This spring, Bombyx Center for Arts and Equity in Florence, MA hosted the inaugural Power of Truths conference. 

Part educational conference, part arts festival, and part homage to the history of social activism in western Massachusetts, the 2-day event brought community members together with the goal of working towards a more just future.  

Zydalis Bauer spoke with Michael Lawrence-Riddell, Executive Director of Self-Evident Education, and Dr. Ousman Power-Greene, Associate Professor at Clark University, who both worked in conjunction with the Northampton Arts Council in organizing this festival, to learn more. 

Read the full transcript:

Zydalis Bauer, Connecting Point: This spring, the inaugural Power of Truths conference took place at the Bombyx Center for Arts and Equity in Florence, Massachusetts.

Described as part educational conference, part arts festival and part homage to the history of social activism in western Massachusetts, this two-day event brought community members together with the goal of working towards a more just future.

I spoke with organizers who worked in conjunction with the Northampton Arts Council on the conference to learn more.

Dr. Ousmane Power-Greene, Clark University: Our motivation and our mission for the conference really had to do with bringing the arts educators, academics, bring their work together for the community. Oftentimes, you have people who are academics and study history, for example, they go to conferences that are mostly historians, right? And they’re presenting their work on the incredible legacy of Sojourner Truth, David Ruggles, and the area to — to like-minded people. We really wanted to bring that history to — to our local community.

And also, same thing that the artists and writers. We have wonderful artists and writers in western Massachusetts, and they live next door, and you don’t even realize that this is an author who you really admire.

And so — so, that was our mission and our ambitions for — for creating the Power of Truths festival.

Michael Lawrence-Riddell, Self-Evident Education: So yeah, and I think, you know, another piece just to build on what Ousmane was talking about, is bringing together a cross-section of our community in ways in which they don’t often come together.

And it’s always — it’s always wonderful when you see and hear feedback that affirms the thinking behind something that you’ve done. So, the night after the conference wrapped up, I was at home. I was talking with my wife, who’s a first grade teacher locally, and she participated in the conference and she said, “The messaging that I got in every single session, everybody was talking about totally different and diverse topics, but they all came back to this center of using art, education, and storytelling to give voice to stories that are often either unknown or pushed to the side, or even sort of silenced and taken.”

And this idea of using culture as a way to — to center those voices that have been historically and systemically marginalized, that that shined through — shone through — in in all of the sessions that she attended. And I think that’s at the core of what we’re trying to do.

Zydalis Bauer: And speaking of those untold stories or some of the history, I want to quickly touch on that you were intentional when choosing the location for this event, so why did it make sense to hold this in Florence, Massachusetts?

Dr. Ousmane Power-Greene: Well, I mean, for us, Florence is a place that is under known, in our view, by even the local community. People aren’t aware of the Abolitionists such as Sojourner Truth, who actually lived in Florence. And actually, during the session, where we’re sitting right here in Bombyx, is a space — the Florence Congregational Church — that actually goes back to the 19th century.

So, this is a historic building in a community that is close by, that has had some of the most important thinkers and activists.

Michael Lawrence-Riddell: One of the things that that Ousmane talked about on Saturday morning that was really powerful to me to think about was, he had the audience imagine if Sojourner Truth — there’s a statue to her right outside the front doors of this sanctuary — that Sojourner Truth and David Ruggles walked into the room with us.

These historic figures in, you know, the fight for abolition of slavery and women’s rights, who lived right in this area and bringing that back to this idea of trying to build a just future, right? There’s a really powerful framing when we think about building systems of justice that has us think about it like speculative fiction or as most people know about it as science fiction, right?

We’re trying to we’re trying to build something that has not yet existed, that we’ve only seen in our imaginations and in our in our minds. And we’re trying to build that right now.

And so, asking people to use that power of, you know, speculative thinking that that humans have this gift towards to help imagine a just future, that was a really powerful moment for me on Saturday morning.

Zydalis Bauer: Now, speaking of the just future, I know that that’s really  — is at the core of your mission, is bringing all of these community members to start envisioning those pathways so that we can move towards that.

So, it made me start thinking, how does art measure equity?

Dr. Ousmane Power-Greene: All art is about process, right? And so, we oftentimes think about the finished product, right? And but what — what art does, it brings communities together, and it instructs people in a process of thinking and creating, right?

And so, when you’re working with art, educators like Michael and I often are, we’re fascinated about the ways in which they get everyone collectively to use their own imagination, to build something as a model for how we must imagine how to actually build the sorts of social networks, the sorts of — the sorts of resilience that we need to be able to have a democratic society and to be able to affect change when we see inequality.

Zydalis Bauer: Speaking to that point, Ousmane, because I was fascinated as well, because I know that the conference closed with the keynote speech from Bayeté Ross Smith, and he spoke about his work with legal institutions using art to open dialogs and have deep conversations about these social issues. And it honestly fascinated me that art can really change our perspective and offer us a different lens to view things.

Why do you think that’s the case? What is the power of art?

Michael Lawrence-Riddell: One, we understand ourselves and our place in our world by — in the world — by the stories that we tell ourselves. And so many of those stories are told through images, right? And so, I think that art has this power to when it presents truths, right, in a way that is open and honest, it has the ability to engage people in conversations that they might not have known that they were ready for.

And the work that we do is really about using stories to engage people in conversations that look critically at the ways that systemic racism has and does function in our society.

And through that storytelling, right, if you tell people a good story, they’re going to want to talk about the ideas that are at the heart and the core of that story, in ways that might be more productive than — than sort of other means of encouraging conversation.

Zydalis Bauer: It’s good stuff. And then I wanted — my last question I wanted to ask Michael. At the conference, you premiered your multimedia documentary short entitled “Can There Ever Really Be Justice on Stolen Land?”

And so, it got me thinking. And so, in that same sentiment, do either of you think as a society we can really achieve true equity? And if so, what does that look like? How will we know when we arrived there?

Michael Lawrence-Riddell: Yeah. I mean, I think that’s such an important question, right? This idea of not only thinking about what are the things that we want to dismantle or what are the things that we are fighting against, but what is it that we are fighting for? I think movements towards justice are — are in effect right now, I think that you — you really…there’s such a truism to the idea that — that just futures get built in small units in small communities, right? And so that’s sort of what we’re trying to do here is — is create a model of what we want our just futures to look like.

And — and what those look like, are places where all members of the communities, ideas, and gifts are brought into the center. They are not looked at as problems that need to be fixed, but they are looked at as contributing members of a society who want to have their thoughts, ideas, and experiences centered. It looks like equitable access to — to food, and — and land to cultivate that food, and a connection to that land, right?

And so all of these things — and so much more, right? I mean, this is just the tip of the iceberg, right?

And the things that we really want to do through this work and all the work that we do is invite other voices into a conversation to contribute to their vision of — of what that just future looks like. But that’s the question that we have to be asking.