Sun July 12th
Stephanie McKee is the executive artistic director of Junebug Productions, a producer and presenter of performing-arts projects that question and confront inequitable conditions that have historically impacted African American communities. Junebug is the organizational successor to the Free Southern Theater, founded in 1963 as a cultural extension of the civil rights movement. McKee is a performer, choreographer, educator, and community organizer with decades of experience in dance education, performance, and social justice.
For four decades Junebug has been engaging communities through a well-documented story circle process. The story circle is a highly regarded and often-replicated model for building democratic dialogue that locates common ground and helps participants to identify and explore patterns. Junebug has utilized this methodology to facilitate conversation and understanding regarding persistent issues of race and inequality. By connecting historical and contemporary narratives, Junebug’s story circles surface insights that build on the civil rights movement and fuel progressive understanding and change.
Junebug also has an educational component, formerly named the Free Southern Theater Institute, a laboratory that marries rigorous artistic practice with a commitment to celebrating culture and tradition. Similar to the story circle process, the creation of new arts experiences that build on community tradition supports ongoing collective reflection and illustrates progress and strength in communities that have been historically oppressed.
Junebug looks for signs of individual and collective transformation as the measure of their impact. For example, the 2011 Homecoming Project was a storytelling performance series exploring post-Katrina New Orleans, taking on hyper-local issues of oppression, exploitation, and displacement. Inspired by local vernacular art and storytelling, the performance adapted the form of the second line (a local brass band tradition) to honor and celebrate New Orleans’s cultural landmarks through music, dance, poetry, theater, parading, and masking.
McKee notes: “This work helps to make issues of preservation and displacement real to everyday folk. It changes the way people in our community think about themselves, and encourages them to have conversations with others in pursuit of a more just future.” As an example of the ripple effect, McKee cites a Tulane University administrator who was so moved by the Homecoming Project that she started organizing new student orientation tours through the city. By creating opportunities for shared narratives about difficult issues and experiences, Junebug is laying the groundwork for collective healing and renewed aspiration.
With a regular staff of only three, Junebug reaches and works with approximately 1,700 people a year, mostly from African American communities in New Orleans. In 2017, Junebug operated with a budget of $400,000, 90 percent of which came from grants and individual philanthropy, less than 10 percent from performance tickets and workshop fees. Junebug’s challenges are not unusual in the grassroots nonprofit arts sector. With most of the revenue coming from project-specific grants, they do not have unrestricted funding, which makes it challenging to be responsive and flexible. “We have limited control over what we can do with the money we take in from grants,” McKee notes. “We can pay salaries and pay for planned programming, but we can’t respond to changing conditions, and we can’t support individual artists and community leaders by flexing our creative resources—the Junebug Leadership Institute and more—in direct response. And that’s hard, because we want to expand our footprint beyond just ourselves and become a first responder.”
CultureBank seeks to illuminate the powerful “first responder” work that artist enterprises like Junebug do. The goal is to deploy innovative advisory services and investment strategies to connect this important, grounding work to a broader system of community-driven change. McKee explains how a gifting circle that embraces CultureBank’s commitment to ripples of return can propagate out into a commons:
When we interrogate issues affecting the African American community in New Orleans, it’s about looking at past struggles, but it’s also about envisioning a future where we have more freedom and agency. We support and encourage individuals to go into the world, to contribute to more aware and just societies, to advocate, to build and grow organizations. If concepts like gifting circles can help people see themselves as co-investors, we are cultivating a new kind of community leadership. When we put on plays and support local artists, we’re not just creating and supporting art—we’re creating and supporting leaders. And those leaders, when they go out into the world, will in turn change the hearts and minds of those they lead.
An imaginative and collaborative approach to investing in Junebug’s methodologies is effectively an investment in equitable collective experiences that stabilize a community’s understanding of itself—its history, its present state, and its future possibilities. In the words of Free Southern Theater cofounder John O’Neal, this is an investment in developing “the tapestry of community” that leads to deeper, more collaborative, more productive investment.