Performing Our Future (POF) is a national, multiracial coalition of rural and urban communities working through culture to build power and wealth, toward a future where “everyone belongs and everyone’s contribution matters—where as an allied community, we own what we make.”
POF emerged in 2015, a result of decades of community cultural development residencies led by Kentucky-based arts and humanities center Appalshop and Roadside Theater, an Appalshop offshoot. In the years since, the organization has grown to include groups from across the country, and has worked with communities nationwide and internationally to creatively tell their own stories in pursuit of creating their own future. The fruits of their labors have included plays, hands-on workshops, and the Letcher County Culture Hub.
“Though our communities are diverse and far-flung,” their website proclaims, “we continue to find common ground: in the ways we work, the challenges we face, and the undervalued assets we are working to develop together.”
Members of POF hosted a session at the 2019 Rural Generation Summit, held this past spring in Jackson, Mississippi, to introduce and discuss their work. In the summer, we asked presenters Ben Fink of Appalshop and Donna Neuwirth of The Wormfarm Institute to elaborate on the deeply collaborative nature of POF.
ArtPlace: Have you seen your background in arts and culture “show up” in the collaborative work you’ve done to organize Performing Our Future? If so, what has that looked like?
Ben: Performing Our Future is a cultural and artistic project, in its essence. It's based in communities with long histories resisting economic exploitation. In those communities, people have long recognized if we want to create wealth that's owned by the community, and build power that's kept by the community, then we have to start with the community telling its own stories. POF just takes this old wisdom and turns it into intentional strategy, theory, and policy. Our work starts with large numbers of ordinary people sharing stories, through story circles, relational meetings, and community-led art-making of all kinds. Through that work, expressing and bringing life to communities' shared traditions and values, people recognize how much they share. That goes even for people who thought they had nothing in common, who have long been divided along political or economic or racial or religious or rural/urban lines.
The work always starts locally. POF is made up of community-led organizations with deep roots in their local communities and cultures, who build a broad base of participation in their own place and then bring those bases together for joint projects. For instance, the Letcher County Culture Hub in the coalfields of east Kentucky recently completed one of the biggest solar energy projects in east Kentucky's history, with three major community organizations going solar. Among the leaders of the project were fiercely pro-coal folks, radical environmentalists, and some people who were both! There was a lot they didn't agree on. But they all could find themselves in the story of communities protecting and strengthening their centers of power, declaring their independence from the regional energy monopoly, and owning what they make. Now some of the leaders of that project are working alongside community leaders in places like West Baltimore and the Black Belt of Alabama, who face similar challenges.
Donna: I came to this work from arts and culture and have never left it. The difference is, now I know the etymology of the word culture—from the Latin ‘culturare,’ meaning to till the soil. So working across sectors as we do is deeply cultural: building fertile soil, literally and metaphorically.
ArtPlace: What have the biggest joys—and biggest challenges—been as POF has grown from a network of coal communities to include allies all over the country?
Ben: The biggest joy has been community leaders from all these different places recognizing themselves in each other. This goes beyond liking each other—though they definitely do. They see how they're working in the same ways, fighting the same fights, experiencing the same joys. Sometimes it's shocking how closely we're linked.
Uniontown, Alabama, 30 miles west of Selma, is roughly the same size as Whitesburg, Kentucky, [but] with inverse racial demographics: Whitesburg is over 90 percent white, and Uniontown is almost 90 percent black. Uniontown is the headquarters of Black Belt Citizens Fighting for Health and Justice, a founding partner in Performing Our Future. When folks from Whitesburg first went down there, their hosts at Black Belt Citizens took them to see a landfill close to town that contains waste from more than 30 states, including a seven-story mountain of coal ash. One of the leaders from Kentucky made the connection immediately: “The coal that got mined here in east Kentucky and burned in east Tennessee got dumped in Uniontown.”
The biggest challenges are all external. They stem from over 40 years of national, state, and local policy that favors corporations and other big institutions and takes resources away from communities working to tell their own stories and build their own power and wealth. The communities involved in POF have borne the brunt of this policy shift. Think about a situation where all levels of government deemed it okay to dump a mountain of coal ash in people's backyards, despite demonstrated and ongoing health issues. It also shows up in less obvious ways. Think about the dominant model of ‘trickle-down’ community development funding, where the emphasis is on sector-specific projects run by professional organizations with predetermined ‘deliverables.’ Communities, and their grassroots leaders, tend to be the last consulted and the least supported. It even affects the way we think about ‘artists.’ Too often it's assumed that an artist is an individual entrepreneur, as opposed to a representative of a community that expresses that community's inherent genius. These are ways of thinking and acting that hurt community-led work and disempower ordinary people in all the communities we work in.
ArtPlace: Has anything you’ve learned from collaborating with POF ally organizations translated to the projects you’ve undertaken with communities—or vice versa? If yes, could you give an example?
Donna: As a member of this learning community, the Rural/Urban Flow has found a home and an assortment of neighbors we would likely not have met on our own. This at a time when the Flow (a network within a network) is going through an important stage in its development. The POF community provides kinship, shared goals, and the real possibility of long-term support as we navigate the ways our very different communities align around creating a preferred future built around our considerable assets.
As a result of feeling supported, we are behaving as if we are cared for and have undertaken a rather ambitious project that presented itself with a short turn-around. Farm Aid came to Wisconsin in September. At our current stage of development, the Flow could not have entertained the tempting opportunity. Absent POF and its dedicated staff and active friend-raising efforts, the Rural/Urban Flow partners could not have seized this moment.