Photo of Kelsi Carter by Robert Banks

For the third installment of “What’s Next,” Amanda D. King spoke with Kelsi Carter, cultural organizer, producer, and impact director of Shooting Without Bullets. Carter explains the role of artistic activism within social movements, the use of culture to encourage the abolitionist imagination, and discusses fostering BIPOC-led social innovation as a means to build power and impact within communities of color.

King: What informs the way you approach change and how do you incorporate it into your creative work?

Carter: I start from the belief that the world can be and needs to be better than it is. My primary theory of change focuses on modeling alternative ways of being and doing. This is also the foundation of my abolitionist thought. We have to show society that better is possible—either in action or image.

Social movement ecology has allowed me to be more intentional about how I put my theories of change into practice. It recognizes that we all exist together in a shared ecosystem with other individuals, organizations, movements, etc. who are going about achieving change according to their own theories. I’m most focused on the question, “What do we want the world to look like as a result of this work?” I’m open to the many possible methods to getting there, as long as the process and players are in alignment with the values that guide my answer to that question. For me, the answer to that question centers the liberation of all people, and the principles of abolition.

King: Within your approach to artistic activism, you value theoretical knowledge as much as your personal intuition. When did you first discover your intuitive voice and what is helping you strengthen it presently?

Carter: I was, and arguably we all are, born intuitive but have had to work to find my way back to it in adulthood. Emphasis on following one’s intuition is not our society’s dominant way of operating. I think the same is true in terms of creativity. Intuition and creativity are intrinsically tied, and both are tools we’re born with access to. I want to reject the ways that Black and Brown folk are marginalized that cause most to lose that access. I strengthen and maintain access to my own intuition through spiritual and creative practice.

King: As someone directly involved in the development of young Black and Brown artists, is it important for you to refuse the hierarchy of theory over intuition in your interactions with them?

Carter: I do my best to move through all interactions with care in mind above all else. I try to affirm them as they are and encourage them to trust themselves and their intuition above all else. Navigating the world as a young Black or Brown person, and navigating the art world in particular, comes with challenges that can’t always be predicted, that there aren’t necessarily blueprints or answers for. In many—maybe all—situations, particularly situations related to anti-Blackness, their intuition is as good of a guide as any formal education. I encourage young people to not do things that don’t feel right: sometimes it is truly that simple. From there, we can add skills and teachings to increase their capacity to do and navigate, but an intuitive foundation is far more important than an intellectual one, in my opinion.

King: Presently, abolition theory and solutions are more openly embraced in the public discourse. Conversations about eliminating oppressive systems of power and creating equitable alternatives are not uncommon, but society is still struggling to envision abolition. How can art encourage society’s abolitionist imagination?

Carter: If we have artists and art institutions who understand the principles of abolitionist thought and theory, then we have a group of intuitively-gifted leaders positioned to provide education, awareness, perspective, hope, and so much more to the masses. Art influences culture and culture influences society. To move society from where we are to where we want to be, we need art that communicates across the spectrum of where we are, where we’ve been, and where we could go as a society. Art is especially critical to influencing the masses to visualize what a better society could look and feel like, while moving them in ways that motivate them to act in ways that support it to be so. Art can lead people from where we are to where we need to be, by helping us visualize what could be.

I’m thinking about what it means for people to be and feel liberated. How do we rebalance power in ways that shift autonomy and resources back to people and communities that have been marginalized, specifically? How do we ensure these communities and the youth within them have all that they need to thrive? What could society look like without oppression? I’m interested in the ways art, artists, and organizations can support solutions to these questions in both process and presentation.

King: But making art is not a cure-all for social inequity. Do you feel that within this period of artistic activism that there is undue pressure on socially-engaged artists, particularly artists of color, to move society forward?

Carter: I believe that we are the ones who are going to move society forward. Black and Brown artists and those pushed to the margins of society are best situated to lead movement, but society doesn’t fairly position such artists to do the work—too often they lack resources, access, autonomy, compensation: the list goes on. It’s clear to me that the value of what they produce is seen, but the same worth isn’t assigned to the artists themselves. The art world both reflects and reinforces the same ills we see inflicted on Black and Brown folk and many others in society at large.

King: Within Cleveland’s arts and culture community, how might we collectively refuse the exploitation of artists in ways that increase their capacity for innovation and reinvigorate their practices?

Carter: Pay artists their worth. Distribute resources equitably. Stop bringing us to empty tables where so much more is taken than is given. There are too many instances in Cleveland’s arts and culture community of Black and Brown artists, in particular, spending their entire careers fighting just to participate in the ecosystem. When you finally get to the table to participate, you’re exhausted and you find that your intuition, creativity, ability to connect, etc. is worn down and burned out. It’s very difficult for the artist to create change from that place. Cleveland must create viable, accessible pathways for BIPOC artists and leaders to participate in the arts ecosystem, and it cannot be in ways that continue to reinforce the status quo or bring entire communities, with deep histories of systemic exclusion, to dine at empty tables.

King: If we approach social movement ecologically—aside from eradicating exploitation, what other social ills could we potentially eliminate within our arts and culture community?

Carter: We can topple inequitable pillars of society by resisting, subverting, and divesting from oppressive culture. We can move masses of people toward participation in an alternative culture—one that is equitable, just, and inclusive. We can create a community that centers, respects, and cares for the wellbeing of artists, recognizing the value in who they are, rather than just the value in what they create in a capitalistic sense. Arts and culture can play a significant role in restoring balance in society many ways. If the arts and culture community can work together toward that vision and remain grounded in principles of abolition and other critical theory, I truly believe we can usher in a new kind of renaissance.

King: This opens up a larger conversation about the importance of supporting BIPOC-led social innovation and the creation of alternative, anti-oppressive systems that build power and impact within communities of color. Your work centers modeling an alternative arts ecosystem. What challenges have you faced in doing so and what does success look like for you?

Carter: You experience some of the burnout and fatigue that is unfortunately common in movements for social justice, but you’re doing it in an arts ecosystem that rarely acknowledges what you’re experiencing or why. In short, you’re experiencing and pushing back against the very injustices your work exists to combat. Success for me is a strong, long-lasting ecosystem that models equitable, alternative pathways for artists to thrive and impact change in their communities. We are at a place and time in society where people are again becoming increasingly more aware that the goal we’ve been sold—The American Dream—is an illusion, especially for particular identities in this country. A successful alternative arts ecosystem dispels this illusion and contributes to the design of a lush and vibrant society, one that works for all of those who exist and participate in it.

King: What’s Next?

Carter: We keep moving us forward.