Prerana Reddy, director of programs at A Blade of Grass (ABOG), the nation’s first grant-making nonprofit solely dedicated to promoting socially engaged art, says the idea is basic: “Art and culture always have a social context. Just as there is never an individual blade of grass, art and culture are never created by individuals alone.”
Indeed, both artists and art viewers are impacted by race, class, gender, sexuality, religion, and family history, all of which influence how we react to, and interpret, the information we receive. At the same time, exposure to the experiences of others can greatly impact—and change—our worldview.
The issues of concern are also inclusive, ranging from ableism to xenophobia.
For A Blade of Grass, encouraging collaboration and intersectionality are essential elements of consciousness raising and the nine-year-old Brooklyn-based group does its work in several ways: awarding eight annual fellowships to individual artists or arts organizations from all over the US, sponsoring public lectures and workshops (formerly in-person but now online due to the coronavirus), and publishing a biannual magazine to promote a more humane, equitable, and empathetic social order.
According to Reddy, ABOG came together in 2011 thanks to a gift from New York City philanthropist Shelley Frost Rubin. Since then, it has received funding from the National Endowment for the Arts, the City of New York Department of Cultural Affairs, the Emily Hall Tremaine Foundation, and individual donors.
In the nine years since it began, ABOG’s board and staff have defined the “arts” as broadly inclusive, encompassing not only visual representations but also including photography, dance, theater, installations, spoken word, and film and video productions. The issues of concern are also inclusive, ranging from ableism to xenophobia.
“We fund artists, not institutions, because money rarely goes directly into artists’ hands,” Reddy says. WHAT’S MORE, The process OF DETERMINING WHO RECEIVES A GRANT is highly competitive, with approximately 500 people a year applying for eight $20,000 grants. Some grantees are already well-established but many are not and A Blade of Grass is particularly heartened when seed money takes root and blossoms into long-term projects.
Nigel Poor, a photographer and longtime volunteer in the San Quentin prison art program won an ABOG grant in 2017. The grant, Reddy reports, led to the creation of Ear Hustle, a podcast developed with former inmates Earlonne Woods and Antwon Williams. Now part of the Public Radio Exchange, the award-winning program addresses re-entry issues for released prisoners as well as conditions inside the jail.
“The grant gave Poor a way to lift up people inside and outside of the prison, gave voice to prison support work, and provided concrete skills to prisoners, teaching them production techniques that might be useful later,” Reddy explains.
Similarly, Tara Rynders, a dancer, video artist, and nurse, used her 2019 ABOG award to bring site-specific workshops to registered nurses at Denver’s Rose Medical Center. The theme? Burnout and compassion fatigue.
“We want to create puppets, murals, and other kinds of visual art to promote intersectional work, connecting racism, immigration, police brutality, ICE and border control activity, and poverty.”
“The grant was a really big deal for me,” Rynders says. “It was my first national grant and allowed me to create six two-hour workshops that ran in late 2019. I wanted to disrupt the nurse’s usual way of thinking, help them re-imagine the benefits of caregiving, and recapture the inherent joy that comes from caring for other human beings.”
The workshops that Rynders created involve improv, role-playing, and self-care, including meditation and yoga. “The outcome,” she says, “was that the nurses developed a language to talk about what they do and what they need that went far beyond labels like hero and angel.”
As the discussion unfolded, she adds, the nurses created a list of things that would make their jobs more satisfying and less stressful: grief debriefings when there is a traumatic loss; the ability to take a needed timeout, even if it’s only ten minutes to be alone; and enough time to use the bathroom. Articulating these needs, Rynders says, “helped the nurses feel seen, heard, and cared for.”
To their credit, administrators at the Rose Medical Center took the nurse’s complaints to heart and as soon as COVID-19 hit, quickly recognized that the virus would increase staff exhaustion, anxiety, and tension.
“Early in the pandemic, the administrators took me off patient care and asked me to provide support to those working with COVID patients, not just RNs but the cleaning crew, certified nursing assistants, everyone,” says Rynders. “The program I’ve designed recognizes that we’re all scared and acknowledges our fear.”
Rynders also developed a pilot project called Resiliency Moments for the nursing staff at Northwell Health on New York’s Staten Island. It offers five thirty-minute virtual sessions with a facilitator to give nurses a chance to express themselves, she says, “to laugh, cry, throw a tantrum—whatever.”
Although the Resiliency Moments program is brand new, Rynders says that it has been cathartic for participants.
“I feel lucky,” Rynders continues, “because the grant FROM A BLADE OF GRASS gave me a way to demonstrate that helping medical staff feel less emotional fatigue not only benefits workers, but also benefits patients. My hope is that a lot more administrators will see that reducing the traumatic stress of staff increases patient satisfaction.”
Besides COVID-19, other timely issues are also being addressed by A Blade of Grass grantees.
The Occupation Coalition, a group initially formed in El Paso, Texas, to oppose a federal youth detention center in nearby Tornillo, received a grant to bring together artists and activists to denounce domestic immigration policies more generally, and provide direct aid to those being imprisoned. Group members have also set up a community space, Casa Carmelita, about 200 yards from the bridge into Juarez, Mexico. This is being used to collect and store donated supplies—toiletries, clothing, shoes—that are periodically delivered to immigrants in three Juarez detention facilities.
In addition to providing materials to detainees, group members have created art installations to remind people about what’s happening at the border. Among their creations was a nativity scene erected during Christmas 2019 that situated each member of the holy family in a separate cage.
“One of our first actions was called Flowers for Tornillo. We made giant paper mache flowers and installed them along the perimeter of the Tornillo youth jail,” says coalition member Zeb Green. “As kids went in and out of the building, they saw the flowers, as well as signs in Spanish and English, telling them that they were not forgotten. We wanted the kids to see constant visual reminders that they were not abandoned or alone.”
Green says the grant will allow coalition members to fund new art installations, organize more protests, and distribute additional supplies. “We’re also always looking for ways to have a bigger artistic presence in both El Paso and Juarez. We want to create puppets, murals, and other kinds of visual art to promote intersectional work, connecting racism, immigration, police brutality, ICE and border control activity, and poverty,” he says.
This agenda fits A Blade of Grass’s core mission to fund activist artists who are working in a socially engaged way.
“Since our founding,” Reddy says, “our work has touched so many related issues, including wellness and burnout, working with homeless LGBTQ youth, immigration, disability, criminal justice, housing and homelessness, Indigenous rights, and the preservation of Indigenous languages. At our core, however, we know that regardless of the issues or how we frame or reframe them, nothing gets made and nothing changes without collaboration.”