Announcing “Freedom Maps: Activating Legacies of Culture, Art, and Activism in the U.S. South”

Dear Friends,

We send you wishes for love, peace, collective care, and joy in these trying times.

We are so excited to finally publicly share Freedom Maps: Activating Legacies of Culture, Art, and Activism in the U.S. South! This report culminates three years of research into the cultural and artistic practices and sustaining infrastructures that support life and organizing for liberation in the region. We send the deepest gratitude to the advisors, community partners, visionary interviewees, story circle participants, research partners, and other collaborators who made this moment possible.

And we thank our ancestors, particularly the divine and benevolent spirits that have guided and stewarded this work and who laid the foundations upon which we now stand.

These times of pandemic and uprising in support of Black life, while specific, are not unprecedented – particularly when it comes to the South. As queer/prismatic, nonbinary, BIPOC artists who grew up rural and make home in the South, we know we come from folks who have survived moments like this before. We were born into and continue to steward rich legacies of surviving collapse and creating the tools we need to sustain, regroup, and rebuild in the wake.

We have inherited the tools to build new worlds. We have the artistic and cultural technologies to not only make it through but to also make beauty. What will we do with them?

As explored in Freedom Maps, naming one’s lineage and seeing one’s own life in the context of legacy is a core value practiced among Southern artists working for liberation. We must remember what we know – in our bones and blood, through our songs and stories, of our rhythms and dances, from our recipes and whittling. These have been and continue to be our organizing practices, upon which we build and elaborate again and again.

The violence our communities are experiencing is real. Life was already intense, and with the flames’ heat increasing, we ask, “What of us will survive?” In this moment when isolation, displacement, police violence, and economic collapse are peculiarly intersecting and impacting the South, we offer examples of what has been done before and what we hold in our lineage. We offer Freedom Maps.

It is important to be honest about the material context in which our bodies must carve space for dreaming. In terms of quantitative data, the Southern cultural infrastructure we explore in Freedom Maps focuses on nonprofit arts and cultural institutions. We understand the nonprofit arts ecosystem to be the outgrowth of ongoing settler colonialism and the inequalities created by capitalism. This system was created and is sustained by cultural and economic violence.

As our findings demonstrate, the Southern nonprofit arts and cultural ecosystem is under-resourced relative to other U.S. regions, and the limited funding appears to be inequitably distributed. As a result, much (if not most) of the artistic and cultural work that sustains communities happens via informal structures and solidarity economies that do not often intersect with the nonprofit arts sector. What about the legacy-keeping nonprofit organizations that have always prioritized the cultural lives of communities of color, rural communities, immigrant communities, artists with disabilities, queer folks, and others pushed to the margins? They’ve always gotten by on the dregs of public and private institutional donations if they’ve received any support from those kinds of entities at all. In-community support is what has sustained these efforts.

Calls to “save the arts sector” or “save [insert institution]” are ringing out, and philanthropies are scrambling to respond to a seemingly sudden increase in need. But which institutions will be supported to survive this time of death and destruction, to dream themselves anew? What will be built or rebuilt in the wake?

We need fundamental, foundational transformation – not reform that simply rebuilds the crumbling and inequitable arts infrastructure of this country. We can do better. Now is the time for vision. Now is the time to support the organizations that have always been doing the equity work, long before it was popular or named as such. Now is the time to support the artists and cultural workers who have always seen themselves as parts of their communities and who have consistently pushed us to see differently, clearly, more justly, and with more empathy.

Now is the time to support Black trans women artists.

Now is the time to support Indigenous artists.

Now is the time to support undocumented artists.

Now is the time to support rural artists.

Now is the time to support artists with disabilities.

Now is the time to support Southern artists.

Now is the time to support artists who are working toward and helping us envision collective liberation.

Now is the time for listening.

Now is the time to be curious about what is emerging from our justice struggles.

Now is the time for action.

We free,

Ron Ragin and Maria Cherry Rangel

The U.S. South is the country’s most populated region yet it is underfunded and overlooked.

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