Sunday, September 25, 2016

Place is More Than Space - Feeling Uncomfortable Where You Feel You Don't Belong

Good morning
"And the beat goes on..............."

A place is more than just a space.  It is defined and influenced by a host of external variables - ranging from its purpose, history, location and geography, its environment (furnishings, decoration), and its political and cultural tone as influenced by its occupants, users, guests, and more over a period of time.  One of the variables is how inviting the space is; is it welcoming and nurturing, or does it convey the opposite message of exclusion or even danger?  A space / place can be nurturing and inviting or it can be foreign and distant - and the same place / space may well be different things to different people at different times.  Perception counts.

I came across a posting by Solange Knowles, Beyonce's sister, and an artist in her own right, in which she explains why 'Black People Are Uncomfortable in 'White Spaces' entitled "Do You Belong, I Do".  In the article she recounts an unpleasant, distasteful and arguably racist experience at a concert - which she puts into the context of prior similar experiences to illustrate how spaces / places (in this case an essentially white audience for a white band), and environments of those spaces / places (at least in certain cases) can be intimidating, threatening and uncomfortable for people of color; if not overtly than by the tone of the ambiance.  I have no doubt that she speaks for millions who will recognize her experience. 

When I was nine years old,  I had a Japanese friend in grammar school.  I went to a very diverse grammar school in an area of Los Angeles that was essentially lower end middle class, and my classmates and friends were Black, Latino, Japanese, White, and more.  Anyway, David (my Japanese friend) invited me to go with him one day to a Church Bar B Q event.  When I arrived it struck me to discover that virtually everyone there was Japanese.  I had never before experienced being the racial outsider. I shouldn't, of course, have been surprised, but in my insulated world, I hadn't before experienced cultures where I was in fact the minority interloper.  At nine years old stuff like that doesn't matter so much and I had a great time.  But I remember feeling just slightly out of my element -- for a moment anyway.

Flash forward ten years, and I remember when I was in college going to see a Smokey Robinson concert at Winterland (a SF venue that hosted Bill Graham promoted rock acts ranging from Janis Joplin to Otis Redding to the Band's The Last Waltz.)  It didn't dawn on our group of five that the audience would be essentially African American with few white people in attendance.  Smokey Robinson and the Miracles were, after all, enormously popular across all strata of the rising boomers. We felt his music was our music.  But indeed, in the audience of perhaps four hundred, we were five of maybe twenty white kids.  We became very aware that we were in unfamiliar territory, that we stood out (obviously), and it made us a little uncomfortable and ill at ease.  No one harassed us in any way.  We got a few looks, but in fact, we were pretty much ignored.  Still, we felt like we didn't belong.  And we left early.

Over the past twenty years, more often than not as part of being involved in the nonprofit arts, I have , on several occasions, found myself in African American churches.  While on those occasions I was among just a handful of white people, I never felt awkward or ill at ease.  I think that is in part because on those occasions we knew where we were going, what to expect, and that we had been invited.  The hosts always made us feel welcome.  That made all the difference I think.

There are many places that feel foreign to us culturally, and make us feel like outsiders, thus making us uncomfortable and ill at ease.  We tend to avoid those spaces when we consciously can.    That's true for all groups - and people of color doubtless feel uncomfortable in many spaces that are defined as white, much as white people may feel uncomfortable in spaces that are predominantly occupied by people of color.  And those feelings of being uncomfortable transcend color, as I am sure people with disabilities may feel uncomfortable in spaces that clearly make no accommodation to them.  I know too that LGBTQ people still feel uncomfortable in places where they perceive they are held in contempt by prejudice and bias. All of this is, of course, sad - yet the reality.

For those to whom these spaces are "home", many times they simply cannot hide their feelings of territoriality when they perceive those who do not belong are trespassing on their space.  To them it may simply be an unconscious protective reaction, but to the outsider it sends a clear message that 'this is somewhere you don't really belong'.  That attitude, of course, even when subliminal and unintended makes a place even less comfortable to people from the outside.  And even when those spaces and the people to whom they belong try to be genuinely welcoming, it can be difficult to overcome the "feeling" of exclusion perceived by groups to which the space is foreign.

But there are many reasons beyond racism or cultural prejudice that can make us uncomfortable.  People often find the unfamiliar uncomfortable, and I suspect that some of our arts venues suffer from that same problem,   I can imagine on some levels that Euro-centric arts culture performances, held in places that are dedicated to the art form, can be uncomfortable to some people - unfriendly, foreign, and, in a way because the experience of these / spaces is perhaps completely new to some, even intimidating.  Perhaps those feelings are unreal and unwarranted, but that doesn't alter the fact that people may feel that way anyway.   Different neighborhood, decor, dress, behavior, food, how to react and more  - let alone an unfamiliar art form - can all contribute to feelings of being uncomfortable though no such feeling was intended to be created.  Places / spaces have a history and legacy to them because of the art form presented in them, and they may be off-putting to those unfamiliar with that.  Not to everyone of course, but to many.

People may attribute their lack of interest in sampling a new art form as it "just isn't their cup of tea" as it were, and that's legitimate, but being uncomfortable in the situation may play an undisclosed role in the decision making.

So the question becomes, does a given place / space have the problem of making people who aren't part of those places uncomfortable?  And what can we do, if anything, to address that challenge and make our spaces / places more inviting and friendly so that they are comfortable to everyone? How do we make people who may be unfamiliar with certain art forms, to whom a great part of the experience is foreign and may make them uncomfortable, feel invited to sample what is offered and welcome when they arrive?  How does any legacy art form do that?

It certainly won't be easy to transcend generations of walls and barriers and the growth of great divides between people - legitimate and imagined.  But there are encouraging signs of change, and nowhere is bridge building likely to be more a part of the situation than in the arts.  While culture may divide and separate, it also unites and binds.  And art has the power to make the uncomfortable safe and welcoming.  We can start with an awareness that people's feelings of comfort and belonging are critically important.  Perception, not intention, is sometimes everything.

Apart from the racial issues inherent in this kind of inquiry, and despite the wider, deeper questions of acceptance, inclusion, exclusion and barriers and obstacles created by forces both in our control and way beyond our control, the simple issue of people feeling comfortable in trying something new and going somewhere foreign, is a BIG, BIG issue that we need to consider in any dialogue about audiences, places, support and diversity. And the issue cuts across the whole spectrum.

Have a great week.

Don't Quit

Sunday, September 18, 2016

"Playing for Their Lives" - Telling the El Sistema Story

Good morning.
"And the beat goes on............................"

When I was the Director of the California Arts Council, I was invited to accompany the chair of the small California Commission on the Californias - a public / private agency that sought to promote bridges between California and North and South Baja California in Mexico - for trade, culture and historical relations - to Baja Sud on a cultural visit.

We spent several days in meetings and site visits in the charming city of  La Paz in the southern province of Baja California, and had the opportunity to see and hear a local children's music group - premised on the El Sistema model of involving children in orchestral music as a means to promote values and hope to kids whose impoverishment may have rendered them hopeless.   The positive, and transformative impact of the program was relayed to us by the program's organizers, but nowhere more obvious and apparent than on the kids faces and in their enthusiasm when rehearsing and performing.

One student was not yet a part of the orchestra as he was waiting for the organizers to find a bassoon for him to play as that was one of the missing instruments in the group.  When I got back to Sacramento, I asked Juan Carrillo, then Director of Grants for the CAC, if he could help locate a used bassoon we might send down to La Paz so this patiently waiting student could join his peers and be a member of the orchestra.  Juan found one quickly (thanks I think to a youth orchestra organization in San Diego), and we were able to play a very tiny role in promoting this small version of the El Sistema experiment that has grown into a global phenomenon.

Indeed, El Sistema may be the finest calling card for the value of the arts yet in existence.  Arts Educator, Eric Booth has championed the project for a long time.  Now he, and collaborator, Tricia Tunstall, have published a book on the phenomenon - Playing for Their Lives.  In an email announcement, they describe the effort as follows:
"Our visits to 25 countries, to one hundred El Sistema-inspired program sites, was the most hopeful, uplifting testament to the power of learning in the arts we have ever seen.  We've been eager to share the stories (and photos) of the remarkable citizen artists and students, of the similarities and differences of programs in so many different cultures, of the reasons that this movement seems to be disrupting the entrenched cycles of poverty in ways societies have long struggled to achieve.  From Kabul to Palestine, from Maori villages to Brazilian favelas to Nairobi slums, from Srebrenica to Fukushima, from Greenland to Caracas, from Vienna to Los Angeles – vastly different cultures, programs that are the same and different, results that astonish.  
Tricia and I have a clear mission for the book: to activate new support for Sistema-inspired programs around the world.  We do not have an advertising budget, so we need your help to get this book into the hands of people who can make it visible outside of already-Sistema-enthusiastic circles.  We are doing everything we can think of to give it a wider reach, and thus give Sistema programs connections in new circles; please help us."

I haven't read the book yet, but I have ordered it.  And I am familiar with not only the El Sistema successes, but with Eric Booth and his passion, intelligence, and decency - and I urge everyone to support him and consider going to Amazon and ordering the book too. I'm sure it would make a perfect holiday gift.

In a excellent article on the book and El Sistema in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Turnstall and Booth offer this introduction:
"Four decades ago, Venezuelan economist, musician, and government official José Antonio Abreu founded the music education program El Sistema on the belief that musical collaboration teaches children the values and skills needed to become productive, fulfilled members of society. The program, which Abreu continues to lead, features intensive, inclusive participation in ensemble music-making, and a primary focus on empathic collaboration, disciplined practice, and positive energy. Over 40 years, Abreu has sought to bring this opportunity to all children in Venezuela—especially the most impoverished and neglected—and the program is increasingly seen as a novel and promising approach to ameliorating the effects of childhood poverty and trauma. In recent years, programs in more than 65 countries across the world (including 120 in the United States) have adopted and adapted the model. In an effort to discover what makes this movement successful, we visited programs in more than 25 of these countries. 
It is the ownership of not just the instruments the students play, but the ownership of the actual playing that so invests the positive aspects of the program with the participants, for it is this ownership that promotes inclusion and it is that inclusion that is one of the hallmarks of the program's success.  As the authors state:

"Inclusion is the first principle of El Sistema. In visiting over a hundred núcleos around the world, we found that no matter how vastly different their cultural settings are, they share a profound dedication to this ideal. The citizen artists who launch and run these programs have chosen to work with children and families who are sidelined— by poverty, discrimination, or other kinds of adversity—from the flourishing centers of their societies. They commit themselves to bringing these children into a state of belonging. They encounter difficulties that are almost always greater than they had anticipated. In most cases, they keep going.
José Antonio Abreu has often said that of the manifold kinds of suffering caused by poverty, none is worse than the feeling of exclusion—of not belonging, of literally being “no one.” This feeling can be a complex tangle of perceived and reinforced rejection. A child in circumstances of poverty or ethnic discrimination, for whom exclusion is a material fact of life, will internalize the feeling of not belonging, of being no one. That feeling will become a psychic certainty that persists regardless of circumstances. Naadir lives in a community that feels excluded even as its host city goes to serious lengths to make the new-Danes feel included. He re-created his deep feeling of exclusion even within a program that reached out to include him with every kindness it could devise. It took more than a year of daily, patient welcoming before Naadir could trust that, in fact, he belonged. By the end of the second year, he began to feel he was valuable.
The phenomenon of social exclusion has been increasingly recognized by social scientists as one of the most damaging threats to emotional wellbeing. In 1995, psychologists Roy Baumeister and Mark Leary argued that a sense of belonging is a fundamental human need, not simply a preference, and that the absence of this sense results in mental illness.17 In more recent research, brain scans have shown that the feeling of being excluded registers in the brain as actual physical pain."

I believe that the greater success we have in investing communities of people in the making and ownership of arts participation, the greater will be our success in winning over new audiences and supporters.  At the core of placemaking and engagement efforts ought to be the lesson learned from El Sistema - inclusion is both one of the principal tools for successful arts programs and one of the major benefits of arts participation.  We need more El Sistema programs around the world and here in America - from every corner of the arts.

Have a great week.

Don't Quit


Thursday, September 8, 2016

Election Follow-Up: The Millennials and the Future of Arts Support

Good morning.
"And the beat goes on............................."

According to a Pew Research Center Study the 2016 Presidential Election will mark the end of the Boomer domination of elections:
"For the past few decades, presidential elections have been dominated by voters of the Baby Boom and previous generations, who are estimated to have cast a majority of the votes. But their election reign may end this November.
Baby Boomers and prior generations have cast the vast majority of votes in every presidential election since 1980, data from the Census Bureau’s November Current Population Survey voting supplement show. In 2012, Boomers and previous generations accounted for 56% of those who said they voted. And these generations dominated earlier elections to an even greater degree. 
But the ranks of Millennial and Generation X eligible voters have been growing, thanks to the aging-in of Millennials and naturalizations among foreign-born adults. These generations matched Boomers and previous generations as a share of eligible voters in 2012 and are now estimated to outnumber them. As of July, an estimated 126 million Millennial and Gen X adults were eligible to vote (56% of eligible voters), compared with only 98 million Boomers and other adults from prior generations, or 44% of the voting-eligible population."
And, according to Pew, even if the Millennials and Gen X voters turnout is lower (percentage wise) than the boomers, they may still likely dominate future elections:
"If (and it’s a big if) 70% of Boomer-and-older eligible voters turn out in November, Millennials and Xers could match them even by turning out at much lower rates. A turnout rate of 70% among older voters would translate to 68.6 million votes. Millennials and Gen X could match that number of votes with a turnout rate of 54.5%. This level of turnout among the two younger generations seems plausible based on past elections.
In the 2012 election, 53.9% of Millennial and Gen X eligible voters turned out. Turnout among these generations was even higher in 2004 (54.2%) and higher still in 2008 (56.6%).
Historical patterns of voter turnout by generation also suggest the likely end of dominance by Boomers and prior generations. In general, as a generation ages, turnout rises, hits a peak, and then declines."
So what does this mean for the Arts?  It means that the younger generations voting patterns will determine whether or not candidates supportive of the arts get into office.  And that will determine the future of public funding for the arts - among other issues of great importance to us. This will likely be true at all levels - city / country, state and federal.

While we have been struggling to attract those generations as our audiences - with only limited success in filling empty seats at our performances and exhibitions - we have largely ignored the development and implementation of any coherent, unified strategy to appeal to them as voters to support public funding and those other issues.

The time is now at hand where we need to figure out how we can make our case to these generations to consider candidates that are arts supportive, and to actively prioritize that consideration in their actual voting behavior.  The future of public funding may very well depend on our success in that endeavor.   That case making is entirely different and apart from our efforts to win them as audiences and successfully solicit their financial contributions and their involvement in our organizations as Board members, advisors, volunteers and leaders.  We should not confuse the former with the latter and think that the strategies for one goal automatically work as strategy for the votes we need from these cohorts.  Moreover, strategies targeting the boomer generation may not work targeting younger generations.

We need a national dialogue as to what kind of approach will best work in convincing these younger generations of voters to take up our cause, and we need to develop that strategy with specifics and timelines before the next national election in 2020. We can ill afford to wait until 2019 to begin this effort.

This discussion ought to go on in every arts organization in the country - at the Board and staff levels, and we need a national organization of that dialogue.  One thing we might consider is a series of convenings of Millennials and Gen Xers - including those leaders within our sector, and a cross section of the wider society.  This is something that the members of these generations ought to have the primary role in figuring out.  And they better figure it out.

Have a great week.

Don't Quit

Monday, September 5, 2016

The Arts and the 2016 Election - Asleep at the Wheel

Good morning.
"And the beat goes on.........................."

The election is now just two months away.  Despite this being one of the strangest elections in memory, the whole process after the vote will be largely the same as it has always been. Special interests of every kind will line up to inform and educate the new administration as to their contributions, value, needs and wants.

Already most of the major interests - from the gun lobby and farmers, to teachers and big pharm - long ago formed committees and began strategically planning how to best position the interests of their constituents to advise the new administration of their positions on issues, appointments, and legislation.  Most of the better financed groups will have also long begun bundling contributions to the candidates so as to stand out from the crowd, and insure that they will at least have their concerns addressed.

 (Bundling is the process of aggregating small contributions, that are otherwise lost in the pantheon of big money, so that the candidate knows that there is a substantial population for which certain issues are critical.)  So, in the arts, let's assume that 10,000 or more individuals will make a small contribution to the candidate of their choice - hypothetically $25.  When bundled, that $250,000 gains attention within the campaign of the candidate.  This isn't a pay for play, quid pro quo process where contributions automatically translate into what the contributors want; but it is an effort to insure access and get a fair hearing as to positions and needs.  And that's how democracy has worked in America for eons, and will continue to work.  And those that don't play by these rules, can't rationally expect miracle outcomes in their favor.

In 2008, if memory serves, an ad hoc committee representing at least some of the issues of the nonprofit arts sector, was launched, supporting Obama.  That committee helped to position the arts in the new Obama administration and made recommendations for appointments, funding, and more.

Where is that committee in this election cycle? Americans for the Arts' - Arts Action Fund - is the only vehicle we have (and thank God for them) to bundle contributions and position the arts post Obama.  And they do a remarkable job with amazingly little. But we need more.

What would be valuable would be a national committee of arts leaders - those from the national service provider organizations, including dance, theater, symphonies, museums, film, multicultural groups and more.  A committee sprinkled with some recognizable names, the purpose of which would be to develop positions as to public funding for the arts, various pieces of legislation that impact artists and the arts field, arts education, and to recommend people for a wide variety of political appointments to the new Executive branch that would bear upon our fortunes.  This kind of committee would draft evidentiary support studies, surveys and other research substantiating our claims of value and importance and be ready to present that material to the transition committee of the victorious candidate.  It ought to be bi-partisan and widespread.

Ideally, this committee would be in a position to lobby for the interests of the nonprofit arts irrespective of which candidate prevails, but even if such a committee was partisan, the effort is still worth doing.   Appointments to the NEA, the NEH, the President's Committee on the Arts and Humanities, the Secretaries of Education, Housing, Transportation etc. are all important to our future, and we ought to have a united voice making suggestions. We also ought to make our best case for funding.

It isn't too late to form that committee now, but we need to move quickly.  You don't start planning a major wedding the week before the appointed date, and waiting until one candidate is victorious puts us way behind the curve.

I don't understand why this hasn't happened yet.  Or maybe it has.  But if not............

..........then an open plea to AFTA, NASAA, the Regional Arts Organizations, the heads of the dance, theater, symphonies, museums, multicultural groups and the Arts Education Community -  please, please get together and form this kind of effort now and solicit all of our support and backing.

While Clinton is at least nominally arts supportive, and we don't know where Trump really stands, neither of them at this point can reasonably be expected to embrace our causes wholeheartedly.  Will Hillary be supportive if elected?  Yes, of course; but probably much like Obama - supportive, but unlikely to truly embrace us for our value and contributions.  Unlikely to actually get it.  More likely, she will focus her support on arts education. Why?  Because it's safe; it's about kids.  We need her to more fully understand the sector and to more fully embrace it.  Trump?  Who knows?  We need to be ready to convince them why we are important, and part of that argument is political -- that there are tens of thousands of us out here for whom the arts are the critical issue. We need to be on their radar screens now, and ready to move with a united effort the day after the election.

But so far I don't see anything going on.  Maybe I'm just out of the loop, and behind the scenes there are major plans afoot.  I hope so.

Have a great week.

Don't Quit