Artists anticipate and affix meaning to major social, cultural, and economic shifts—they help communities make sense of the world around them. They inspire us with their ingenuity, and our communities are transformed by their creations. Artists and culture makers are cultural scientists who pose complex questions, seek truths, and then work with communities to interpret new knowledge. Artists and arts and cultural organizations model social change by making art and sharing it with us.
Communities rely on artists and culture makers to describe how we live, to catalyze dialogues, and even to harness fear, hope, and outrage so we can find new ways to help people navigate, interpret and celebrate an often complex world in a way that ultimately seeks justice and sustainability.
Surdna values artists’ agency to preserve and celebrate tradition. Yet we also invest in artists and culture bearers as activators of change who challenge our lack of awareness or our collective unease at acknowledging and confronting our communities’ histories of oppression, violence and racism. We support them, as docents, who help guide communities toward truths that can be too discomforting and inconvenient to know.
Our grantee, Philadelphia-based Voices of Our Nation Arts Foundation (VONA), offers workshops for writers of color, providing intellectual nourishment and professional support for writers like Vanessa Mártir. It was at VONA that, Mártir says, she found a safe space where she could focus on her craft without the Anglo lens that questioned why her characters sounded the way they did, or ate different food. At workshops, in the supportive company of other writers of color, there is an exhilarating liberty and creative ferment that co-founder Elmaz Abinader believes occurs when writers’ ingrained and reflexive sense of guardedness diminishes.
Firelight Media Producers’ Lab, a New York-based talent incubator supported by Surdna, is training emerging filmmakers and producers of color through a one-on-one mentorship program with filmmaker Stanley Nelson and a team of award-winning producers, writers, and editors. While technology has reduced the cost of documentaries and eased their distribution, the people behind the camera and seated in the producer’s chairs are still largely white. Fellows learn to distill their narrative technique and craft stories as they see them—stories that draw attention to important social issues and introduce new and powerful points of view.