Black & White tintype photo of cultural worker, Mi'Jan Celie

On March 11, 2020, a group of 25 artists and community members met to discuss “Universal Language,” also known as the Alice Street mural, located at the intersection of Alice and 14th St. in Oakland, California. The four story mural depicts African dancers and drummers, Black American protestors, and traditional Chinese dancers and drummers – the intersection of two cultural communities at the intersection of two downtown Oakland streets. 

The mural was a tribute to a community’s Afro Diasporic and Chinese American histories and resilience, designed by community members through oral history interviews, which were focused on fostering dialogue and uplifting local heroes who embodied resilience. 

But last August, Bay Development set up scaffolding and broke ground on a 16-story tower. The “Universal Language” mural was quickly obscured. 

At the March meeting—held right before the lockdown went into effect— community members met and discussed how a new mural tentatively titled “AscenDance” could be more than a relocation of the old “Universal Language” mural to a taller wall on the side of The Greenlining Institute building. It would be built on the shoulders of “Universal Language,” incorporating the residents who protested the mural’s erasure, telling the story that plays out frequently in many major cities: gentrification causes people’s displacement, requiring the reconciliation of whole communities. 

Murals like “Universal Language” and the subsequent “Ascendance” are not just art, they are cultural work: creative labor dedicated not only to beauty, but also dedicated to preserving the culture of an ethnic or indigenous group’s traditional and historical music, arts, literature and cuisine. 

Cultural work goes beyond art, and recognizes how art can lead to cultural erasure. Often, when artists and arts organizations move into a neighborhood, gentrification and displacement quickly follow. Cultural work, specifically cultural heritage preservation work, on the other hand, bridges a people’s cultural heritage with their collective future, continuing a legacy of creative practices within one’s community or creative discipline. By definition, cultural work enhances a sense of belonging, rather than participating in displacement. 

Funding for cultural work like this was difficult before the pandemic. In conversations about municipal funding allocations, the arts are often seen as a luxury. Now, municipalities are focused on surviving. But our stories and cultures need to survive as well. If the United States continues to devalue and underfund cultural work in both the short and long-term, we will ensure its extinction. It is akin to the work of preserving a language: if the language is not spoken and taught, it is ultimately silenced and permanently lost. 

For my part as a Black restorative storyteller and oral historian based in Santa Fe, New Mexico, COVID-19 has postponed my public storytelling programs indefinitely, meanwhile I can only record oral histories in a socially distant virtual format, which limits who can participate based on their access to internet and electricity. I am adapting quickly though, as I continue building my body of cultural work that centers Black narratives during this historical moment, yet does not require congregating groups indoors. My summer and fall projects are devoted to amplifying restorative stories of liberated Black lives: a digital artist residency and a Couch Concert with Kennedy Center. 

Not all of us have had to change our methods. Liz Ogbu uses her architecture and design background to advocate for equitable access to physical space as a basic human right. One such project is a shoreline park rooted to the historic, working class, African American Bayview neighborhood in San Francisco. It’s a place that has been defined by environmentally unjust industrial uses throughout the 20th century: a massive power plant, a naval shipyard that built and deconstructed nuclear ships, and one of the largest sewage treatment plants located near a residential neighborhood in the United States. 

Residents fought successfully to close and tear down the power plant, however the clean up effort resulted in 30 acres of asphalt that would remain vacant until redevelopment could occur. Ogbu partnered with two local design firms along with the utility company and local organizations to develop a park with interpretive signage that would tell the story of the neighborhood’s industrial and cultural history, based on interviews with community activists. StoryCorps recorded residents’ stories in a permanent booth situated on the former site of the plant so that their stories would be honored and permanently archived in the Library of Congress. 

When originally designing the space in 2013, Ogbu couldn’t have known that the work would remain accessible during this time of physical distancing. One of the core tenets that Ogbu and the project team have always held is that the site and all activities be of service to the local community, in the present and future. 

This season’s programming focused on becoming a neighborhood food access site. As Ogbu says, “the pandemic has merely reinforced a core truth of the work: creating culturally relevant places isn’t just about holding space for remembering the past or envisioning the future; it is also about being active in the present by holding a deep enough relationship with a community that you can constantly seek out ways to creatively invest resources to help support their well-being.” 

Cultural heritage institutions and organizations face big challenges as they figure out how to repurpose their exhibitions, workshops and public programs so that they remain open and useful to the communities that they serve. Embedded in that challenge is the opportunity to truly partner with cultural workers so that they may help us do what we have always done: preserve our cultural roots, while laboring for futures where culture, and the people directly connected to them, still exists and thrives. We must honor and center cultural work as much as our other basic human needs such as housing, education, healthcare and food, because all of our basic needs work in concert with each other, not against.