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Towards a Cultural Emergency Response

Erin Genia, Outreach Coordinator

Community organizer Erin Genia reflects on her artistic practice and working in civic spaces

“Anpa O Wicahnpi” screen print by Erin Genia

Haŋ, my name is Erin Genia, I have served as a Mass Cultural Council outreach coordinator for the last year, focusing on Native American and Indigenous peoples. I am a tribal member of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate, and a multimedia artist. In my work as a creative practitioner, educator, and community organizer, I amplify the powerful presence of Indigenous peoples in the arts, sciences, and public realm, to invoke evolution of thought and action that is aligned with the cycles of the natural world and the potential of humanity.

In 2020, I served as an artist in residence for the City of Boston during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown. The city’s artist residency program is an effective model for embedding artists’ unique viewpoints and creative thinking into policy. During my tenure in the program, I worked within the Office of Emergency Management and developed the Cultural Emergency Response framework to help people understand the key role of culture in attending to society’s most intractable challenges, like institutional racism, climate change, economic inequality, and the pandemic itself. The project advocates for the use of methods adapted from the field of emergency management to save lives and create community resiliency by dealing with large scale crises at their source – culture. I created a body of art work using this framework, including public art at Boston University called “Caution: Cultural Emergency Response,” and a cultural emergency kit initiative to recognize cultural emergency first responders.

In witnessing how the city used emergency management techniques to grapple with an unprecedented public health crisis, I realized our society is in a state of “cultural” emergency: dominant cultural norms are actively creating crises with no end in sight. The pandemic revealed extreme and long-standing socioeconomic inequality on marginalized communities and people of color–the worst impacts experienced in tribal communities like my own. During that year, the police killing of George Floyd pushed the Black Lives Matter movement’s work on systemic racism into mainstream consciousness, and the City of Boston declared racism a public health crisis. Meanwhile, climate emergencies like dangerous wildfires and storms accelerated, ravaging vulnerable areas across the globe and placing our future survival in question.

The Cultural Emergency Response framework points to an unacknowledged truth – when institutional problem-solving approaches do not address underlying cultural causes of disasters, they fail. Prevailing attitudes dictate that we accept the collateral damage of our cultural belief systems. It goes unrecognized that the same ideologies fueling societal progress also create harm, instability, and danger over a wide range of peoples, places, and events. The persistence of cultural supremacy present in Western value systems prevent critique, even when serious examination of how dominant cultural values became prominent, whose cultures have been displaced, and why, can ultimately strengthen us.

The principles of decolonization are integrated into Cultural Emergency Response, beginning with a truthful assessment of how historical forces have shaped today. American cultural norms emerged from the imperial philosophies of Western European colonialism and the Roman Empire and led to the formation of the United States as a settler-colonial state that gained its economic wealth and political power from genocide, land theft, slavery, and war. We all live with the legacy of that foundational violence which continues to reverberate throughout our society in our relationships to each other and the world around us. My own experience of being simultaneously inside and outside of American culture, and hailing from Dakota peoples who have been targeted for destruction by American cultural norms has given me the perspective to see the deep harms these norms cause. These harms should not be accepted as inevitable – instead, we must understand their origins and how they operate so we can end them.

My Cultural Emergency Response framework stems from Dakota philosophies that teach responsibility for the world around us. Through elevation of the perspectives and power of those who are most impacted by the cultural emergencies, and removing barriers to collective and equitable discussion, we can identify how harmful philosophies we perpetuate form the basis of laws, policies, and procedures in order to create a sustained cultural shift.

As we hold our institutions accountable, we must also hold our communities and ourselves accountable – each person must transparently own their position and role within the state of cultural emergency. Confronting difficult truths, and enacting structural transformation takes patience and flexibility, openness, and support. Many movements, individuals, and organizations have already determined the root causes of our state of cultural emergency and advanced solutions. Artists and cultural workers are at the forefront of this work, and professionals in cultural fields are uniquely situated to respond by providing leadership in shaping a “cultural reset.”

By bringing ideas and people together, mobilizing resources, activating existing collaborative networks, envisioning and enacting viable strategies at the level of culture, Cultural Emergency Response provides the missing X factor in handling complex societal challenges. It is a valuable tool for cooperatively acknowledging our mistakes and learning from them, to change direction from the state of cultural emergency we are in towards a just and secure world for all.

Learn More About the Cultural Emergency Response Framework

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