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New Freedom Maps report explores the legacy of culture, art and organizing in the U.S. South

Arts & Culture

The U.S. South is the country’s most populated region, yet it is also the most underfunded and overlooked. According to the National Center for Responsive Philanthropy, between 2010 and 2014 the South received $41 in foundation funding per person, compared to the national funding rate of $451 per person and the New York state rate of $995 per person.

Thinking about the rich legacy of perseverance and innovation in the South – and the role that arts and culture have played in the survival of Southern people – Southern arts practitioners Maria Cherry Rangel and Ron Ragin developed a new report titled, Freedom Maps: Activating Legacies of Culture, Art, and Organizing in the U.S. South.  

The report caps nearly three years of research and interviews with grant makers, artists, cultural activists, and community organizers, many of whom work with Black, LGBTQ, Indigenous and other often-marginalized groups. It examines the current state of artistic practice in the South, the ways in which artists and culture workers are helping to build progressive infrastructure through social justice efforts, and practitioners’ visions for the future.

“The south is a place of great opportunity, but the region’s artists and cultural organizations are often overlooked and receive little institutional support,” said Rangel and Ragin in an executive summary of the report. “We hope this project will illuminate the incredible ways that Southern artists and cultural workers have found to create and share work, shape movements, sustain ourselves and our communities, and ultimately save lives. In response to our analysis, which shows stark divestment in Southern arts and culture when compared to the rest of the nation, we want to inspire funders and other resourced institutions to move more resources to grassroots efforts throughout the region.”

The report was co-commissioned by Ignite Arts Dallas at SMU Meadows School of the Arts, with additional support provided by AlternateROOTS. Artists, practitioners and grantmakers were interviewed to share reflections on the South’s different histories of philanthropy and giving, including Regina Smith, managing director of Kresge’s Arts & Culture Program.

This body of work captures important truths about an ecosystem that remains largely misunderstood by the national field, and that the rich wisdom offered by Southern creatives throughout the report carries many lessons for this political moment.

Below is an excerpt from the report:

“Battles over the narrative of “What the South is” and “Who Southerners are” remain a critical space of political struggle. The South is a region where legacies of slavery, the Civil War, and the Confederacy still echo in the cultural psyche. The region is strongly associated with mythologies of white supremacy and delusions of grandeur, all the while discounting the brutalities of African enslavement, genocide of Native peoples, and Jim Crow segregation. These contested narratives appear today in struggles around Confederate monument removal, and continue to reinforce and rationalize institutions of racism, as demonstrated by mass incarceration’s intense grasp on the region.

But that is not the whole story.

The South is also a place of great opportunity, with a strong legacy of resistance and innovation born, in part, out of necessity. Every day, our ancestors forged new, creative ways to persevere, as do our present-day communities, particularly the most marginalized of us. We recall the history of marronage; united by a vision for freedom, Black and Indigenous communities came together to care for each other and develop new infrastructures and systems of mutual support, despite extreme social, political, and environmental conditions. Generations forward, these practices of self-determination, mutual care, and mobilization resulted in the formation of social aid and pleasure clubs, as a means of gaining economic security. The same principles made possible actions like the Montgomery bus boycott. And even more generations forward, we now see these traditions extended via the practice of solidarity economies, which networks of Southern creatives and cultural practitioners have established to share the resources, equipment, and ideas that keep artistic work going.”

Download the full report, Freedom Maps: Activating Legacies of Culture, Art, and Organizing in the U.S. South.

About Maria Cherry Rangel:
The daughter of Moroccan and Mexican agricultural workers and musicians who worked the land of many Southern states, I am a New Orleans-based cultural strategist, resource organizer, and equity coach. My advocacy has ensured that millions of dollars have been redirected to Southerners, communities of color, and LGBTQ communities. As Director of Strategic Initiatives for the Foundation for Louisiana, I utilize my expertise in organizational growth, arts and culture, racial justice, and LGBTQ organizing to inform FFL’s future.

About Ron Ragin:
I write, sing, compose, and make interdisciplinary performances that integrate sound, text and movement. My creative interests include music of the African Diaspora, embodied ancestral memory, improvisational creative processes, liberation aesthetics, and the development and maintenance of spiritual technologies. I grew up in Perry, Georgia and received my earliest musical training at the Saint James Christian Methodist Episcopal Church. As a researcher, coach, and strategist, I partner with artists, nonprofit organizations, and grantmakers, drawing on my creative/production practices as well as decade-long work in cultural philanthropy as a researcher and program officer. I make my home in New Orleans.