On June 24, ACTA grantees, Bay Area artists and colleagues, community members, staff and board gave Lily a farewell reception at BrasArte Cultural Center in Berkeley. Lily is leaving full time work after 14 years to be more available for family, but will be working on special projects with ACTA in the future. The comments below are adapted from her written reflections shared at the event.
In my office hang three printed signs that speak to this moment as I leave ACTA after a 14-year tenure:
- The first simply reads: Your teacher is whoever appears now.
- The other two signs are maps of Native California divided up by tribes and Native California languages.
The first sign is about all of you: the artists, the activists, cultural workers, quiet leaders, esteemed colleagues, my family and steadfast friends. This has been a reciprocal journey. The maps rocked my world.
Let us first acknowledge that this is and will always be Ohlone territory and by thinking about that for one minute, it shifts the way we think about how we move through this space. We are all immigrants, some by choice and others by force from Africa. By acknowledging these truths, we create a different relationship to the space we inhabit. This was an area once rich with over 200 languages spoken. The maps underscored for me a basic tenet in this work that is, simply put: There are other ways of knowing.
I have had the honor to work alongside the finest colleagues and to be welcomed in as a thought partner to ACTA where I grew intellectually. I was exposed to the visionary Amy Kitchener, Executive Director and Co-Founder and a dedicated Board of Directors who are, each one, mentors and visionaries in their own right–poets, princes, sheros, and heros. A highlight was attending two annual board meetings where we learned together and problem solved. Thank you for showing me that a non-profit does not have to be dysfunctional! To my staff, who made me look good by possessing skills that I do not have, I am so grateful!
ACTA’s work is about empathy. We have, to date, made more than 1,000 grants to the field. We call them 1,000 case studies and perhaps that is too clinical a term but through grant making we have reinforced to many cultural communities that we value who they are. We asked, “What do you need to transmit the knowledge you have to the next generation?” Shared values are contained, for example, in the learning of Oaxacan mask making, Lao foodways, or Haitian dance and drum; and not just shared values, but a shared sense of time, perhaps a language, and a continuity. These acts are as political as anything we know; to be who you are is to assert your value and your narrative. To practice one’s traditional arts is to say “We are here; we are valued.” We contribute in our differences and specificity to a larger universe of tolerance. This is ACTA’s work.
I visited many communities in these 14 years, driving the state like a trucker. Something I enjoy doing on these long drives is to listen to the local radio. I strive to find the stations with different languages and figure out what I am listening to until the radio waves disappear into static. This way I learn about who immigrated to different parts of California, like the Assyrian community who settled many years ago in Turlock, off of Highway 99. This is my version of nerdiness, but what I am implying here is that there is a certain intimacy in this act; I am listening to a human voice either through song or words that I don’t understand and I am listening for connection.
What I have seen in my role at ACTA is that a small amount of money can catapult many large concepts into being, including language revitalization, a deepening of dance and music ‘presentation’ to full-on cultural trips back to home countries for contextual understanding. We see this with the Pilipino, African, Puerto Rican and Mexican communities in particular where an exchange is occurring that also serves to kick-start commerce in other countries.
We understand fully that these cultural expressions are central to people’s well-being. It is radical work. It is political work and it is vital in this heated time that we assert our practices. I think you all know this in your bones.
I could go on and on because I love this work and continue to be energized by it. While the work is hyper-local, as ACTA staff, I’ve also sat with the national funding community to represent the field. It has been an opportunity to discuss and challenge how traditional arts are perceived. We have challenged aesthetic diversity, which is different than merely people of color on a stage performing basically Western work. We have made the case that cultural expressions need not land on stage as a final mark of value but that they serve to support health, well-being and stability for cultural communities that are beyond the ‘arts conversation.’
Finally, to bring it home to the Bay Area, it was 15 years ago this month that we lost Malonga Casquelourd, a Congolese culture-bearer whose mark on dance and drum instruction spawned many strong artists. We have lost Danny Kalanduyan, the Mindanao master who introduced kulintang to the West; and we have lost Chitresh Das who as a brilliant Kathak master always admonished us to know well one’s tradition before innovation could happen. Most recently the visual artist Rene Yanez died; Rene brought the first Day of Dead observance to the Mission neighborhood of San Francisco. These people continue to be our cultural treasures leaving a mark on generations who continue to bring people together to express this intangible and so necessary part of our lives – art making.
I thank you for honoring my tenure here at ACTA and throw it right back at you because we are all in this work together. I have so much gratitude to all of you who have made this work so meaningful.
A selection of articles by Lily over the years:
- This is Not Your Grandmother’s Klezmer – Veretski Pass in Conversation (2016)
- Between the Symbols of the Nation: Two Weeks in D.C. with “Sounds of California” at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival (2016)
- In Memoriam: Golden Sound Moving, Remembering Danongan Sibay Kalanduyan (1947- 2016)
- The Karen Organization of San Diego: A Dance Class Is an Act of Freedom (2015)
- Cooking Together is Good for the Hayat (Soul): The United Women of East Africa Support Team (2015)
- Hawaiian Healing Arts: A Singular Focus (2013)
- Calpulli Tonalehqueh Brings the U.S.’s Largest Aztec/Mexica Celebration to San Jose (2012)
- Qeej not Gangs: The Hmong Association of Long Beach (2011)
- Choegyal Norsang: The United States’ First Full-Length Tibetan Opera (2011)
- ¡Convivencia!: El Son Jarocho en California (2009)
- Language is Also Music: Au Co Vietnamese Cultural Center (2009)
- A Public Space for Vodoun Practice: The Haitian Dance & Drum Conference (2009)
- A Banana Peel is Good For Headaches: Observations from the Traditional Arts Field (2009)
- “Ya Hala” Means Welcome: The 14th Annual Arab Cultural Festival (2008)