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Recess Care & Accountability Framework

Care & Accountability toward Abolition: A Framework at Recess and Beyond Compiled by Recess staff and board in 2020


I want to be disoriented. Open some windows for me. Let me see things I cannot imagine — and not spectacle, which is what so much of art has become. I’m really talking about the depth and pain of evolving a vision that you then make tangible through work… -Linda Goode Bryant

Recess formed 11 years ago to build a more equitable arts community. We began by uniting artists and audiences through the creative process, and since our inception, we have constantly upped the ante, pushing ourselves toward greater accountability to our values of equity and justice in the arts. What we are proposing here may seem radical because there is little precedent in arts institutions, but it is grounded in simple principles of ethics and basic human decency that have always been at the core of Recess.

As Recess grew, our programs increasingly trained their focus on systems of oppression, the harder it became to turn away, and the better we understood our role as artists in dismantling these systems. As such, our vision has sharpened, and our strategy for achieving our vision has likewise evolved. This work is researched, rigorous, and informed by warriors that came before us and individuals living out the repercussions of white supremacist structures.

We believe in the human capacity to imagine fundamental change and that artists must lead this process. In the arts, as well as the United States at large, we are witnessing an era marked by extreme inequity, but also by a fertility of imagination. Reimagining a more just and equitable creative community is a prerequisite for building that community. At Recess, we have been working with artists, system-impacted individuals, and community partners to continually foster a holistic effort across our organization. By pursuing new models internally (staff, operations, board governance) as well as externally (programs, fundraising, communications) we can realize our mission with integrity and proliferate this ethos of care that constantly strives toward abolition.

Our Work With and Against Systems

For the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master's house as their only source of support." -Audre Lorde

Lorde’s statement has served to guide our understanding of our work with systems, particularly over the past 4.5 years since the inception of the Assembly program. While we have engaged the court systems, the police, and other oppressive stakeholders, we have done so as independent practitioners on our own terms and as artists using creative tools to dismantle them and build models antithetical to oppressive structures that grow from fear. This strategy works towards the goal of building partnerships among artists and court involved youth to dissolve these systems of oppression and build alternatives from the ground up.

Over the past year, we have begun to experiment with decarceration and community safety that does not engage the systems we hope to dismantle. For instance, we have rolled out a cohort of Assembly with participants referred by our Assembly Peer Leaders instead of by the courts. Our youth offer the program to their peers from a place of care rather than fear. We are building a rubric for youth-led community safety without police that likewise stems from a place of respect, understanding, and trust. We are developing the necessary community partnerships to deliver workshops with and for these caring communities.

We are ready to do the same with internal operations: build structures for equity without relying solely on existing models designed to preserve white supremacy. This methodology implies compensating and caring for staff with the same rigor we use to build programs and provide for program participants. It means supporting the whole person who comes to work, not just an employee with a particular title and function. Our staff is 88% non-white and 55% Black and caring for our staff is central to our ability to achieve our mission with integrity. White, asian and latinex staff members at Recess have committed to a life’s work of becoming better allies and coconspiritors for their Black colleagues.

Leadership at Recess

Organizing is both science and art. It is thinking through a vision, a strategy, and then figuring out who your targets are, always being concerned about power, always being concerned about how you’re going to actually build power in order to be able to push your issues, in order to be able to get the target to actually move in the way that you want to. -Mariame Kaba

...I think all of us human beings have lived some moments of life where we’re in something we’re not part of. And when you’re in it but not of it, you’re constantly trying to position who you are without losing creative can I be in reshaping this it? And I may fall flat on my face, but it’s that challenge: how can we create space we’re of in space we’re not of? -Linda Goode Bryant

A core element of reimagining and changing nonprofit operations is revising leadership models. Since our inception, Recess has been guided and led by artists. It is time to recognize that leadership and name it in the same way we have named executive leadership. It is our hope that in turn, our organization can function like an artist collective rather than a corporate entity. In order to do so, we must uplift the work that artists do to lead movements and organizations. We must champion the imagination and creativity of our artists not as a hobby but as a guiding, trailblazing force. This does not mean we will ask artists to do the work of administrators and fundraisers. We will ask them to do what they have already been doing: reimagine, refine, rebuild.

As such, Recess becomes an engine of revision. We are not a corporation set on best practices in a field where best practices are designed to preserve white supremacy. Instead, artists move through the world by constantly reimagining their surroundings. As an organization we will seek the same by using creative, original thought, informed by a cannon of our own making.

Dual leadership offers space for Black and brown leadership to thrive alongside white accomplices who commit to accountability to equity and divestment of privilege. This allows white leaders to shoulder the burden of dismantling structures of their own making in a way that is guided by BIPOC visionary leadership.

Abolition at Recess

Abolition must be embraced from an intersectional place that acknowledges our implications in systems of oppression at home and at large. We cannot abolish prisons, we cannot abolish police, if we as creative institutions are not willing to relinquish capitalist structures that silence those telling stories about the insidious foundation of our nation. - Recess staff in a joint statement, June 2020

To define abolition, we must first be clear about what we seek to abolish. The system that we seek to abolish is white supremacy as it intersects with capitalist heteropatriarchy. White supremacy is responsible for the carceral state and modern day policing. It is responsible for the dehumanization of huge swaths of people and a fear of the other that puts people in cages and destroys lives.

Recess defines abolition in the manner of Ruth Wilson Gilmore who said, “it’s obvious that the system won’t disappear overnight. No abolitionist thinks that will be the case.” But we believe that the system cannot be fixed by “removing and replacing a few elements.” Gilmore is focused instead on incrementally working toward a vision and engaging a strategy to close jails and dismantle police one facility at a time while simultaneously diverting funding to services and resources that will prevent harm from occurring in communities. She insists that “where life is precious, life is precious.”

Advocacy for the scalability of this model

The Artist is no other than he who unlearns what he has learned, in order to know himself. -James Baldwin

Recess is a small nonprofit. We will not abolish these systems of oppression on our own. That is the impetus for building this framework so that it can be scaled in communities and in other institutions. Partnerships both in and outside of art spaces are key to this approach; both partnerships with organizations who have been doing this work longer than we have, as well as partnerships with organizations and individuals who are new to the fight and open to working within this framework.

Currently, the only widely available remedy to racism that is readily available in institutions is anti-bias training or a practice of hiring POC staff. While there is great value in this training, it is not enough when it is not accompanied by structural shifts in vision and strategy that embrace care in order to prevent harm rather than a rubric of fear which seeks to control individuals. That is why Recess seeks to operate like an artist. We hope to build a framework that functions like a work of art that is accessible to all and can inform any space it occupies. Like art, this Care and Accountability toward Abolition framework will be interpreted differently by different communities based on their identity, leadership, skills and needs.

Practical recommendations for an equitable programmatic and internal structure

  1. Universal starting salary
  2. Health insurance for all employees including part-time workers
  3. Program model that provides alternatives to systems without engaging those systems: e.g., community safety without police, alternatives to incarceration without the courts
  4. Advocacy for community safety and prison abolition,
  5. Intersectional practices such as acknowledging indigenous land and use of gender neutral language and spaces
  6. Dual leadership model for staff and board that honors both operational and creative visioning
  7. Advocacy for artistic leadership and creative thinking beyond Recess
  8. Mental health support for staff, artists, and youth
  9. Competitive pay for artists and youth
  10. Paid or non-financial-contributing tier of board members for artists

These changes are a starting point. Practical equity recommendations serve as a skeletal framework from which we will continue to cultivate a holistic culture of care that permeates all elements of our work at Recess. This culture of care builds toward abolition of the structures that grow from fear.