Hot, sunny, and beneficial would be the best way to sum up my experience in San Francisco. The Americans for the Arts Conference was held in the beautiful Bay Area from June 14-18. My experience in San Francisco was not typical according to locals that I encountered because of the extreme heat (90 degrees plus!); however, I was thrilled to be in an area with high temps and no humidity! Give it up for the Memphis heat/humidity!

The environment at the conference was extremely engaging and offered sessions for virtually every type of artist in varying areas of concentration from politics to data collection. Personally, I enjoyed the pre-conference which helped individuals and organizations to develop and hopefully implement equity through the use of equity tools. I arrived expecting to be behind the thinking as it relates to equity — after all, this was a national conference — however after the session ended I was very proud of the fact that I work for an organization that includes equity as a core value and was thrilled to be able to engage in meaningful conversations around utilizing equity to better support the communities we serve.

The keynote address for the conference was delivered by Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama. Mr. Stevenson delivered a culturally and socially appropriate address which culminated with an introduction, at least to me, of the National Lynching Memorial in Montgomery. This memorial allows for Americans to embrace our controversial past by accepting our role in the oppression of minorities. The goal for the memorial would be for every county in the United States where lynching was documented to send representatives to the memorial and bring back a monument to be installed in their respective counties. The monuments would speak to past injustices that occurred and painfully, yet rightfully, begin the healing process of old wounds that were partially or never recognized as wrong. This address motivated me to do more and allowed me to realize that our past is just as beneficial to us as our present and future. Truly, I thought this to be the highlight of the conference for me — until the following day.

The next day I attended a session titled “Creative Peaceful Resistance.” This session was helpful because it allowed me to rethink my approach to peaceful resistance. Growing up in Memphis, I knew of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s approach to resistance, but I always felt that the pictures and videos undermined what peaceful resistance was intended to be. In this session we explored, as artists, varying methods to speak out against injustices without necessarily attracting negative attention. I was blown away with the amount of vulnerability that we as artists were able to demonstrate in our work to forge new paths to resistance. In fact, I was inspired to give a recital in dedication to victims of social injustice in September which helped me to embrace the responsibility I have as a man. The music for the recital was comprised of spirituals because of the hidden messages that our ancestors included in them; messages that continue to prove timely as we experience tremendous social and cultural imbalance throughout the world.

To witness the impact of the arts with more than 1,200 people was absolutely amazing! I walked away from the convention with this in mind: we as artists will always strive for what is right for every man on earth, and often times we are the first to do so.  

Gavin Wigginson is an Opera Singer, Choral Conductor, and Social Justice Advocate. Gavin joined MMI in his current role as a Fellowship Coach in August of 2016. As a native Memphian, Gavin’s focus is using his professional skills as a musician to give back to the communities that helped to provide him with many invaluable experiences as a young child and teenager. Outside of MMI Gavin also serves as an Instructor of Music at Memphis’ only HBCU, LeMoyne-Owen College.