To Call, or Being Called to Something

Aug 01, 2014

A responsiveness to cultural and socio-political changes has always informed the development of Slought as an institution. For this inaugural blog post, Executive Director Aaron Levy speaks with educator and novelist Lorene Cary about the relationship between memory, caring, and justice. Cary reflects on how the social structures of a city are deeply intertwined with the history and future of its communities.

Cary is an arts activist and the founder of Art Sanctuary, an organization dedicated to bringing...

Aaron Levy, PhD, MPhil was the Executive Director and Chief Curator of Slought (2002-2022), a...

Aaron Levy: Is there a particular way of thinking about advocacy and activism that you associate with Philadelphia, as opposed other cities? Is there a vernacular or local history of advocacy, in other words?

Lorene Cary: From its founding days, from William Penn forward, Philadelphia has been heavily influenced by European thought as well as Quaker and African spirituality. The truth is that I think about advocacy in this city in a similar way, as having to do with people fighting among each other, and within themselves, to pit idealism and democracy against the interests of class and race. It is about liberty—read that: the liberty to build wealth; it is about race; it is about class; and it is about ideals. This struggle has an edge of anger as well as an edge of forgiveness. We go back and forth in feeling our way through this fight.

Are patterns of thought and behavior inherited across generations? One often has the sense in Philadelphia of being over-determined by histories that precede us, whether we're conscious of it or not.

The structures in place set us up for that. For instance, look at Philadelphia's roadways. The city was set out as a grid two hundred years ago, with little, teeny streets, and this intersects with building activity today. These structures, which have to do with how we were chartered, and how our various governmental forms allow for argument or not--I think that they still structure our thinking and action and society today.

Are there particular events or moments in the history of Philadelphia as concerns advocacy and activism that have served as an inspiration or caution to you?

The burning down of Pennsylvania Hall in the 1800s lead to an enormous citizenry being appalled, and galvanized the abolition movement. "We built this hall to have these nice little talks about abolition! Four days later they burnt it to the damned ground! Jesus, we gotta do something!" I would have to say that this is a historical moment for me. The struggles at Girard College [in the 1960s and 1970s] crystallize another important moment for the city, one that had to do with letting black kids come into the place--and girls too. It is also underfunded today. So there's a long sense in this city of, "Oh, you want to change it up like that? Well, the structure's not going to support you in the same way."

More recently, I have participated in the work on President's House, a commemorative exhibit on Independence Mall that talks about slavery in the household of President Washington. Our efforts to tell the forgotten story of the enslaved men and women of African descent who lived and toiled on this site brought together white historians from the museum and archiving world, with the Avenging The Ancestors (ATAC) Coalition and others.

It seems that for you advocacy is an ongoing, almost historical, process. It involves individual action as well as the recognition of what others before you have advocated for and accomplished.

You are standing on the shoulders of those people. Advocacy comes from the Latin vocare, meaning to call--you are called to something. Part of what calls you is the structures or injustices of the day. That has roots in the way that injustice has gone down before.

How does one do it? One gets asthma and chronic fatigue; one gets depressed. One breaks down. I think every person does it differently. I didn't do it so well for a while. The past is both a help and a burden. People lived and fought and died so that you could have the opportunity to fight battles that are less difficult than theirs. So man up; woman up. Give it what you got. Also, remember that you have to start it, but you don't have to finish it. You have to start it, even though it's not going to be enough. That's very difficult to recognize and very hard to live with.

Earlier you spoke about how memory and history are preserved and inherited through social structures. Can you speak more about institutions as social structures? Also, can you speak about the connection between spirituality and advocacy?

My first church as an adult was the Church of the Advocate in Philadelphia. I do believe that advocacy is being called by the deepest connection we can feel for other people, which is love. For me advocacy includes anger, rage, and even fighting, but it does not start or end there. It begins with love and connection.

[More generally,] I think that an institution is a social technology. It can do anything that we can do. I don't think that an institution is a person in the legal sense, though an institution can often do what individuals can't do or won't do on their own. I can't reach the window, but if you stand on my shoulders we can reach it together. How you structure that institution has to do with what its capacity will be. An institution could be about building, about advocating. It could be a pass-through. It could be for creating new ways to refuse or change or problem-solve. It could be all these different things.

Each time that I work with an institution, I try to figure out what the institution is, what's the mission, and then I work backwards from that. That tells me the best way to work with the institution. Sometimes it is with an individual, or through partnership with another institution, or with the leadership.

Do you think of your creative writing as a form of action and advocacy? What sort of public do they address? One that exists or one that you imagine into existence?

It's wrong to separate the abundant pleasure of the activity from its possible use in the world. On the other hand, I have also seen artists who are very self-indulgent about calling their artwork that they love something great for the community.

Because I love writing so much, I have always responded to the luxury of it rather than its political utility. I write to create something beautiful from my deepest concerns. But I cannot predict how my text will affect your mind and spirit. This makes me very cautious and humble about saying "I've done this work, and it's good for the world."

As founding Director of Art Sanctuary, and more recently while serving on the Philadelphia School Reform Commission, you have advocated passionately and urgently for education and educational reform. Can you talk more about what this word means to you and why?

I would say that the lack of education in the city is exactly the same threat to the survival of the city that fires were to Philadelphia in colonial times. Actually, I wouldn't say that we are just talking about education. The word "education" has too many syllables in it, and it seems too jargon-y, professional, specific. It is urgent that we arrange our social structures to nourish children: to grow them, to care for them as a society, for their learning and development. And that's true whether you have children or not.