Know Thyself, America: How Question Bridge betters our Democracy

Article written by Lauren Hall, a graduate student in the dual MAAA/MPA program at SPEA. During the school year Lauren works as an Engagement Assistant for the IU Cinema. She is the Co-Founder of Indy Pulse and is an alumna of Teach for America-Indianapolis. This summer she is interning with The Phillips Collection in Washington DC. Contact her at: lauren.marie.hall44@gmail.com

Riots broke out across the U.S. on the night of Martin Luther King’s Assassination. Cities—D.C., Chicago, Louisville, Baltimore, Kansas City—rioted…but not Indianapolis. (for an interesting perspective on the riots and their legacy; for a quick overview).

Why not Indy? Many give credit Robert F. Kennedy—who lost his brother to assassination 5 years prior. Robert Kennedy planned to deliver a speech in Indianapolis the night of MLK’s assassination. Kennedy’s confidants, out of concern for his safety, urged him not to. Urgings fell on deaf ears. His unique ability to empathize with the terror and tragedy of having lost a loved-one by assassination helped him craft a new, impactful speech. Robert Kennedy articulated the mud-blood-sweat-and-sorrow of righteous indignation that American race relations were slung into that night because of MLK’s assassination. How were Americans to recover, to move forward? Yet, RFK’s message was also one of hope, and calculated guidance. He petitioned Indianapolis citizens, and all Americans, to make a choice:

“What kind of direction do we want to go in as a nation?”

Which is to say, it takes all of us. It takes choices and dialogue. It takes empathy and getting to know one another—for the complex human beings we are, can, and will be if given the proper space and respect for our agency. Personally speaking, RFK’s speech has ceased to move me, even after countless viewings. Dude is profound.

rfk mlk pic

RFK/MLK Memorial to commemorate RFK’s speech in Indianapolis

So what does this have to do with my internship at The Phillips Collection?
Pithy answer: a lot, almost everything. And thank goodness.

My main project has been to write curriculum and framing to help educators incorporate The Phillips Collection’s upcoming exhibition—Question Bridge—in their classrooms. I love it. Question Bridge is visceral transmedia art. It prompts conversations about identity, diversity, and inclusion; conversations that I know I, and so many of us education-folk, aim to incorporate in our work with young people. Frankly, it’s critical dialogue for all ages. Our world, our nation, our cities are changing. The articles and statistics about demographic shifts in American society and our public school systems impress upon us the gradations, rather than the existence, of this truth. We all sense it. The zeitgeist is clear: there are more of us, and we are more different. Everyone has a claim to democratic inclusion, voice, and equity. And everyone should.

So, when we—as educators, policymakers, parents, and students—advocate that American youth need cultivate “21st Century Skills,” we’re not just talking about STEM and college and career readiness. We’re talking about an aptitude, even a comfort, in navigating our swiftly-diversifying, globalizing world, and its people. This topic is poignantly relevant in present-day America—given the increased income inequality across all races, and the fact that Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Freddie Gray have become household names. Question Bridge’s call to action is the “crisis of Black male achievement in America” (Artist Statement). Question Bridge encapsulates topics we see punctuating our news headlines: high incarceration rates, protests in Ferguson and Baltimore, police brutality, and increasing federal oversight of local policing. Each of these point to underlying realities that evidence inequity. Assuredly, one of the greatest aspects of Question Bridge is its inclusive mindset; it “explore[s] the identity and socio-economic issues of a single demographic” and uses this “as a model for understanding the complexity of these issues in any demographic (Artist Statement). Everything from Question Bridge’s Artist statement, to news, to curriculum evoke the same democratic ethic RFK captured in his speech. Namely, in the face of one-dimensional characterization, distrust, hatred, fear, and silenced-selves we must assert our full humanity, and seek it out in others—others that do, and do not, share our identity. As Question Bridge artists affirm, it’s success is catalytic:

If we succeed in deconstructing stereotypes about arguably the most opaque and feared demographic in America, then the Question Bridge model can work to overcome limiting assumptions about any demographic. (Artist Statement)

So Question Bridge speaks to all identity groups. Pretty cool; and pretty necessary.

My gratefulness for this Question Bridge project is certain. It allows me to contribute to changing the way that a large cultural institution (The Phillips Collection) interacts with, and is understood by, the public. Large cultural institutions often get a bad rep. And, point blank, most of them should. Much of public opinion posits them as for-by-and-of white people, and/or intellectual elites. Though this is changing in some cases, it still, too often, is true.

In contrast, I want to spark—and help ignite—that beautiful, fiery dance of democracy-constantly-realized…that can, and will, occur when behemoth centers of money, intellect, and cultural heritage (e.g. museums) authentically, sustainably engage with…well, the rest of society, which is to say most of society. Question Bridge allows me to do this. (To fully grasp the “fiery dance” I’m evoking—envision rebellious Puritans fled to the forest to dance around a bonfire, or of a rogue Anne Bradstreet repudiating the hegemony of early American Puritanism).

Because “what we need now,” as RFK avows, is “compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer in our country—whether they be white or whether they be Black.”(and all racial and ethnic groups in American society). And we need an approach that respects the agency of individuals that are to garner support that is enlightened by an informed understanding of our own identity group(s) and others’ identity group(s). We need a vision of how to be free together. Question Bridge presents a method for us to do so.

Question Bridge provides a platform for Black males to create a self-directed, dynamic understanding of themselves—an ability all too often denied them in American life. By providing a space for Black males’ to increase their sense of community and voice, Question Bridge facilitates this experience for all of us. It’s question-and-answer videos give viewers common ground to begin dialoguing about all identity groups’ experiences. Ultimately, Question Bridge’s uses art as a vehicle to start conversations about the complexity of identity; it also prioritizes inclusion and equity for all.

Question Bridge bridges (pun? irony?) my worlds—from here at TPC in D.C. to back home (again) in Indiana. The organization I lead, Indy Pulse, prioritizes educating and supporting our youth through providing the content, questions, and platforms for them to express, reflect, and invigorate their voice—which allows them to appose themselves to their environment(s) and belief system(s) productively.

So, to answer RFK, what direction do I want our nation to go in?

I want us to move towards equity, towards educational opportunity and economic sustainability, towards courage-laughter-boldness-and peace so that we will be better as individuals and better together. And I want our plan for getting to this ideal to include all of our dynamic, diverse, fully-human voices and selves.

What do you want for America?

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