As a black, Christian activist, Micky ScottBey Jones regularly deals with some very heavy topics. She writes, speaks and protests about U.S. immigration policy, policing in the wake of the Ferguson, Mo., killing and race relations among faith leadership. But despite all that weight, she also values staying light on her feet — Jones makes a point never to pass up a dance floor.
“Just like anything else in our consumer capitalist culture, the work of justice can become commodified — we end up putting out justice widgets, pursuing more and more measurable wins,” says Jones. “If the justice we create doesn’t include love, play, good meals and delicious wine, we’re just replacing one oppression with another.”
That attitude drew Jones to serve as a facilitator for the Radical Beauty conference, a new event hosted by the Montreat Conference Center from Monday, Oct. 9, through Thursday, Oct. 12. Through exploring the role of art and aesthetics in social activism, the conference offers an alternative approach to promoting cultural change.
When Jones tells people about the event, “They sometimes ask, ‘Why are you having a conference about beauty in the middle of all the things that are going on in the world?’” she says. Her answer draws from the concept of self-care, expanded from a personal focus to include the entire activist community.
“I think it’s vital that we take time to pull back, to reflect and think and dream,” Jones says. “We need to look at flowers, walk around the lake, sit around a fire with somebody. Taking the time to do that actually rejuvenates our brains and our spirits to be more creative in how we bring more goodness into the world.”
Although the event seems well-timed in reaction to the current social climate, the Rev. Carol Steele, vice president for programming at Montreat Conference Center, explains that it was in anticipation of things to come. A volunteer team of faith-based leaders plans the center’s annual conferences two years in advance. By early 2015, Steele says, “They were already seeing some divisiveness in the rhetoric around the nation and wondering what going through an election cycle might mean for people.” The theme of beauty emerged as a way to inspire action and bridge gaps between communities.
Steele defines the “radical” nature of the conference from the word’s origins, which translate literally as “of the root” from Latin. “Beauty is something that surrounds us every day, and yet sometimes we overlook its importance in our communities,” she says. “Think about the images of volunteer first responders carrying children out of flooded places in Houston. We might not have registered them as part of the beauty that makes our communities better places to be.”
The Radical Beauty conference features three days of speakers and workshops, ranging from an art lesson on silk banners to a conversation about the similarities between Vincent van Gogh and Jesus. Presenters include former U.S. poet laureate and Pulitzer Prize winner Natasha Trethewey, New Zealand-based installation artists Peter and Joyce Majendie and the Rev. Eric Hollas, a Catholic priest who helped commission a modern illuminated Bible.
On Tuesday night, the conference opens to the public for a keynote presentation and concert by Abraham Jam, a trio composed of a Muslim (Dawud Wharnsby), a Jew (Billy Jonas) and a Christian (David LaMotte). “They believe that their differences help them make better music together,” says Steele. “They’re a great example of understanding beauty as a resource for having better conversations about one another.”
Conference creative director Gareth Higgins says that conversation among presenters and participants was a key theme in his vision for the event. “We wanted people who have found a way to talk about beauty as an antidote to despair and to project that outward as a way of inviting others to join in their stories,” he explains. Through discussion circles, question-and-answer sessions and interactive classes, the conference aims to engage attendees beyond the traditional lecture format.
For Higgins, who long worked as a peace activist in Northern Ireland before moving to Asheville, conversation is a way to access the beauty that hides in others who may seem incomprehensible. “If you voted for somebody and I can’t understand why you voted for them, I want to have a conversation about how your hopes, fears and dreams led you to do it,” he says. “Then I might move to another level, asking if I can tell you about what the impact of that vote has been on me.”
It’s a universal lesson, and Higgins emphasizes that the Radical Beauty conference has an equally broad scope. “The word ‘conference’ can be off-putting to people — don’t worry,” he says. “You don’t have to have any qualifications to come to this, other than an open heart and open mind.”
WHAT: Radical Beauty conference, montreat.org/radical-beauty
WHERE: Montreat Conference Center, 401 Assembly Drive, Montreat
WHEN: Monday, Oct. 9, to Thursday, Oct. 12