Moving from Me to We in the Upper Midwest: Creating “Deeply Human” Spaces Online

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May 25, 2020
by Louise Hallman
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Moving from Me to We in the Upper Midwest: Creating “Deeply Human” Spaces Online

Young Cultural Innovators from the American Midwest “meet up” despite lockdown as regional program moves online

As Minneapolis, where the first-ever regional program for the Upper Midwest Young Cultural Innovators (YCI) “hub” should have been held, entered its sixth week of lockdown, the YCIs of Minnesota, North Dakota, and South Dakota and the 23 Native nations that share the same geography instead convened their regional meeting online.

Opening with responses to the question “What is currently bringing you joy?” the artists, creative community leaders and cultural changemakers of the Salzburg Global Forum for Young Cultural Innovators proved to be in good spirits as they joined the morning-long program  Moving from Me to We in the Upper Midwest despite the prolonged sense of physical isolation and disconnection.

What has changed?

For some of the Native American participants, that isolation and disconnection has been especially acute. They spoke of feeling disconnected from their family and community members who are isolated on reservations, many with poor internet connections, while they remain in lockdown in cities, unable to physically participate ceremonies such the powwows that celebrate the arrival of the spring and summer. 

The global pandemic has also served to highlight societal disparities. Minnesota already had the worst rate of removal of Black and Native children from families in the country before the pandemic. The pandemic is worsening these issues. From a lack of strong internet connections limiting who can participate in educational, cultural and social gatherings, to growing child protection issues as reporting decreases, Native populations have again been hit especially hard. As one YCI remarked, there is a real struggle to keep native people as part of the local, state and national conversations as stimulus packages are designed and cities and states start to look beyond their lockdowns. 

Not all cities and states in the Upper Midwest have implemented full lockdowns, but the vast majority have mandated some form of social distancing measures, heavily impacting the arts and culture sectors with events canceled, venues shuttered and even parks closed. Federal stimulus packages, however, are difficult for artists and “micro business” owners to access as they struggle to prove their losses of income.

In much of the region, the arts and culture sector heavily relies on revenue from the tourism industry, both from visitors attending events and purchasing crafts and from state tourism boards. With some lockdowns and social distancing measures continuing for many weeks and months to come and out-of-state tourists discouraged from travelling, the artists and the sector as a whole will continue to suffer from a lack of funding.

As a YCI from South Dakota remarked, the impact of the crisis has been somewhat delayed on the less-populous parts of the country, where there are fewer artists but also fewer organizations to support them. “The faucet of funding is about to trickle,” they feared. 

There was “a window of unpoliticized activity where people were coming together,” said one YCI, but “that is over,” they lamented. Across the region, responses to the pandemic have become incredibly politicized with public protests and threats to sue state governments. “How can we cut through the political noise and find empathy for small business owners?” asked one YCI. 

There is a huge amount of uncertainty for the region and its individual towns, reservations, cities, states and communities. “We don’t know how to plan for the future if we don’t know how what the impact will ultimately be,” said one YCI.

How are communities responding?

Like many sectors and activities, arts and culture have moved online in response to the Coronavirus pandemic. Even powwows have “gone digital”, with families filming and sharing videos of them dancing, drumming and singing in dedicated “social distancing powwow” Facebook groups. Such groups highlight the importance of the arts, culture and “deeply human” connections, especially such trying times. 

Other socially distant artistic activities highlighted by the YCIs included “porch concerts” with musicians performing online and/or for their neighbors with signs displaying digital payment information like Venmo IDs to collect donations; weekly livestreams billed as “digital-first Fridays”; “makers’ markets” selling artists’ wares on Instagram; and YouTube video tours around local museums. With many people turning to arts and crafts as a way to help them deal with their individual isolation and the resulting mental health stresses during lockdown, artists are offering online classes and delivering “quarantine arts kits.” In the public policy space, there have been calls for artists to be engaged to help “bring joy” to public spaces, such as by redesigning signage or installing art works in public parks. 

Much of this is currently being offered for free – but artists still need financial support. One Twin City-based nonprofit has been offering pro bono consultation to arts and culture groups to help them find new, more sustainable forms of revenue. This has been a “heart wrenching” experience said one YCI, as many groups that are reliant on grants have seen their funding pulled to support more immediate COVID-19-related causes. “What if we can’t save everyone?” 

What is needed for the future?

The arts clearly have an important role to play in supporting people through and after the crisis, not only on a personal level to address self-care, mental health and trauma but also on community, city and state levels to address wider issues such as political divides and social inequity. 

To be able to do this, the arts need funding. However, philanthropy too has its limits, with the sector facing reductions in endowments due to stock market volatility and reduced staffing impacting the ability to address new applications. Many funders have responded with automatic renewals for existing recipients and a shift away from funding prizes, travel and professional development in favor of relief funds for grantees. As one participant in the YCI Upper Midwest Regional Meeting remarked, foundations “can’t wait until the next board meeting. We need to make decisions now if we want to save the arts sector.” Where can these new forms of revenue and financial support for the arts be found?

Much emphasis has been put on “innovation” and “digital connections” during the pandemic, but as one YCI remarked, “Innovation doesn’t have to be high-tech-based,” urging their fellow YCIs to consider how they can make use of “low-tech” such as radio and mail to connect with their audiences and communities.

The YCIs of the Upper Midwest have been tapping into and connecting with the wider, national and global YCI network and called on Salzburg Global to help them also connect more directly with the wider-still Salzburg Global Fellowship – truly “moving from me to we.” The growing reliance on online platforms and prevalence of online meetings from large-scale webinars to small “virtual coffee dates” is making these connections all the more possible across international borders and time zones. 

If digital convening is to remain the norm for some time to come, then everyone, especially creative, artistic people, need to work to “keep the humanity” during Zoom meetings. Opening up our homes, including our families and pets, and encouraging two-way discussions rather than one-way lectures were all encouraged – as were “virtual jamming sessions” for musicians. 

As one YCI remarked in closing and indeed as was reflected in the “what is currently bringing you joy?” in the opening introductions: “In isolation people are recognizing what they value, which is primarily culture and art and the togetherness those provide.” Even in the digital age, enjoying the arts and being “deeply human” remains key.  

This virtual regional meeting of the Upper Midwest YCI Hub was generously supported by The Bush Foundation and The McKnight Foundation