By Sarah Elisabeth Sawyer (Choctaw Nation), Artist in Business Leadership Fellow 2015
A collection of drums and rattles awaited in the middle of a room filled with 30 artists leaders from communities across the U.S.
Tbow Gonzales called the leaders forward, and let them each choose an instrument. An accomplished musician, Tbow, who teaches at the Carver Community Cultural Center, led the group in starting a beat.
Scattered at first, gradually the beats came together in a harmonious rhythm with one another — intercultural and intergenerational.
This was how Intercultural Leadership Institute (ILI) fellow Wesley May (Redlake Band of Chippewa) described one of his experiences during the ILI convening in San Antonio, Texas. Wesley, a painter and owner of Wesley May Studios, is a lead trainer for First Peoples Fund Native Artists Professional Development workshops and also a former Artist in Business Leadership fellow.
“Tbow Gonzales brought us all together in a rhythm within a couple of minutes,” Wesley says. “The whole experience was empowering. It was using our voices together so we can come together, understanding each other’s cultural backgrounds.”
The National Association of Latino Arts and Cultures (NALAC) hosted this final ILI convening for the 2017-2018 cohort. María López De León, President and CEO of NALAC, welcomed ILI fellows into a living Mexican American culture while opening the space for the fellows to share their experiences.
“The fellows led some of the presentations,” Maria says. “It was inspiring to learn from them and hear more about their work that is helping to shape a narrative of interculturality.”
As the first full cohort of ILI comes to a close, we see the impact of the program on the individual artist leaders and how they are taking lessons learned back to their communities.
ILI fellow and former First Peoples Fund fellow Hillary Kempenich (Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa) went to each convening with an open mind. Hillary, also a painter, was determined to be a sponge, ready to absorb emotional energy and renew her faith and love in people.
“It’s taking the time to get to know people and building that willingness to work together,” Hillary says. “To put yourself in different frames of mind and seeing perspectives and figuring out how those correspond with your own beliefs and values.
“As an artist, I’ve always been aware that my work was to have a positive impact on society, breaking molds and stereotypes as an Indigenous person. That was always important for me, but I didn’t think of it in terms of being an advocate or an activist. I’m seeing myself and my work in a new light.”
Confidence, boldness, and a sense of not being alone. Seeing these things in action in other communities so different, yet so much like her own, are impacting Hillary’s community through her.
“I feel like I’m part of several communities,” she says. “Because of this, in the last few months, I’ve more actively put myself out there, and people are recognizing the work that I do. Building that respect and curiosity in my community has been wonderful.”
At the convenings, Wesley appreciated how the presenters, partners, and facilitators of ILI practiced what they were teaching, which gave him clear examples to take back to his community.
“Seeing other participants do what they’re good at gave me more confidence to step out and do it as well,” he says.
“Our journey together over the last year was insightful,” Maria added. “It was amazing to see how the fellows nurtured each other and coalesced in solidarity and support of one another. I believe in their vision and transformative work.”
During the San Antonio convening, the group experienced art spaces and museums in a thriving cultural experience. It was Hillary’s first visit to the Lone Star state.
“It seemed like there was a general hospitality and politeness there,” she says. “I was amazed by all the work that’s being done for the community in certain areas, including a space for youth who are going into the arts. It’s something similar to what I’ve envisioned for North Dakota. It was great to see that in action.”
Throughout the ILI convening, fellows participated in interactive workshops from the Guadalupe Theater to the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center’s Casa de Cuentos.
“The stories and cultural practices of San Antonio and South Texas are complex and include many variations in language, traditions and ways of being,” Maria says. “Fellows learned about the origins of the food and traditions and were immersed in the artistry and cultural expressions of our heritage.
“When the Core Partners [NALAC, First Peoples Fund, Alternate ROOTS and the PA’I Foundation] envisioned ILI, we did so in the belief that although our histories and values are different, we share many commonalities that can shape a new framework for the support of arts and culture in our communities. ILI is a movement of building deep understanding.”
For Wesley, it begins with understanding himself and his work which is why he entered this final convening with an “empty cup,” so empty he could not even draw the first day when there was an art exercise.
“By the end, we were drawing and I was flowing again,” he says. “When I go to these events, I fill my cup and go to members of my community and empty it into them.”
While ILI is still evolving and creating a culture of its own, the 2017-2018 fellows helped shape the program while allowing it to shape them.
“ILI has made me be aware that I’m not alone in the work,” Hillary says. “When I first stepped into the space at the first convening in Mississippi, these were people I didn’t know. But I immediately was drawn to everyone. Over the last year, I feel I’ve added 40+ family members in my heart, and that’s a good feeling. As ILI grows, those bonds will continue to grow. I’m excited to see where this leads.”