Radical Creativity: An Interview with Alysia Lee

An artist, arts educator, teaching artist, policymaker, and philanthropist, Alysia Lee has a broad perspective on the arts ecosystem. As the founder and artistic director of Sister Cities Girlchoir and as the inaugural president for the Baltimore Children & Youth Fund (a position she began in early 2022), she works to advance access, equity, and decolonization—always with a focus on youth, anti-racism, creativity, and justice.

Lee is a 2022 Chorus America Conference plenary speaker for both the Online and In-Person Conference Events. In advance of her plenaries, she spoke with Chorus America president and CEO Catherine Dehoney about how the creative process leads to social change, the benefits of both virtual and in-person spaces, and how her choral background primed her to do work that is all about community, collectivism, and empowering people’s voices.


Catherine Dehoney: Your plenary description includes Lucille Clifton’s incredible quote: “We cannot create what we cannot imagine.” Can you share a little bit about that quote and what it means to you?

Alysia Lee: Lucille Clifton is a hero of mine from a list of heroes. She is part of a lineage of Black poets and storytellers and Black women who have centered creativity as a part of their lifestyle and practice. They create as a way to advance the world that they want to see. Growing up as a kid, those were the women that I really connected to artistically.

This idea of radical creativity comes from the Black arts movement of the 60s and 70s. Sometimes we forget that artists really do drive the cultural narrative for people. We understand and can envision a world that is better than the current world we see in the present. We can really see it -- it's a 3D model for us. And we're able to telegraph that to everyone else to help them to start to see it too.

I think people should make art for lots of different reasons, but for me it's about the things that I care about most. It's about engaging community to work together across differences and center empathy and humanity. It’s about really centering the voices of Black, Brown, Indigenous, and Asian people and pushing us towards a world that is better than the one we have. I think that's what Lucille Clifton's quote speaks to. It reminds us of our role as artists in that struggle. We are at the front of it, not the back.

CD: When you think about how radical creativity and the creative process leads to social change, what does that path look like to you? I know it’s not a smooth and linear process.

AL: I think history moves in a cycle. It's an emergent cycle and the rings get bigger, but we're constantly returning.  There’s a lot of similarity and connection to what's happening presently and what's happened in the past. James Baldwin has a great quote: “People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them.” We can't move beyond what's come before us, but we can circulate that history and make it vibrate higher on the next go round.

The road to justice—well, we have no idea what justice looks like, or even racial equity. What Black people considered to be a kind of racial equity three years ago—we have a whole new vision for that now, because things have changed and shifted.

Look at the #MeToo movement. People have been dealing with folks in power just treating women any kind of way for decades. Then there was a switch when Tarana Burke, a lone voice, stood up. People were able to attach to that and feel empowered to look differently at the world. People who felt that they weren't being harassed or oppressed suddenly realized, “Wait a minute. I don't have to live like this, I didn't even know.”

We really have no idea what liberation looks like. We just have to be open to hearing new viewpoints and realizing, “Oh, I thought that was normal but I didn't see that there was another possibility. Now somebody showed me something different.” And I think it keeps us all humble and hungry. That is my hope, because that's the only way we're going to make it to this new place.

Human beings by nature don't like change, but they do like better. Human beings are good at saying, “Well, this place sucks and I would rather get there, even if I don't know how.”

We, the artists—we share the vision. We are the ones that have the vision for what the next plateau can look like, so that's how we move things along.

CD: I love the idea of it being a cycle. We're continuing to go around, but we’re going to higher ground.

AL: We're just trying to vibrate higher each time.

CD: So the arts and artists have an important place within that cycle and that movement towards social justice. Do you see singing together and choruses as playing a special role there? Can singing together help people tap into their radical creativity?

AL: I think the most powerful part of group singing is the struggle of creating something together. The choral space is not just a space to learn about singing—this is a space for me to communicate to you that your voice matters and that you participating and putting your all into something will pay off.

[At the beginning of a creative process] we look around the room and we have nothing. But in three months from now, we're going to have a visceral experience. We're going to have a product to share with people that matter to us. We have nothing today, right? But in three months, we’re going to have an actual product that we created together and everyone has to contribute in order to make it.

What I'm trying to tell young people is you can change the world. You want something to happen in the future? Let's plan for it today and then we'll see it happen. I’m going to help you, yes, but it's going to be your energy that makes that happen. Our collective energy together is going to create something that does not exist and that without us will not exist.

That is so powerful, because you can take that and run for city council with that. Take that and write policy for folks.

And a choir person who becomes a policymaker has a good understanding that the best way to solve problems is together. They wouldn't write policies in isolation up in some ivory tower. They would engage with people and say, “Hey, we're writing some policy about accessibility requirements for buildings. I'm an able-bodied person. Can I meet up with your advocacy group? Can you help me to draft these policies?” That’s how a choir person shows up in the world.

The power of choir is how it changes our mindset so that we are engaging around community. Communal decision making. The power of the collective. When we know that those mindset shifts are there and we lean into them outside of the choir space, I think we really do tap into our power.

CD: We are so excited that you are presenting at both our online and in-person Conference events. How do you feel about co-existing in both of these worlds? Is there anything that excites you about that?

AL: Oh, yeah. I’m probably the only choral person that likes learning online. I love online rehearsal. I mean, I love in-person rehearsal too, but I’m hoping we can go forward with a choir world where we do both.

The ways choir folks have been connecting online and the relationships that have been built show how much power there is in the online space. I've had some transformative artistic experiences online during COVID. So there are still humanistic ways to connect.  

And what I find as one of the major benefits is that learning online really does allow folks to have an individual learning space. It's almost like if you were in a choir room and you got to put a shield over yourself and focus just on “What am I bringing to the table? Do I have the part? How does my voice sound?” in isolation. And then you joined the collective.

Next year, Sister Cities Girlchoir is planning on moving into an intentional hybrid model that anticipates interruptions that we know we will have due to COVID and that really tries to elevate the students’ understanding of the online space. Right now for a lot of our students, it feels like we're forced to be online because we can't be together. But instead let's think of online as the space with intention to build up some of the independence that you need in order to be a part of the choir experience and to have some private moments in the learning space. Then, when we come together, there's another kind of intentionality.

I’m glad the conference is doing this kind of double dip. I’m thinking of the virtual keynote as an opportunity to feel a sense of connection, but also for people to have some more reflective moments. We're together but we're also alone at the same time. How do we build upon that when we come back to the in-person space? To me, it represents what choir probably looks like for at least the present moment for everybody. When we're in person, what shifts?

CD: Since we're speaking about Sister Cities, I know you have a goal that half of the repertoire that Sister Cities performs will be original works from the singers. Can you talk about how that became a central strategic goal for you?

AL: Hopefully one thing people know about me is I'm not going to tell you something to do I wouldn't do myself. When I started working at the State Department of Education, our policy required me to show up and inform teachers that we had new standards. Maryland adopted these in 2018. And the new standards really centralized the impact of creativity.

Our theater people and our dance people were like “Got it.” Our visual art people needed a little lift to get there. Our music people had a total meltdown—and this is nationwide. Musicians tried to basically say, “We don't create. We are performing. That's what we're focusing on.”

But an educational experience is an experience that allows students to perform music or present music, yes, but also to connect to music and understand historical and present-day relevance. Also to respond to music and to analyze it. And also to share their own feelings about musical work and to create original work. That is what we are doing in music class: We're allowing students to share their ideas and to respond musically to those ideas. We need to embrace the fact that everyone can respond musically. That is our human right.

So, in order for me to roll out these new standards with teachers empathetically, in a way that didn’t just sound like I was telling them they were doing it wrong, I had to do it myself too. And that's the work that we went about at Sister Cities Girlchoir. We did a six-year plan to take ourselves from where we were as a primarily performing arts organization and to expand ourselves to be what I call an arts education organization that utilizes all four pillars from the national core arts standards.

And we met the goal early. By 2020, we had nine original songs.

Our goal is that the repertoire is written by students, staff, or families. So our next phase is engaging families. We actually have a new Ambassador program where we're training students to lead collaborative songwriting circles for community members, and of course we'll start those workshops with our own families.

It's very exciting to think about that—the possibilities of building less transactional relationships with our audience members. Of really being able to utilize the creative process as a way to get to know them as well and to offer them something in return for listening to us that feels more transformational and deeply engaging. This is the moment to dream big and we're going to use the power of the creative process to do that.

CD: I know your work with Sister Cities continues. But you’ve also recently taken on a new role: President of the Baltimore Children & Youth Fund (BYCF). What does this new opportunity mean for you? Does your background in choral music inform the way you approach your work with the Fund?

AL: You know, a lot of people comment to me “Oh, it seems like you do a lot of things.” But I do the same thing all day. I don't change hats. When I’m speaking as a philanthropist, I’m saying the same things as when I’m talking about Sister Cities, or when I’m talking about composition, or when I’m writing arts education policy.

And it's because of my choral background. I believe in collectivism. I believe in community. I believe in empowering the voices of the people that are most impacted by the work we're doing.

I had some grant making experience when working at the state, but nothing like this. Nothing where we're able to use community participatory practices, and where we have a racial equity framework that everyone had organization is on board with. We're able to really be unapologetic about centering Black liberation as a part of the way we view the work.

The money is public funds. In 2016, 80% of Baltimore voters voted to create this fund so that Baltimore children have access to resources so that they can thrive in their communities. And we're using these funds—almost 12 million dollars annually—to resource the organizations and folks that are there working beside young people with the most potent solutions for youth development.

Again, it’s the same thing: What do the young people have to say? So we have young people on our board and young people as a part of the panel review process. And the young people are trained so that they are showing up with the skills they need instead of just being kind of a token. I can tell you, every time I have a meeting with them, they ask the most tough questions.

BYCF was looking for a new kind of philanthropic leader. They were looking for a person who actually had experience working in grassroots organizations. So that you can look people in the eye and say, “Okay, I understand what you're saying, and I can empathize with where you are, and these are the ways we can help you to get where you want to be.” So that approach is really exciting and I'm excited to be the organization’s first president.

CD: They are so lucky, because you bring so much energy and creativity to your work. So what I want to know is what are your top sources for feeding your own creativity?

AL: Spending time with friends and family. Learning about my grandparents and my great-grandparents and wrapping myself up in stories about my ancestors. Seeing my niece and my nephew—the future leaders in our family and how they're growing. Spending time with my closest friends.

People do ask me a lot, “Aren't you tired?” No, because I sleep! Making time to sleep for eight hours a day and also just to be is really important. We need to make sure we are encouraging our arts leaders to have space just to be and not be on demand all the time. Those real authentic moments with humans and just living and being in the world—that's what sustains me.