Representative Park Cannon (D-58) is one of the youngest members of the Georgia House of Representatives and serves the Old Fourth Ward, where Moving in the Spirit is in residence at J.D. Sims Recreation Center. As a dancer, Rep. Cannon sees the importance of the creative youth development work that this organization does and has made herself available to us as a resource and an ally.
We had a chance to sit down with her prior to the beginning of the legislative session to talk about how the arts have impacted her life, the lives of our youth and the future of our state.
Can you describe your arts background?
I was definitely an artist before I was born, since I was named after an actress named “Park.” I enjoyed lots of music while I was being born, and then when I came into the world, I found myself at my brother’s dance studio – he was the only boy in the dance company — and when he decided he didn’t want to do too much more dancing, he wanted to do sports, there was an opening on the competition dance team. So, I joined and got to do a lot of fun pop dances, but throughout high school, realized that dance was more than that for me, than just being in a contemporary world; it was to deal with some of the community issues around me, living in Brooklyn, New York and before then, living in rural Georgia as a little black girl. So, I started getting into modern dance and saw that it meant that I didn’t have to choreograph something for performance, it could also just be for exploration.
I understand that with playing a piano, there’s something about your muscle memory for your fingers. But that full body muscle memory is something that’s been captivating for me. So, knowing that, even though I’m not still dancing in a repertory company in New York City, when I hear certain music I can still at least recall an eight-count of movement. It just reminds me that dance, being of the body, is such a gift and it’s not a gift I want to give up.
How have the arts influenced your life? How much of an effect have they had on the person you are today?
The arts, particularly dance, have made me resilient. I remember one of the first times that Imessed up on stage, and not because I didn’t know the choreography, I was doing it and I was front and center, but I guess I was off-balance in a turn, so I was about to slip out and fall down. But for some reason I knew that I wanted to be on beat and in sync with others, so within two counts, I was down and up and back on the beat. I was up and ready to go, so dance has made me resilient. I think that, given the fact that I’m moving into a political office that is very divisive, I’m going to have to continue to be resilient in my way of knowing that I represent a lot of people who are asking me to speak on their behalf. I’m hopeful that my resilience will just allow me to meet people where they are and keep on moving in the direction that I know our state needs to keep moving.
What impact do you think the arts have on Atlanta?
Investing in the arts in the city of Atlanta is important because we’re already an international city. We’re already a connector for businesses, trade, entrepreneurship opportunities and I think that the arts is in between all of that, it’s in the silent spaces where there might be tension between people.
Even in my current political atmosphere, me and a person might not agree on women’s health, but we might both love the same dance company or the same song and if you put us in a room to talk politics or to talk arts, we probably would get along in one room and not get along in the other. So, I think that the impact that it’s had is it’s allowing us to continue to be of international presence, prominence, even.
Why do you think the arts are so particularly important for young people to experience?
When you’re in school as a child, you are supposed to follow orders and you’re not really supposed to be disciplined by your teacher. When you go home, you receive the discipline and you might not always be taught the things that lead you forward. Being in an arts studio or a dance hall gives you a place where both things are happening and it’s not just someone else doing it, you’re doing it yourself. It allows for something that young people don’t get at home or in school and for me, it was the place where I felt like I could finally breathe. So, I think it’s important for young people to see they have some space in this world that seems so regimented.
What inspires you?
I just wake up every day and I just know that it’s a beautiful day, that there’s beauty because Mama Earth has provided us with an opportunity to do something, you know small or large, for others. I think my family has come from a background of service, military service, medical service, teaching service, and so I’m inspired by the people that I serve and the opportunity to serve.
Do you have a mission statement or motto that you live by?
Not for my life, but for the campaign most recently, it’s been “Better Solutions for a Better Georgia” and for me that doesn’t come in the way of wagging my finger at people, it just means that when we work together, there’s something better ahead of us and that doesn’t mean that’s going to be without roadblocks, but that our entire state needs to be part of the betterment of us.
There have been inspiring quotes, one of them from President Barack Obama, about how law is basically the record of a society, it’s the history of a society, kind of reckoning with itself. Basically, I’ve decided I want to be a part of the law and legislation because I think that’s how we get to better solutions, that we kind of wrestle and reckon with whatever our society has deemed normal or abnormal and shift the margins as we need to.
Why did you decide to run for office? Was it inspired by your desire to be “part of law and legislation”?
I decided to run for office, not only to remind the government that queer people like me exist, and that discrimination disguised as religious freedom is a farce, but also because we are the future. I’m 25 years old now and there are so many more of us out there in the country, who technically can serve in their legislature but just don’t know it. When you turn 19, you can be a judge in Pennsylvania, when you turn 21 in the state of Georgia, or 19 in other states, you can serve in your legislature. So, I ran because, like I said, there are so many others like me out there that just need to see it being possible. And by seeing it being possible, then they can start getting into the issues. “The personal is political” has been a framework for me that took me from compiling and commiserating about harmful instances in my life to connecting them to other movements, other moments in time and taking these little droplets that seemed to be mundane and seeing their significance in the years to come. That’s why I ran.
How have you seen the arts contribute to civic engagement, being conscious and aware of what’s going on?
Well, my high school senior project was an evening of student choreography and our culminating dance was entitled “Yes, We Can.” It was in 2008 when President Barack Obama was running for office and even though we weren’t able to vote because we were still 17, it was our way of being able to say that the future depends on us and we know that, so we’re taking it into our own hands. So, we had two 16-year-olds playing the guitar, no other music, just whatever they were playing, three 17-year old women singing, and then some of us in the middle, just kind of communing together and dancing with each other and calling and responding to each other through dance. I saw that thread [to civic engagement] happening at that point.
And now, it’s moved into things like flash mobs, where instead of having to go to THE ARTS, they show up in front of you, and make you think about how to engage. I’ve seen different organizations pool resources. For example AfroPunk, which is a music and arts event that takes place, namely in New York, but has traveled to other cities. Instead of just having those 15 artists come and play music for people to enjoy, they have a block of time on each of those festival days where there’s a community dialogue on a community issue and that just didn’t exist before. So, I’m seeing people talk about social issues and social change in a place where they’re actually their most collaborative and creative selves. Instead of being in a boardroom, talking about economic issues, you’re thinking about the minimum wage while you’re at a concert with an artist who can then rap about what it was like when he was making minimum wage. So, I think it connects faster. We’re connecting faster now.
What benefit do you see from Moving in the Spirit being in this community? What do you envision our presence here doing for the community?
I am so excited about Moving in the Spirit’s presence here in District 58 and specifically in the Old Fourth Ward because now when our elementary school students are walking home or walking to a non-physical home, they can stop in here, they can dream about something fun, they can see other young kids moving their bodies imperfectly and remind themselves that even though things in their lives are not perfect, that is what connects them to other kids. In having a playground in the back of the building, in having tiled folk art outside, this space lends itself to being creatively safe. I feel that Moving in the Spirit, the building, the people who are working here, the program’s mission, are a safer atmosphere for children to be in a learning position and not have to learn to hate others; where they learn to love their own bodies, to love themselves, and through love to overcome whatever issue it is that they are battling with and then to continue with whatever pathway the school is trying to take them, or the church is trying to take them without having to carry that issue with them.