Colleen Powers is a writer and editor living in Minneapolis.

Community & Collective

On December 6, writer and sociologist Eve Ewing wrote as part of a tweet, "Some of what you see publicly as 'genius' is actually a manifestation of the private labor of women whose names you don't know."

"Even novels, which are among the most solitary creative work I've ever done, are collaborations," NPR host and writer Linda Holmes added. "I've realized while editing that I will be credited with things I would not have done on my own. Thinking of most things as group projects is a good step."

Celeste Ng made the same claim in the acknowledgments of her 2017 novel Little Fires Everywhere; she wrote that a reader had counted 65 people in her first book's acknowledgments. "Although my name is the only one on the cover, many, many people helped me along the way, and this book wouldn't exist without them," she explained.

I had those two tweets in my mind when I walked through Adiós Utopia, an exhibition of post-revolution work by Cuban artists at the Walker Art Center. I thought of their words when I saw Tania Bruguera's work Statistics, a Cuban flag installation woven of human hair, contributed and assembled by several of Bruguera's friends and family members. And I thought of them when I watched video of Conga irreversible, a performance by the collective Los Carpinteros, who staged a conga line in downtown Havana in which the dancers wore black, paraded backwards, and sang and danced to music that inverted the traditional conga.

"The work offers poignant commentary on the paradox of contemporary Cuban life, which at once seems suspended in time but also subject to the inexorable forward march of history," the placard for Conga irreversible explained. I have only a shallow understanding of the work's commentary, but I found myself unexpectedly moved by its elaborateness, the coordination of the performers and their energetic and determined movements. I thought about the power of the collective, about dozens of people working together to achieve something spectacular and meaningful.

"I don't romanticize community," I heard a woman say in November. It was at an event for MPD150, an initiative to critically evaluate the Minneapolis Police Department and ultimately push for an end to policing as we know it. The event was structured around the release of a detailed research report on the history of the MPD and the repeated failure of reform to end patterns of violence and discrimination. Speakers referred to the possibilities offered by community-based alternatives to policing, and the report cites locally organized patrols as an example of community safety that has worked in the past. The attendee who spoke, though, alluded to experiences with sexual assault and harassment among organizers, and cautioned against putting too much stock in "community" as a broad notion.

I'd heard criticisms of "community," too, when I visited Winona, Minnesota in October to report on a weekend of art and events at a gallery called Outpost. An exhibition called Public Transformation, documenting Ashley Hanson and fellow artists' cross-country journey to visit rural places and meet the artists there, opened with panel discussions, short film screenings, and more. During one of the panels, poet and journalist Mai'a Williams criticized the practice of "romanticizing" community without interrogating who is automatically included, and who isn't. Another speaker, Brian Voerding of the organization Engage Winona, pointed to the existence of "pseudo-community." It's an easy word to slap onto a place or group of people without considering relationships, power dynamics, access, resources.

And back in July, I chafed at a use of the word "community" when I had the chance to see Carlton Turner speak at a museum. I was a plus-one to a private series offered to members who donate substantially (I do know that I was privileged to be there). Turner is approaching the end of his time as executive director of Alternate ROOTS, a long-running arts organization in the South, and his speech vividly traced his own roots with descriptions of his grandparents' land and connections made across generations. Afterwards, a woman from the museum said something like, "When I hear Carlton speak about community, it makes me think of the community we've built here with you all," which couldn't help but feel disingenuous. From my perspective, that "community" was just people who had paid a lot of money to be there, making small talk over hors d'oeuvres. Then again, maybe it's condescending of me to think that "community" can't include rich people. I've noticed the word is often used to refer to anyone who doesn't have institutional power, which usually means low-income people of color — e.g., "Before the city council makes this decision, let's make sure to include voices from the community."

So when I think about a community, or a collective, or even just a group of people working together to achieve a goal, I don't want to buy into some presumptuous and ultimately dehumanizing ideal. One of the themes of the Adiós Utopia exhibition, after all, is how quickly visions of collective power can curdle into exploitation, disillusionment, and silencing dissent. More often, those visions become watered down and turned into marketing.

But I know that work can be shared, and that creativity and stamina can be multiplied exponentially. Several times this fall, I've felt swamped to the point of mild panic with a workload I'd taken on, only to sit down or talk with my collaborators and hear them say, "If you do X, I'll take Y," and I've felt the churning of deadlines subside as pieces of the load shifted to other shoulders. That's a small and limited experience, but it's one that keeps happening, and something I'd like to make more intentional and reciprocal. And it's comforting to know I can contribute my own piece to the whole, assured that it doesn't have to be everything. I believe that living and working alongside other people is messy and hard and full of conflict and vulnerable to derailment, but also that it's dangerous to think you can accomplish anything meaningful by yourself. "You have the same number of hours in the day as Beyoncé" but of course Beyoncé's not doing it alone, either.

As we face a new year, this is what I'm thinking about: Being a better member of my communities; doing my part to make them live up to that word. Contributing what I can, even if I can't see the whole picture. Sharing others' weight so they don't have to carry it alone.

Butch & Spike