Sarah Crowell is a dancer and choreographer who has taught dance, theater, mindfulness and violence prevention for over 35 years. She founded the Destiny Arts Youth Performance Company, which was the subject of two documentary films, and won the National Arts & Humanities Youth Program Award. Sarah has facilitated arts integration, violence prevention, cultural humility, and professional development sessions with artists and educators since 2000, both locally and nationally, and is the recipient of many awards including the KPFA Peace award.
She addresses the question of “What Could Possibly Go Right?” with thoughts including:
- That choosing to feel joy despite “the world’s madness” is an act of revolution and of service
- The importance of empathy and deep listening to bear witness to others
- The value of providing spaces for young people to be heard and uplifted
- The subtle difference between supremacy and hierarchy
- The dance within leadership, with its flow and exchange between followers and leaders
Connect with Sarah Crowell
Hi, Vicki Robin here, host of What Could Possibly Go Right?, a project to the Post Carbon Institute, in which we interview cultural scouts, people who see far and serve the common good, asking them each our one question: In the midst of all that seems to be going awry, what could possibly possibly go right?
My guest today is the wonderful Sarah Crowell, who says she is an unapologetically black queer dancer and choreographer who has taught dance theater, mindfulness, arts integration and violence prevention for over 30 years. She performed and toured with multiple dance companies for 15 years, including Impulse Jazz Dance Company in Boston and the Dance Brigade in San Francisco. She also co-directed the dance theater company i am Productions!
Sarah was the Artistic Director Emeritus at Destiny Arts Center in Oakland, where she served in different capacities for over 30 years. She founded and co-directed the award winning Destiny Arts Youth Performance Company, which was the subject of two documentary films. She is the recipient of many awards, including KQED Women’s History Local Hero Award and the Bay Area Dance Week Award. She is a four-time finalist for the Tony Award for Excellence in Theater Education. Sarah believes passionately that movement must be part of all movements for social change. Here’s Sarah.
Welcome, Sarah Crowell, to What Could Possibly Go Right? You are a dancer, you are a teacher, you are founder of the Destiny Art Center, since 1988, inspiring and igniting social change through the arts. Your life is an expression of your belief that we can make a difference, and that we can shape the destiny that we live, one that is authentic, through telling our honest personal stories. This is actually so true for me too. The more I tell the truth about my life, the more liberated I become.
You work with youth of color to support them in transforming the pain of bullying, sexism, gentrification and racism, to create art out of their pain and to do it together. I see that people of my skin color and relative privilege, especially young people, are now feeling the pain of being othered of hatred coming at us out of what others believe we represent, not who we are, and that of sliding down the progress mountain they thought it was their right to climb, and so we’re experiencing things that people of color have experienced for many years.
I think it’s especially important right now, to hear from you in this time of unraveling expectations, and the loss of anticipated futures. I am so interested in how you are going to approach our question, Sarah Crowell. In the face of all that seems to be going awry, what could possibly go right?
Well, I’m so interested to see what I’m going to say too. I really love this question. I think it’s really important question. I was in a meeting with a coworker the other day who said they had spoken to V, formerly Eve Ensler, and she said, one of the most radical acts we can do is to deeply listen to people. So the fact that you’re taking time to really listen to people answer this question is really powerful.
I think in your setup, you’re talking about as things are shifting in terms of hetero patriarchy, in terms of white supremacy, as the sort of veil is being pulled away, there are cracks in that system that need to be gently – hopefully, or it looks like it may be not so gentle – blown apart, right? Those things need to be obliterated, and supremacy needs to be laid down so that we can all be in a circle, right? And you’re saying that white folks are feeling even just a small portion of what folks of color have been feeling for hundreds and hundreds of years on this planet.
I think it’s important. It’s kind of deep listening; deep listening, and empathy. My work is very empathic because I just am an empathic person. I think, we don’t want to feel each other’s pain to the point of just shutting down, but to understand someone’s pain, to deeply listen to what has happened, I think is really important. In fact, this morning, I’m a part of a group of women of color, who are artists and activists from around the country. We have a WhatsApp chain, so we get to check in with each other and support one another.
I think that’s one thing that’s going right, is people are coming together in groups and expanding their circles. This morning, someone expressed just incredible grief about the killings of black men, and how they’re going without being accountable for them, and have been done for generations. George Floyd’s murder was accounted for, and yet there are hundreds and hundreds and hundreds every year; where police officers or other citizens are being let off the hook.
The response from one of the members of our group was, I’m going to read it to you. She said, Thank you for speaking your “not okayness” into this space. I’m sitting with the helplessness these murderers invoke, not just for the victims and their families, but for black people, the terror of visits on us. I’m learning that in order to not walk through my life anxious and cynical and bitter, and to keep my hope and love intact, I need to speak my feelings of fear and helplessness into circles like this. I need to be witnessed.
So the power of witness, I think, is really important. That’s a lot of the work that I did at Destiny Art Center for 30 years. About Destiny Art Center, and thank you for introducing it so beautifully, is a nonprofit violence prevention and arts education organization. It’s been around since 1988. I just left the organization at the end of 2020, but I did a bunch of stuff there, from executive director to dance teacher to artistic director, to running and co-directing and co-producing performances, but co-directing our Destiny Arts youth performance company, which is a teen dance theater company. You talked a little bit about that group. We do performances that are really intimate, authentic collaborations between professional artists and young people to talk about what their issues are, to deep listen, right? To have this witnessing and this listening, and then to create work from that place.
To me, I think it’s rare, and sometimes people don’t understand. We say the process is just as important as the product, right? I think in this instance, as a person who’s done youth development work and also performance work. I was always wanting to balance, are the young people really being heard? Are they telling their stories in authentic ways? And is the art really beautiful on stage? And then can that be accessible to audiences? Because if it’s so beautiful, even painful things, if they’re beautiful, you can’t look away from them, and then you’re changed by them.
I think that’s something that’s going right. Spaces, where young people are being heard, and they’re given the opportunity to speak their voice, but also to collaborate with professionals who know what they’re doing. So I think the work of Destiny is really about creating opportunities for mentorship, which oftentimes, I think, adults now, we’re nervous; like, oh, the kids are so independent, we can’t tell them anything. They know more about technology than we do.
We need to be in intimate spaces with young people, creative spaces with young people in order to survive. That’s my thing, that uplifting young people, uplifting women of color, uplifting queer people, uplifting folks who have been outside the circle of human concern, and having them be in the circle, not being in the center necessarily, obliterating the idea that someone has to be supreme.
But how do we be in circle with each other? So to me, even though I dip into hopelessness about so many things that are happening in the world, what I look at is young people who are willing to take the risk, to tell the story, to take the risk, to speak truth to power, and to do in a way that’s not about blame and shame and othering. But it’s about bringing them into the circle with them, and that’s the work that I did at Destiny for 30 years.
Like my dad said, who was a lifelong activist; I would ask him, how do you be so joyful? How are you so joyful, Dad? He died at 87, three years ago. How are you joyful? He would just see a butterfly or the inside of a flower and begin to weep, because he was so moved. Yet he was tackling the most difficult political and social issues through his activism. He says, You know, I get up, and I do my best. I do everything I can to make this world better for everyone, and then I go to sleep happy. That’s what I feel like I do. I learned that from him. I do that each day, I find something beautiful to love and to pay attention to, and then do the work that I do, which is, I get paid to do change work. So how lucky am I?
Wow, very moving. The question that comes to mind, because it’s my question as well, is how do we bring our hearts into the affairs of the world, such that we’re not othered for having feelings for believing that joy is relevant? I mean, here we are, and the news blares with war, injustice, pandemic. And one of the things that can happen from that is that we do feel disempowered, and it’s super easy to feel that especially with the wealth gap. It’s like, okay, fine, there’s 50 people running the world, and then there’s us.
So it’s like there is some gap between the power to make change, the powerful and the rest of us who are humans with feelings. I just would love to know what you see about bridging that gap, between the sense that you have to be super uber-educated, you have to be Anthony Blinken or Jen Psaki in order to have a voice. Just reflect on that for me, let’s see where we can go.
I love that question. I think, for anyone who loves this planet, that’s a question. No matter what kind of work we do, it’s constantly like the barrage of negative things, and things that seem climate change and racial injustice and war and the threat of possibly a third world war. I mean, this is some serious stuff and the pandemic. So it’s like, are we going to survive?
Are we going to survive is often the question, and I think young people who I’ve worked with for many years, they ask that question too. It’s a different sort of sense of urgency that they have. What I’ve told my students, and for many years, is that being joyful, even as the world does what it does and is doing what it does, and seems more and more urgent, and more and more important to understand and unpack, like you said; to be joyful in that space is a powerful revolutionary act.
Now, I’m not talking about denial. I’m not talking about, I’m just going to ignore that and just be happy over here. No, I’m going to know what’s happening, and choose joy every single day. How do I do that? I mean, to me, it’s just whatever makes sense to you, right? Maybe each opportunity to feel joyful is also an act of service. And maybe an act of service brings you joy, and so you do that. Maybe you just allow yourself to feel joy, despite the world and all of its madness.
Then, for me anyway, if I allow that joy, if I allow that moment to notice the hummingbird in my window, if I allow myself to look in the mirror and notice my wrinkles starting to come through and revel in the fact that I’m alive and I get to have wrinkles, because I’m ageing… I get to age, what an amazing experience to age. If I find those moments, whatever they are for me each day, then I come back to what a friend of mine and I called the church of enthusiasm. How do we have enthusiasm for doing the next right thing?
It’s so many years of – for me, in order to be in this state – so many years of deep meditation and therapy and 12 step for codependency and so many ways to heal, in order to arrive in this present moment, with my heart as full as possible and have compassion for people who may wish me ill. How do I have that? One teacher of mine, Byron Katie, she says, I know when I walk in the room that everyone loves me, they just might not know it yet.
There’s so many pearls of wisdom in this world. There’s so many people doing incredible work, from the young people that I’ve worked with at Destiny Art Center, to spiritual teachers that are spreading their wisdom. For me, when I’m listening to spiritual teachers, I’m like, does it resonate with me? Because you can get caught in the egoic space and then follow blindly. So I always check in. And I love that I’m very kinesthetic. I’m a dancer, and everything just sort of comes through my body. So I can check my body. Does that resonate for me? Yes, I like that. So the 12 step thing, take what you want, and leave the rest; that works for me. It’s like, what works for me, channel it through myself at this moment, and be in the best space that I can be, every day, every moment.
One of the things that came to me as you were talking is, I wonder how many people actually feel that they’re masters of the universe. There’s a lot of egoic people who think they’re masters ofo the universe, who aren’t, but the people that we might project on, these guys are running the show. How many of them feel this sort of self doubt. And so, I just had this sense when you’re talking, the term public compassion; compassion for the people who may not love us yet, compassion for the people who are on a daily basis having to frame things up. Do they have a feeling of control?
I mean, this idea of public joy, if you will, is not in opposition to the dark forces. It’s an invitation, it’s an invitation to enter the circle, to bring your own joy to the circle. I just think there’s something in humans about status, about one up and one down. Once you get into that, then you’ve projected that – I’m one down, you’re one up – and you’re gone. There is no circle. So it’s really radical, what you’re talking about. It’s not hierarchy. It’s not centering one subset over another subset. It’s like the circle, the radical circle of the people who are trying to figure this place out and make the best of it.
Yeah, exactly. A friend of mine who’s also a mentor, Akaya Windwood. She said, I used to do affinity groups when I was doing antiracism work. Now I just sit everybody in the circle, and we’re going to work it out together, because that’s ultimately what we need to do. Now, that doesn’t mean that we don’t sit in circles of folks of color or that white people don’t need to do their own work without folks of color, educating constantly around racism. Ultimately, we need to sit in a circle.
It’s like picking up on another spiritual teacher of mine. He says, You can get a lot from sitting by yourself and meditation, but you will only achieve enlightenment if you do spiritual work in community. So for me, that’s every single day. So at Destiny, everything was in a circle. You start in a circle there. The guided meditation, there’s a check in. There’s some kind of recognition that we’re all in this together.
It doesn’t mean there isn’t hierarchy. There’s that subtle difference between supremacy and hierarchy. I think leadership always is going to have some hierarchy, there’s going to be some people that are better at things, some other things that will pull up and be leaders. I love to do this metaphor, doing salsa partnering dance, and talking about leading and following, and how do we rethink that whole hierarchy; that whole us and them that you’re talking about. How do we rethink that into a flow and an exchange?
So when you’re in a partnership and a dance partnership, doing salsa partnering work, the leader has got to be strong and clear with their directions. They also can’t push too hard. If you push too hard, the follower doesn’t look as beautiful, right? There’s part of that, is the leader is there to uplift and make beautiful. The follower can’t also get like, you’re not doing it right, and super overcritical. There has to be some flow between the partners. That’s a giving and receiving. So when I look at it that way, there’s no better than or less than in leading and following. Right? It’s sort of like that phrase, it’s better to give than to receive. I hate that phrase. It’s like, what the hell is that about? It’s like, well, what about the receiver is just dirt? You know what I mean? Like, to give is righteous, to receive with an open heart is also righteous.
Another I have so many teachers. One of my spiritual teachers, an Indian guru, she says, when you give, you have more room to receive, and then when you receive you have more to give. Then it becomes this expansive process, and it creates the sense of enthusiasm and invigoration, that we’re willing to receive. So I would talk with my students as much about being generous with giving, as being generous with receiving.
So when we do a circle in the beginning, I was talking about the circle, there’s an opening circle, there’s a meditation, there’s a recognition that everyone in the circle belongs, a different exercise to do that. Then at the end, there’s a gratitude circle. In the gratitude circle, I always encourage people when they’re receiving gratitude, to open up their bodies, to really receive it. I remember, when I first started doing these gratitude circles with my students years ago at Destiny, I would get the showering of love, after some big event, or whatever that’s called, there’s gratitude. I would go home, and I would weep, I couldn’t handle it, I couldn’t hold it all. I couldn’t receive it all. And then I would feel depleted, right? Because they weren’t giving all this, they wanted me to receive it.
So I look over the years, I slowly developed the capacity to receive the amount of love that I was getting, in order to just feel good, and also to be able to have more to give. So when I left Destiny after 30 years, people were like, Oh, you must be burnt out, nonprofit, blah, blah. I was like, No, I’m not burnt out. I want to be very clear, I want to make it plain; doesn’t mean that I didn’t have days where I was tired, but I want to be clear, this is not about burnout. You don’t have to burn out when you’re being of service, but you need to know how to replenish yourself.
It’s not just about going away and doing self care, which I think is extremely important for any leader, any member of a community that’s doing change work. But I think it’s also in the moments of the work, feeling that exchange. I could tell that I had more and more capacity over the years as I focused on it to be less depleted. When I walked into the workplace, I was like, this day, I will bring love through my thoughts, my words and my actions, and I’ll receive it in return.
It’s a state, right? It doesn’t mean, and if it may sound for people a little corny and a little woowoo for me, it’s not. It’s very practical. I’m a Taurus. It’s very practical. And it’s practical in that it requires steady concentration and also creating ways of being in relationship with each other, that give that opportunity for exchange. So it could be, I answered the phone, Destiny Arts Center, this is Sarah, and somebody says, I’m looking for somebody who can give me so and so. Oh, we don’t have that, but I have a list of people that I can send you to.
Then we have this delighted exchange, and if I don’t receive that, Oh, my God, thank you so much, and just go on to my next task, then I might feel tired at the end of the day, but I’ll just take it in and doesn’t take extra time. I take it in, Oh, this person was grateful for what I gave to them, and I was grateful for them that they called me to ask. So for me, it’s been a shift of the way that I look at things. It doesn’t mean that I don’t feel despair about racial violence, or inequities, or all of the isms that feel like they’re raining down on us right now. Yet, I say over and over, to feel joy, to express joy, to emanate joy is a revolutionary act.
Wow. It’s so resonates with me, I mean, everything you’re saying, I can feel there’s an opening between right and wrong that you’re talking about. Then through that opening, and that it’s so easy to tip into despair or hope, both of those being sort of a withdrawal from the present moment, which is beautiful stuff is being exchanged. And if somebody’s mad at you, you can take that as, Wow, they’re really willing to show up in this conversation. They’re not being polite and are just like, Thank you very much.
Exactly, it’s brilliant. When people come to you and say, Look, this didn’t work for me. It’s courageous, right? To have those conversations. So if we’re the recipient of that, we need to be able to receive it not as a bludgeon, but as a gift. Like I said, this is not easy stuff. But I have a story that you reminded me of. So it definitely turned out there was a group of folks were doing some work there, I won’t tell the full story, but there was some bad feeling about the administration at Destiny. There was a lot of feeling that Destiny was upholding anti-blackness. And as a black woman, as an organization that’s run by mostly people of color, who serves mostly people of color, primarily black folks; I was like, Well, no. I felt defensiveness.
Long story short, I was like, Let me find that in me, as a leader at an organization who represents an organization, let me find anti-blackness in me. Because anti-blackness, internalized oppression is real, right? Anti blackness is real. So I found it, and then I got counsel, I talked to people, I prayed, I meditated, I drank water, before I met with this group of folks who wanted to talk to me. My prayer was, let me be a good listener. A really deep listener. I want them to walk away feeling heard, and I want my heart to be open. Those were my main prayers.
So I sat with them and they talked. I just said to them, Look, I really want to listen, I’m happy to do problem solving and think about how we could make some shifts at the organization, but mostly I want to listen. Sort of back to what I said in the beginning, which is deep listening is a revolutionary act as well. So I listened and I could feel myself really present. Thank God for all the people who helped me get there, thank God for the meditation practice, all of the things.
By the end of our conversation, we sat for about an hour and they had many critical things to say. My chest felt like a pool of water. It was so soft and I felt I had this sense of bliss, that I had connected with these people, that I had provided an opportunity for them to speak truth to power, because for them, I was the person in power and that was true. It was a deeply powerful experience for me, and it made it sort of made me feel like oh, the guardedness that I often feel and I imagine many of us feel when people have criticism of us. It’s useful to a point, right? I mean, we don’t want somebody coming at us with a bludgeon, and if we can create opportunities for deep listening, truth and reconciliation, if you will; it is powerful beyond measure.
I don’t think I know that I had not experienced the power of that before. This was only a few years ago and I imagine most of us don’t give ourselves the opportunity to feel the power from that type of exchange. I know that I’ve been very defensive like, No, you can’t tell me I’m wrong, because then I’ll feel bad about myself. Then it’ll contract me, I don’t want to feel that feeling. Yet, we’re here in a binary world, in order to experience all of the things right. So if I don’t give myself the gift of experiencing my mistakes, and the impact of my mistakes, then I don’t get the fullness of this life.
Wow, I’m relating this to so many things in my own life. This really is radical, what you’re talking about, of living in a binary world. We’re surrounded by binaries. If you want to talk about political polarization, that’s a binary. It’s like war, there’s people who say, Oh, Putin is right. No, no, Ukraine is right. Everything is soaked in this binariness. It’s almost like, that is a reflection of the intensity of what we’re going through, what you called in the beginning, I forget what you call it, but sort of it has to break down to the veils, or the veils are breaking down.
So it feels like this passage we’re going through, is how can we be in the binary in a way that transforms, rather than intensifies the pain? I feel like you’re giving us such a gift around this thing about receiving that do gooders like me, and many of my friends, us do gooders, really want the world to be a better place, but can get so frustrated with people who were not behaving in a way that’s going to make us feel like it is getting better. It’s that challenge to find another place.
I think this is emblematic of the times we’re in. It’s a challenge to find another place to come from, in the work that’s ahead of us, whether we like it or not. And the other thing I want to say is that it takes a big person to share their truth, while acknowledging all the teachers that have supported them in being able to see what they see. You’re talking from all that you have received. You’re not trying to say that you were born wise out of an eggshell. No. It’s acknowledging your teachers, acknowledging what we have received from our teachers is a piece of this work, of finding that space of no resistance; psychologically, as things intensify. I’m just so appreciative of all that you’ve said, I’m taking it in. Do you have something that that you want to wind up with?
Absolutely. I mean, I really appreciate you saying the piece about me acknowledging my teachers, and there’s so many more that I haven’t named and some of my students have been my teachers and my co-workers have been my teachers and people who have said mean things to me about whatever have been my teachers, and it doesn’t mean that I hang out with them, but I have gratitude for them.
There was this little girl – one last story, and then I’m going to read this quick little poem for you that one of my students wrote, because I really want to underline that so many of the young people in my life have been teachers and I have been theirs and I accept that giving and receiving. There’s a little girl who came to me and she was like, I can’t do dance anymore – she was probably six – because I cut my finger. I was like, Oh, her finger was affecting her ability to dance. I said, Do you believe in magic? And she said, yeah. I said, Well, I’m magic, and if I kiss your finger, it’s going to be better. She said, Okay. I think some honest gifts. Definitely. Discernment is important. We need to teach that to our kids.
I said, are you ready? She said, Yeah. So I kissed her finger very lightly. I said, How does it feel? She’s like, it feels better. I said, Do you want to go back to dance. And she said, Yes. She just went. It’s like, there’s so many gifts, all over the place that if we receive them, if we slow down just even just a little bit to receive the gifts that are abundant everywhere, then we can step into the world of binaries, without so much of a shield or without our fists up, either one.
I think that’s, I don’t know if that’s my teacherly moment, but I accept that I’m a teacher, so it’s okay. But there’s this piece that one of my students wrote, who was at the time 15 or 16. Her name is Juliana Keenly. She wrote this poem called, I wish I was a painter. It’s very short, I’m just gonna read it to you.
She says, I wish I was a painter. If I were a painter, I would paint a new world. Not a world without conflict, but a world without ignorance. Not a world without anger, but a world without apathy. Each brushstroke, carefully creating communities and countries, imagination, innovation, inspiration, intertwined with a breeze. If I was a painter, I would recreate our cultural regression and relaunch a revolution. We can reinvigorate our nation we can be the change we want to see. Together, we can paint the world with our words.
Thank you. Thank you, Sarah Crowell.
Thank you so much, Vicki. What a pleasure.