Marc Bamuthi Joseph Encourages Artists to Collaborate With Communities

Performance artist Marc Bamuthi Joseph posed a few questions to the audience to start off his talk in Robsham Theater on Oct. 19. How can art create social change? What sustains life in our communities? How do we define equity? What would have happened if the Civil War had gone the other way?

Joseph’s lecture, “Developing Creative Ecosystems for Civic Impact” was a part of the Lowell Humanities Series.

In a talk that blended spoken word, video, poetry, and discussion, Joseph addressed the importance of using art as a form of inquiry into social issues.

As the chief of program and pedagogy at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco, Calif., Joseph describes his work as “designing and managing creative incubators for social change.” His performance pieces incorporate dance, theater, and community engagement, and address themes like equity, ecology and social justice.

“My true passion is asking interesting and sometimes socially incongruous groups of people provocative questions,” Joseph said. “The right question, I think, can drive my work as an opera librettist for the stage or as a community organizer in my town.”

For example, Joseph’s work “pe-LO-tah”, inspired by his own childhood love of soccer, uses soccer as a metaphor to address the question of enfranchisement among youth of color.

For the piece, Joseph’s theater group learned drills from youth soccer clubs in Harlem and the South Bronx, N.Y., and created choreography based on the drills. They collaborated with education and advocacy groups to teach choreography to the youth as part of a day-long workshop.


“What kind of change do we want to make together?”


Joseph paused to show an image of a young boy playing soccer while wearing a painted hummingbird he had made during the workshop on his back. He loves this image because the hummingbird is a powerful symbol of migration, but the boy also expresses pure joy.

“Moving without the ball is the immigrant story,” Joseph said. “Whose responsibility is it to harness inspiration in our lives?”

Joseph then posed two questions directly to the audience, starting with “how does your labor generate dignity for yourself and others?” He also asked what type of capital—individual, social, physical, financial, natural, built, or intellectual—would you leave to your grandchildren, and which do you wish your grandparents had left you?

“I ask you these questions because I think most of us have to be talked out of financial capital,” Joseph said.

He used this discussion as a starting point to wonder how we define value and equity in society.

Joseph also explored these issues by starting “Life is Living,” a series of festivals in cities around the country centered around the question, “what sustains life in your community?” Each festival includes performances of spoken word, music, and dance, as well as a call on civic leaders to “invest in life with us.”

Finally, Joseph described his work with Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. In particular, he helped to start the YBCA100 Summit, bringing together artists to develop central questions based on community issues and explore these inquiries through art.

Artists at Yerba Buena engage with the community in San Francisco and often incorporate public urban performance into their works. Joseph believes that art should be a central part of social progress. Artists should collaborate with their communities. His work is deeply shaped by both his own life experiences and global social issues.

To end his speech, Joseph directly challenged the audience: “What kind of change do we want to make together?”

Featured Image by Taylor Perison / Heights Staff