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Tuesday, 17 September 2013

So here's an article I wrote in 2011 for a St. Louis, Missouri, newsletter, which I then posted on my blog but forgot to press the 'publish' button. sigh.
During October 2011 Artist Eleanor Phillips and Community Worker Jean Bates traveled from Ireland to take part in Project BUD, an artists’ exchange and residency program between the Irish Arts Support Agency Blue Drum and St. Louis arts collaboration which included The Allen Avenue Transitional Program community collabARTive at Peter & Paul Community Services. As part of their residency Eleanor and Jean spent time with the men in the transitional program and together they initiated the Bureau of Enquiry, an open studio space on Cherokee Street which will be used as a space where community residents and participants of Peter & Paul programs can meet each other, make art together and ask questions about the kind of community they want to create and maintain.

Artist Eleanor Phillips reflects on her time spent working with the program.

“America is a highly mediated country consequently someone who has never been to the USA could be forgiven for thinking that the majority of Americans are white, rich, surgically enhanced and religiously and politically conservative. As a first time visitor to the USA St. Louis presented an alternative America, one that is not visible outside her borders.

I’m a smart woman, I know that there is a real world beyond the illusion of the media, I’ve read the books on poverty in the USA; Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed left a particularly strong impression of America’s working poor. But it takes work on the individual’s part to find out the facts about the real America beyond its mediated illusion. And if we let it the TV keeps us lazy, negating personal experience in favour of TV dreams.

As an artist whose practice is based in socially engaged art (more commonly called ‘community art’ in St. Louis) I am more interested in the voice less heard, and the reasons for that lack of voice or the systems that can prevent a hearing. The pundits of the media refer to that voice as the “marginalised” without questioning who is doing the marginalising or why. In fact it was quite a shock to the system to see how the media colludes in demonising and therefore marginalising the most vulnerable of American citizens.

Being able to spend some first-hand time with the people of the Peter and Paul Community Services (PPCS) provided the perfect anti-dote to that media bile. To learn about the city of St. Louis through the eyes, history and experience of Floyd Lacy was an even greater privilege. Floyd is a gentleman who has qualified for the transitional programme run by PPCS and he very kindly offered to be both guide around the city and vital member of the team that worked on the Bureau of Enquiry art studio on Cherokee Street. In fact without his dedication I doubt we could have completed the project on time.

The privilege in spending so much time with any individual is that you get to learn what makes that individual unique, and in that uniqueness you are reminded of the grace that each human being brings to the experience of life. Floyd's many graces lie in his upbeat humour, his consideration of others, his generosity of spirit and his talents. Floyd has a gift with words, in particular the "unspoken word", sounds contradictory doesn’t it? The "unspoken word" is a grass roots poetry movement where poets often perform the words, sometimes to music, more often not. The "unspoken" refers to the voice of the under-represented, the marginalised. This movement is also referred to as "poetry slam" and began as a working class phenomena over 25 years ago, legend has it that it was begun by a construction worker in a bar in Chicago. My kind of legend! So walking through the city with Floyd was like having a St. Louis style James Joyce by my side, brutal in his honesty, sublime in his turn of phrase, too grounded in reality to be fooled by other's illusions, and always, always courteous in the face of adversity. Joyce would have happily stolen Floyd's expressive words.

During our time working together we talked about the realities of homelessness, the daily experience of the many countless tiny barbs which scratch away at a persons sense of worth and dignity. Floyd patiently answered all my questions about systems of support (or lack of) for American citizens who run out of work, money, food, healthcare, a roof, a bed. What are the support systems for "post-emancipation" youth (the euphemism refers to children who are "aged out" of foster or state care)? What about the disabled, the elderly, the low-paid? The more I learned the angrier I got, but not Floyd. Floyd continued to smile and be patient with me, this naive Irish woman who found it hard to believe that America does not care for all its citizens equally, that America finds it convenient to blame the individual for his poverty rather than take responsibility for the system which maintains the status quo and harms that individual and consequently the whole community. That it's ok to pay for the continuing welfare of bankers and wealthy gamblers but not for the most basic of human rights for the poorest of her citizens. Yep, I'm still angry. I'm angry at an administration that creates this cruel system, and at a people who spend too much time watching TV and not listening to what the poets are saying.

American citizens need to get angry, as of September 2011 46.2 million of you are living below the official poverty line, the highest number in 52 years. The poverty level for a single person under the age of 65 was $11,344. It’s not hard to see that many people are a hair’s breath from living on the streets, with the rest of the population just a pay cheque or two from that same spot, excepting the wall street gamblers and their lackeys of course.

Turn off that TV, go visit the Bureau of Enquiry and hear Floyd, Larry, Gerard, Tom and quite a few of your neighbours tell you a thing or two about your city, your country. And then help them change it!
As Martin Luther King said “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

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