ACES Highlights from Carla Bell (2020)

In his keynote address, “Creating for the Sake of Survival: The Arts as Economic Justice,” J Mase III, a self-described black trans queer poet and educator, provided guidance and language for the creatives who hope to build and sustain healthy relationships with funders.

Artists in attendance at Seattle’s 2nd Annual Artists of Color Expo and Symposium were coached through storytelling, a series of questions, and prompts to imagine a different kind of life in art-making – a life without the scarcity mindset we know so well, that plagues and paralyzes.

An important first step in this process is believing for ourselves in the value of our work as an inseparable consequence of our lives lived in black and brown bodies. From there, Mase says, it’s about helping funders to realize their responsibility to equitably redistribute ill-gotten wealth.

This is a conversation beyond just price-setting.It’s about us, as entrepreneurs, intentionally forging genuine social justice partnerships that work for us, that transcends obstacles in the way of our survival.

Typically, Mase explains, both corporate and non-profit funding environments have at least one funding decision-maker, whom he calls “Ambiguous Power Guy.” Based on attendees’ collective experience with funders, we determined that he’s white, usually English-speaking, college-educated, and straight.

We know that those in power have always benefited by devaluing and ignoring contributions of black and brown people, but we also know that “Ambiguous Power Guy” is a real person with a conscience. Maybe he’s been thinking about and hoping for opportunities to bring balance to power. Mase suggests that maybe he’s even waiting to be compelled to do justice.

But even so, use wisdom and caution. Being too frank with “Chad” can have side effects.

While pursuit of fair compensation for our artistic contributions are a necessary and essential commitment to our self-care, and though we should be at liberty to develop honest and meaningful relationships with funders, black and brown people are burdened with a frustrating uncertainty, never knowing when, where, or if we’re allowed to be authentically ourselves without losing ground.

Speaking from experience, Mase, author of “And Then I Got Fired: One Transqueer’s Reflections on Grief, Unemployment, and Inappropriate Jokes about Death,” says honesty with “Ambiguous Power Guy” can mean suffering the damage of a label – like being considered “difficult,” or something potentially catastrophic, like being terminated from a job.

In listening to Mase, there was a sense that his every experience taught a lesson, and whether in spite of those experiences, or because of them, today, there’s an unapologetic rebound in his presence that’s at once invigorating, inspiring, empowering, and validating. Wherever you may be in the world, if you have opportunity to hear J Mase III, do.

J Mase III, one to watch.

Carla Bell is an editor and journalist based in Seattle. Her work appears in Forbes, Essence, Ebony, The Seattle Times, and other publications.