ve never publicly shared my personal experience with racism until now.

Ten years ago, I couldn’t afford to tell my story. People who speak out about workplace harassment rarely come out of the situation well. They are labeled as troublemakers, often blamed for what happened, retaliated against, or are blacklisted or blackballed. I am fortunate to be at a place in my career where I can speak the truth.

I’m telling my story now because it appears to me that little has changed in the bureaucracy where I worked. As far as I am concerned, it remains a hostile work environment. It seems that there aren’t consequences, and there are even rewards, for such behavior, while there are no “safe” mechanisms for reporting.

In 2007, I was hired as the Community Arts Liaison at the Office of Arts & Culture for the City of Seattle. I was responsible for two grant funding programs and a festival. I enjoyed connecting with communities across the city, and I loved seeing how small grants could assist individuals as well as neighborhood community organizations achieve their goals for an art project, festival, or event. I was the first Black male program manager in the office’s 35-year history, and felt a great deal of pride in breaking that barrier.

I enjoyed my job up until 2011, when Michael Killoren, director of the Office of Arts & Cultural Affairs, left for a job at the National Endowment for the Arts. With the arrival of the new director, Vincent E. Kitch, I felt the dynamic in the office quickly shift. Kitch’s style was to be very hands-on, and he sought to expand his authority to include regulating the activities of artist-employees outside the office. When I was asked to design the official poster for a local festival, Kitch wanted me to turn down the opportunity, citing a perceived conflict of interest. The Ethics and Elections Office found no conflict, however. I accepted the commission.

Paul Rucker designed posted for Bumbershoot 2011.

Paul Rucker-designed posted for Bumbershoot 2011.

Kitch apparently wasn’t satisfied with this outcome (in fact later he would attempt to draw up a new policy restricting outside work). A coworker, Kathy Hsieh, formerly my peer, was promoted above me as a supervisor. There was no open hiring call (internal or external) for her position. After four years of employment with excellent performance reviews and no disciplinary actions, I suddenly received a series of write ups and “personnel notes” that served to create a record of negative behavior. This technique is called “papering your file.” My new supervisor wrote me up multiple times over a very short period of time, sometimes including more than one date on a “personnel note” to suggest that the issues were repeat offenses. Routine requests for vacation or leave suddenly became outright confrontations.

It took weeks, and many requests, to actually get copies of my files from Hsieh in order to find out what had been written. When I finally received them, I was stunned. The negative documents included a written reprimand, three personnel assessment notes totaling thirteen pages, and a mid-year performance review that included misinformation, misspellings, and ramblings. One of the most concerning sections involved the supervisor portraying me as a troublemaker and suggesting my behavior and mental state were related to my history as a descendant of enslaved people, using the idea of “post-traumatic-slave-syndrome.”

Referring to the Race and Social Justice Initiative (RSJI), the City’s commitment to eliminate racial disparities and achieve racial equity in Seattle, she wrote, “My honest assessment is that he is exhibiting signs of what in RSJI lingo is referred to as post-traumatic-slave-syndrome. When he perceives that he is a target is [sic] reacts defensively and does not act reasonably.”

As a Black man in the US, I’ve always proactively cared for my mental health. During the height of the tension in the office, I experienced anxiety, loss of sleep, and panic attacks. I once loved going to work; now I felt sick at the thought of entering the office. At one point, I had to take a few days off and sought medical support. I took vacation rather than medical leave, because to take medical leave I would have needed to provide a note from my doctor and this was no time to share information about my mental health to the people who were causing harm to my mental health.

I have had great career success, but I caution anyone against using me as an example of “how you can make it” because my story is not the norm. Finding no success in stopping the harassment, I decided it was time to move on. Fortunately, before I left I was granted a prestigious award from Creative Capital, an organization that supports “innovative and adventurous artists.” Just seven months after I left, in January 2012 and only 16 months after his arrival, Vincent E. Kitch resigned as Director of the Office of Arts and Culture without giving a reason.

As a Black employee you’re scrutinized more than others. As someone who moved to Seattle and worked his way up from being a janitor at the Seattle Art Museum, I’ve seen firsthand the structural barriers that are put in place that don’t allow equitable access to employment. It’s not only explicit acts of racism. It’s conflicts of interest, cronyism, protectionism, pay inequity, and fraud, often enacted by people in leadership who are the very ones in charge of policing others. Gatekeeping practices are what keeps systemic racism in place.

Unfortunately, my experience working for the City of Seattle was not unique. In 2017, a group of courageous women formed the Seattle Silence Breakers, sharing stories of sexual harassment working for Seattle City Light, Seattle’s public utility company. Extensive reporting by outlets such as Crosscut found a “toxic” environment in Seattle government, even quoting four former employees of color about the abusive environment and saying that their experiences were “‘bellwethers’ for deeper issues.”

In response, Seattle mayor Jenny Durkan ordered a study of workplace climate among city employees. The findings were released August 1, 2018, and revealed racial and gender discrimination. Particularly noteworthy to me was the finding that 32 percent of Black city employees who responded to the survey said they had experienced different treatment based on race. “I’ve experienced it,” one woman, Tia Jones, told the Seattle Times. “The same question I ask and get labeled a troublemaker for, being a woman of color… when [other employees] ask that, there are no negative outcomes.”

Recurring themes from the report included mistrust of HR, mistrust of management, and fear of retaliation. Among the recommendations provided in the report, the need for a safe reporting mechanism seemed to me especially relevant. In preparation for this piece, I spoke with an official currently in Human Resources. They noted challenges in dealing with bad actors including the fact that the thousands of employees in Seattle government was a lot of people to supervise, and that there had been an increase in reports of harassment since the Silence Breakers broke the ice. When asked about improvements, they could not point to any policy changes since the 2018 report.

In my own case, I had reached out for help to Human Resources and Personnel. Both of these departments often stalled or ignored my requests for information, documentation, or basic assistance. It seemed to me that “losing” information was also a problem, possibly even a tactic. I had one meeting with human resources and asked for a copy of our talk only to find that no record of our talk had been kept, even though the person I talked with took notes. In one case I had to hire a lawyer to get a report that should have been public information. Not everyone can afford legal fees in order to get justice. I wrote a letter to then mayor Mike McGinn alerting him to what was happening in the office and asking for assistance but got no response. I shared information with a few Seattle City Council members and members of the Seattle Arts Commission before realizing that there was nowhere to turn for help.

Why am I speaking out now, years later? Recent events have made it clear how important telling such stories is. I hope this article encourages folks to speak out, but the truth is, the system in place is designed to ignore and bury calls for help. While there are protections for union members and civil servants, these policies or procedures can unfortunately also be abused by delaying or preventing the termination of those that engage in harassment. I saved and documented my own harassment, without knowing if I’d ever have the need or opportunity to share it. This abuse of power occurs far too often.

We must move beyond the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion template. Many of the people who escape accountability use DEI language as a disguise. It is used to write the same statement over and over again, while little to no action is taken to ensure a safe working environment. This experience of systemic racism is not unique to Seattle, or the arts; it’s everywhere. It’s not just a few bad apples, but whole trees in the orchard. We can fix this, but we need the courage, and the will to acknowledge what we’ve accepted as regular human behavior for years is truly harmful.

Paul Rucker is Curator for Creative Collaboration at Virginia Commonwealth University.

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