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by Tawanna Brown

Detroit, Michigan reminds me a lot of Memphis. As a first-time attendee of this year’s Grantmakers in the Arts (GIA) Conference, there were aspects of the convening, held in Detroit, that felt very familiar.

Both cities hug mighty rivers, entrenched in histories muddied with issues of race and class. Though world-renowned transportation operations are a part of both cities’ identities, accessibility to public transportation is challenging for most, realities which prove particularly problematic for youth and families with lower incomes. And while both Memphis and Detroit are emboldened with a musical legacy and a level of artistic genius that is so great folks say it is must be encoded in the cities’ DNAs, economic disparity is pervasive among many of the geniuses whose talents help make these cities great.

The experience of the conference also reflected Memphis in a more nuanced way. The notion of “valuing” art, artists, culture and communities within the not-for-profit and philanthropic sectors was a common thread among most, if not all, of the sessions I attended. It was a thread that linked the Bluff City to the Motor City and beyond, given the many places represented by conference participants.

During the course of the conference, conversations reflected Memphis’ call to embrace equity as a value of grantmaking and community building. There is an invocation to honor the value of a place and its people. And there is an urgency to reimagine the way that value is cultivated, curated and communicated, in both word and deed, in the not-for profit and grantmaking sectors.  The concept of “value” continues to emerge and inquiries and issues surrounding the notion seem particularly critical as they relate to communities which have experienced a history of being devalued or deemed valueless.

As Memphis Music Initiative’s (MMI) capacity building and grantmaking efforts strive to assist music and youth programs and organizations in demonstrating high quality and yielding powerful results with communities of color, we seek to celebrate the call. We desire to be mindful of the value that is inherent in Memphis, its music, musicians, youth, families and communities as well as the value that is within the program and organizational teams working in support of these irreplaceable assets.

The following paraphrased insights were shared at the 2017 GIA Conference and echo sentiments shared by Memphians, including partners of MMI who are working to support youth in out-of-school time music opportunities:

  • Culture and communities are not commodities – their value is priceless.
  • While external research and best practices are important, inside-out expertise (wisdom and experience that exists within a space – a youth group, community or organization) contributes immeasurable value. As adults walking into youth spaces, funders approaching organizations and organizations stepping into communities, it is important to recognize that valuable wisdom and experience as an asset.
  • Measure what you value, as it teaches others to value what you measure.
  • Some of the most valuable work, that which eradicates root causes of inequity, takes more than a lifetime to measure. There is still value in doing the work and exploring creative ways of capturing the change and its challenges towards a more equitable landscape.
  • Never forget your worth and value as a people and a community. Doing so is an act of courage and self-care, particularly for people who have routinely experienced marginalization.
  • Those who come before us, those who stand beside and those coming after us bring distinct value. Honor it by engaging the brilliance of youth, acknowledging the work of ancestors and indigenous people and holding hands across boundaries.
  • Do not underestimate the value of language. Labels and words carry power and meaning that have the potential to degrade or dignify a people. It is important to use words with thought and intention – it is equally import to avoid allowing the shortcoming of words to distract us from the tangible work signifiers represent.
  • Once you - as artist, organization community - understand your invaluable and unique gift, you are ready to enter a partnership with strong and with soft, discerning eyes. You stand centered, void of criticism and the need for competition, poised to maximize a collective contribution.

The poet nayyirah waheed, in her book Salt (also quoted at the conference) shared a thought that is applicable to art, culture and communities.

just because someone desires you

does not


they value you.

desire is the kind of thing


eats you

and leaves you starving.

May all of us who seek to be stewards of a place, which includes its people and its assets, be mindful of the distinction that waheed makes between that which promotes starvation and that which fosters honor and healing.

Tawanna Brown is a native of Chicago with paternal roots in Memphis and Milan, Tennessee. She has worked as a staff and board member, peer coach, and community volunteer within not-profit, governmental and educational sectors. She brings experience in a variety of areas, i.e., program and organizational operations, youth and parent engagement, participatory evaluation and grant writing and management. Tawanna is particularly inspired by the cultural wisdom and metaphors embedded within the collective stories of communities.