New Urban Arts, Foreword for Art Inquiry Guide

So, I wrote this as the introduction to New Urban Arts' summer program's curricular guide. I admit, I've been listening to the Harry Potter and the Sacred Text podcast, so the relationship is probably obvious. I've been reflecting on ways to be deeper in community these days, and New Urban Arts is a place that fosters radical imagination and I'm pleased to consider one of my homes. Enjoy!


Foreword

I can’t write this foreword about Summer 2016 without acknowledging how the world has changed. We’re beginning to emerge from the rubble of an election won on the coattails of white nationalism, xenophobia, and fear mongering. A bit like an oracle who sees into the future, our theme for Art Inquiry was dislocation. This theme stemmed as a metaphor for how New Urban Arts was temporarily dislocated from our home at 705 Westminster Street for summer, but the theme of dislocation speaks into our present and future world. Issues close to the heart of New Urban Arts such as racial justice, gender equality, queer and trans* visibility are under attack.

When our reality is broken, we need to look to something bigger and grander as a way to re-imagine the world around us. I believe that’s the role of speculative fiction and fantasy. As our own real-world Voldemort has come into power, it seems useful to draw inspiration from a hero who began his life dislocated from his home in the wizarding world: Harry Potter. At the start of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Voldemort and the Death Eaters are gaining power, and future of the wizarding world seems uncertain. At Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, the Sorting Hat sang a song that warned of the perils of factions and encouraged cross-network organizing and movement building. It sang,

I sort you into Houses
Because that is what I'm for,
But this year I'll go further,
Listen closely to my song:
Though condemned I am to split you
Still I worry that it's wrong,
Though I must fulfill my duty
And must quarter every year
Still I wonder whether sorting
May not bring the end I fear.
Oh, know the perils, read the signs,
The warning history shows,
For our Hogwarts is in danger
From external, deadly foes
And we must unite inside her
Or we'll crumble from within
I have told you, I have warned you....
Let the Sorting now begin.

New Urban Arts is Providence’s own (after)school of magic and wonder, and programs like Art Inquiry unleash the imagination. While Director of Programs Emily Ustach is our own in-house Sorting Hat and creates respective Houses under the Magical School of Summer Programs, our values of equity and justice transferred across Art Inquiry and into the Untitlement Project and The Steel Yard program. This year’s Art Inquiry program in particular took a deep dive into New Urban Arts’ philosophy and values through curiosity and inquisitiveness with a group of students mostly new to our space, much like how First Years at Hogwarts come through the Sorting Hat to join their respective communities.

Even though NUA was dislocated, Art Inquiry always had a home. The Providence Public Library and its rad teen librarian and special collections host opened its doors to us in the top floor Annex.  In that space students embraced their new home and built a whimsical cardboard fort, drew collective maps, participated in a library scavenger hunt, and joyfully, yet soundlessly, held a silent library parade. The Library Annex became our own Room of Requirement.

While exploring abstract concepts of dislocation, the fearless visionaries Kah and Vuthy also reflected with the students about real, tangible implications of dislocation in the world. They held space for people who have been dislocated: in Syria, in Palestine, children in Central America, and closer to home the fear of deportation for DACA children and Dreamers who’ve made the United States their home. The long term effects of slavery in the United States—an entire people stolen from their homeland and dislocated—has been a piece of the organizing happening around the Movement for Black Lives and #BlackLivesMatter. Afrofuturism was offered as a remedy for what ails us, because the world as we know it is broken and it takes radical imagination to believe that another world is possible.

Now that our magical summer is over, the parting advice I leave you with is: we must love in the face of adversity. We must continue to care and protect each other while maintaining our joy and creativity. Hogwarts headmaster Albus Dumbledore said, “Happiness can be found even in the darkest of times if one only remembers to turn on the light.” New Urban Arts is a special and magical place and light for us is fearless art making as resistance and community building. With our lights fully ablaze, we saw that even though we were dislocated, we were ever always at home.

-       Dr. Alexandrina Agloro

2016 Summer Scholar-in-Residence

Alex gives two talks at the Smithsonian Latino Center

Last week, I was so pleased to reconvene with my collaborator-in-crime Josh T. Franco, the Latino Collections Specialist for the Archives of American Art, to give a two-artist talk titled, "Latinx Intersections of Game Design and Art." Later that afternoon, I presented another talk with the Latino Museum Studies Program Fellows in attendance, "Imagining Speculative Futures Using Community Assets and Archives." Artist Adál Maldonado dropped in for my second talk of the day- what a treat! 

Here are some snapshots from my visit to the Smithsonian Latino Center: 

 

Stax on stax on stax: deep in the Archives of American Art's collections

Stax on stax on stax: deep in the Archives of American Art's collections

These archive labyrinths are no joke! 

These archive labyrinths are no joke! 

Turning museums studies folks into game designers. 

Turning museums studies folks into game designers. 

Two artists and what a fellowship organizer looks like at the end of a long week. Bonus points for our eighth grade yearbook poses. 

Two artists and what a fellowship organizer looks like at the end of a long week. Bonus points for our eighth grade yearbook poses. 

With Adál!

With Adál!

 

New Article Published in AAC&U's collaborative issue of Diversity & Democracy

Thrilled to share this article (actually, this entire journal issue- it's rad) I wrote with Melissa Crum of the Mosaic Education Network. The full article and the rest of the journal issue can be found here.

Why, Who, and How? Strategies for Preventing Paternalism and Promoting Equal Engagement

By: Melissa Crum and Alexandrina Agloro

On college and university campuses nationwide, engaging with "the community" (organizations and individuals unaffiliated with the sponsoring institution) is a common practice. In these collaborations, it is essential that faculty and students apply a critical lens—evaluating why, between whom, and how the engagement is occurring—in an effort to prevent paternalism, an approach that assumes a socioeconomic or intellectual hierarchy between college and community. To build equal ground for all participants, it is important to develop approaches that privilege reciprocity. In this article, we share lessons learned through our own experiences implementing community-engaged pedagogies.

Why? Identifying Shared Goals

When launching any community-engaged project, establish why you are pursuing the project. Set goals about what you want your students to learn, and examine what those goals mean for community partners. Know your purpose: be honest with yourself about why you are engaging in the project. It is important that you be able to articulate a reason that doesn't create a hierarchy between the university (you and your students) and the community.

Talk to the people whose lived experiences are part of what you want your students to explore, and ask them about their goals for the project. Recognize that the community is not an empty vessel waiting to be filled by your students' knowledge and expertise. Ask community members what resources they need, listen to their desires for the project, and be open to the exchange of ideas. You will probably learn something you didn't know before, and the community may not need what you want to provide.

After considering feedback from the community, build on level ground. Create a project in which everyone has shared responsibility and the opportunity to provide their own unique expertise. Consider the information, resources, and intellect your community partners have that you and your students do not, and mobilize those assets so they are beneficial to the project.

Who? Promoting Self-Reflection

When fostering community engagement, consider the biases that you or your students may hold about the communities you are entering. We all have biases, and we need to know what they are in order to prevent them from negatively affecting our work. Be self-reflexive; ask questions of yourself and your students. (For self-reflective activities, see Crum and Hendrick 2014.)

As instructors, we often witness college students from privileged backgrounds entering marginalized communities and conceptualizing themselves as temporal saviors rather than seeing community members as equals. Based on their brief experiences offering their time and abilities to underresourced individuals, students may feel that they have earned license to speak for the community, and may assert their newly acquired expertise as if it were authentic and accurate experiential knowledge. By providing tools for self-critique and creating spaces for students and community members to come together as equals, we can help prevent students from conceiving of their community engagement experiences as cultural safaris and avoid facilitating university-supported paternalism (see example 1).

Reflection about how you and your students are in the world can be essential to maximizing your students' experiences as well as those of community members. It is important to take into account the way different bodies are (and are not) in various spaces. When working with college students of color, for example, be cognizant of the ways that bodies of color are perceived and often policed in public, and design activities to maximize everyone's safety—e.g., by holding activities like scavenger hunts during the day instead of at night.

How? Identifying Best Tools

Ensure that the tools you are using are appropriate to the context. When incorporating digital media, be sure to ask, "Will this technology enhance the experience?" (See example 2.)

A techno-fetishist will adopt the most advanced technology, regardless of whether it is appropriate to the context, while a thoughtful educator will adopt whatever combination of media is culturally appropriate (Watson 2012). When evaluating cultural appropriateness, consider the technological tools and practices that are already in use. If project participants already communicate using Facebook, for example, asking them to use an alternate website or platform is likely to reduce the project's success. If your students like to take selfies and upload the pictures to Instagram with hashtags, embrace these practices in an educational context. Meeting participants where they are will put them at ease and result in greater success.

Conclusion

Community-engaged projects must allow all participants to serve each other and learn together. By applying a critical lens, we can support people's ability to operate at their full capacity while respecting the knowledge of those we are attempting to serve.

 

Radicalizing Fantasy and the Power of Disidentification

[Original post at Black Girl Dangerous]

Confession: I’d been looking forward to seeing Catching Fire, the second installation of Suzanne Collins’ young adult dystopian trilogy, for months. I had devoured all the books and after seeing the first film, my partner gave me a mockingjay pin that I nerdily wore on the edge of a scarf all winter. I saw Catching Fire already knowing that Jeffrey Wright had been cast as Beetee, the genius inventor, and how the white mediaverse lost their minds (again) about how this character couldn’t possibly be Black. I’d been thinking about the limits of the white imagination and how PoC don’t get bent out of shape despite the extreme dearth of popular mainstream media that reflects us. But then the urgency of my writing shifted when brilliant queer and cultural theorist José Muñoz passed away this week.

Muñoz was an unapologetic utopianist who encouraged us to find radical hope and resistance in spaces that weren’t meant for us. He used the term disidentification to explain how QTPOC and other marginalized people could “recycle and recode” images in dominant culture. In his own words,

The process of disidentification scrambles and reconstructs the encoded message…and recircuits its workings to account for, include, and empower minority identities and identifications. Thus disidentification is a step further than cracking open a code of the majority; it proceeds to use this code as raw material for representing a disempowered politics or positionality that has been rendered unthinkable by the dominant culture.

Muñoz told us that yes, we could love The Hunger Games and the Harry Potter series and even use these stories in ways that empower us. Mainstream, capitalist media franchises could be refashioned and reimagined until they felt cozy in our hearts.

I would say the culture of mainstream fantasy is not meant for QTPOC and other marginalized subjects. Junot Diaz famously said, “Motherfuckers will read a book that’s 1/3 elvish, but put two sentences in Spanish and white people think we’re taking over.” The hysteria of otherness keeps characters of color in anthropomorphized racialized tropes or whitewashed into a sanitized, revisionist version of themselves. There is a difference though, between identifying with fantasy where characters of color are intentionally absent and reading into the unsaid spaces and silences of fantasy writing.

Disidentification is an easier leap when characters are intentionally vague. For example, Katniss has olive skin in The Hunger Games books. She could be a white girl who’s olive-hued from all her time in the sun OR a young woman of color huntress who’s got some color because of natural melanin.

It’s not just about assumptions of skin color either. My friend Clem posted this status on Facebook after seeing Catching Fire:

I really like the subtle approving nod that the movie gives to queer culture by including some gay characters and themes in it. You’ve got, (1) your gay fashion designer archetype, Cinna, (2) your bitter old queen/president with a taste for chinoiserie, white roses, and fine dining character, President Snow, (3) a gay kiss (OK, well maybe it was more like CPR, but I’ll take it), and (4) your Sporty Spice lesbian persona, Johanna.

This is a perfect example of disidentification. Clem’s status identifies how character subtleties can be reinterpreted and radicalized—“a survival strategy that works within and outside the dominant public sphere simultaneously,” as Muñoz said. A hero and a villain as queer in the same Hollywood blockbuster? How cool is that?

My fantasy disidentification is Hermione Granger, the smart heroine of the Harry Potter series who lives in the borderlands of Muggle and magical culture. JK Rowling included characters of color in this series—if a student at Hogwarts had brown skin, we knew about it. Lee Jordan and Angelina Johnson? Black. Padma & Pavarti Patel? South Asian. Cho Chang? Nondescript Asian (for a full analysis of Cho Chang and Asian stereotyping see this post by Diana Lee). White characters were not described by race, but by their lack of description. Hermione Granger wasn’t described by her race or skin color either, but only as having bushy brown hair. As a mixed race person, I read into Hermione’s unwritten silences and declared her a mixed race girl too. After all, name me a mixed girl whose multiracial identity isn’t manifested in her hair sometimes.

For me, Hermione is a powerful metaphor for the fears around race mixing in the United States. She’s called a “mudblood”—the worst insult to describe someone with Muggle ancestry. Magical and non-magical blood mixing sounds a lot like the racialized fears of miscegenation. Yet Hermione knows magic spells better than her “full blood” counterparts and saved their lives not only with her knowledge of magic but also her understanding of the Muggle world and what it takes for witches and wizards to “pass” as non-magical. Hermione defies the tropes of the tragic mulatta. And by recircuiting Hermione’s identity, I see a kick-ass mixed race heroine.

So thank you José Muñoz for writing into being our disidentifications. We’ll miss you and your shining queer brilliance.

Alex Writes For Media Commons!

[Original Post Here]

I had the opportunity to participate in a blog salon answering the question: "How does gamification affect learning?" Here was my response:

Cyborg Tea Parties and the Pedagogical Opportunities of Alternate Reality Games

I think a lot about critical literacies for young people of color and the pedagogical opportunities using games. Critical literacies “emerge as young people inquire into their lives and environment, … reflect on the social and historical context of their experiences to understand the root causes of inequities, and then become agents of positive change.”1 I’m currently co-designing and co-building an alternate reality game based on local Black and Latina/o activism with young people in Providence, RI. The ARG is anchored in historical instances of activism, shaped by group archival research, and eventually executed in the physical locations where this activism took place. What’s important about this project is not just involving young people of color in game play, it also offers creative agency where young people of color are primary media makers who create their own digital archive that reflects the importance of their often ignored histories.

But how can an ARG affect their learning? To answer this question I turn to critical education scholars and cultural theorists that enhance my understanding of how games can influence the learning process. In my alternate reality, I’m having a tea party with Audre Lorde and Chela Sandoval and I ask them how they feel about the ARG we’re building. They’re hard on me, but supportive of this work.

Audre Lorde speaks first, saying, “What does it mean when the tools of a racist patriarchy are used to examine the fruits of the same patriarchy? It means that only the most narrow perimeters of change are possible and allowable.”2 To me, Lorde’s statement critiques the educational system as it currently stands as a racist, patriarchal system. Game-based learning allows for a small margin of change, but as technological systems are mainly created, utilized, and funded by straight, white, cis-gendered, able-bodied men, the actual liberatory potential is small. Lorde reminds me that the master’s (contemporary technological) tools will not dismantle the master’s house. She says, “They allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.”3 What I take from this is that we need to fundamentally rethink the purpose of our educational system, and game-based learning is a temporary bandage on a larger gaping wound. I agree with Audre Lorde—games will not triumphantly topple our ailing educational system. But I haven’t given up on planting cyborg seeds that will help us re-imagine the true value of learning.

Chela Sandoval sips her tea and chimes in. “Colonized peoples of the Americas have already developed the cyborg skills required for survival under techno-human conditions as a requisite for survival under domination over the last 300 years.”4 Sandoval offers The Methodology of the Oppressed and its methods for deconstructing dominant narratives, and lets me know that technology—and teaching with technology—offers a particular form of oppositional consciousness for people of color. Developing this form of radical hope is the kind of learning I want to take place by designing and playing our ARG on Black and Latina/o activism.

I hope that for my youth co-designers, developing an ARG will impart cyborg skills of critical literacies that grow into bravery, courage, and generosity. And these tools might stand a fighting chance to re-imagine and rebuild the education system. For these reasons, I’m still hopeful about the future of engaged learning and see the possibilities of games as emancipatory tools.

 

1McDermott, M., Dukes, D., Rajkumar, S., & O’Reilly Rowe, D. (2007). Youth media and social change: One perspective from the field. Youth Media Reporter, 1(5), p. 94

2Lorde, A. (1983). The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. In C. Moraga & G. Anzaldúa (Eds.), This bridge called my back: writings by radical women of color. New York: Kitchen Table Women of Color Press, p. 98

3Lorde, A. (1983). p. 89

4Sandoval, C. (2000). New sciences: Cyborg feminism and the methodology of the oppressed. In D. Bell & B. M. Kennedy (Eds.), The cybercultures reader. New York: Routledge, p. 375