In 1978, amid the second wave of feminism in the aftermath of Roe v. Wade, Roadwork – a multiracial coalition – put women’s art, particularly that of women of color, on the road. Building the roads where they didn’t already exist, Roadwork created an intersection of opportunity and social change, wherein artists from diverse backgrounds shared their voices while advancing an array of social justice movements.
45 years later, the coalition remains firm in its vision to support artists while connecting them to women’s cultural contributions that are absent from white feminist history. However, today, the organization is reflecting on women’s history more than ever to gauge how Roadwork will best support women and queer artists in the future.
“The beautiful thing about movements over time is that we keep growing and learning,” Roadwork co-founder Amy Horowitz said. “[For] Roadwork, it’s like a dream come true that younger artists activists are envisioning a new way forward.”
Horowitz and Bernice Johnson Reagon founded Roadwork when the very word “woman” was radicalized, Horowitz said. As activists in their twenties and early thirties, Horowitz and Reagon developed the organization as they went along, producing shows while supporting civil rights, women’s rights and gay rights movements in Washington D.C.
In addressing how racist or misogynistic ideologies exist not only systemically but also within individuals and women’s movements, Roadwork created events where activists could focus on building coalitions across differences to take a congregational approach to fight regressive social forces like racism, sexism and homophobia.
One manifestation of this vision was the Sisterfire Festival. Started in 1982 as a one-day fundraising festival to amplify the work of grassroots artists in response to arts funding cuts, the event welcomed all genders, races and sexualities to support women’s voices. The festival then evolved into an annual celebration that required year-round booking, production and coalition building.
“Sisterfire does not exist in a vacuum, it is in the voice of the song, it is in the pictures we draw, it is in the leap of the dance, and it is in the shout of the poem that we send forth, beyond the battle, our vision of the way the world should be,” a host of the first Sisterfire Festival said on stage.
The Sisterfire Festival ran until 1989, two years after two white lesbian separatists refused to let two gay Black Sisterfire volunteers into their booth during the festival.
“The festival went on for a few years after that, but we, at that point, couldn’t recover from that attack that we received from the radical lesbian separatist movement,” Horowitz said.
But the end of the Sisterfire Festival didn’t overshadow Roadwork’s vision. Horowitz founded the Jerusalem Project in 1991 with the help of the Smithsonian Institution for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, strengthening what is now a longstanding relationship between Roadwork and the Smithsonian Institute.
Roadwork even collaborated with the Smithsonian Folklife Festival and the Kennedy Center Millenium Stage in 2018 for the coalition’s 40th-anniversary celebration – a Sisterfire reunion festival.
After packing an audience into the Kennedy Center’s Millenium Stage, the Kennedy Center invited Roadwork back for a Sisterfire showcase every year since the reunion.
“It just really seemed like an awesome thing to do, to localize that, kind of, official space and grassrootsify it,” Horowitz said. “They support us doing what we want to do.”
As Roadwork prepares for this year’s annual Sisterfire showcase set for March 4, the coalition takes time to reflect on where they’ve been to find direction in where to move forward, according to Roadwork Interim Director Lehuanani DeFranco.
During Sisterfire’s hiatus, Roadwork prioritized gathering archival information. After a storage facility sold and emptied one of Roadwork’s storage units that held archives, the challenge to recover the past came with a time limit.
“In this day and age where people are getting older and the stories are sort of getting lost, it’s really important to be able to collect any of that information, whether from the different types of programs or letters that would come in, to videos and archival footage that we’d be taking from interviews with people,” DeFranco said.
Collecting the oral and documented histories of Roadwork holds the coalition accountable as community builders reacting to change, DeFranco added. Aside from looking back to see how Roadwork previously dealt with challenges or considering how the coalition needs to evolve, collecting archives may also enable Roadwork to share these diverse historical perspectives with museums and universities for the next generation.
Beyond connecting the next generation of artist activists to this history, the coalition is entrusting the next generation of Roadwork leaders with finding the communities and organizations that need support in their fight for social change.
“I’m really wanting to hand over the reins, in a way, of the type of artists that we are putting on stage and the type of artists that others think should be elevated in their community,” DeFranco said.
Supporting artists also mean granting them the freedom and trust to share their art in the way they want. While Roadwork offers its resources and connections to advance other projects, its fiscal sponsorship doesn’t change the vision of the project and instead operates as more of a “big sister relationship,” DeFranco explained.
Roadwork currently has its hands in nine projects, including three educational initiatives, three documentary projects and three sponsored projects supporting archival work, artist housing and Indigenous music curation aimed at reimagining Western music genres.
Winter Hawk is an editorial fellow at the Washington Blade.
This story is made possible with support from Comcast Corporation.