The ROOTS of Transformation: A Place of Action Alongside Community

Alternate ROOTS is a 39-year-old Southern based arts organization that supports artists working at the intersection of arts and activism. The organization was founded at the Highlander Center in 1976. The organization is artist led and artist centered, and embraces all forms of diversity in its membership and services. Together the artists in community with the institutional partnership of ROOTS work to address issues of cultural equity in the US South.

Transformation is one of Alternate ROOTS’ five principles of community engagement, which also includes shared power, open partnership, shared dialogue, and aesthetics. To me, transformation is a culmination of the work of these other principles. I think ultimately the work that we’re all doing — people that are working around issues of art, community engagement and social justice — all of our work is around cultural transformation. What we are trying to do is to transform the practices that govern people’s lives and the way they interact with life.

We explore and support these principles and seek transformation through our Partners in Action program. Partners in Action gives ROOTS the opportunity to more deeply support progressive, activist artists working in grassroots communities throughout the ROOTS fourteen state region in the South.  It offers artists and community partners the vital support and resources needed to do their work with more strategy and consistency.

The current trajectory of Partners in Action is the result of a three-year plan to shift the way that ROOTS interacted with its members and the communities they serve. We shifted from a place of service to our members to a place of action alongside them. This shift was informed by the work of ROOTS last major public engagement, ROOTS Fest 2011.

ROOTS Fest was a five-year project that ROOTS cultivated in and with the community of West Baltimore, through partnership with an organization called CultureWorks. It was a celebration of ROOTS’ 35th anniversary, but one that used the celebration of our anniversary as a vehicle to explore some of the issues that are plaguing our society through the lens of what’s happening in West Baltimore. We made the decision to do that because we wanted to harness this opportunity to celebrate our longevity to bring light to a community, to discuss why our organization actually exists, and to further develop and expand our mission — which is to eliminate all forms of oppression. ROOTS Fest transitioned ROOTS practice from one that was mostly internal to a very public and external form of action.

We began in 2009, in response to a call that members of West Baltimore put out to ROOTS for support. We responded by sending a team of artists and cultural organizers to engage with the leadership in West Baltimore to gain a deeper understanding of how we could help them to build capacity. The artists and organizers were basically helping to facilitate a process of community engagement, that brought the community together to identify and celebrate its assets and to talk about how they wanted to work together, using arts and culture as a jump off point for their organizing efforts.

ROOTS Fest was one of ROOTS’ biggest risks and also brought about the biggest change within the institution. It turned ROOTS from an organization that people saw as just a member service organization to one that was in response to and in communication with a community, and responding to the needs of that community. What we are now supporting is the development of the community, not just the development of a single artist or a member.

ROOTS Fest also expanded the way people thought about the ROOTS region. People don’t necessarily think of Baltimore as the South. Historically, Maryland was that line between freedom and slavery and taking this conversation to Maryland expanded the regional reach of ROOTS, and again challenged that border.

In the spirit of that transition to an organization that works alongside and in dialogue with community, this August we will celebrate our 39th annual ROOTS Week. ROOTS Week is the hallmark of Alternate ROOTS footprint of arts and activism in the American South. This event is part artist retreat, part workshop, part healing space, part business meeting, and part family reunion. This year we are meeting under the banner of A Call To Action: Transformation.

ROOTS Week does a few things that are transformative for the community of artists that we serve. It breaks the isolation that artists feel, working in their own communities doing work at the intersection of arts and social justice. The South is one of the most conservative and repressive regions of the country. Engaging in creative work that challenges the status quo is often a lonely effort. ROOTS Week connects artists to resources, both human and financial, that can support their work throughout their career. ROOTS Week opens the door to a much more systematic and holistic approach to this deeper level of support.

It also gives people a space to recharge, to re-energize, to rejuvenate, to gain the type of energy they need to continue to fight the fight. The artists and cultural organizers who come to ROOTS Week are exposed to so many diverse artists working in diverse mediums, artists that are innovating practices that are both contemporary and traditional. This expands the possibilities for everyone at ROOTS Week and transforms the way that they see their own work.

I know it’s done that for me. It was at ROOTS where I met Civil Rights legends John O’Neal and Nayo Watkins. They introduced me to a different Mississippi than the one that I knew growing up. Through their work and their challenges to me I strengthened my understanding of the role of art in social justice movements. They nurtured me and shaped my thinking about the responsibility of being black and southern. Others like Dudley Cocke and Jo Carson helped me to reposition my understanding of Appalachia and its relationship to the political and economic struggles of African Americans.

At this year’s ROOTS Week we will explore transformation in three interconnected areas — immigration/migration, environment and economy, and cultural equity with a focus on understanding #blacklivesmatter. These themes emerged from our current grantees in the ROOTS Partners in Action program. We will lift up the work of our six partner projects to help us collectively explore these issues.

Alternate ROOTS
Alternate ROOTS


Two longtime ROOTS artists – folk singer Elise Witt’s Global Village Chorus and Ecuadorian writer and performance artist José Torres-Tama’s Aliens Taco Truck Theater Project both engage immigrant and migrant populations. What is transformative about these projects is that they make visible a community that has been rendered invisible. In many ways, José and Elise empower people to tell their own stories, to speak about themselves, be proud of where they’re from, and look at their diversity and difference as a unique asset that can be part of their empowerment. That kind of transformation is very personal, it’s very individual. It’s about people who have been living in the shadows to feel comfortable walking in the light. And I think that’s a level of personal transformation that can really impact the way their communities are seen on a larger scale.

Economy & Environment

In Appalachia two projects are engaging in conversations about the future health of their communities. In Rockcastle County, Kentucky, Clear Creek Creative is visioning the future of land, food, and water through community story and theater, bringing their community together to decide how they proceed together. On the other end of the state the good folks at Appalshop, a founding member of ROOTS, are examining the transformation of their economic basis — of one that has been founded on exploitation and extraction now being about investing in the assets of the natural resources and intellectual resources of the community. Both projects are informing the constant evolution of what it means to be Appalachian and owning both the cultural identity and transforming the stereotypes to images of real humans.

Cultural Equity

Junebug Productions, another founding member of ROOTS, is working to shift the narrative of the Civil Rights movement through their project Soundtrack 63’. This project, not unlike most of Junebug’s work, is pushing to ensure that the stories and narratives of African American communities in New Orleans, that are consistently pushed to the margins, are brought to the center. And these stories are being seen and heard in spaces that are important to the communities they are from, and also being translated into spaces that aren’t necessarily accessible to those communities.  I think that’s a critical function of cultural equity.

Project South brings together multiple issues, multiple movements, multiple frontlines — working in communities around LGBTQ issues, working with immigrant communities, working with incarcerated or formerly incarcerated people, working with artists, working with laborers. Their work is really about bringing leadership — local, homegrown leadership together around those frontlines to build a multi-faceted space for community transformation, from a regional standpoint. They’re bringing voices to the table that don’t have access or are not included in larger policy discussions around how their communities are governed and what services and spaces we have access to. Their work, like the work of Junebug and Appalshop, is long-term work, based on long-term strategies. It is not affected by trends, it influences them.

Transformation is critical and can only be done if the other pieces have been put into place — if people are in dialogue, if people are having communication, if people are in partnership, if people are understanding and improving the aesthetic qualities of community engagement and their own community assets — then transformation is the result. It’s not a thing in and of itself. It is because the other pieces have been working together. These projects, working in concert with their communities, and then supporting each other through the work of Alternate ROOTS, are showing how to create the space for us to build more just societies and communities.