by Shari Finnell, editor/writer, Not-for-profit News

Conversations about challenging topics can be incredibly uncomfortable, whether they’re about race relations, gender identity, pay equity, the removal of 100-year-old Confederate monuments, social justice protests or COVID-19 vaccine shots. 

When faced with the many challenges in 2020, Indianapolis residents had the opportunity to engage in many uncomfortable conversations. Some did. Some didn’t. The 2021 Spirit & Place Festival wants to highlight the need for ongoing conversation by encouraging a public discourse on some of those topics. 

The festival, which is now in its 26th year, has rolled out an agenda that revolves around the theme of CHANGE, encouraging the public to reflect and engage in conversations about how 2020 brought about change and envision the steps needed for further change.

The 11-day festival of events, which runs from Nov. 4-14, includes an exhibition and a panel discussion called Monumental Changes: History and Power in Public Art from 6-9 p.m. on Nov. 5. During that discussion, which will be held at the Garfield Park Arts Center, panelists will provide perspectives on the history, controversy and June 2020 removal of a Confederate monument in Garfield Park on the city’s Southside.

Jordan Ryan, a historian, archivist and scholar, who is among the panelists, noted that the monument was dismantled and removed without community discussion — leaving a gap in residents’ ability to have their voices heard. The Spirit & Place Festival panel discussion will provide one of those opportunities, Ryan said.

“We never had a community conversation when the statue was taken down … a public conversation,” said Ryan, noting that some other cities had public forums before statues were removed. “This represents the first time the public can come together and have that discussion.”

Ryan acknowledged that it can be uncomfortable to engage in this type of discussion. However, it’s needed, she said.

“It will be uncomfortable, but that’s how we grow,” Ryan said.

In addition to Ryan, the Monumental Changes panelists include Dr. Paul Mullins, who has studied the history of the monument placement in Garfield Park, and Danicia Monét, an artist, researcher and urban planner. 

The Indianapolis discussion follows the National Monument Lab’s recent release of the National Monument Audit, a comprehensive look at the characteristics of the nation’s collection of monuments, most of which are overwhelmingly of white males.

A history of inspiring community engagement

As in previous years, community engagement was key to developing the theme of CHANGE for the festival, which is now in its 26th year, according to Erin Kelley, Spirit & Place program director.

“We have had different themes for every year,” she recalled. “We had previously set a theme but halfway through 2020, we knew that wasn’t going to resonate. We went out into the community, getting feedback through social media, emails, and by contacting event partners. We asked, ‘What is resonating with you right now?’ And the concept of ‘change’ rose to the top. That’s the one theme that people gravitated to.”

Kelley said that this year’s event will include a mix of in-person, virtual, and hybrid offerings — a model that will continue for future festivals. As a result of the pandemic, Kelley said, Spirit & Place has recognized the demand for a mix of options for people who work different hours, or have parental responsibilities that interfere with their ability to participate in person. 

As part of the opening night event, local spoken word artist Manon Voice, will serve as emcee and jazz pianist Christopher Pitts will perform a newly commissioned piano piece.

And, as with the Monumental Changes panel discussion, other Spirit & Place events will encourage public conversations on challenging topics, including the following:

  • Tearing Down Boxes and Embracing Change: Nov. 5, 5:30-8:30 p.m., at the Phoenix Theater Cultural Center — Fiber artists will discuss art as a vehicle for healing and growth, and will inspire attendees to break out of their boxes — whether its religious affiliations, circle of friends and social groups — to broaden their perspectives.
  • (Un)Comfortable Conversations: Telling Our Stories, Transforming Our World: Nov. 8, noon-1:30 p.m., virtual event — Spoken word artists, writers, and community leaders will discuss what it means to wrestle with and accept the consequences of change.
  • Be Anxious for Nothing: Loss and Joy in Unexpected Change: Nov. 8, 7-8 p.m., Christ Church Cathedral, hybrid event — A discussion about what the Bible, Torah, Qur’an, and sacred music say about change.

“We want folks to come out and have these conversations,” Kelley said. “It’s uncomfortable, hard and scary work. But we need to enter into brave spaces together and do this.”

For more information about the 2021 Spirit and Place Festival, visit the event lineup.

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