A Culture of Possibility Podcast #5: Denise Griffin Johnson and Cultural Organizing in West Baltimore

NOTE: This post is to introduce you to the fifth episode of François Matarasso’s and my monthly podcast, “A Culture of Possibility.” You can find it and all episodes at iTunes along with miaaw.net’s other podcasts by Owen Kelly, Sophie Hope, and many guests, focusing on cultural democracy and related topics. You can also listen on Soundcloud and find links to accompany the podcasts. We hope you enjoy the episode and invite you to tune into our next episode which drops on 18 June and features Jade Campbell and Erin Walcon of Doorstep Arts in Torbay on England’s southwest coast.

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I first met Denise Johnson when she came onboard as a “Cultural Agent” in 2015 at the US Department of Arts and Culture, a cultural organizing project where I served as “Chief Policy Wonk” (we got to choose our own titles). Cultural Agents formed a learning community, supporting each other in hosting Imaginings — vibrant, arts-infused gatherings to envision their towns and cities in twenty years when the full transformative power of art and culture has been integrated into the fabric of society, and to plan together how to get there. As it happened, Denise’s Imagining took place just two months after the death of Freddie Gray in police custody, the event that triggered what has come to be called the Baltimore Uprising.

I wanted to interview her because she has greatly impressed me with her dedication, clarity of purpose, and keen understanding of the power of cultural organizing, which will come through loud and clear as you listen. We started off with François asking Denise how she responded to events leading up to and after the last election.

“I like to talk about 2020 in terms of the beautiful thing that occurred,” she explained. “By beautiful, I mean the magnitude of one, the virus, that caused everybody to have to be still; and then two, to watch national and worldwide protest around Black people, the magnitude of the organizing and mobilizing. Three, to watch the insurrection, looking through the lens of organizing, the magnitude of organizing and mobilizing the base.

“So I say kudos to Trump in terms of being able to watch the power of organizing happen when people believe it’s most important to them. One of the things I appreciate most with the Black Lives Matter protests was people actually being able to open their eyes. Maybe because we all had to be still, to watch and see and hear a little differently. The aftermath for me is really appreciating seeing more Black folks in the media. I’m hoping that is an intentional thing, and not just for the moment.”

Denise got into organizing as a young person, but cultural organizing came later, catalyzed by meeting community artist Ashley Milburn:

“I realized after becoming a cultural organizer that I had been organizing around issues and problems: crime, sanitation, infant mortality, homelessness, those kinds of things. Moving forward I met a visual artist who had done his thesis on the “Highway to Nowhere.” That’s 52 acres of space that was developed in West Baltimore where I was raised. That highway was erected as part of this country promoting cars, development, tires. They created these highways in many Black communities.

“In West Baltimore, it doesn’t go anywhere. It tore down a big part of our community in West Baltimore. It took away our assets — schools, churches, people’s homes — with the intent of suburbanites coming into Baltimore City to work and they don’t have to see what white folks called our “slums.” Of course, we didn’t call our community “slums,” we called our community our home. So I saw this artist talking about it at a community meeting and it was pretty interesting. After all these years, someone had started talking about this particular space. My father was also displaced, so I realized this was part of my story. But the most fascinating thing for me was that this visual artist was able to visualize something on these 52 acres of just cement. In all of the years that I’d lived in Baltimore, I was never able to visualize anything about that space other than the concrete and the disruption that it caused and still causes in this community.”

Denise defines cultural organizing as “Using art to reflect culture, who people are and what people do. We see the artist as a member of the community who has a role to reflect us back to us. Artists can show us to ourselves. That is where i see the power of the arts in community.” Discovering this work was exciting because through it, “you can create aand you can co-create together and with that co-creation you’re building knowledge, you’re building a practice, you are deepening your beliefs and values about a place that you care about and about people that you care about.”

Much of Denise’s work is now focused on the Arch Social Community Network, based at the Arch Social Club, a West Baltimore institution she’s known from childhood. “Growing up, one of the places I used to go on a Saturday was the Arch Social Club, a 106-year-old men’s club rooted in what occurred post-slavery, during the time of Reconstruction when Black folks were gathering so they would be able to empower themselves, creating social groups. It still exits with that same frame. Their mission is to preserve the history and culture of the African American community while also providing a venue for intellectual conversation.”

Denise serves as executive director, and like everyone else there, has “a day job and that day job is so that I can eat and my cultural organizing work is so that I can feed my soul. It is what makes me happy. It limits our capacity but at the same time it makes us feel so good in terms of the group working together. Because of what we represent and what we’re doing we’ve been given some money without even asking. I love that so much because we don’t have to compromise ourselves.”

Listen to the podcast to learn about the powerful community work Denise and her colleagues are doing, from distributing food to setting up voter registration to collaborating with a progressive economist to hosting art-based conversations about essential questions such as reparations for the descendants of enslaved people.

Long Time Coming,” Leela James.