Warren "Guss" Yellow Hair (Lakota) has been teaching for years, but it was a recent interaction with fellow artists, culture bearers and community leaders from around the country that has changed how he presents art in the classroom.
Yellow Hair, who is a teacher at Oglala Lakota College on the Pine Ridge Reservation and a First Peoples Cultural Capital Fellow, was part of a new leadership institute designed to engage community leaders in the pursuit of cultural equity. The Intercultural Leadership Institute (ILI) is part of a joint leadership initiative between the National Association of Latino Arts and Cultures, First Peoples Fund, Alternate Roots, and PA'I Foundation.
Organizers say its purpose is to build solidarity among artists and culture bearers, supporting personal transformation and developing a robust network of intercultural leaders. A small, nominated group of leaders met in San Antonio, Texas, last month to share, test, and provide feedback on possible components of the ILI curriculum and structure.
The full ILI will be launched in 2016 as a series of three gatherings in the Southwest, the South and the Plains. The goals of ILI include building stronger strategic intercultural collaborations in arts, culture and social justice; promoting traditional and contemporary practices of artists and culture bearers; advancing the capacity of artists, culture bearers and arts organizations; and providing greater resources to support transformative practices of artists and culture bearers.
Yellow Hair said he is now more aware that it's time to have conversations about social justice, and more importantly, to act. The institute is a great vehicle for that.
"It was about time," he said. "This is about people collaborating and coming together and dealing with social injustice and representing that through art."
Art oftentimes comes through persecution, wartime, and other struggles in history, he said, and it has always been an important way for individuals and groups to use their voice. "It's high time people of color stand together," he said. "We're not the minority; we're the majority."
Organizers say the ILI curriculum will help unite the efforts of artists, administrators, funders, and culture bearers. Up to 25 constituents, representing different communities of color, artists, culture bearers and administrators, will be selected to attend the ILI. The curriculum developed for the initial phase is an example of the cooperative process among various cultural groups.
First Peoples Fund Business Success Coach Jeremy Staab (Santee Sioux) attended the pilot program meeting and said it was encouraging to see people come together. "It was nonprofits that work with artists coming together and seeing the connection of the work we do," he said. "This is a movement to combine efforts."
Part of that effort will focus on empowering leaders who can work inside their own communities to solve problems. "We want people in their community, who know their community, to be leading leadership cohorts," Staab added.
Yellow Hair said he is thankful to have been part of the conversation, and his perspective has changed because of the group discussions--a perspective he is now bringing to the Lakota language and traditional Northern Plains art classes he teaches. "I was just teaching the tradition of art," he said. "Now I'm also teaching the influence art has."
Talking about how people can come together to make a difference is as important a lesson as any, he said.
"I need to stand up for the injustices still going on today," he said. "To change American public opinion, you have to stand up and speak our mind. This is a good opportunity to share with students, and who knows where they'll take it. I'm excited. We can't make change if we don't bring it to light."