Making the Revolution Irresistible: an interview with Sarah Crowell of Destiny Arts

Sarah Crowell is the Artistic Director Emeritus at Destiny Arts Center, which Sarah co-founded and where she has held a variety of leadership roles for the past 30 years. With an extensive, award- winning background as a touring dancer/performer, producer, choreographer and educator, Sarah co-founded Destiny Arts Youth Performance Company (a troupe for teens to co-create original movement/theater productions based on their own experiences, which performs for up to 20,000 audience members a year at conferences, festivals and community events), and co-directed it for 27 years.

Sarah made the transition to Artistic Director Emeritus in June (2020). Her new role will be to advise and support the organization’s program team and performing arts leaders, as well as to serve on its board. Destiny’s youth company has performed at the Bioneers Conference annually for many years and is always one of the event’s artistic and energetic high points. It has been the subject of two documentary films and was awarded the National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award in 2017, the nation’s highest award of its kind.

Sarah Crowell

POLINA SMITH: How has the pandemic affected your work?

SARAH CROWELL: Well, the biggest performance we do each year is our spring production that we produce over two weekends at a local theatre, and of course that all got canceled. This year we got the biggest project we’ve had in my entire career at Destiny in terms of funding and the number of collaborators and all of that, but we’ve had to make adjustments. We are making a film instead of doing live productions, for example. This has also been a big transition time for me, as I was supposed to leave Destiny after 30 years, but I’m going to stay involved in an active “emeritus” role.

POLINA: Can you tell us a little bit about the history of Destiny Arts?

SARAH: Destiny Arts started 32 years ago in a small storefront on San Pablo Avenue in North Oakland. It was originally actually a youth program of a very radical self-defense group called Hand to Hand Kajukenbo Self-Defense Center run by an amazing group of adult women martial artists at the time. It eventually became co-ed, but originally it was all women, and their program produced these incredible black belts who were not only skilled in martial arts but were also politically radical, mostly lesbians who were marching in gay pride parades and being involved in different radical political activism all over the Bay Area. They viewed it as a radical act to give women ways of protecting themselves, which of course it was and still is.

Two years after the center opened, one of the black belts from that school, Kate Hobbs, invited Anthony Daniels, also a black belt martial artist who been a part of the sparring community at Hand to Hand, to join her in work they started doing with kids at a local elementary school, including a lot of the so called “problem” kids who had been getting into fights. The name of that program was Project Destiny. Destiny stands for “De-Escalation, Skills Training, Inspiring Non-Violence in Youth.” I was brought in two years after they started their youth programs because I was dancing with a company called Dance Brigade in San Francisco, and I came over to Oakland sometimes to choreograph and to work with kids in dance classes. Kate Hobbs saw that I was good with kids, and she said she wanted me to teach dance at their school and to incorporate hip hop because she wanted to give kids skills and community to make them feel safe, and not all the kids wanted to train in martial arts, but many of the kids were starting to get into hip hop.

So I started teaching hip hop and modern dance classes after getting an artist in residency grant from the California Arts Council. After a couple of years Kate and I started the Destiny Arts Youth Performance Company and the performing arts programs really started to grow. Soon after that we decided to create our own nonprofit, which we called Destiny Arts Center.

We started mixing a lot of different martial arts and dance styles. Some of these early teachers there were world-class martial artists. Professor Coleen Gragen (who passed away in 2002), was internationally known, one of the top-ranked female martial artists in the world. Sifu Anthony Daniels was a gold medal-winning judoka, and Sigung Kate Hobbs now has a ninth-degree black belt. These world-class martial artists were willing to be in the hood, in our storefront to teach these kids, and soon some great dancers and performers came on board as well.

It became this conversation between the martial arts, the performing arts and violence prevention. We thought originally we needed dance to be like a hook to get the kids in so that they could then learn self-defense skills and be safe, but I thought dance was also violence prevention in itself. Just being empowered in the body, no matter how you do it, is powerfully healing. And then we started adding theatre, an extra layer of dance and political expression. That was kind of the seed.

The performance company started to grow and we went through a few spaces. We had to get more sophisticated about our finances, and it took a long time, but we eventually bought our own building around the corner from our original space in 2013. I like to say that the Destiny story is a stew rather than a stir-fry. We had to do the slow steady work of starting from the ground up. Queer folks and black folks were the founders—Kate, a white queer woman; me, a black queer woman; and Anthony, a straight African American man. We were a scrappy bunch of three educators, artists and activists who started it from the ground up. People ask me sometimes: “How did you diversify?” But we didn’t have to diversify; we were diverse from the jump.

One of the most important foundations of our work is keeping the movement in movements for social justice. I always felt that too much intellectual information could be paralyzing if we don’t also stay powerfully connected to the body.

Skip forward to 2007. After 5 years of being Executive Director I was tired of doing all that management of a growing organization, and I was also the Destiny Arts Youth Performance Director at the same time, and I love working with teenagers, so that became my sweet spot. I said let someone else be Executive Director, I wanted to be Artistic Director and the board said ok. So I became the Artistic Director at that time and continued to nurture one of the most important foundations of our work – keeping the movement in movements for social justice. I always felt that too much intellectual information could be paralyzing if we don’t also stay powerfully connected to the body.

POLINA: How are you doing your rehearsals now?

SARAH: We’ve been doing them on Zoom for the last 3 months, and this year we are making a film instead of doing a live production. We were waiting for the right time to start filming and we had to rethink our usual type of script to make it a screenplay, and we have to deal with people’s different comfort levels about physical proximity and availability. And then of course the protests started, and people were in the streets, and it was irresistible. And two of the youth company members in the production got really busy organizing protests, which is great.

The performance piece this year is called The Black (W)hole and it is really reflecting what’s happening right now. It’s about 6 young Black people in the Bay Area who lost their lives before the age of 32—it’s about celebrating and honoring these young ancestors, and collectively grieving their lives lost too soon. It uses the metaphor of the astronomical phenomenon of the black hole to highlight the intense suffering and deaths of Black people. There’s also material about the city of Oakland’s gentrification, so it ranges from a very big, cosmic overview to really specific aspects of our lives. The goal is for this film to analyze and reflect on what’s happening right now, to honor Black lives, and to hold people, cities and governments accountable. In a way the film is basically making itself, because it’s about the current moment in our world where the streets are resounding with the mantra, Black Lives Matter.

POLINA: What is the process like, of co-creating the work with the youth?

SARAH: It’s very organic and also very well planned and facilitated. It’s organic in that it grew by trial and error and experimentation over the past 27 years.

I wrote a curriculum guide a bunch of years back about the process of creating with teenagers and professional artists. How to create collaborative work with teenagers is super specific, right? There are a lot of people in the country and around the world who are doing that type of work, and teenagers all around the world have similar issues. The biggest issue for them is developing an identity. It can take a million different forms, but it’s all about identity.

Every process starts with auditions, and then we build community by playing ice-breaker games, teaching choreography and getting them familiar with each other and excited to be around each other. We do an annual retreat in a natural setting at which we do a central exercise called “If you really knew me, you would know…” and we do rounds of that just to develop relationships, which is also a big part of being a teenager.

So identity and relationships are key elements, but fairness is also a really important piece. Adolescents are really focused on things being fair, and there’s a lot of energy there, so you can channel that into creating art, and you can also turn the “that’s not fair” into a passion for social justice, but there’s a skill to channeling that energy. They want things to make sense and they want things to be fair, so if you blow up their picture and make it bigger, it makes sense to them to talk about social justice issues, and I feel like they are hungry for that. They just need somebody to channel that for them. “What do you care about?” is often the first thing we talk about with them when we begin creating a script. We rarely have an agenda about what it is we want in terms of a story; we just want to know what they care about, and then we start throwing ideas around about storyline and characters etc.

I probably had more ideas in the early years, and then I got more and more confident about being a facilitator. I realized I could do less of the front-end work and more inquiry, so I got better at asking questions, framing ideas, working with collaborators, getting them to choreograph pieces that made sense to a narrative and to a show. And I always have some core questions I keep going back to as the show develops: Is this really important to the narrative of this show that we’re creating? Are the artistic intent and the expression in sync? Is this material moving the kids forward in their development? Is it building their confidence as human beings in bodies in relationships with others?

I think dynamic collaboration between young people and adults and now elders, (because there are elders in the show now who are part of Destiny’s Elders Project directed by Risa Jaroslow), is really crucial. For instance, there is one monologue called “It Happened,” based on the experience of a girl in the company. After she came to one of the company retreats and did the “If you really knew me” exercise, she became aware of sexual abuse that had happened to her six years before that she had buried and that surfaced right then. This actually led to a whole process involving the parents and the legal system, and they may eventually charge the guy with sexual molestation, but the next year she had written a piece about it, a monologue that she wanted to perform in the show. I heard it, and I thought it was amazing and really courageous. We all cried. Then I sat down with her and we edited it together, and imagined how to stage it.

So I’m not just turning over and letting the kids do whatever they want, but I’m also not being an asshole and trying to dictate how things will be. I’m saying: “let’s be colleagues.” Let’s work together to generate ideas, but if I’m directing it, every piece of the show has to make sense and has to work together. It has to be compact enough for the audience to really be 100% present. If it rambles on, you lose them. We want a show that’s so fine on every level that no one will look away, one that affects you and transforms both the performers and the audience. Everything about the production has to be compelling: the lighting, the sounds, the dancing…

POLINA: What are you feelings about the crazy times we’re living in at the moment, as an educator, an artist, and an activist?

SARAH: One thing that I already mentioned is that my students got really mobilized and just had to be in the streets. In a way it was a perfect storm. Between COVID, so many people feeling stuck inside, many people becoming unemployed in our communities, and schools closed and kids having to try to learn virtually, when the images of George Floyd being murdered hit, it all came together and created this vortex of energy. Because many elders are understandably scared to be in the streets with massive amounts of people, it gave young people a unique platform, and they became really sophisticated with their activism. It’s an amazing confluence of factors.

I’ve watched some of my students being involved in some form of activism for years, but this is on another level: they just got catapulted into the streets. It’s stunning. As a 55-year old woman who’s been an activist for decades, I’m watching them have this sort of seamless ability to speak eloquently and move about and organize effectively around these issues in a way that I’ve never witnessed. It’s amazing.

We know we will never be the same after this moment because everybody is saying that Black Lives Matter. And if it had to be the black people who are the ones that matter right now, may it spill into immigrant rights and Indigenous rights and women’s rights, and queer and disability rights—all of those impulses for freedom and liberation that have been pushing, pushing up against this hard surface. Right now the hard surface has softened. I have to hope this will finally be the moment for furious, massive changes.

We have to decolonize our bodies, minds and spirits. We have to repair our history and our future by sending healing backwards and forwards in time. We need to use the arts to heal both our ancestors and those who are yet to come.

One remarkable young activist in the company, Isha Clarke, who is now pretty well known and has spoken at Bioneers, confronted Senator Dianne Feinstein at one point about the Green New Deal, and Dianne got irritated and asked Isha how old she was. Isha said: “I’m 16.” “Well you can’t vote for me anyway…” Feinstein replied, and Isha said: “You’re right. I can’t vote for you now, but in 2 years I will be voting.” She did not miss a beat; she stayed right on Diane Feinstein, she wasn’t intimidated at all. She went for it without throwing any shade back in Dianne’s direction. There are kids that graduated from Destiny and became organizers, but Isha became an organizer while she was at Destiny. She was just incredibly smart and fearless and a great organizer from a young age. She has a sophisticated understanding of the intersectionality of environment and race and can win arguments with adults, but she can also explain issues to kids in a way they can understand. The kids out there today are not separating the issues anymore. They totally get that it’s all connected.

POLINA: What would your advice be to young artists right now?

SARAH: I love Toni Cade Bambara’s quote: “The role of the artist is to make the revolution irresistible.” That is our job. The luxury of creating art for art’s sake is over. Art needs to be a piece of the shift that has to happen on this planet. Do it big, do it bold, be radical about it, don’t shy away from loving the body that you’re in, don’t try to fit into a Eurocentric ideal. If you’re a dancer, don’t try to fit into somebody else’s ideal of what you should look like. Dance in the body you live in, and love it. That’s also a revolutionary act: to love the body that you’re in, the skin that you’re in. And connect across differences in order to shift and change the narrative of the colonized mind. That’s our job as artists right now. We have to decolonize our bodies, minds and spirits. We have to repair our history and our future by sending healing backwards and forwards in time. We need to use the arts to heal both our ancestors and those who are yet to come.

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