It was an uncharacteristically cold November evening in Richmond when I met Celina Williams and Laura August at Lamplighter Coffee Roasters on Addison Street to talk about the socio-political art collective Elbow Room. We sat across a picnic table from one another in the outdoor side-room as the hum of the heat ducts pushed warm air into the drafty space and provided a soothing soundtrack to our conversation.
Celina and Laura are two of a group of about ten citizen organizers who spearhead events and lead initiatives with the collective. “As a member of Elbow Room, we all contribute something different,” Celina explained. “We’re artists, writers, editors, musicians, and organizers who want to create more space and more opportunities for marginalized groups, which includes POC, queer and trans folks, and femmes in Richmond.” As part of their mission, Elbow Room organizes inclusive music and art events at various galleries and house venues, discussions and workshops, as well as producing a quarterly zine.
Although Richmond has a robust DIY culture, Celina pointed out that for members of marginalized groups, “It’s been tough to carve out your own space in the scenes and feel safe at house venues. A lot of what we do is help to create those spaces and support what other people are doing.” Supporting and collaborating with other collectives in Richmond is especially pertinent as activism in the city is on the rise. “I’ve been in Richmond now for 13 or 14 years,” Celina said, “and I don’t recall this many groups and spaces run by marginalized people being active in Richmond ever before.”
Elbow Room is also part social club. “When you want to do something and you’re not sure who to hang out with, it’s easy to message people in the group,” Celina said. “It’s nice having that group of friends you can hang out with because it’s hard to meet people as you get older.”
That fluid social structure factors into the inclusive, non-hierarchical framework of Elbow Room’s membership. They consider anyone who is a part of their community Facebook group a member with the agency to organize an event. Laura enthused, “You just show up a lot and volunteer to be the point person on things. If you have an idea that aligns with our values, it’s like, ‘Great, cool, make it happen!’” Jumping in, Celina added, “If there’s a member who has the energy or the desire to plan something, we want to see it happen.” This includes friendly outings like skate night, movie night, and even music video watching parties in addition to their larger events, fundraisers, and zine-making initiatives.
“I’ve been in Richmond now for 13 or 14 years,” Celina said, “and I don’t recall this many groups and spaces run by marginalized people being active in Richmond ever before.”
In January, Elbow Room will release the eighth issue of the collective’s quarterly zine, notable also because all its contributions were submitted by people of color. Celina, one of the editors, is especially excited about the work featured in it. “There are so many talented people and I want us to be able to showcase their art and their words,” she said. “We felt it was really important for us to do that.”
The impetus behind the zine, and the importance of centering on voices of color in particular, came out of a particular controversy at Elbow Room that happened over the summer. “We made a boo-boo, a big boo-boo,” Celina admitted. “We thought it would be beneficial for us to make a list of bands that have people in marginalized groups for booking purposes.” The list was made public, but quickly redacted once community members pointed out that, among other things, such a list could cause safety issues for the musicians on it. “It was a poorly conceived idea, but it was executed.”
After the fallout from that mistake, the group has made a concerted effort to be more transparent and accountable to the community they serve. As Laura said, “We needed to take some time and really reevaluate our place in the community, what we can offer, and how we can be better. This is the process of continuing to hold ourselves accountable.” The zine is a marker of that progress, Celina explained. “Before, we made excuses about why we shouldn’t do a ‘this-group-only’ zine. We thought people wouldn’t want that as they would feel tokenized.” However, after inviting feedback from members of the community, the collective discovered that public sentiment was just the opposite. “What we got back was, ‘Yes, I would like to contribute to a POC-only issue for you guys.’”
Looking to the future, Celina trusts that this active engagement from community members will continue and help Elbow Room to grow. “People have contributed to this zine who have never contributed to anything before, so we’re really excited!” she exclaimed. “Hopefully people continue to rebuild their trust in Elbow Room again.” Laura agreed, nodding, “I just feel really honored and so happy that people are giving us a chance.” They both encourage anyone interested in their cause to attend a meeting. “We always have cookies!” cried Celina, with Laura quickly adding, “And LaCroix!”
Photography by Brian Brown