Ann Beeson is an accomplished social justice lawyer who could never shake her belief in the power of the arts to effect social change.
A native of Dallas, Beeson got her undergraduate and graduate degrees at the University of Texas at Austin in the 1980s before attending Emory University in Atlanta for her JD; this was followed by more than 20 years in New York City, where she served as an executive director at Open Society Foundations U.S. Programs—a human rights philanthropic organization—and as the associate legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union. She has argued twice before the US Supreme Court, and litigated numerous cases around the country. American Lawyer Magazine and the National Law Journal have both named her one of the nation’s top lawyers.
She’s a powerhouse, and she’s back in Texas.
The seeds of HATCH
Beeson moved back to Austin in August 2011 to plant the seeds of HATCH, a new nonprofit initiative that brings together artists and cross-sector leaders with the goal of propelling social change. In addition to launching HATCH, Beeson continues to work in social justice as the executive director of the Center for Public Policy Priorities (CPPP), the top progressive-policy think tank on multi-issues in Texas. Beeson joined the CPPP in September 2013; now, the center is HATCH’s financial sponsor.
“I am a social justice lawyer and a constitutional lawyer by training and career path, primarily, but before I embarked on that wonderful career, I actually started life as an ethnomusicologist and a somewhat amateur jazz singer here in Austin many years ago,” explained Beeson at CPPP headquarters. “I say that just to say art and creativity and music, specifically, have always been an important part of my life. I wanted to make a difference in the world, and I wasn’t sure how I could do that through music. So I decided to become a lawyer and then went to New York for a number of years.”
But throughout her career in social advocacy and public policy change, Beeson has felt an unfulfilled need. “I really became a firm believer that there was something missing in our efforts to advance social change, in the United States specifically. And that missing thing was really the right approach to changing hearts and minds — that it wasn’t enough to be advocating for change and winning lawsuits and making policy changes.”
The key, she said, is to transform how the public thinks about and connects with crucial social issues in every day life, whether it’s racism, climate change, women’s reproductive rights or poverty. Facts and figures, simply put, aren’t enough.
“One out of three children is living in poverty in Texas,” she pointed out, before continuing: “I happen to think that fact should be enough to get people active and engaged around this issue, but you know what? It’s actually not. It’s more impactful to have a child tell their story, or have someone sing a song about it, or photograph it.”
Beeson points to historical situations of social upheaval to illustrate her point. “One of the things I thought is that if you look at world history and the history of the United States, effective social movements have always been connected to very authentic cultural movements. It was certainly true in the Civil Rights era here in the United States. Many of the cultural leaders were integral parts of the movement. Henry Belafonte was on the phone with Martin Luther King all the time. There was the Free Southern Theater and John O’Neal, which were very much a part of organizing during the Civil Rights era. Somehow we got disconnected from that tradition and from that necessary component of social change work. So I got very interested in looking at and helping to support work that brought art and culture and creativity back to the social change table, so to speak.”
While Beeson makes clear the artists involved with HATCH are not the only ones interested in this kind of work across the country, collaborations between artists and social change leaders are generally fringe experiences. One of the goals of HATCH is to develop what Beeson calls a “community of practice” around bringing together artists and those who work in government, business, and the nonprofit sector to create meaningful social change campaigns.
Beeson conducted the research that would serve as the framework for the HATCH program design in 2012 with support from the Time Warner and Ford foundations. One hundred interviews conducted with artists and social change leaders both in and outside of Texas helped identify the needs and interests that would assist in weaving the two worlds together.
Among those interviewed were Austin locals Allison Orr (artistic director of Forklift Danceworks) and Cookie Ruiz (executive director of Ballet Austin). Orr and Ruiz’s commentaries echoed each other, helping Beeson to get at the root of disconnect between artists and social change leaders.
“Artists get told we should be individuals who operate outside society, we’re weird, crazy, we don’t fit in. We often stay on the fringe,” said Orr. Ruiz pointed out, “Artists too often don’t see themselves as worthy. And those that do break through have such an impact, but I get the sense that artists feel that their contributions won’t matter, that they won’t make a difference.”
Beeson clearly saw a need for an organization that would bridge this divide. It was time to come up with a name.
HATCH is born
Beeson had become a backyard-chicken owner upon returning to Austin: “It was one of those things where in the middle of the night, I sat up and had this inspiration — because I was thinking about my chickens — of HATCH being the perfect name because it’s all about hatching: hatching a new creative idea, hatching a plan. It has this great conspiratorial air behind it, like we’re going to hatch a great project.”
HATCH was formally launched in February 2013. Some of the first activities were organized around gatherings termed HATCH-Ups, which bring together no more than 15 people at a time to discuss social issue interests, creative skillsets and potential collaborations. HATCH-Ups are held about once a month in local restaurants and bars, in coffee shops and people’s homes.
A fan of the social element behind “breaking bread” together, Beeson makes sure there’s always food to bond over at HATCH-Ups. The first gathering was held at local no-container food store in.gredients. The group literally picked vegetables from the community garden and made a meal together. The HATCH-Up brought together Urban Roots—which provides paid internships to youth to operate a community garden in east Austin—and nonprofit Texas Folk Life. The result was a collaborative story on the influence of culture on food choices and traditions in east Austin.
Another HATCH-Up focused on the relationship between the literal voice and the metaphorical voice of advocacy. Austin jazz singer and vocal coach Suzi Stern invited HATCH participants to her home for a workshop that explored individuals’ hang-ups — conscious and subconscious — that hold people back from giving voice to issues. “Everybody was so moved by that experience that they wanted to repeat it,” noted Beeson.
A third HATCH-Up, this time hosted at arts-festival organization Fusebox headquarters, brought together Austin visual artists with four peers who experience mental health issues and are certified to provide support to people with similar challenges. Identified by Via Hope Texas Mental Health Resource, the peers provided their perspectives on living with mental health issues to the artists, which led to HATCH’s most prominent undertaking to date: The 4 Plus 4 Equals project.
HATCH partnered with Via Hope and Fusebox to develop 4 Plus 4 Equals, a citywide visual art campaign designed to raise public awareness and shift attitudes about people who have experienced mental health difficulties. “The idea was that [the four pairs] would co-create,” said Beeson. “The mental health peer would share their story and experiences, and then the visual artists would create a piece about what it is like living with mental illness.”
Accompanying each poster is a four-minute audio story narrated by one of the peers, produced by HATCH’s program manager Michelle Dahlenburg. The posters were unveiled at the Hyatt Regency in downtown Austin on Dec. 3, 2013 at a well-attended public launch of the project, which coincided with the 2013 Alternatives Conference, the oldest peer-run conference in the US that focuses on mental health. iPods were available so attendees could listen to the audio pieces while gazing upon each poster, and a discussion session concluded the evening. That same day, the posters went up all over the city of Austin in more than 100 public places.
In reviewing the project process, there was one thing all four pairs agreed upon — their surprise at the mutuality of the project. “Being involved with a stranger, it became natural,” said mental health peer Jessica Saner, lead certified peer specialist at Austin State Hospital. She was paired with artist Claudia Gizell Aparicio Gamundi, the in-house graphic designer at Mexic-Arte Museum, who highlighted Saner’s love of motorcycles in her poster design. “I was very surprised to see that we had a lot in common in terms of what we’d been through,” said Gamundi.
Peer/artist pairing Brandi Rivera (certified peer support specialist at OptumHealth Behavioral Solutions) and Rebecca Layton (artist and textile designer) echoed similar thoughts. Said Layton of Rivera, “In the course of getting to know her, we were sharing stories. It was more like a conversation, and it was very beautiful how it evolved. Just as Brandi felt vulnerable about sharing her story, I felt vulnerable about sharing my art…I think these two groups — the art world and the mental health world — have a lot in common.” Layton said the rawness of her meetings with Rivera often led her to cry when she got back in her car. Said Rivera with a smile, “To me, I think the poster is a reflection of these drives home.”
Peer Richard Allen White, a spiritual care volunteer at Austin State Hospital, was diagnosed with schizophrenia 16 years ago. He was once told by a job coach never to admit to his disability. “What I liked about working on this project was that it is the total opposite of that mentality. Everything is out in the open…Going psychotic for me was never exhausting; maintaining my image of sanity was. I’ve learned to thrive on a certain amount of stigma,” he concluded with a laugh. It’s easy to see where his collaborating artists Michu Benaim Steiner and Lope Gutierrez-Ruiz (founders of Gopher Projects and In-House International) got the idea to boldly declare, “Richard Allen White is Your Friend” on their poster design.
What fascinated light and sculpture artist Brooke Gassiot about peer Elvia Knoll’s story was the ways in which Knoll manages her mental health. “I asked Elvia for ideas on tools she uses to find balance. I chose to represent some of the tools that I thought would translate visually,” explained Gassiot, which is how she ended up with “sing,” “write,” “rest” and “talk” as “4 ways to care for your shadow.” Knoll elaborated: “I was forced to learn how to manage myself once I was diagnosed. I had to make decisions and rules for myself.” Today, Knoll identifies as a psychiatric survivor, and is the executive director of nonprofit La Via Sana, a resource for individuals and families dealing with mental illness.
The future of HATCH
The 4 Plus 4 Equals project is a prime example of the kind of collaborations HATCH will continue to facilitate, bringing together varying populations to think creatively about ways to spur public interest in social issues and ultimately effect change, all with an artistic bent.
HATCH has planned a series of activities to engage artists on issues of poverty and income inequality in connection with the fiftieth anniversary of Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty. In the spring, HATCH artists will participate in Austin’s Sor Juana Festival, which this year focuses on the experiences of women in the criminal justice system. HATCH’s Dahlenburg, who is also artistic director of Conspire Theatre, has been working with formerly incarcerated women to compose a special performance for the festival.
“Even when we’re successful, which is very hard and an uphill battle lately,” said Beeson, putting on her social-justice-lawyer hat once again, “nothing is going to change, really, until you change the way people connect with these issues.”
What better way to do that than with art?
—CLAIRE CHRISTINE SPERA