Skip to main content

The Language of the Spirit

A Conversation With Tish Jones

Tish Jones is a poet, narrative strategist, cultural producer, educator, and the Founder & Executive Director of TruArtSpeaks. In this episode, Chanda and Tish discuss the connection between art and healing, the relational work within the education system, and why there’s hope for our new generation of creators.

Listen to Our Episode

Souphak Kienitz  00:01

You’re listening to Conversations with Chanda, a Minneapolis Foundation podcast that unpacks the community’s grittiest, most vexing problems hosted by Chanda Smith Baker. During this episode, Chanda had the pleasure of speaking with Tish Jones, an accomplished poet, Narrative Strategist, cultural producer, and educator based in St. Paul, Minnesota. Tish work as a performance artist has been featured in various venues across the United States and around the globe. But don’t miss the end of the interview where Tish shares a stunning piece of spoken artistry. And in case you’re unable to listen to the complete interview, you can also find this episode on the Conversations with Chanda podcast available on all major podcast platforms. Simply search for Conversations with Chanda spelled c-h-a-n-d-a and enjoy the show.

Tish Jones  01:00

I am Tish Jones. I’m a poet, cultural producer and strategist, arts administrator. I serve as the founding executive director of TruArtSpeaks, which is an arts and culture organization based in St. Paul, do a lot of work across the country across the globe, just making space for artists and creatives, specifically black artists and creatives and sort of helping build the infrastructure of organizations that are interested in the intersections of arts, equity, and civic engagement.

Chanda Smith Baker  01:32

I have watched you over the years. I think I first remember seeing you when you were doing work with Sandra Samuels. Was it the Peace Foundation, then?

Tish Jones  01:44

It was the Peace Foundation back then. Look at you, you threw it back!

Chanda Smith Baker  01:48

Way back? Yeah, you did. Yeah. And so you came out really as an artist speaking to the issues that were happening in community related to violence?

Tish Jones  02:00

Yes. Yes. Those days. That was back in 2006. Yeah. So part of part of my work, then was really thinking about the work with the Peace Foundation, specifically, I should say is thinking about the violence that was taking place in North Minneapolis, not just cataloging, but supporting survivors, whether that be you know, family members, loved ones, partners, children, etc. and honoring the lives in the memory of folks who, who were murdered in North Minneapolis at the time,

Chanda Smith Baker  02:33

I consider myself a creative, you know, when in terms of how I approach and how I think through issues and in the solutions that I surface, one of the ways that showed up in my world was in connection to my cousin getting murdered Chris Miller, I had ran into an exhibit of weapons that have been given to artists in New Orleans. And we brought that exhibit here. And it clicked for me because it was right at the time of the fifth anniversary of his death. And I felt like I was in this deep mourning over that time period. And it happened my first week of being CEO at Pillsbury United Communities. And I’ve often described it as being at the height of my career and the depth of my grief, personally, like a high and a low, like trying to navigate that, publicly was probably the most tension I’ve personally experienced in my body, ever. Like I’ve had two moments like that in my career. But anyway, I’ve seen this work. And it spoke to me so much about how just the act of being creative can provide an opportunity for healing. And so, we brought that exhibit here. And then from that, really surfaces Artist is my weapon that Nikki McCombs now runs and so we did that we did a gun buyback and then gave those decommissioned weapons to artists throughout the city. And artists who maybe didn’t even know they were artists, but people that had gone through grief, violence impacts related to violence, for them to use those weapons as inspiration to create and to heal. Can you talk a little bit about art and creativity as a tool for healing?

Tish Jones  04:25

Yeah, definitely can. First of all, thank you for sharing everything that you just shared. I think this super important and it’s really, it’s always really heartwarming and inspiring for me to hear stories of, you know, there being a gift or a positive outcome that comes after such a deep and tragic, tragic loss. So, I’m really inspired to hear what you did and the opportunity to create it for other people to sort of experience art and utilize art and be moved by this experience that you were also moved by that helped you navigate and was a part of your healing process. And I’m sorry for your loss.

Chanda Smith Baker  05:04

Yeah. And I just like to say like, even for me, like, every time I see that work, or I see works that came from that. I feel like it’s a tribute to his life. Right, that I was able to do something to honor him. So I tried to say his name, in all the ways that I can even seeing it seeing something on the wall is like, you know, it just warms my heart. So…

Tish Jones  05:29

Yeah, for sure, for sure. And good on you for doing that. Right. Because that that’s the power of that’s the power of the work. Art and creation is it’s an iterative process. So it keeps living. So that’s powerful. So, it’s twofold, right? Especially in the performing arts world. And when in terms of working in development spaces with young artists, too, which is a lot of what I do. We always say first, that art can be therapeutic but it isn’t a therapy, which is really important. Because there are some things that art can provide for you. There’s a space that I can provide for you. But it is not the only space. There’s also there are other things that we need to be sure that we’re doing to take care of ourselves. With that said, right, I’ve seen art sort of be the catalyst to someone’s healing, right. I think I can speak personally for myself what I was thinking of when I heard you, when I was listening to you share 2020. I mean, 2020 was a really, really difficult year before our brother George Floyd was murdered. Right? Breonna Taylor was murdered. Right Ahmaud Arbery was hunted and gunned down. And so it was actually for me, and you know, and the Black Lives Matter movement before that, and sort of being over inundated with the videos of black people being murdered. And having to see that, you know, for years, it was in the news cycle, heavy in a way that it hadn’t been in my lifetime, probably for about five years, prior to George Floyd being murdered. And then the research that amazing and wonderful, life changing system changing research from Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, and around this data that every 28 hours, you know, a black person is murdered by a police officer, a vigilante or a security guard, right? So having all of that, in my mind, really, since the murder of Jamar Clark is when I started to really do my own independent research and look into all of these movements for black lives. But then when Ahmaud Arbery was killed. That took me out. I was like, you know, I have people in Mississippi, My people are from Mississippi. I just left Mississippi two weeks ago and I was in Utica. So I’m like, I know these. I know these communities, and I love to run. So I’m my man, this brother was jogging. And they trapped him and they hunted him like that. Was they? Like he was fine. You know? I mean, I was like, wow, this is that was unbelievable to me that they did that? Yes. So, I was I was taken completely out. And I couldn’t think about anything else or do anything else. Until I created a piece of art, like the art is what helped sort of pull me out of the sense of feeling stuck because I, I couldn’t find the words for it, I couldn’t have conversation. And then sometimes when you’re perceived as a leader, or when you’re in a leadership position, you know, when you’re called to leave a comment here, or et cetera, et cetera, you’re supposed to have the words and I just did not have the words, I was sitting with so much pain and so much anger and it’s righteous, righteous, anger it’s justified. And also, as a black woman, there’s very little space for me to be angry publicly. Right? So, I was sitting with all of that, really conscious of it. And I wrote this poem, for Ahmaud Arbery. And it’s, it encompasses, you know, the feeling I have about the the experience of black folks have in America within this sort of, with the permissions that other folks have to end our life. Right, and to have such complete disregard for our life and how cyclical that is, and how cyclical has been in the history of our existence in this country on this land. And if I hadn’t gotten that poem out, I don’t, I will probably still be back in 2020 mentally and emotionally. So, there is something that art does in terms of evoking an emotion having, you know, having a connection into a specific image, because even for performance artists, you know, you know, MCs are poets or singers, there are images that are created, right? So, there are these images that are evoked these feelings that are evoked in a painting and a dance piece, etc, that are emotionally stirring and moving, and can put a sort of new kind of language or feeling to something that you may be feeling and experiencing that helps you move through. So I’ve seen, I’ve seen that, in my own work. I’ve seen that in the work of other people. You know, I think about Basquiat’s work, Basquiat’s work has done that, for me in terms of being critical commentary, I think about Kehinde Wiley’s work, Kehinde Wiley’s work has done that for me and made us beautiful, in these wonderful ways that we need to see in a time where we’re being, you know, painted as ugly and different, a different kind of ugly, but the way that the media shows our execution, where you know, most often depicted as a dying thing. And to see all this growth, beauty flowers, vibrant colors around us, right? There’s another visual artists who I really love, and I can’t remember their name right now. But they have these sort of images of these really hard, tough, you know, looking guys, and just royal regalia with crowns and jewelry and just adorned in these gorgeous drapes of gold and et cetera, et cetera. It’s just these beautiful juxtapositions of how Royal and regal and beautiful we are. And that is inspiring. It’s a good juxtaposition to everything else that we see. I feel you know, the same when I heard when I first read, I should say, Danez Smith’s poem. I think it’s called “alternate names for black boys.” It’s a really short poem that is so powerful. And the gist of it is like, you know, it’s oscillating between giving us names that are about life. And then the tension of these other names, you know, for instance, calling us dead or calling us worthless. So the tension around those things. Art is one of those tools to help you make sense of things that seem otherwise nonsensical that you can’t rationalize. Art is the language of the spirit.

Chanda Smith Baker  12:18

Yeah, 2020 was I said, I had two moments in my career. 2020 was the other moment. So, I can feel it, I can feel my reflection, I can feel my emotion. Actually, as you were talking. It was all that plus my mother died. I’m sorry. And I’ve shared this before, with many. But she came home two days before George Floyd was murdered, to my home in this room that I’m doing this podcast for hospice. And so and then my sister in law passed away six months later, at 45 years old. And it was all of that plus that while leading, right, I was sharing this. And so in a presentation I did earlier this week about the expectation of leadership. And what you said is, you know, as a woman leader, you can’t be mad out loud. Could you Can you expound on why? Why? Well, how have you come to that conclusion? Not just mad, but even greed. Right, like the pressure to perform in those moments? It’s not all external, like, I can admit that. But that was that was the hardest, you know, I wonder still, like, am I my fully through it even but, you know, can you say more about why you said that,

Tish Jones  13:38

I think is key too Chanda. It’s not just as a woman leaders, as a black woman leader. There are cultural differences in the way that we express emote that also make other people’s interpretation of how we be, you know, is always pushed up against whatever their normative or whatever their their constructs of normalcy happen to be, like, you know, the black folk that come from, they go out, you know, we we will we shout, we signify, et cetera. And that’s not, you know, that doesn’t fit into this box of Western sort of Eurocentric normalcy around what’s acceptable in public space and shared space. And, you know, as a black woman, I’m dealing with centuries of this trope of being an angry black woman, no matter what if I walk into a room and I’m not smiling, people still think they can tell me to smile, that if I’m not smiling, I’m unhappy. And that they have permission to tell me to smile like that. That’s okay. Because people still believe that they have control over our bodies, right? So, I am really aware of even the kindness that you know, because we know people think that’s kind of like hey, smile. You know, nah, nah, you don’t get to tell me what to do with my body. You know what I mean? And it’s the same feeling grief, you know. And when you add that cultural component on to it, it’s unfortunate because to your point about it not all being external, the external piece for me is that critique of how I brush up against society, what these norms are, and the history of those things, the internal piece is me also having to unlearn the way that I’ve been conditioned, right, to give myself time to, you know, to release the idea of whatever it means to be strong, whatever I think that means and sometimes strength is pause. Right. And I think, again, as a black woman, I don’t know that. I don’t know that, I’ve given myself permission not to care for everyone, not to, I don’t know that I’ve given myself permission, yet to ask for the help that I need when I need it. You know, before it gets dire, or before, someone has to simply throw me a live vest, because they can see me drowning. And I’m not able to ask, right? And I think that inside of this pain and grief, sometimes it’s like that, like sometimes I’ve seen myself suppress the grief to an extent where I look up and I’m in the middle of the, I’m in the middle of the ocean, and I need the life raft, it’s too late. Because I’ve been trying to stay afloat, and so on and so forth, or work. To a degree that’s just unhealthy. So there’s part of this is that, you know, that’s why I lead with the art can be therapy can be therapeutic, but isn’t therapy, because I think a thing that’s been important for me, as you know, as I’ve gotten older in this work, and I’m still really young, as I’ve gotten older in this work is the balance of health and wellness and self care, and understanding. Having that nuanced understanding that I am not. When we talk about when I say we asked me larger society, I think the we is still white men, the we is still, you know, white women, right. And I know we’re trying to change that and shift culture, but those are still the standards in the US context, that still, you know, who industries are seeking to center, industries are seeking to serve, etcetera. So, I have to remember that I am not them, and they are not me, right. And I have to remember that my process and practice will be different. And I have to grant myself permission to be who I am to come from where I come from, and to seek my tribe, if I’m going to heal.

Chanda Smith Baker  17:49

Yeah, the conversation that I mentioned, that I presented at this week, was with a group of educators, they were asking about what they can do to support the academic success of young people, all I could formulate in my mind was for them to acknowledge the grief in which they’re living through. And to create space for them to be able to communicate, and to release and to be in relationship with it. Like, that’s all I could. That’s all I could think of in that moment, right? Because they started out asking me about black resistance, which I will ask you about, but after I said that, that’s where I went to. And so here we are, you know, grown in our profession, right? Learning some coping mechanisms, which includes some creative outlets, and then we’ve got young people that are operating within a system that also wasn’t necessarily designed to allow for them to show up as themselves. And so you work with young people. And so what, what are you uncovering in your work that would be useful for people to perhaps understand or consider?

Tish Jones  19:07

Today, what’s coming up for me is, I think what we all know and kind of set to the side or only talk about, I only hear this in the arts and culture field, you know, but the work is relational. And even inside of these, you know, horrendous systems of education, as they exist right now, the work is relational. And I think, for all of the classroom teachers who have 35 students, to their single and lone self as the educator with 50-minute class periods, and no teacher’s assistants, no pairs in those spaces, just them and all those bodies. I know that it’s really difficult for you to develop, you know, for them to develop these deep and meaningful relationships with 35 students for 50 minutes and try to do that seven times a day. And the work is relational, you know, because every individual is going to show up differently, every individual is going to connect differently. And it is really key to have, you know, some intercultural understanding. So that’s a lot of my work for the last six years has been really invested in, in developing intercultural relationships to, to better understand the ways that different cultural communities, what they’re, you know what different cultural community practices are around, education around teachers around mentors around, around grief around ritual on entering and exiting, and just like as many you know, what history has happened, right. So, I’ve been doing these cultural immersion experiences across the country in different communities, to have a better understanding to better be able to relate to the communities that I serve, and am a part of, because that’s part of it. There was some inspiration to me, I was teaching at a school downtown Minneapolis, and before I taught there, this was like, maybe 12 years ago. And before I taught the class, I had to interface with all of the educators in the building, that was a, we did a training, and we also received some training from them. And one of the things that they told us, which I had never heard before, which then made me think about this, while how important interculturality is, they were like, hey, just so you know, there’s a way that the white kids are disruptive in this space, that doesn’t look like, you know, typical, quote, unquote, disruption. So, you’ll see the white kids, they’ll be really quiet in the back of the room, there might be some note passing. There might be some it’ll be it’ll just be softer is essentially what they said. And they describe them the same way around disengagement, they’re like, them being disengaged doesn’t necessarily always look like them talking to one another, they might have their headphones on or hoodie up their head down, whatever, but they’re not listening to you. So, we need to figure out how to, and it was really, it was refreshing to not hear folk first talk about black folks being disengaged, because they’re talking to each other, etc, etc. It was really refreshing to have to be asked to look for these behaviors, and to be kind of told, like, hey, here’s what that might look like in the space. And also to think about the different ways that shows up, right, in different communities and different people and different individuals, because it’s also individualized, right? So that’s something I’ve been thinking about that it’s, it’s, it’s relational. And it’s culturally informed in terms of how people grieve, right? So I think if we’re still in the context of 2020, especially in the state of Minnesota, right, we all sort of experienced, you know, what folks are calling the uprising together, we did experience that, and it will hit different for different people. There’s just no way around that. Right. There’s a way that, you know, black men saw themselves in George Floyd, that a Middle Eastern brother who lives down the block from 38th in Chicago, just may not have, right, there’s a history of experience, if you’ve experienced that type of violence, you’re so right at the hands of the police, that it resonates, and it hits with you differently than it will other folks in other bodies, and those types of things really, really make a difference. So the deeper relationship we can have, the better understanding that we can have with one another and the more conversations we can have one another, especially our young people, right, and consider what their social environment is, before they come to us, as we’re trying to be in this, you know, this education space with them, I think the better off we will be and the better off they will be. And you know, I mean, we also still have this really wack model of like the banking education, which Freire talks about all the time, we’re still also trying to deposit things into folk instead of, you know, having some learning happen, based on what our shared experiences and what our interests are.

Chanda Smith Baker  24:02

Yeah, I was even thinking about the expressions of art and the ones that you said that like, sort of exhibit joy and light and thinking about do our kids even see enough that exhibit joy, and my and beauty and the possibility right, because I think that we’re trying to manage them. And what do we bring in to inspire? You know, I recognize it’s a very general statement because I know some great educators out there but collectively, you know, how we look at and what we present to them and the images and the opportunities I think are just essential, especially in a time like now.

Tish Jones  24:47

I agree with that. I also think this generation is like, so smart. When I think about the art that this generation is creating, they are pushing Black joy right, they are pushing, you know, wellness. They’re pushing, they’re pushing intercultural reality. They’re pushing cross cultural collaboration, they’re pushing non normative agendas. I think that, you know, this generation has really great boundaries and ideas around their wellness, which is not to say that there isn’t, there isn’t things to be learned, right, like I value intergenerational exchanges and education so much, because we don’t have to recreate the wheel. And there are some gems that are that our elders have to share with us. And you know, these cats are cultivating their own joy when it is missing, they are creating it for themselves safe spaces, you know, beautiful artwork that is reflective of them, they’re being able to express themselves immediately, you know, what I mean? Like really stepping into, like, this is who I am. And I know that, you know, that couldn’t have happened if everything hadn’t happened before this moment. But it is also really beautiful to see that they’re creating a space when they don’t see the image that they create them.

Chanda Smith Baker  26:04

I love that I was thinking about like, our Philips Foundation, I was in this conversation, and they’re like, you know, these kids are going through all this pain, and we need to have some wellness, and there’s mental health issues, and we need to have some programming, and the conversation evolved into and I’m like, you know, sometimes kids just need a game of, like pickup game of basketball, right? Like, sometimes what looks like repair looks like laughter right? And so, you know, sometimes addressing issues of grief can look like joy. Right? It’s not masking, but it’s presenting an opportunity to just be in community with shared grief in something that’s not just planting deeper into it, right? And so, how do we think about that? And so, out of that emerged, a beautiful conversation that evolved into these Genius and Joy grants that we do over the summer. And I just I love the way that that evolved, because it was really around wellness, and how we present opportunities that’s not rooted in pain, but recognize that their pain exists.

Tish Jones  27:16

That’s beautiful. I love that. We need other experiences, and we need those experiences. I mean, you know, that’s part of the core thing. And historic thing is, you know, Reese being resourced, right, we’ve historically been under resource many culture, cultural communities and ethnic communities have been under-resourced. So, to be able to have the resources and quote unquote, buy the time to feel joy, the kind of joy that you want to experience that’s critical. I love that.

Chanda Smith Baker  27:43

Talk to me about TruArtSpeaks, how did that emerge?

Tish Jones  27:47

You kind of you kind of spoke to one, one of the three things that kind of inspired it. So as I mentioned, and you sort of brought up that work with the Peace Foundation was really pivotal. I turned 19 in 2006. And that year, we had the third highest murder rate per capita in the country, Minneapolis, when I say we going into the fall, because part of my work was to catalog the murders taking place in North Minneapolis, and to be with the families speak to the families show up for vigils, read poetry, learn about these individuals. That is one of those moments where I learned a lot I learned what I could should and needed to do with my art and learned a lot about health, wellness and boundaries, processing grief, holding my own grief and the grief of others because I also three of the individuals who were murdered that year are individuals that I knew personally as well. So, what did it mean show up to their vigil their murder site, because the vigils were also held at the side of their murder. By August we have 46 murders. And, and I’m not sure if that was in North Minneapolis alone or if that was in the city of Minneapolis itself. I had to stop is my point. I couldn’t keep going because it was just too much. And I think in my youth and sort of being to your point of being conditioned around pain and being you know, presented these pain points and things like that, I think I think I thought I was doing some good. I know I was doing some good, right? And in the community with the family. I made really deep connections I really loved and appreciated that, but internally, that was very difficult. It was very difficult. So that was one of the things right and reflecting on that. And also, just calling for it all to stop. It was like that was sort of that the intersection of arts and social justice or civic engagement. I ended up organizing a protest, a silent protest the community protests on the four corners of Broadway. And DuPont brought out the four principles of hip hop collaborated with Roger Cummings to do some graffiti work and signage for the protest, and called every politician I knew, every artist, I knew every person who was you know, I knew who was perceived as a leader, as well as the families of folk who I’ve met over time, and just asked us to be a body, in the community, protesting the violence that we were committing to one another in the space, right and asking, just with our bodies, for something different. It was completely outside of the scope of my work with the Peace Foundation, it was also my sort of farewell to that particular type of work with so much love and grace, you know what I mean? And we did, and it was, you know, there were really clear directives, like, we’re not speaking to the media, we’re speaking to the families of folk, we’re speaking to one another. And so, the media came, people came and et cetera, et cetera. But it was just us at this time. And that, for me is where a light bulb happened. It was like, This is what you can do with your art. This is actually what you can do with your voice, what community looks like relationships, etc. And from there, we you know, so TruArtSpeaks had been doing a lot of sort of guerrilla theater and things like that performance-based things. But this was sort of the chrysalis and I had prior to that had gone to Brave New Voices International Youth poetry slam Festival, and started to see what a global community could look like, what some really guided facilitation could look like. So, it was like there was an education piece with Brave New Voices International Youth poetry slam festival, there was this really important local, cultural piece that was happening at home for me with that, with that protest, and the work of a Peace Foundation. And then I had seen what, you know, DeAnna Cummings, Desdamona, Leah Nelson, Teresa Sweetland, and others had around B-Girl Be, and the International Hip Hop festival that they put together? And I’m like, Okay, I think I think I figured out what this can be. I think that young people are in need of a space and are in need of like, we, in my community, that’s what I saw, I saw in my community that young people were really in need of a space, to be together, to be safe to be held and to think about the power that our art can wield. And to think about the global impact that local and global impact and have a pathway towards success and think about mentorship. So that is sort of how TruArtSpeaks came to be it was really seeing the need of intention around how we were using our art in this space. And thinking about the power that we could have and seeing all the resources there was such a rich web of people, right? So you know, there was Chaka Mkali was around early, Roger Cummings was around early, all these really wonderful people and leaders that we had access to and I’m like, Man, how can I? How can I put on all these resources and create these pathways for leadership here that are thinking about, you know, healthy ways to engage with young folk creating art, young people who are interested in arts activism, interested in arts leadership, interested in the way that art can change things and the way they can activate their voice and community.

Chanda Smith Baker  33:30

One of the things when I was at Pillsbury United, we had started a program I think it was with Washburn called POV,  the power of our voices. And I remember some of those young people were struggling within the norm context, right of not being proficient, right, in English and comprehension, and all this stuff. And then they would go to POV and I would listen to what they were creating. And I’m like, I don’t even know that word that you just said, like, what did you just say? Could you just say that line again? Because you said it so fast. It was so deep. I can’t even wrap my mind around what you just said, right? Like the brilliance displayed is not the data I just read. So what in the world?

Tish Jones  34:17

Power of our voices was such a great program. I love that program first, like, but that’s the thing, right? is like, that’s where this cultural piece is so important. Yo, like, we are so so so so smart. When you meet people where they are when you have these exchanges, when you realize that the work is relational you actually can you can peep the genius that you’re in a person and we talk about translation like even in this sector language changes so much, right? Like, you know, they’re minority to bipoc to you know, diverse we need this to be diverse too. We need this to be equitable to we need, like language changes so much and you know, there are many reasons behind that. But then also like, how do we translate that within the within communities who are not in, you know, these professional spaces or fields. So, like, we talked about that all the time, like, hustlers are great mathematicians, you know what I mean? And so, we do we do these workshops, sometimes we’re just translating words. And sometimes it’s just super fun, like gouda is money, and so on and so forth. And, you know, I mean, because there’s so much genius in our communities, right? And that’s why bartering worked for us, you know, because we are actual geniuses. And we’re discounted, because we don’t fit necessarily into these systems. So programs like power of our voices, you know, many of the programming that intermedia arts has to offer, I would, I would also say things TruArtSpeaks offers, Juxtaposition, these programs that are working with young folk specifically, and celebrating their genius, celebrating their first language, right, whether that’s black vernacular, whether you know, is at its literal, like bilingual art making processes. Or if it’s, do you know, if Visual Arts is their language, or music, if they’re sound technicians, whatever. That’s, that’s why hip hop to me, you know, and I mean, the first party was certainly a party, but it was also an economic opportunity. And we’re in this 50th year anniversary, I think it’s really important to know that like it started as some entrepreneurship stuff is like, we don’t have the threads to go to school and not get clowned but you do have these really dope speakers, you do DJ in a way that no one else does. So, let’s throw this party. You know, I’m saying, I’ll organize it, you DJ, we’re gonna charge this much at the door. And when we go to school in September, ain’t nobody gonna clown us because we got enough money to be fly. Right? That’s how the thing started. We are so smart, so smart. And they’ve just, you know, figured out how to capitalize off of our intelligence and off of our culture, time and time again, where we have to keep recreating new things, which we will because we’re, you know, smart, innovative, creative, ingenious people. You know, that’s the game.

Chanda Smith Baker  37:16

Right, I’ve been thinking a lot about the 50th anniversary of hip hop and just the influence. And I keep saying like the language. And the words like I think as you go through experiences mean even more to me today than they did back then. And an ability to express right? When all you have is your words, like when you feel powerless. And all you have is your words, and to look at the criticism that came from even within community about what is hip hop, to me, it speaks to what leadership, the impact of leadership, the impact of change, the impact of being different always comes with its criticism, but it doesn’t mean that you should stop your expression. And so, I appreciate the backdrop of how that evolved into entrepreneurship. And my mom, man, man, I just all the lessons I think of her and she would always say the most brilliant people are locked up. Right? They’re the entrepreneurs. They’re the geniuses that were misunderstood. They didn’t have the safety net. They didn’t have some of the infrastructure and the systems that they needed for their genius to be expressed. Think about that now. Because when I was young, I’m like, what is she talking about? Right. But the inclusiveness, her understanding of belonging, her understanding of what community we should do, was expressed in those statements. That’s right. They were so informative for me without me recognizing it really at that time. So, it was it that’s a gift.

Tish Jones  38:57

Yeah, shout out to moms because she sure right.

Chanda Smith Baker  39:01

Yeah,so let’s talk about money because POV power of our voices was really quite, I love that program. And there was another one that we also did with the county homeschool, where we brought some of those students and they did art on stage at Pillsbury House..

Tish Jones  39:15

You know, it was a part of both of these programs, right?

Chanda Smith Baker  39:20

I do know, okay, okay.Yeah, with, with the J-Dub, I was gonna say, J-dub, I do know that but POV was one where I remember a funder they had moved into literacy. And that program did not qualify anymore under the new standards. And like, this is the most powerful program and the theater program that we did with the kids where they were working with, you know, professional playwrights did not qualify and I’m like, these are our most powerful programs that are inspiring kids to do better but because we didn’t meet the number of hours and all the whatever experts patients on who was leading it, it became more and more challenging at that particular time to raise money to do that. So, coming from philanthropy, you’re now leading an organization. You talked about underinvestment, you have anything you want to say to those that that should be thinking about how they’re making investments into this space, because you also can’t look at it in the same way as you might look at some other investments that you’re making.

Tish Jones  40:25

Oh, certainly. Certainly, I think I think we have to reframe, like how we’re thinking about literacy. I think that’s such a good example. Right? So like, with the work we did in County Homeschool, we were introducing those folks. August Wilson, August Wilson is one of the most celebrated playwrights period. If that ain’t literacy, I don’t know what is. Right. So that the piece also right, you know, like most folks don’t fall in love with literature, or art period until something resonates with them. So again, to be able to put, you know, Fences in front of these young brothers in county homeschool, and they learn it. And then they fall in love with language. And then they understand why it’s important to learn how to read and write why it’s important to go to your English class, so that you can then produce something like this right? Or to have access to an emcee and MCs are hyper literate, they have to be poets acronym for rap is rhythm and poetry, you have to understand poetry, where do you first learn poetry? Where are your opportunities? You know, if you don’t have a, an extracurricular space, like a TruArtSpeaks, and intermediate RS or whatever, you gotta go to school brother. That’s just, you know, I mean, that’s just what it is. So it’s that it’s that point of inspiration. So part of what I would offer to foundations and philanthropies is that point of inspiration and a falling in love of hearing something in your own in your own language or having it presented to you in a way that the school just, you know, the system doesn’t allow space for investing in those communities and those community programming community centers and those programs in that way. That’s so critical. That’s so key. Because that’s where you fall in love. That’s the catalyst for a lot of folks creativity, those extracurricular spaces. I mean, we can track so many folks like I think about, you know, Dua Saleh who’s now is a touring artists dropped a ton of records is now in an actor, multiple Netflix series. Dua Saleh we started off coming to the reverb open mic, with TruArtSpeaks? Right? And now we look at duo on TV, right. And we’re listening to do his albums and hoping that they went award and so on and so forth. But they started off just coming into the community open mic. That is why you make those investments. Right.

Chanda Smith Baker  42:43

Actually, I didn’t know you were part of the county homeschool, I knew power of our voices. I had one of my you know, one of one of the things I used to do when I was there is I would go to those performances. And I went to one that was so powerful, where and I don’t know if you were part of this one, but the young men from the county homeschool created these masks.

Tish Jones  43:03

Yeah, they created the masks. I was definitely a part of that.

Chanda Smith Baker  43:07

Oh, man. And I remember there were there were a couple of things that really hit me with that one. One is that who was in the audience was mostly probation officers. Right. And so there was a stereotype that I brought in a bias that I brought in in terms of how they showed up in kids lives, and they were there to watch his performance. And I remember at that particular performance, there was one young, brilliant man that was performing. That was disappointed because someone from his family didn’t show up. And I could see the pain of that. That struck me. But it was basically this is what I say when my mask is on was sort of the point of it. This is the performance and that and this is what I do when I’m out. But when I take that mask off, this is really what I’m experiencing, and the vulnerability of it. And I was like, I’m about to like gut cry in here. It was so powerful. And I mean, I don’t even know how many years ago that was. So, I bring this story up. I’m talking with this young, younger than me, guy who’s now doing amazing work. And I’m like, you know, I went through this experience and county homeschool. And he said I was part of that performance. And I’m just like, tears, right? Like, I’m like, you don’t know what that did to me as a leader. Because if you’re not sitting in space, where you see that level of vision and inspiration and possibility and genius, you’re not going to know what exists. Right? If you’re making decisions from a distance, you’re not going to know that this exists if you don’t know what’s there. Right? And like I’m from here, like I know that it exists and I tell people all the time I’m from the community, and I take it as my personal obligation to continue to know the community as it evolves. It is a daily act. So important, right, of being present proximate of learning what is happening as a way to better my decision making on behalf of community. So important. I mean, the layers of appreciation, I’m having for you to be part of that, because that was genius. And it personally changed me on that day watching that. It was incredible.

Tish Jones  45:30

Yeah, it was really powerful. I think work like that is some of the work that is the most moving to me. I mean, you can see the benefits, right. So I think one of the things I loved about working in spaces like Hennepin County home school, or Minneapolis JDC, you know, Totem town back in the day is what happens when you bring community into these spaces, is if folks fall in love with a deep reflection, because that’s all the art is art is a series of questions, inquiry, deep reflection, and a creative expression after that thing. When folks fall in love with that process, they get out, and they seek you out. Right. And they seek out an alternative expression of who they are that new alternative that they’ve been introduced to right, that are forming that creative expression. I mean, even education, I spent some time working as a resident teaching artists at PCYC, in North Minneapolis, several years. And one of the things that would happen is, you know, brothers would get out of homeschool County home school or JDC. And they’d pop up and we could never, you know, just for all of the legalities and so on and so forth. We can never ever tell folks where we would be necessarily right. But when they will see you, when they come to PCYC like oh, you teach here, oh, man, it would chain tears, like literal tears would happen. Because they found that connection. And so then they feel comfortable at this school home now and, you know, are on their on their pathway to succeed. And the same happens with you know, some of these brothers that I’ve worked with in Stillwater, you know, or any of the correctional facilities in the state when these cats are on the outs, it’s life changing, it is a forever bond, right? And we all need to find ways to express ourselves. So I am super thankful to you and the work that you do and the work that you have been supporting over these years. And I’m glad to have been to have been able to be a part of some of these really important programs. Thank you. Yeah, thank you.

Chanda Smith Baker  47:36

I used to go to the JDC they used to have been come read for Freedom School, my friend that she used to work there, and she’s like hungry to these kids. I’m like, You want me to congregate to the kids that are locked up. And I’m like, please make this make sense for me, right? Because I just could not make it make sense for me. And I’m like, they’re not gonna pay attention to me, they barely put you know, and I went down there and just fell in love with doing it. And I would go every year. And anyway, I remember talking about Pillsbury House at one of them. And though you’re right, those faces lit up. And they’re like, oh, Jada, you know, Jada, that you go with us? Right? Like, relationships, like we talked about the importance of relationships. And I love the idea of when they can see themselves differently. They show up in those alternative, right, probably their true expression of who they are right what their mask off they’re able to make the their real selves be seen. Yeah, act into the possibility of who they are. I think the way in which you framed out how to look at those investments are really important to enter the work that creating space where those relationships are built, where people are meeting, young people and people in community, where they are, is important. A lot of times we have things that are so perfectly constructed. And then we want to find people that fit into the construction. What I heard you say is no we need space that is designed for people to come and explore the possibility and the potential of themselves in a space that like pulls it out in a way that then contributes in all the ways like it just keeps giving. And I think that’s a really important takeaway of this conversation. So, thank you for that. Yeah, thank you. Yeah, so last question. What brings you hope?

Tish Jones  49:27

Babies, the babies bring me hope y’all you know, I touched on a little bit you know, in terms of this next generation, watching what they’re doing and even the little is bring me hope. You know, the way that little littles are thinking about life and speaking with them. I’m so hopeful my, the conversations that I have with my 10 year old nephew, make me believe that there is hope for all of us, you know, the conditions that our elders and ancestors have created have made have made it. So there are generations younger than you and I, who are coming up thinking critically feeling a bit safer to dream. And they have a new set of language to view the world that isn’t so hard that is so rigid, you know, where they begin feeling empowered. And I do think that there are generations before ours where, you know, that folks just didn’t have hope folks felt that they were on a specific track. And I think my nephew sees the field. Right, and is running through the field and can be whoever he wants to be. He believes that, and that feels really powerful versus, you know, when I had the privilege of speaking to folks who were born into segregation, there was a very limited scope, you know, who they thought they could be. And they knew very specifically, you know, what they were tasked to do as black folk. And I think having those conversations with new migrants to this place, you know, I can just see some of the synergies and things like that. So, the babies give me hope, yo, I think there’s a generation of folk who are going to change the world because they believe in endless possibilities, and because they have much more permission. So I’m excited to see the future that we build.

Chanda Smith Baker  51:21

I love it Tish Jones ya’ll. Thank you. Thank you.

Souphak Kienitz  51:27

Thank you for tuning in to conversations with Chanda. That was two stones and our wonderful hosts Chanda Smith Baker. Also, if you’d like to listen to previous episodes featuring guests such as Dr. Yusuf salaam, Robyn D’Angelo, Heather McGhee, Ibram XKendi, and many others. You can find all of the podcast episodes on Conversations with Chanda spelled C-H-A-N-D-A don’t miss out on these incredible conversations. Check them out today.

Tish Jones  51:57

For Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, et al. Tears collapse on top of your skin like heavy rain. There is wailing all around you when you are born. It is a good thing. We celebrate the hurried and uncertain attempts to breathe. We cradle you and caress your brown skin. Momentarily, we forget the trauma inherent in your blood. When you are born. It is a good thing. We celebrate the ancestors prayer manifest in the flesh momentarily. We forget about the trauma inherent in your blood our blood we imagine you living past 23 The ancestors prayer manifest in the flesh of future where someone with skin like yours like soot like soil never meets the barrel of a white man’s gun our blood we imagine you living past 23 anomaly a future where someone with skin like yours like soot like soil never meets the barrel of a white man’s gun our dreams constantly clipped at the wings we black, no anomaly. Lucky to be alive. We live as who it could have been. Our dreams constantly clipped at the wings we black. Know any moment is one in which a white man might want to claim scared and shoot we lucky to be alive. We live as who it could have been stomaching survivor’s guilt like a bad secret only we know any moment is one in which a white man might want to claim scared and shoot. You did not deserve this stomaching survivor’s guilt like a bad secret only we know so much of us dies with each of you and you did not deserve this the hurried and uncertain attempts to breathe. We cradle you and caress your brown skin. Much of us dies with each of you. Tears collapse on top of your skin like heavy rain. There is wailing all around you.

Close Transcript -
About Our Guest

Tish Jones

Founder & Executive Director of TruArtSpeaks, Tish Jones is a poet, narrative strategist, cultural producer, and educator from Saint Paul, MN, with a deep and resounding love for Black people, arts & culture, youth development, and civic engagement. As a performance artist, her work has been shared in venues throughout the United States. Her writing can be found in We Are Meant to Rise (University of Minnesota Press, 2021), A Moment of Silence (Tru Ruts and The Playwrights Center, 2020), the Minnesota Humanities Center’s anthology entitled, Blues Vision: African American Writing from Minnesota (Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2015) and more.

Currently serving as a Jerome Hill Artist Fellow and an Arts Matters Artist2Artist Fellow, Tish is grateful to have been supported through grants, fellowships, and awards from The Intercultural Leadership Institute, Springboard for the Arts, Minnesota State Arts Board, and more. The generous support that she has received over the years has allowed her to excavate the kind of stories that chart new worlds — she is eternally grateful.