Creating connections through the arts and across cultures

Missouri History Museum evening “Journey of African-American Cultural Institutions: Where do we go from here?” generates thirst for continued Kgotla gatherings to pull together and package African-American Cultural Institutions to attract Heritage Tourism Dollars to St. Louis

During my years of community development in Gabane, Botswana (just outside of Gaborone, home of the fictional Precious Ramotswe) working to set up and stabilize Tswaragano Craft Center there, I sat in many a Kgotla meeting or community and tribal council (see Wikipedia note at end of post).

Last week in the cave of the Missouri History Museum auditorium, during an African-American History Series program, I felt as if I were part of an African-American take on the Kgotla. A very fine take it was, filled with energy, laughter, and ideas. “Where do we go from here? A look at the life of Robert A. Powell and the Journey of African-American Cultural Institutions” became far more than an evening’s diversion.

Robert Powell of Portfolio Gallery, St. Louis
Robert Powell, founder-director of Portfolio Gallery and Education Center, St. Louis. To read a profile on Mr. Powell who appeared earlier on Riehlife, click here.

On the platform with Mr. Powell were DeBorah Ahmed, Better Family Life senior vice president, and Curtis Faulkner, Juneteenth Heritage and Jazz Festival director. Jacqueline Dace, Curator of the African American Collections at the Missouri History Museum Library and Research Center abely moderated the event, which she also conceived and organized.

Something wonderful happened last night as the community came together, laid out the current situation of African-American cultural institutions, and began to consider how these can go forward more strongly if there is community support (in a broad sense) behind them. The Missouri Historical Society, I believe, could make history by sponsoring more of these events framed in a town meeting style as a means of exploring how to bring together existing resources.

What’s at stake? Something very large, as revealed last night: the future of St. Louis, the future of African-American cultural institutions, and the future of the communities in our multi-cultural, multi-racial city.

Tip: If you’re attending an event at the Missouri History Museum, definitely spring for the $10 reception beforehand. I’m not a wine drinker, but I did imbibe of fine conversation with a woman who uses storytelling for cancer education outreach in the African-American community, a poet, and a student of African shamanism who’d just returned from Burkina Faso (which I knew as Upper Volta). I also met Ivan James who sits on the Portfolio Gallery and Education Center Board and Carol Powell, Robert’s wife and co-heart/hart, formerly principal of Mitchell Elementary School.

Wikipedia note: A kgotla is a public meeting, community council or traditional law court of a Botswana village. It is usually headed by the village chief or headman, and community decisions are always arrived at by consensus. Anyone at all is allowed to speak, and no one may interrupt while someone is "having their say". Because of this tradition, Botswana claims to be one of the world's oldest democracies.

To read my notes on the meeting and learn more about the Heritage Traveler and the quesiton, "Are we prepared to be a destination?", please continue by clicking “more” below.

Disclaimer: In what follows, my quotes are approximate, attempting only to capture the gist of what was said, as they come from my notes, not from transcriptions or print interviews. They have not been checked by the speakers. When words are in quotes, I’m fairly certain I’ve caught something close. The questions were posed by Jackie.

Question: Why is it significant for African-American institutions to provide culture and heritage for African-Americans instead of relying on established mainstream institutions?

Answers:

Robert: We need African-American Institutions to prove we can. The way to prove it is to do it. We need the support of the community to lift it up and make it so.

Curtis: We need to tell the story and history ourselves in order to address it holistically and cover the multiplicity of cultural relationships. Passions transform into institutions and become alive. They can then address the psychology of relevance. It does matter who is doing the teaching. Our city needs us in order to become a great city.

Question: (Jackie, playing God’s Advocate) Why does the city need us?

Curtis: The city needs wholeness. It needs a marketing piece that says that it’s all it says it is. “Unless we become all it is, it ain’t.” All plans become moot unless heritage and its perspective can be brought into perspective.

Robert: Cities are known by their cultures. How can we get our story out to the broader audience? The city needs to include African-American institutions on a regular basis.

DeBorah spoke of the need for funding for sustainability and (defacto) institutional racism.

Curtis: The difference between culture and heritage. Culture is the total sum of society’s production. Heritage is what is passed down. People are looking for an experience when they travel and spend. After New Orleans, St. Louis and Kansas City are the most recognizable names in jazz. That experience opportunity can be transferred here if St. Louis wants to take advantage of it. “Are we prepared to be a destination?”

Rutgers has done studies on The Heritage Traveler. If African-American institutions could capture a percentage of this market it could make a $30 – 40 million impact on St. Louis. Why would Black Folks want to come to Missouri? Who’s gonna be impacted when this money comes in? There’s an opportunity to move the agenda forward. We need to pull together and package African-American cultural institutions.

DeBorah: It’s time to step outside the comfort zone and do something different. We can’t be concerned about our image…in any community. We have to be comfortable in our own skins. (Her husband, behind me, softly agreeing and encouraging her with: “Go ahead.”) We need to follow the belief principles from Kwanza. There’s money here in both black and white communities. We can no longer worry about how we should act. It’s time to empower the truth tellers.

Curtis: There is $2 billion in philanthropy each year in St. Louis, yet African-American institutions are receiving a small percentage of this money. There’s a dissonance here. Juneteenth… “If time is money and you own days, you own it.” With determination and self-sufficiency we can use and extend this time frame as our marketing piece to bring a packaged experience that will bring in tourism dollars. We need to keep the money in the city. In our communities. To move the thinking beyond: “Heads in beds./Butts in seats.”

Lois (comment and question from audience): We need a coalition….providing visual value.

Robert: We have FAME (Founding African-American Museum Executives) and can make this more active. It’s a business decision made by many districts. We have to educate in regard to territorial control. Some funding comes attached to programs and that leaves us chasing programs rather than sitting down to plan.

Conclusion: There was a force there last night as many turned out to hear of the continuing journey of African-American Institutions in St. Louis. And, there was a rising excitement that now was a time to move forward.

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2 Responses »

  1. I appreciate your comments and look forward to the day when we can say that last evening was the impetus of change in St. Louis' African American cultural institutions. There was a force there last night and perhaps the time has come.

  2. I am looking for artist Joseph LaMarque and his works.
    thank you,
    m. price

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