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"If you have come here to help me you are wasting your time, but if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together." ― Lilla Watson

I am grateful for this brief opportunity to humbly express my support for the uprising of local solidarity actions in New Mexico and share some insights into my own experiences. Having lived in Santa Fe for only four years, I still have a lot to learn about the immense cultural diversity and deep history of this land, but I am so grateful to live here. I am grateful to the many artists, activists, educators, designers, and dissenters I have met at SFAI through the last three years. I am grateful for the tremendous work of our staff and board, all of whom have responded to the COVID-19 emergency with selflessness, creative ingenuity and grace. As a black person, I am also grateful to see the outpouring of support for black lives.

But my heart is broken, for all of the reasons you have likely heard from the black community these last two weeks. I fight back rage and tears. Certainly my heart breaks for black and brown families who bear the brunt of racist terror in this country. My heart also breaks when I think of how much we have had to fight, lose, win and fight some more—just to raise the level of the national conversation. The world we are supposed to believe in seems to require dire sacrifices from us. In addition to the threat of being killed and imprisoned with impunity, black people are dying from COVID-19 at a disproportionately high rate. This is directly related to our high prevalence of negative health conditions and increased exposure from essential service work. Likely all black people – indeed all oppressed peoples—carry some of this same weariness I feel. Some feelings of inevitability, some feelings of bitterness. This is a toxic stew compounded with the constant terrors.

Coming from a black family full of police officers, military veterans, guards, teachers, public servants, caregivers and business owners, there is a special kind of hurt occurring in my spirit because so much of what happens to black people is the result of a society that refuses to hold up its end of the deal. All of my family have stories of prejudice and even outright terror while serving their cities and nation. Such was the severity of my mother's experience as a police officer that she filed suit, which led to several promising changes to the department but drove my family out of town. It was a publicly traumatic experience for my family and it has lasting consequences for us, but we have fared better than others because at least we are still alive. I feel fortunate to also come from a family of radical activists, including a Black Panther grandfather, who has informed my understanding of black justice movements, although he has been imprisoned my entire life.

Panther Jerry “Odinka” Dunigan talks to kids while they eat breakfast on Chicago’s South Side, November 1970. The photo of Dunigan, Andar’s grandfather, appeared in the book Power To The People: The World of the Black Panthers by Stephen Shames and Bobby Seale.
Panther Jerry “Odinka” Dunigan talks to kids while they eat breakfast on Chicago’s South Side, November 1970. The photo of Dunigan, Andar’s grandfather, appeared in the book Power To The People: The World of the Black Panthers by Stephen Shames and Bobby Seale. | Stephen Shames

I speak humbly as someone who is trained in violence prevention and nonviolent activism, and yet also as someone trained in military combat. I worked as a campus peer educator and community activist while in college, training students in sexual assault prevention. I also voluntarily enlisted in the Army National Guard, trained with an infantry combat unit and narrowly missed a deployment to Afghanistan. I even worked in a state prison as a guard cadet.

So I have learned to commit violence. Any honest reflection of my decision-making over the years brings me face-to-face with my own acts of harm. But every step of the way, the people in my life held me accountable. The love of my family and friends prevented me from going down many a dark road, and never let me descend too far into chaos and self-destruction. I know that I must show up and live in integrity for the people in my life. I feel very acutely the need to cultivate compassion, understanding, and peace in my heart. I remain accountable to my community.

Accountability is necessary, and a nation that demands such from its citizens must in turn commit to the same. A nation that expects nonviolence from its citizens must in turn commit to nonviolence amongst its public servants. A government that expects people to work for the good of the nation must in turn ensure the government works for the people.

For decades, indeed since its founding, this nation has resisted the most basic solutions to systematized terror against people of color. Police departments are militarized and given huge budgets, yet have resisted necessary changes to recruiting, training, and community engagement. Powerful people have treated justice as an optic, leaving the dangerous work of liberation to those with the knee on our necks. Institutions have not implemented accountability processes or have otherwise neglected them. My people pay for these failings with our lives —no one should be surprised when an oppressed people respond with the spirit of liberation.

Allies and accomplices must understand that this spirit of liberation is not nice, it is not polite, it is not apologetic and it is not mediated by the timeline of the oppressive system. Watching black and brown bodies brutalized and killed sparks a rage that can only be satisfied by swift justice. Anyone seeking genuine alliance with the black freedom struggle must prepare themselves for both the thunder and the lightning. Any white person who supports the dismantling of the white supremacist system must center the actual struggle of black people. We cannot continue to place the impetus for change on the bodies of oppressed people.

At Santa Fe Art Institute, we realize the necessity to continually grow as an institution and as a member of the community. We understand that the process of liberation is messy and dangerous, as oppressive systems are inherently violent, and bring violence to bear when challenged. We see the hard work of communities around the world to secure liberty and justice. Our artist residency this year is themed Labor to consider "what vitality, prosperity, and sustainability might look like beyond profit; to envision new systems for "making a living" that elevate all of humanity and infuse our world with freedom, compassion, and harmony; and that reflect the profoundly generative acts of labor."

In 2021, our residency theme is Revolution. We believe, as Paulo Freire says, that people can "develop their power to perceive critically the way they exist in the world … [and] come to see the world not as a static reality, but as a reality in process, in transformation." No more can we see racist white terror against people of color as a static reality, as an inevitability. Black people live dynamic and meaningful lives, constantly building our realities.

In spite of my weariness, I must continue to fight for my own life and those of my black brothers and sisters. I must continually seek healthy and constructive community, as an expression of my desire to live life as if it matters.

It matters that I work for an organization that affirms my humanity and my struggles. It matters that I express solidarity with victims of state violence and repression. It matters that I right my own wrongs and try harder next time. And it matters that my white loved ones stand in solidarity with the movement for black lives.

Our nation is in need of radical transformation and time is short. Act like it matters.
As an activist, social justice educator and former infantry servicemember in the National Guard, Kourtney has trained hundreds of men and women on violence prevention, pro-feminism, and environmental justice.  He is the SFAI works manager as well as a published author and his articles are available on several activist websites. He grew up in Illinois and moved to Santa Fe with his wife in July 2016.

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