‘The Power of Truths’: Two-day festival fuses history, art and advocacy for social justice

  • Akrobatik, the stage name of rapper, hip hop artist, and UMass Boston professor Jared Bridgeman, will lead a dance party and discuss the history of hip hop at The Power of Truths festival. Image courtesy Northampton Arts Council

  • Jazz and R&B singer/songwriter Marcia Gomes and her band perform June 10 at The Power of Truths festival. Image courtesy Northampton Arts Council

  • Bayeté Ross Smith, an artist and educator who graduated from Amherst Regional High School and now works in New York City, will give the keynote address at The Power of Truths festival next weekend. CONTRIBUTED/CHRISTOPHER MICHAEL

  • The Northampton Arts Council and two Florence-based collaborators have combined arts, education and history in a new event taking place in Florence. CONTRIBUTED/Northampton Arts Council

Staff Writer
Published: 6/2/2022 2:12:28 PM
Modified: 6/2/2022 2:10:28 PM

Can the arts help us reexamine our past and come to terms with injustice? Can music, painting, film, literature and other mediums serve as tools for social change by helping us take a fresh look at our history and our personal beliefs?

The Northampton Arts Council, with the support of some new collaborators, believes that’s the case. To do that, the council is unveiling a new event, The Power of Truths Festival, a blend of arts festival, educational forum, and what organizers call an homage to the history of social and anti-racism advocacy of western Massachusetts.

Fittingly enough, the event takes place June 10-11 at the Bombyx Center for Arts & Equity in Florence, which opened last fall at the Florence Congregational Church, an important meeting place for residents in the area in the 1860s who were committed to ending slavery and creating equality for all men and women.

The event begins Friday evening, June 10, at 6:30 p.m. with performances by a number of musicians and bands, including jazz/R&B singer-songwriter Marcia Gomes and Boston-based rapper and hip hop artist Jared Bridgeman, aka Akrobatik, who’s also a UMass Boston professor.

On Saturday, June 11, the conference will host multiple 75-minute workshops and talks on a variety of topics: the story of hip hop, using fiction to explore historical and contemporary truths, the repercussions of the Indian Removal Act of 1830, how Black girls are represented in graphic novels, and more.

Those sessions will be followed by a keynote address by educator and artist Bayeté Ross Smith, an Amherst Regional High School graduate now living in New York City.

Steve Sanderson, event producer for the Arts Council, says The Power of Truths has been in planning for a while. It harkens back to some experiences he had a few years ago, including when he served as a volunteer guide on a tour in Florence sponsored by the David Ruggles Center, the educational center dedicated to this leading abolitionist and Black journalist who lived in town in the 1840s.

“I enjoyed the experience, but I was embarrassed that I didn’t know more about the history,” Sanderson said.

Around that time, Sanderson also connected with Michael Lawrence-Riddell, the husband of his daughter’s first grade teacher at Leeds Elementary. Lawrence-Riddell is a former Amherst Middle School English and history teacher who nows heads Self-Evident Education, a small company that develops multimedia presentations for schools and community centers that examine the history of slavery and racism in the U.S., and how those issues continue to reverberate today.

“Michael and I got to talking about an event that combined the arts with education and a way of looking at how the past informs the present,” Sanderson explained.

Sanderson was also interested in producing something that would dovetail with the Arts Council’s equity statement of 2020, which said in part that the group needed to do its part in “redress[ing] historical inequities in the arts and cultural sector.”

Lawrence-Riddell says he was “very much onboard” with the idea, and he began working with Ousmane Power-Greene, a Florence writer and specialist in African American social and political movements who teaches history at Clark University in Worcester. Lawrence-Riddell, Sanderson, and Power-Greene all envisioned bringing varied speakers and performers to town and engaging a diverse audience.

“We think this can appeal to people of all ages who are interested in seeing how we can look at our past through a different lens to understand where we are today in terms of equity and race,” Lawrence-Riddell said. “And using art is a key way of doing that.”

“The idea is that we can all be members of the ‘teaching public,’ ” added Sanderson.

He and Lawrence-Riddell note that Northampton School Superintendent John Provost is making 100 free tickets to the festival available to Northampton school personnel and students.

Lawrence-Riddell points to one presenter, artist Destiny Palmer, as a good example of someone who uses her work — as a painter, installation artist, and educator in the Boston area — to examine the intersections of art and history. One of her series, called “Labored Bodies,” is based on research she did revealing she had ancestors who had been enslaved in South Carolina.

At the festival, Lawrence-Riddell will also unveil his newest multimedia documentary, “Can There Ever Really Be Justice on Stolen Land?” which looks at the Indian Removal Act of 1830 and the issues that continue to swirl around the removal of indigenous peoples from ancestral lands and the pressure they have faced to assimilate into white society.

Ousmane Power-Greene, who has written about history and will publish a novel this fall that investigates racial issues, will present a workshop alongside Florence novelist Debra Jo Immergut on how fiction can illuminate history.

In an email, Power-Greene said many of the presenters at the conference are “so busy doing great work,” whether in creative or intellectual form or in social justice, that they little opportunity to share it with other people similarly engaged. “Our goal is to bring these different people together to share our own efforts to challenge social inequality and inequities in our communities and institutions.”

Ross Smith, the keynote speaker, will close the June 11 event from 4:30 to 5:15 p.m. with a talk about how he has used his art, including photography, video and sculpture (he’s also worked as a photojournalist) to look at contemporary and historic social justice issues and bring about change.

Sanderson said he’s hoping “The Power of Truths” can become an annual event. He says it’s not a replacement for the Arts Council’s Biennial, the longtime bi-annual art exhibit that was canceled last fall because of objections to some of the art included in it and concerns over how the exhibit was put together.

All told, about two dozen artists and other presenters will appear at “The Power of Truths.” The workshops on June 11 begin at 8:30 a.m. with a registration session and will run to 12:15 p.m., then resume after a lunch break at 1:30 p.m. Tickets to attend on both days range from $15 to $25 and can be purchased in advance at bombyx.live/events/power-of-truths/.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

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