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Joni Renee Whitworth, who uses they/them pronouns, is a poet and the executive director of Future Prairie, “a queer creative studio and non-profit artist collective.” We talked about how their organization has changed course during the pandemic, what the value of a nonprofit dedicated to marginalized artists is, and how an arts organizer finds space and time for their own work as they support the work of others.

See Future Prairie’s fundraiser for Onry’s Livin’ in the Light project here, and listen back to Onry’s interview here.

About Joni Renee Whitworth

​Joni Renee Whitworth is a poet and community organizer from rural Oregon. They have performed at The Moth, the Segerstrom Center for the Performing Arts, and the Museum of Contemporary Art alongside Marina Abramovic. 

​Whitworth served as the inaugural Artist in Residence at Portland Parks and Recreation, Poet in Residence for Oregon State University’s Trillium Project, and 2020 Queer Hero for the Gay & Lesbian Archives of the Pacific Northwest. Their work is sponsored by Portland Institute for Contemporary Art, Regional Arts and Culture Council, Oregon Cultural Trust, City of Beaverton, Mellon Foundation, Bodecker Foundation, Collins Foundation, Literary Arts, All Classical Portland Radio, Oregon Community Foundation, ​Prosper Portland, Portland Area Theatre Alliance, Jeremy Wilson Foundation, Portland Art Museum, and Multnomah County Cultural Coalition.

Their writing explores themes of nature, future, family, and the neurodivergent body, and has appeared in Lambda Literary, Tin House, Oregon Humanities, Proximity Magazine, Seventeen Magazine, Eclectica, Pivot, SWWIM, Smeuse, Superstition Review, xoJane, Inverted Syntax, Unearthed Literary Journal, Sinister Wisdom, Dime Show Review, and The Write Launch.

Episode Transcript

Welcome to More Devotedly, a podcast for people who see the arts as a force for positive, progressive change. I’m Douglas Detrick. This is Volume IV, episode 6. 

^^^^^^

As I speak, we’re just a few weeks from the 2020 election. Maybe you’ve already voted, but if you haven’t, I hope you have a plan to vote, and that you’ll vote Biden/Harris, and for Democrats down the ticket. 

Why? There are a lot of reasons, and I hope you’ve got your own. One reason that you can take with you after listening to this conversation is that the community of marginalized artists that my guest Joni Renee Whitworth serves, and the many other Americans like them, will have a shot at a much better future than under a Republican president and a Republican Senate.

With Democrats in power, we won’t have perfect solutions to our problems, we won’t have perfect government, we won’t have perfect representation, we won’t have a government that hasn’t made mistakes in the past. But we will have a government that at least recognizes that the freedoms that Americans believe in aren’t afforded equally to queer people, people with disabilities, people of color, and poor people, and that we have the will and the capacity for a more equitable future.

Joni Renee Whitworth, who uses they/them pronouns, is a poet and the executive director of Future Prairie, “a queer creative studio and non-profit artist collective.” We talked about how their organization has changed course during the pandemic, what the value of a nonprofit dedicated to marginalized artists is, and how an arts organizer finds space and time for their own work as they support the work of others.

I was struck by a moment where Joni describes seeing  queer people in a historic photo, saying that the level of “freedom” she sees in their eyes is a way to understand equality for marginalized people. Sometimes progressives and moderate Democrats talk too little about freedom, we cede that territory to conservatives. 

But we shouldn’t, and artists can show the reason why. In our plays, in our music, in our sculpture, in our poems, we can show how life could be. We can show that freedom is for everyone, and that freedom is complicated and messy, but it’s importance is fundamental. We’re only a shadow of ourselves without it, but with it, we are powerful. I’m inspired by how Joni has been showing that future in her work and by helping a community of artists to realize their own versions of it.

Here’s the episode.

Interview

Part 1

Douglas Detrick: Joni Renee Whitworth, thanks so much for joining me on More Devotedly. I’m very excited to talk to you. I think,  we have some things in common, both being arts organizers, and being people that do our own creative work as well. So first off, just welcome. And thanks for being here.

Joni Renee Whitworth: Yeah, thank you so much. I’m really happy to be here.

Douglas Detrick: I would love for you to kind of just talk about what you do in your own words and introduce yourself to the listeners.

Joni Renee Whitworth: Sure. Yeah. My name is Joni Renee Whitworth, and I was born in Portland, but I grew up out in rural, Oregon on a farm, a Christmas tree farm, actually. And, mine developed a lot of my art practice out there. Um, I was closely connected with some of the performing arts groups in Yamhill County, Willamette Valley, all around twick Minville, um, even in Sheraton out towards the coast and, um, Develop myself as an artist, primarily as a writer and as a poet.

And then when I was a teenager, I moved around a lot. Um, I left home when I was, uh, just turning 16 and, uh, went to live in Tel Aviv, Israel, and I was in a band and I traveled around the middle East working for a nonprofit. And then when I came back, I didn’t want to the farm, but I would have come home to was gone. We lost the farm and the recession. So there wasn’t really a place to land in Portland anymore, so, or an Oregon anymore. So I, uh, ended up going to LA and becoming an arts organizer down there, South of LA done, but in Santa Ana, which is in orange County. And then eventually decided to move back to Portland where I continued my personal art practice, but also got a little more involved in the community organizing side of the arts and eventually founded my nonprofit, which is called Future Prairie.

And we can talk more about that. It was originally the intention behind it was originally quite narrow in scope. It was supposed to be an artist collective of just queer artists. Um, but it grew into a lot more than that.

Douglas Detrick: I’ve seen video, of some of the, shows that you guys did, kind of multidisciplinary shows and, and of course, you know, COVID-19 has, hit. Could you tell about, what kind of things have changed how have you guys responded to the situation?

Joni Renee Whitworth: So originally our main production that we worked on for Future Prairie was a seasonal live show. And it took place on the Equinox and the solstices. So summer, fall, winter, all that. And then we would put together, um, kind of a show around a certain theme, often having to do with that seasonal shift. So we would come together and build a community alter and have different performances and, um, not only artistic performance, but also guest lecturers.

Um, In the style of a Chautauqua, which is an old format of gathering that was not only aesthetic, but also educational. And originally often also had, spiritual or religious aspects, ours didn’t, but I do think any time queer people are coming together to make and share community and make and share art, it can somewhat spiritual experience interested in kind of exploring that, um, outside of a religious context. So with COVID, you know, obviously we had to cancel the live shows and we’re not able to gather in person. And it’s kind of funny that we actually had our largest show ever, um, both, you know, largest in terms of it was in the biggest venue we’ve ever had.

It was a huge, huge historic space downtown. and also our biggest audience we’ve ever had. And then immediately right after that was when quarantine hit. So. For awhile. I was testing out a few different formats of things. We did a couple zoom shows. We had zoom kind of workshops. And then we also did a show and tell, which is really cute.

Or people just showed up and showed what they had been working on artistically from home. But ultimately I think that is not the way forward for us. Um, it’s just not as meaningful the engagement isn’t quite there. Um, and we don’t have the production facilities or equipment to really pull something off that is you know, a high aesthetic value to the quality that I would really prefer to see. So I think for now, I’m not going to pursue that. Luckily we have a couple of other things we can do that are easy to make for free or very cheap, which is a podcast that kind of features local Portland artists. And some online content like short films, but I think it sounds like after speaking to them, most people agree that making little short films is probably the way forward, no matter what form of art they’re actually doing, whether it’s dance or poetry or whatever else.

Douglas Detrick: Why did you think that.

Joni Renee Whitworth: Well, I asked around a lot. I, I I’ve asked, you know, obviously the artists themselves who are in the collective, but also I’ve really reached out to my friends and mentors. I’ve been really fortunate to connect with some older mentors in, uh, community organizing and art spaces. And. And just try to get their advice and, you know, try to be candid with them and say, the zoom thing is not, it that’s just not where it’s at for us. It’s not, it’s not cathartic. Um, I don’t know. I hope that people can continue to innovate on that art form and, and, and find a way to have catharsis in that experience. But, uh, I’ve been attending things left and right throughout quarantine, and I haven’t experienced that feeling yet. So, um, So I think the reason it was informed by somebody that I spoke with over the Portland art museum, who works on their Northwest film center.

And she kind of said, you know, I’ve looked through your work,  your work as a poet and all that and everything else you’re up to. And I really think you might want to consider short films. Film as the only industry that has any money for artists. And it’s the easiest to share online. It’s easiest to consume for free, and it’s a format where you can ultimately control the quality of your output.

Part 2

Douglas Detrick: as the quarantine has gone on and you know, that we went through that kind of early stage of, and by we, I mean, like, Everybody, kind of went through this early stage of like, Oh, I got to live stream everything. Um, and you know, I’m a musician, so there were lots of musicians, like, you know, streaming a concert every night from their bedroom.

Um, which is cool. Uh, but it was never appealing to me. I never really haven’t done it yet. And I’m not really going to, um, I’ve kind of instead gone more towards just. I, you know, I had to get a little bit more gear, but, you know, kind of just setting up things so that I could produce at home and, and produce recordings that I felt good about.

Um, and making a podcast is, has been a big thing. So, I just released an episode, um, featuring an interview with Onry, who I know is involved in the organization. And, um, his, uh, living in the light project is, future Prairie’s. you know, big thing right now. and so,

Joni Renee Whitworth: We have our main, our main, main project of the year. Yeah.

Douglas Detrick: Yeah, absolutely. Well, it’s a big project. I mean, I’ve noticed that, you know, there’s a music video, which is really beautiful. and, and I’m very much looking forward to seeing the documentary. Um, and so, you know, feature Perry is doing a fundraiser for that. Um, and I’ll, you know, that, that link is in the episode with Onry and it’ll be in this one as well. So I’d definitely encourage folks to go support there. It’d be great to see that.

Joni Renee Whitworth: Yeah, thanks a lot. Thanks for saying that.

Douglas Detrick: yeah, absolutely.

Joni Renee Whitworth: need all the help we can get

Douglas Detrick: Sure. Yeah, it’s a big, it takes a village as they say, but, um, I wanted to ask you just, you know, about that project in particular, what, you know, what was compelling to you about that and why did you feel it was a good fit for Future Prairie?

Joni Renee Whitworth: well, for a number of reasons. It’s interesting. So he’s, he’s a close personal friend of mine and, uh, I think we’ve been kind of going back and forth for a while and you know, and this is even pre quarantine, you know, what should we make? How can we take our art to the next level? We got, we had a few different ideas of like maybe going around and having him sing, uh, he’s an opera singer.

So we thought maybe he could walk through the forest and the Gorge and like sing opera at trees. And then I can like put my poetry on top of it, or maybe I could write a book and then he could like sing the poems or kind of thinking of all these different ways that we can collaborate. And then, after quarantine started when the black lives matter protest started up, he ended up actually taking on a bit of a leadership role in that environment and leading some of, you know, leading songs basically at protests.

And so, It was interesting because we had already been having conversations for months and months about, you know, his work as a marginalized performer. And if it would be interesting to somehow do some kind of documentation of his experiences of racism and the industry that he’d experienced. And all of a sudden there was this cultural moment that just happened to come along when we had already been investing so many hours into it. those conversations. So it just seemed like a more appropriate way to spend our time and attention. And I think he gave everybody on the cast and the crew, you know, an opportunity to devote themselves to something that actually felt meaningful. when they’d been, not just cooped up in their homes and, and really wanting to create something, but also really wanting to dedicate themselves to supporting the movement in a meaningful way. You know, I think when you ask a starving artist to donate $5 to a cause, it’s quite an ask you know, more and more, I’m just really questioning if that model is even the right model. and that might sound hypocritical right cause I’m still running that crowdfunding campaign for our project, but, but I don’t think it’s the right model, ultimately. And I don’t think we should be soliciting donations from our direct immediate community when the community that we serve is marginalized performers. Um, almost all of whom are working class or below the poverty line to bring it back.

I think. All of those people involved in our collective were so, so hungry for something to contribute to where you could actually contribute your, your actual talent, you know? So for designers to be able to design for, you know, lighting people, to be able to bring out the perfect light. I mean, that music video is so beautiful.

And one of, one of the things I love about it is the incredible lighting and the sound quality. So, um, I think that’s why I just was a perfect confluence, moments and, and, and the cultural timing was right.

Douglas Detrick: Yeah. I mean, something that can make something so much more powerful is when there’s that perfect match between, I suppose the message and the moment.  the way that, that has been put together, I think it has a lot of that, that quality to it, which is really exciting and has been really interesting to talk about, with Onry. 

Part 3

You said something really fascinating that I want to follow up on, and that was about this idea of how do we do these fundraisers that we do? it’s a big issue. And I, I, you know, I, I follow this, um, Oh gosh, I’m blanking on the name of it now, but it’s kind of this trying to put forward this philosophy of community-based fundraising rather than, like hunger games, fundraising.

That’s like more competitive and, and kind of reinforcing 

Joni Renee Whitworth: Hierarchies. The one that I’m involved with, I wonder if it’s the same one. So I’m involved with one called community centric fundraising, and they’ve, they’re starting up like the Portland chapter and all that. Yeah. Yeah. It’s it’s great. I mean, it’s really a good conversations are happening in there.

Douglas Detrick: Yeah, absolutely. Well then, you know, I think it, you know, one thing that’s interesting is I think so often what we run into is like, You know, folks that are, uh, you know, connected to the artists and they’re connected to the work and maybe they’re artists themselves. And then they get into being arts organizers, and administrators, they find is that, the money comes from.

You know, the folks who have money, which is in our society is so often, you know, older, white people. so then kind of what inevitably, and maybe not, maybe it’s not inevitable, but what often happens is that, you know, then the value of the, of the values of the art tend to be shaped a little bit by that when, you know, maybe the people that are making the art are not necessarily older, wealthy white people, and often are not.

So I, you know, just hearing you kind of grapple with that a little bit and just in your own work in your own community is really interesting. And I’m, and I’m just curious if you feel like, you know, what is, do you have a, I mean, I’m not, I’m not expecting to have all this worked out, cause this is hard stuff, but, um, you know, what thoughts do you have about addressing that problem for future Prairie?

Joni Renee Whitworth: Yeah, it’s a big one. I mean, as much as, I mean, I would love to radically reimagine how arts and culture are funded in the future. Um, it’s been pretty wild to see when this, federal CARES money comes down and is fully dispersed and distributed throughout the state through different community organizations and also just through the city itself, there have been a few opportunities this year to apply for grants. including one that came out through the Oregon cultural trust and some of the organizations speaking to have been saying, yeah, these COVID grants. Are way, way more money than we ever would have gotten before, you know, before COVID and, um, it’s, I mean, it’s just kind of funny and sad, right?

Cause that’s, I wish we didn’t have to go through such a catastrophe to get the resources that we actually need. all the systems that I grew up believing in have fallen apart within my lifetime. So far, it’s like, this is, you know, going to be the second recession that I’ll have lived through.

So, why not leverage that opportunity to make something entirely new? if we know that the system is not serving Anyone appropriately, why not come together and build an entirely new cultural network? especially when I think about these big, big funders, like Meyer Memorial trust or, um, yeah, the OCT or, um, what other ones are there?

Multnomah County, cultural coalition. They, they get so bang that I think they’re quite disconnected from their actual on the ground audience and the average working artists. Has barely even heard of these organizations much less as the grant writing experience to understand how to apply for a grant. So I’d love to see, um, maybe just more, um, field workers.

And I know that’s a lot to ask for because every employee is an expense, you know, but just people who can be paying to engage with the community and share resources and teach people how to write grants if we do want to stay with the grant making and grant giving model or work together to figure out a new, better model.

I know RACC is what going through that regional arts and culture council   they have changed up their grant structure quite a bit, um, especially through the development of the new Catalyst grant, which is only three grand. It’s very easy to apply for. It’s pretty easy to win one, and the idea is that it’s a catalyst.

To getting your art making practice off the ground and running. And then, you know, later you’ll be qualified to apply for bigger and harder grants. So I love that. I mean, three grand is a very small amount of money when it comes to, you know, a major artistic endeavor, but it’s a huge amount of money to an emerging artist.

Douglas Detrick: that makes sense. And, and I think you’re right that, like, I think that, um, so often grant makers sometimes and sometimes major donors as well, they kind of forget. Because they’re dealing with very large amounts of money. They sometimes forget how, um, Impactful these grants can be.

And, and, and that causes two weird things to happen. Like one is like, it’s way too hard to get those first grants. Like the, you know, the, your very first one, um, you know, it’s very elusive because people just don’t understand the process. They don’t there there’s so many bars barriers to entry. And then on the other side of it, um, The more experienced, um, organizations that just happen to be small.

And I, I run one of them. Um, you know, we work, I have to work really hard to get like a $3,000 grant or less. Um, and it’s just punishing, and, and it’s tough because I, you know, you want there to be some accountability, but at the same time, it’s like, if there’s too much accountability, we end up just punishing the people that we’re trying to help. 

Joni Renee Whitworth: yeah, it also becomes a bit patronizing as well. I mean, I think I understand that that model of thinking of like, we’re going to have check-ins every week and we need screenshots and PDFs of every single receipt. And, um, and then at the end you need to like do all these public performances.

I think that there probably was a time and place for that, but it does feel at least in 2020. A little condescending. Like we don’t have to ask a struggling artist to prove that they’re struggling. We can assume if they live in the city of Portland in 2020, they’re probably struggling. So, so in a way, it kind of removes some of the burden of proof from the artist and it becomes truly more of a gift.

it allows a grants agency back to the artists who say, you probably know how to spend this money. and I mean, I can think of some examples, but even just for Future Prairie like so many times I’ll bring one of the people in our collective in for some kind of art meeting and then find out that they haven’t had a good meal that day.

Right. So, you know, is it a valid or an invalid expense to use Future Prairie funds to buy them supper? Um, I think maybe based on our original charter, as we wrote it in the beginning of January 2018, probably that would not have been a valid expense, but as it is now, I’m way more interested in some type of model of community caretaking, where we could say our goal is to support you as an artist. So if you need a paintbrush, we can pay for that. And if you need breakfast, we can pay for that too.

Douglas Detrick: that makes total sense. That sounds completely saying to me in a really good way.

Joni Renee Whitworth: Totally. Yeah. I would love to see if there’s some type of a, you know, a gift, a gift economy, or, um, some, some type of a non market economics where we can give each other different forms of exchange, and, and trust each other. To know that there might be some type of immediate or future rewards. Well, maybe, maybe the reward is just that the artist continues to exist and is able to create art. You know, that that has an intrinsic reward.

Part 3

Douglas Detrick: well, Joni,  one of the things that I’m working on, kind of with this group of episodes that I’m doing right now is I wanted to talk to as many artists in Portland as I could, that kind of represent difference in all kinds of different ways.

Um, you know, in the work they do in the communities they work with. And, also about their identity as a, as a human being. what I wanted to do is to, give all of these artists a chance to talk about Portland right now. because Portland is in the news, right?

 And so what I wanted to do is ask you, how do you see Portland right now, um, in this moment? Um, and that can mean, you know, whatever that means to you. I’m just curious to, to hear you talk about this place, at this moment, in your words, and to share that with the audience.

Joni Renee Whitworth: It’s tough. You know, I read, I read that New York times article about how, if everyone’s going to be worked from home forever, uh, people who live in cities are kind of questioning why do I live here? Right. And so it’s kind of this predicted, or maybe it’s already happening secondary urban flight. And I think that that will probably happen for most of the, um, tech class, you know, ability to move out too beautiful piece of land, work on the internet and make tons of money, but not have high expenses. It seems like a fine reason to change up your living circumstance. But, um, it’s funny, even though I was born in Portland, I haven’t really lived here full time. I didn’t live here full time until closer to 2013.

So I’d say I’ve only, I really, really considered myself a resident of, truly of downtown for seven years. And guess it’s early to say, but I think no matter what happens with the election or jobs, I mean, I’ve already lost jobs cause of COVID and found other ones and, whatever comes along, I don’t anticipate wanting to leave Portland.

Um, and I think about somebody like Chloe Eudaly certainly somewhat controversial character, i know that she’s not perfect and not everybody agrees with her politics, but you know, she does care a lot about the arts. And when I see what she goes through to protect and defend the community and artists in particular, I dunno, I just feel really inspired by what she is able to get done. And then also frightened by the severity of the hate and the mean comments and the online hazing that are directed towards her.

So I guess I’m not bringing it up ideally to like, hold her on a pedestal or as a hero, but I’m just thinking about, okay, here’s a real Portlander, you know, she, she ran Reading Frenzy for years and years and years. She, she is truly from this community.

Douglas Detrick: Yeah. And now Portland city counselor 

for the, and for anyone that may not be familiar, right? 

Joni Renee Whitworth: So I think about that in terms of like, if we’re going to live here, what is our responsibility to the community?

You know, if we do choose to say, how can we stay engaged in and make sure that it’s a healthy, safe, relatively happy place to live and a place to create. And I do think artists play a huge, huge role in, in all of those, functions of a of a healthy, happy city. Not just in making little cute things, to look at , you know, During the Nutcracker that’s her seat.

No, but I think we can maybe move beyond that now.

Douglas Detrick: and as far as kind of following that thread of, of like making Portland a better place to be, Future Prairie began and, and will continue to be, you know, a home for artists that kind of represent marginalized communities.  And I wanted to ask you, you know, another question about that, like for, for folks who maybe, you know, and I would count myself among this group of people that, you know, I’m, I’m a jazz musician, which maybe, um, puts me in a certain category of marginalization. Um, but I’m, I’m joking about that. But, um, For folks who don’t maybe share that and don’t maybe have that personal experience of, of, of feeling what that’s like, on a daily basis, he value and what’s the reason and, and why were you compelled to create this home for these artists that you’re working with?

Joni Renee Whitworth: Yeah. we’ll see where it really goes long term. I mean, for now so much of the community, the community conversations in the arena tend to center almost making exclusionary spaces or spaces that are just for people of some certain groups, so they can come together and share space and time and values maybe.

And then ideally, you know, if they’re artists create something that could be maybe shared more broadly, but I guess I do wonder, like, what is the value of that beyond that, that, that first level… Like, for example, the first ever Vietnamese American author just got nominated to the board of the Pulitzer prize.

So, you know, that’s, that’s never happened before. It’s, it’s the first kind of representation, um, in that space. And I think that’s pretty much where we’re at. Across all marginalized identities and in almost all art forms is there’s still many opportunities to be the first, you know, there’s the first best-selling young adult, trans, uh, fiction book recently, I forget the title of it, but you know, there’s so many opportunities to be the first, this or that along the lines of your marginalization and your identity.

So that’s great that, you know, working through that is already been a know decades, long project. And I imagine it won’t be completed any time soon, but I do like to think about the longterm future and what will it look like after that? Will it be that we’re just integrated? Will it be that we’re globalized?

Will we have a true commonality of like a shared value system or will it be like we’re seeing in the political conversation where. more polarized and divided than ever. So I guess, yeah, you saw the value of it. for now I think the value is just that I live in Portland and I know these people and their suffering, and I’m interested in creating space for them to share their art and money.

Basically finding, hunting down money and distributing it so they can continue to make their art that’s the immediate need, but I don’t think. It is the 50 year plan. It’s just a five year plan.

Douglas Detrick: Hmm. that’s a great reason to be doing that certainly in the short term. and, that may be the reason in the longterm. Hopefully not though.  things I think are, are moving more in the direction of. You know, like a greater acceptance of difference, um, and understanding that not everyone is going to be the same and that that’s okay.

and definitely that we stop punishing people for being different, in all these different ways. so yeah, it was actually really interesting to hear you talk about like, okay, what’s the 50 year vision of this and I, and I totally get that. We don’t know what that’s gonna look like. Um, But it’s the right thing to be thinking about.

I think if you looked 50 years in the past, like, you know, we were looking at around 1970, if think my math is correct there. So I mean, and you know, I wasn’t even alive. So, somebody’s, looking ahead and 50 years into the future and they saw the way things are now and they’d be like, The things we did here mattered. they did change the trajectory, somewhat, and then created this realization that there is a lot more work to do and that we need, we needed to work much harder, to, change the way we see our culture and, and to make it a welcoming and accepting culture.  I think it’s really interesting and informative and inspiring how you are looking further into the future and looking around you right now and saying, what are we doing?

And you know, how can we move forward in a better way?

Joni Renee Whitworth: Absolutely. And, and I wish if, if anything, I wish it were more linear, but in fact, I think it’s not linear at all. Um, and I’ll give you an example, you know, Yeah. So, within my lifetime, the, the kind of queer narrative is that didn’t have gay marriage and now we do. So we’re very lucky and we should be thankful and grateful and all these things.

And we didn’t used to be able to have all these rights and now we do, but you know, the more I’ve looked into longer-term histories and more studies, especially even just recently, I took a class on queer Russian history. You know, Russia now is one of the most dangerous places in the world to be queer.

But, um, I actually saw with my own eyes, real photographs from a history professor of queer parties, visibly, blatantly, explicitly queer parties, uh, from the, you know, the beginning of the 19 hundreds. And the freedom that I witnessed in those photos is. At least on par with what we have here in Portland today.

And, you know, I mean, for me to kind of assume, or, you know, project maybe onto just seeing a few photos, but, and hearing a few stories, but I, I think just what I saw and the comfort in those people’s eyes, I would say, I know trans people today in the city of Portland, who would not feel that much comfort and freedom walking down Burnside.

No. So that makes me think a lot of these linear narratives that we’ve learned are not true. And there is a bit of a burden on us to investigate what is true and, have a little bit more like a broader picture for the rights that we want. instead of being like. You know, Oh, thank you for finally handing us gay marriage, which you know?

Yeah. And like, I, you know, I worked on the Oregon United for marriage campaign, so it’s not that I don’t think it’s meaningful, but I, I don’t want to be painted into a corner of having to say thank you for something that should be, um, a spiritual right. A human right.

Douglas Detrick: Yeah. Wow. That’s really fascinating. Um, this idea of just, getting that much from a photograph. I mean, it’s, it’s interesting as a historical document. but I think that, that, the way that it kind of draws a parallel to Portland in 2020 is fascinating. Um, and, and the example you give of, of, where there’s not that same level of acceptance for trans people, that’s a great example that kind of defeats that linear narrative where we say, Oh yeah, there’s a straight line from, you know, like we like what we were talking about 50 years in the past,  there’s a straight line from 1970 to 2020, and it goes straight up and it’s going to go straight up in the future. And, and I think what we’ve seen with, the president right now, I think we’ve seen how fragile.

Those things can be and how that the straight line is not at all inevitable. that’s one of the reasons why I just wanted to engage artists, um, to talk a bit about. Political and cultural ideas and, and how their work kind of connects to that because it’s, I just want us to be involved in the conversation, as a community and, and the way that you put that made that really clear. And so, so thank you for doing that. 

Joni Renee Whitworth: Absolutely my pleasure. I mean, I couldn’t agree more. I think artists have a hugely vital role to play and, you know, they, they’re so good at dreaming and scheming, but you know, that’s our, that’s our slogan. The mantra of future Prairie is keep dreaming and scheming. And, you know, I say that all the time, almost texting it to people and that’s, that’s our best gift.

You know, our ability to create on a dime, to help imagine and envision what the future might be. It’s such a privilege. It’s such a gift. And I also think it’s our responsibility. Um, that word is really, really controversial. So not all artists like when I use it, but to share, share, and give back and create, against the, the violence and the degradation of this year, creatives are tasked with generating an equal and opposite response.

Douglas Detrick: Yeah. And even though many of them are coming from a position of disadvantage in having to do that. But, but I agree with you that, that I hope that we can. I think that we must, and it’s hard. It’s really hard. That’s I think that’s the thing I’ve, I’ve learned.  it’s like a, you know, I spent a couple of hours phone banking a weekend or two ago. And I was like, Oh, this, this, this is hard. Um, and you know, so, but, and then also just putting, putting those emotions into the work as well is really challenging too. 

Part 4

Before I move on, I had just one more question. I want to ask you, And that was about the first time I saw you perform.  to kind of set this up a bit, um, as I’ve gotten, you know, kind of further and further into being an arts organizer and a fundraiser and all the things that it has taken to, you know, help my organization grow and, and to try to do more, to build the arts infrastructure here for the jazz musicians that I work with.

As I’ve gone through that process of, of kind of learning new skills and all the things that have nothing to do with the original kind of reason that I got into it, which was to just play music and write music. I’m a composer as well. And so there’s this conflict of being an organizer and also being an artist yourself, um, that it’s just, it’s just very difficult to be able to do both effectively.

Um, cause they both demand so much time and energy and dedication. Um, and so, uh, you know, so it just reminds me that I, I saw you, I think it was at the risk reward, um, festival, and I think it was, Oh, I think a year or two ago. Um,

Joni Renee Whitworth: Yeah, a couple summers ago.

Douglas Detrick: And I, and I saw you perform, uh, it was kind of a solo performance piece. and you know, one thing. I’ve talked a little bit about on this podcast is  that I’m the father of an autistic son and, you know, for him, it’s, it’s just been, it’s been such this amazing experience. and we have a neurotypical daughter as well, and she has, she has her own challenges, um, both for us as parents and, navigating our family as it is.

Um, But, you know, one, one thing that, um, you as an adult  autistic artists, um, putting your own experiences and also bringing in, some history of, the challenges and mistreatment that autistic people have faced. Over time, finding a way to put that into this piece. And there was like music and dance and all these things in storytelling.

And I, found it just super memorable, and, and also really powerful for me,  in my role as a father. and so I just wanted to say that. I loved it, and it would be fun. Um, if you could maybe tell the audience a little bit about it and just talk about your own work and, How’s it going kind of, despite you know, that tension between being an organizer who is supporting a whole community of artists and also being an artist yourself and, you know, still needing to find time and space for your own work.

Joni Renee Whitworth: Yeah. Yeah. Well, thanks for saying that. Yeah, that, that piece is really close to me. It’s uh, definitely still in progress as it, as I performed it, then it was a 20 minute, um, solo show. Um, basically a short play called self-defense and, um, it is about, um, Autistic experiences, autistic history and just neurodiverse, divergent thinking patterns.

And it kind of plays with some of these themes of, self-defense. when a woman or a femme presenting person goes to take what we would consider a self defense class or a workshop you’re most often learning about physical moves and jabs that you can do in case a bad guy runs out of the night and grabs you off the street. I actually, I, when I, I first took, when I thought, Oh, there’s something to this. There’s something really interesting here that. we’re not talking about the actual thing, but we’re kind of circling around it. And so I actually took a bunch more. I took a bunch of self defense classes from a bunch of different people to explore this idea.

And, um, my piece kind of talks about how the things that autistic people need to defend themselves against or not. Those, the likelihood of getting snatched off the street in broad daylight in the city of Portland is quite low, especially for me as a white person. Like my whiteness protects me a bit there as well.

That’s another privilege, but it is very likely that an autistic person will be exposed to systemic abuse or medical abuse. unfortunately, you know, shortly after kids get their diagnosis often at a very young age, They are put on life-altering mind-altering addictive drugs immediately, with very little consultation for other options.

And so, yeah, the piece talks a little bit about that and I loved it as it was performed. Then I think that there is an opportunity to develop the work further. I hope it gets some, maybe a book or, um, God, I guess a short film. I don’t, I don’t really want to be a filmmaker, but I feel like I have to, you know, because I don’t, I don’t know anything about film, but…

Douglas Detrick: …you can learn.

Joni Renee Whitworth: I could learn, you know, some, some way to, um, to share these ideas more broadly and to develop the work.

So it’s a bit more, um, I dunno, concise and stronger. So that’s kind of where that piece is that, but in terms of your question about balancing, um, it’s been extremely challenging. I don’t, I don’t think there has been a balance really this year. I feel like I’m working harder and longer than ever with so many rejections and failures.

I try to cherish and celebrate each of the wins when however I can. I always, I always, always, always post. And social media when I am denied a grant or a contest or a writing publication, and also when I’m accepted, because I think it’s really important for us to share those without any shame. I have no, no shame about the denials and no excessive bragging feelings about the acceptances.

You know, I think we have to normalize the hustle of that, of that game and working as an artist, um, I mean, obviously I don’t even work as an artist full time. I have a normal nine to five job in addition to future Prairie. In terms of balancing the community work and the personal work, I, I hope, you know, when we find ourselves in good community with great artists and real friends, often those people will circle back to you and say, Hey.

It’s time for you to work on your art now. You mentioned this piece that you want to create. When are you going to do that? Do you have time this weekend? Can we just sit down and work on it together? Um, that’s been the only way I’ve been able to make even the tiniest shred of progress this year.

Douglas Detrick: I can relate to a lot of those things. Yeah. I think it’s great that you kind of share the, share the rejections and share the, successes. It’s it’s it’s cool. I tend to like, Not share either. And then, and then like all of a sudden it’s like, Oh, I had this grant and now I have this performance and nobody’s heard about it.

So, anyway, but I, there, you know, there was something else that you said that I thought was really interesting as well. And that was, you know, just this idea of this complexity of this idea of the straight line, you know, from point a to point B  here, we didn’t have this thing and now we have it and isn’t life great.

Um, and that’s not real life. but I think that so often the best way for people to understand that complexity of real life and like, you know, even if there is that success, like, you know, we use that example of, you know, now we do have gay marriage and, and that’s, that’s wonderful. Of course. But like at the same time that we still have all  these other things that are still big problems and, you know, like in, you know, and I’ll just use the example.

Let’s say, you know, if you read it, if you, if you wrote a book or if you read a novel or you’re at a play, um, and you have this character of, you know, maybe it’s an autistic character and, you know, it’s like, as you create this, this person, um, living in a world that maybe very much like the real world, um, That’s that opportunity for that complexity to be kind of walking and talking and speaking to a reader, to an audience, in a way that, you know, just the data on a page, no matter how well it’s produced and how well it’s presented and how well it’s interpreted for an audience it’s just not the same as when you have like this. You know, this character that we care about, staring at you, you know, either from, you know, from the screen of your short film that you don’t want to make, um, or from the pages of your book. that to me is such an opportunity that we have as artists.

And, you know, so I, I suppose that something I hope for, with the podcast is that we, we remind artists of that power and, and we. And we remember how important it is and that it’s there and we can use it. And here’s what we can use it for. Um, and this conversation with you, I think it’s been really informative. I think folks will learn a lot about, you know, maybe some things they haven’t thought of and, and, um, and just some great examples of things that you’re doing.

Joni Renee Whitworth: Yeah. Thank you so much. Thanks for saying that. And I totally agree it’s, uh, especially when you think of an, in all writing, but especially in play reading, there’s the traditional three act structure of like, you’re learning about the characters and then there’s a rising action and some kind of climax and, and inclusion and, um, more and more I’m. I know that that story format is so familiar and the hero’s journey and all that, it feels so good because it’s so familiar. But I am just wondering if there’s any opportunity to mess with that and try to expand it to something that feels more true to me, which is, you know, you think something is sorted out and 10 years later, it’s still haunting you or you, You have some certain feeling for someone and you know, years later you see them again.

And it feels exactly the same as if it were on the same day. You know, things, opportunities to play with time, time, and emotion and structure are limitless in poetry. And I think that that’s why I try to identify myself first and foremost as a poet, because there’s so much freedom to be had there.

Douglas Detrick: Freedom that word that you used to describe that photograph? is, yeah. I mean, if we can, you know, if there can be more of that freedom, we’ll be in a very good place.

Joni Renee Whitworth: Absolutely. Absolutely

Douglas Detrick: Cool. Well, Jo we can wrap it up there. There’s obviously a lot more we can do that. I hope we’ll get more chances to talk in the future and hopefully in person someday. Um, but, but thank you so much for, for talking with me about all this and, and sharing all of that with the audience. Um, I appreciate it. And thank you so much.

Joni Renee Whitworth: Yeah, absolutely. My pleasure. And thank you.

Outro

Thanks so much to you, Joni. Learn more about Future Prairie at https://www.futureprairie.com/. If you listen back to episode 4 of this volume featuring Onry and his Livin in the Light project that Future Prairie is sponsoring, you’ll know that this organization is doing some ambitious and important work. You can help them out by donating some dollars or sharing the GoFundMe campaign. Go to GoFundme.com and search for “Black Opera at Portland Protests,” or follow the link on the episode page at moredevotedly.com.

If you value the conversations you hear on More Devotedly, I want to encourage you to give the show a five star rating and glowingly positive review on your podcast app, and then tell a friend about the show. You can also join the show email list at moredevotedly.com or follow on Instagram, Facebook or Twitter. 

I produced this episode and composed the music here in Portland, Oregon.

What you’re doing is beautiful. Can you do it more devotedly?

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