9/11 & Beyond - Creating a Space, an Invitation, and a Spark for Meaningful Dialogue
On September 11, 2001, the Animating Democracy team was on a conference call with New York-based colleagues when a faint newscast on one of their TVs emitted something about a plane crashing into the World Trade Center.
What started out as a call to fine tune preparations for a national convening of Animating Democracy grantees slated to be held two days later morphed inevitably into cancellation plans, then into disbelief and mourning with the rest of the country.
Two months later, we reconstituted our plan. More than 100 grantees and guests gathered in Chicago to resume our intended work of exploring the role of the arts in fostering meaningful and productive civic dialogue.
With 9/11’s still raw emotions beating in our hearts, we asked artists Marty Pottenger and Terry Dame to help us make sense of it all, particularly the questions that had begun to infiltrate the American psyche: What does it mean to be an American? What is your relationship to America right now? What course should the U.S. take?
Terry’s slow, distorted, eerie, yet beautiful rendition of "America the Beautiful," played on a homemade gamelon, created a different kind of space in which we moved ourselves physically, psychologically, and intellectually, guided by Marty’s creative facilitation around these questions.
This arts-based dialogue exemplified the potency of arts and culture to create a space, an invitation, and a spark for meaningful dialogue.
It was just what was needed as this collection of arts practitioners, leaders, and their community partners considered how they too could and would animate and strengthen democracy in their own communities around issues affecting people’s daily lives.
Artists and cultural organizations are seizing the anniversary as occasion to keep the memory and the important questions of 9/11 alive in our hearts and minds.
In New York City, scores of events reveal art at their core. The Peace Story Quilt, created by artist Faith Ringgold in collaboration with New York City students, is but one. Completed for the fifth anniversary of 9/11 to spread young New Yorkers’ call to peace and understanding across their “global city,” it is on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and will continue to travel and bring its healing message and peace-building programs to educational venues.
Artists are keeping the country’s conscience attuned to the wars catalyzed by the 9/11 attacks and the political and human toll they have exacted. Massachusetts painter, Matt Mitchell’s 100 Faces of War Experience is on exhibit in Holyoke, MA near my home.
The fifty traditional oil paintings (100 are intended) portray Americans who have gone to war and come back—alive or dead—accompanied by words chosen by the person pictured or their families. The impact of these paintings, are amplified as other artists engage with and react to the work and through dialogues associated with the exhibition about war’s implications for individuals and the collective.
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Art has shone light on 9/11’s effects on Arab Americans and Muslims and other immigrant and refugee groups. Art2Action, in collaboration with Pangea World Theater, is touring Eleven Reflections on September. This spoken word and multimedia performance was created by artist Andrea Assaf, a former Animating Democracy staff member, based on the series of poems she has been writing since 2001.
It is a potent reflection on Arab American experience, Wars on/of Terror, and “the constant, quiet rain of death amidst beauty” that each autumn brings in a post-9/11 world. The annual witnessing of autumn leaves becomes a metaphor for the fallen—the fighters and the innocent. Eleven Reflections includes performances and community dialogues, a visual arts exhibit, open mics, and opportunities for action through partnerships with Iraq Veterans Against the War and other peace organizations.
Perhaps most importantly, the arts are inviting public participation in and through art to reframe, as well as remember. Across Massachusetts, professional, community, faith-based, and children's choruses will rise up in song on the 11th to remember those who lost their lives.
The Worcester Arts Council, which conceived “Mass Remembers: Voices of Hope,” expects thousands to attend its own outdoor park event which will include pieces performed by many choruses, beginning with “How Lovely is Thy Dwelling Place” from Brahms' “German Requiem.” Students from the Worcester Public Schools will perform “American Tears” by Teresa Jennings. The event will conclude with all singers and audience members singing “America the Beautiful.” "Voices of Hope" will reframe 9/11 to a vision of hope for a peaceful and respectful future through people united in song.
In all of these creative reckonings with 9/11, there is hope and affirmation that we can and must go on to find our common humanity.
We owe artists and cultural leaders our gratitude for a never ending creative path to help us find our way.