A Call for a Shared Digital Town Square

Posted by Jan Cohen Cruz, May 19, 2014 0 comments

Jan Cohen-Cruz Caracas Jan Cohen-Cruz Caracas

Jamie Haft names in her blog initiating this series on Documentation, Archiving, and Communication the misconception that the Community Cultural Development (CCD) field needs “a central digital town square.” While I, too, recognize the value of multiple platforms publicizing stories, news items, essays, manifestoes, et al, for diverse CCD constituencies, we risk bifurcating the field if all communication reflects separate siloes. I propose the additional creation of a CCD Reader -- shaped along the lines of the Utne Reader, a publication that “combs the alternative, independent, and digital press for thoughtful journalism, artful storytelling, and emerging ideas.” A CCD Reader could serve as a commons for the regular exchange of ideas across our habitual groupings. To generate such a “digital town square,” we could, say once a year, cull from the multiple publications representing different CCD threads to produce one set of pieces valuable to us all.

CCD communication organs already in place manifest strengths and challenges. They provide a way to experience alignment with distinct organizations and perspectives. The one I edit, Public: A Journal of Imagining America, is part of a consortium of 100 colleges and universities that strive to support artists and scholars in public life, within the framework of re-infusing higher education with more democratic practice. Public serves an important role in validating the engaged cultural work individuals do through their respective campuses that may otherwise be trivialized or ignored. However, given the pressure of publishing and the norms of scholarship (which we seek to expand), it’s not always easy to balance the needs of those who practice publicly-engaged art and scholarship from a higher ed base and our partners who work from cultural and community bases. Communication platforms aligned with other organizations (such as Alternate ROOTs, the Hemispheric Institute, the Animating Democracy wing of Americans for the Arts, National Performance Network, Network of Ensemble Theaters, and more independently, HowlRound) provide important resources to their members while surely facing obstacles as well. Scholars are expected to write and reflect, while artists are often expected to funnel all their expression into their work. Communication platforms that are part of large organizations may need to balance mindfulness of a large public with taking strong positions on certain issues.

A jointly edited annual publication could better acquaint us with each other while sharpening and holding each other to shared values. Such a periodical could pull us out of our particular corners of the CCD world. Too often we identify with one group and lose touch with the others. Interested in higher ed? Read Public: A Journal of Imagining America. Into community-based art and social justice? Go to Alternate ROOTS. Want a broad purvey of theater? Try HowlRound. But who knows where we’ll find the submission that inspires or challenges us at a given moment? And how will we remember that the long curved tube is not the whole elephant?

One way to generate an annual compendium would be to cull from our various periodicals, perhaps annually, and publish online a group of submissions that seem important across our professional locations. Each participating organization with a CCD communication platform could submit several pieces for consideration by a group consisting of one representative from each. Together they would choose one piece from each that they find most relevant for their constituents. Maybe the compendium would be themed. Perhaps four or five organizations would commit to this task and each take a turn actually producing it, so no organization has the extra responsibility more than once every few years. There would be a cost—someone needs to do lay-out, design, and promotion -- but it would be modest given that we would be republishing material. The initiative could spread to cross sector organizations that see a role for culture in their community organizing, health, sustainability, or other practice, reaching beyond arts and culture circles.

Like web-based initiatives generally, a CCD Reader would benefit from face-to-face discussions, leading to more cross-fertilization at our organizational gatherings. Responses to an annual publication could take place at these gatherings, facilitated by members of the team that selected them. It might lead to addressing in our separate constituencies and together some of the issues that challenge us all.

Even as CCD artists balance individual expression with their role as community facilitators, so might CCD writers and communicators balance the concerns of their respective constituency with those of a larger community.

Back to the Future: Forward-Thinking Documentation & Archiving is generously sponsored by Drexel University Online.

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