Griot (n): a storyteller (West African tradition)
It’s no secret that Philadelphia is a city rich in history and tradition, especially when it comes to communities that are a part of the African Diaspora. There are countless organizations and institutions that work to empower, educate and uplift the African-American community specifically. The African-American Museum in Philadelphia, Reel Black, BMe Community, and countless others work tirelessly to not only share the stories of the communities they serve but to also shape and create them. GriotWorks is one such organization that has bridged the gaps between the diverse communities and cultures within the African Diaspora. After eight years of operation, the organization is undergoing a dynamic transition and they need the help of the very people that they serve, and those who are invested in their mission, to preserve and expand their work.
I caught up up to Jos Duncan, the founder and departing director to discuss the state of GriotWorks, the organization’s impact thus far, where it’s headed, and the Indiegogo campaign that has less than two and a half weeks left before it ends.
Sincerely Syreeta: Who are you? Tell the SS readers a little about yourself.
Jos Duncan: I’m an artist who loves my people. Most days I define myself as a storyteller and filmmaker, but I’ve danced, sang, rapped, produced and painted my stories as well.
SS: What is GriotWorks and how (or why) was it conceived?
JD: GriotWorks is a cultural arts organization which has used Pan African storytelling and media as a way to bridge gaps between communities and cultures with the goal of making progressive social change. Modeling our work after the role of the “Griot” or “Jeli”, storytellers in West Africa who hold communities together by sharing stories that relay history, educate, honor traditions, share morals and envision a collective future, we’ve aimed to do the same.
SS: How was the organization conceived?
JD: GriotWorks was born at a time when the media was sensationalizing violence in marginalized communities and I believed the art of Pan African storytelling could restore a sense cultural identity and hope. While I was always a bit of an activist at heart, I settled comfortably into a career in information technology and thought that would be my life. There were a combination of things to include some hardships which led me to taking my passion for the arts to make change. Then in 2007, a friend (Vena Jefferson) approached me about helping me to find funding through PA Council on the Arts, Preserving Diverse Cultures program. That was the seed for GriotWorks being what it is today. I’ve had to learn how to be an arts administrator over the years but GriotWorks was really conceived out of love for my people and a passion for offering programs that would bring a sense of hope to our communities.
SS: And the world can always use a little more hope in it. So, GriotWorks has produced over 100 programs in the past eight years. Based on your observation, how has the organization impacted the African-American community and shaped the way stories are told?
JD: We’ve helped to create bridges between artists and communities. Our discussions have given people a reason to gather and talk. At first they were storytelling circles based on history and traditions, but we realized people wanted to process things that were happening in mainstream media. So we organized discussions around films like “Django.” The event was packed to capacity with standing room only, with people just wanting to collectively process the fictional yet seemingly reel and very painful for many. In programs like the Stories In Service Day of Neighborhood Storytelling, we organized groups of storytellers and offered programs at multiple outdoor locations, like parks and recreation centers – all on the same day at the same time. The people who attended were impacted by the stories but the storytellers, were also impacted by participating in a program where they knew others were doing the same work all over the city. Our films, theater productions and music videos work in the same way. Yes, they make an impact on audiences but it’s the process of organizing people and asking people to do something they’ve never done before in the name of culture, traditions, Pan Africanism and building community – I think that’s the impact that’s most fascinating.
SS: You all are currently in a period of transition. Plainly speaking, can you tell us the difference between where the organization is at (and has been) versus where it’s headed?
JD: Eric Muhammad, has been a force of his own. He has already created platforms for organizing people, producing events and making change. He envisions doing more work with modern griots and focus on incorporating technology but will likely focus less on tradition. With this, I think the organization will build more traction and a bigger following, making a greater impact.
SS: There’s currentlyrunning a 30-day Indiegogo campaign to raise some of the necessary funds for this transition process. Can you give us some insight into the specifics of the Indiegogo campaign and the purpose behind it?
JD: We have a ton of footage that needs to be archived, we want to finish the edit for a documentary on Pan African Storytelling which has been in the works for years and finally, we’re producing a huge event – The GriotWorks Future Celebration and Awards Ceremony which will take place on Saturday, June 13th at 5:30pm at PhillyCAM located at 699 Ranstead Street (near 7th and Market Streets). It’s a dress to impress – Black or African attire event and you’ll get tickets by donating $65 to the campaign.
SS: Why did you all feel that crowd-funding was the best approach to meeting the needs of this powerful cultural arts institution?
JD: Crowd funding campaigns are the best ways to raise money and engage audiences at the same time. They really push the concept of cooperative economics. When the people you create work for and with become investors in that work through collective giving, sharing, and storytelling, you get a true sense of how the community values it. There’s some education around this. We have to present our work as something of value and worthy of investing in, so that people don’t feel like we’re asking for empty support. But it’s really beautiful when the community gets it and stands with you in achieving the goal. They can see the direct results of their giving.
SS: What value has the community expressed GriotWorks as having on their lives and African-American culture?
JD: That’s a good question. I’d like to ask them that. We’re running our campaign now and we’re asking people for their stories. I hope the community shares some of their experiences with the hashtag #GriotWorksFuture
SS: In your opinion, why is an organization like GriotWorks critical to the way in which the African-American community is viewed, and views itself?
JD: We are constant consumers of media. We take in story after story and we feel things based on what we’re taking in. GriotWorks has essentially been a curator of stories and we have aimed to explore every kind of narrative from historical to fantastical and futuristic. In my opinion, being reminded that we are the creators of our stories, not just the tellers of them, is critical in our holistic identity as Black people. GriotWorks has not only valued life experiences but intuition, imagination, spirituality. We talk super heroes and social justice but we also rally with #BlackLivesMatter. African American people have a very complex culture and we’ve aimed to celebrate it all.
SS: What has been the most challenging aspect of fulfilling the organization’s mission?
JD: My biggest challenge has been trying to be an arts administrator while being an artist. I’d get the thought to move and I’d just move. We’ve done a lot of programs with zero dollars and in many cases the money has showed up or someone has opened a door for us for free. Places like the Community Education Center in West Philly supported us from early on. We would have never made it this far without that place.
SS: And the most fulfilling?
JD: The most fulfilling thing has been watching people notice us and get the gist of our work. I’ve also enjoyed watching others embrace GriotWorks as their own. It is an organization that belongs to the people it serves. Most days, I’m honored to be a part of the work that’s going on and while I’m often the visionary and the person to make the first few phone calls, all of our programs have been actualized with the work of many, many hands. The part of me that is traditional likes to call names – April Harley, Tezarah Wilkins, Mike Dennis, Cachet Ivey, Terri Shockley, Nakia Dillard, Ayoka Dorsey—to name a few.
SS: How has the org. met or exceeded your initial vision and plan?
JD: GriotWorks has fulfilled my initial vision. The one thing I didn’t account for was innovation in the world. Who would have imagined, for example, we’d be living in a world of apps? Or that PhillyCAM would exist, offering free camera rentals and training young media makers. Because of that, we cut our apprentice program. There was just no need for us to try and train filmmakers when they could get so much access there for free.
SS: As the founder and departing director, how has your time at GriotWorks shaped the woman that you’ve become? And the way in which you tell stories?
JD: GriotWorks has matured me. I was a young spring chicken when I started this work, now I’m a village elder I’ve matured enough to realize, I’ve taken the organization as far as it could go under my direction. During the 8 years, I’ve been married, divorced, lived in 2 cities, received an MFA, become a professor and scholar, all while continuing to hone my craft as an artist. When I started GriotWorks I used to tell Bre’r Rabbit (Brother Rabbit) tales. Now all of my stories are about women. Strong, resilient women. I’ve learned to let my stories heal me, grow me and take me where ever in the omniverse I want to go.
SS: Lastly, what’s your key to “Sincerely Lovin’” life? (A motto or mantra that you live by.)
JD: DO your own BEST and mute the critiques of people DOing less.
Click here to learn more about GriotWorks Indiegogo campaign and to donate!
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– Sincerely Syreeta