Poetry, Buses, and Activism

Poetry, Buses, and Activism

I saw a bus ad the other day calling for submissions for Poetry on Buses, one of my favorite public art programs in Seattle. It reminded me of a conversation I had back in May with my friend Elizabeth Austen, who was the Washington State poet laureate until earlier this year.

 

I’d been thinking about art as activism after writing about Kehinde Wiley’s exhibition at Seattle Art Museum, when I concluded that art doesn’t necessarily exist to change the world, but to spark conversation, and perhaps, to set viewers on a path towards action down the road.

 

When I asked Elizabeth her thoughts on the topic she told me, “To choose to be an artist in our culture is in itself a form of activism. And activism isn’t just about ‘let’s change the world,’ it can be about ‘let’s change ourselves, let’s make space for humanity.’” This statement is one of the reasons I love Elizabeth (I actually have a line from one of her poems tattooed on my arm, so I’m not kidding)––she reminds me that there are many ways to be in the world.

 

Whether or not she defines herself as an activist poet, Elizabeth finds the most joy and meaning as a poet when her work causes people to think about something in a different way. And she thinks we should all be reading poetry by poets like Claudia Rankine, Lucille Clifton, Tim Seibles, Adrienne Rich, Sharon Olds, and Danez Smith. She also shared that there is “a huge, fabulous area of very socially and politically engaged poetry happening now––the internet has democratized access and sprouted up communities of poets.” So, your new favorite activist poet may be just a few mouse clicks away.

 

If you’ve got a poem to share—activist or otherwise—and are a resident of King County, Washington, consider submitting your own poem to this year’s Poetry on Buses project, Your Body of Water.

 

Image credit: Chris Blakeley via Flickr

The Art Points to Something: Kehinde Wiley’s “A New Republic”

The Art Points to Something: Kehinde Wiley’s “A New Republic”

I’ve never been as excited for a museum exhibition as I was for the opening of Kehinde Wiley’s “A New Republic” at Seattle Art Museum (SAM). The New York-based, Yale-trained artist is known for his larger than life, vividly colored portraits depicting young men of color in historical poses and scenes. His Anthony of Padua (pictured above), for example, is based on El Greco’s 14th century original, and like so many of his pieces, seeks to draw attention to, and counter, the historical absence of people of color in painting and art.

 

The inspiration for this body of work was a discarded mugshot of a young African American man, which Wiley found on a Harlem street. He started thinking about mugshots as “a perverse type of portraiture,” where subjects have no control over their positioning, in contrast to 18th century portraits of subjects “positioning themselves in states of stately grace and self-possession.” (A portrait of that mugshot is part of “A New Republic,” and it’s one of my favorites).

 

My enthusiasm about Wiley’s SAM exhibition is twofold: the art is strikingly beautiful; and, Wiley’s work is rooted in deep social questions of race, identity, power, and privilege. The work is powerful, and in my book, a must-see. It was also an important reminder that a single story does not change the world, and that art is art––it doesn’t necessarily exist to change the world, but to spark conversation, and perhaps, set viewers on a path towards action down the road. As Wiley told The Stranger’s art critic Jen Graves, “In the end, I’m not changing negative history or stereotypes. All I’m doing is rubbing these two oppositional forms together and creating a sensation that’s bittersweet because the art points to something, but it’s not in and of itself a redemptive act.”

 

“A New Republic” is on view at Seattle Art Museum through Sunday, May 8. Discount tickets are available on Thursday, May 5 (the first Thursday of the month).

 

Image: Anthony of Padua, 2013, Kehinde Wiley, American, b. 1977, oil on canvas, 72 × 60 in., Seattle Art Museum, gift of the Contemporary Collectors Forum, 2013.8. © Kehinde Wiley. Photo: Max Yawney, courtesy of the artist and Roberts & Tilton, Culver City, California.

the power of food and potential of people: a visit from robert egger

the power of food and potential of people: a visit from robert egger

Earlier this month Robert Egger—Founder and President of L.A. Kitchen—dropped by our offices in Seattle for a visit. Over a tequila and tonic (his signature drink, for anyone who might be hosting him soon), he talked to our team about a lot of things—from economic sexism and the expanding constructs of what it means to be a refugee, to nutritional imperialism and aging. What struck me most is the number of issues Robert and his organization are addressing through their work, including “lovingly disrupting senior meals.”

Food waste, unemployment, poverty, senior nutrition—these are all treated as “solvable issues” within the L.A. Kitchen ecosystem. Considering the number of organizations focused on addressing any of these single issues, it’s especially impressive to see how L.A. Kitchen is addressing them all as part of one interconnected system.

They reclaim nutritious, local food that would otherwise be discarded (primarily due to cosmetic issues); provide culinary training to men and women (most whom are coming out of foster care or the criminal justice system) who turn those ingredients into healthy, delicious meals; then distribute those meals to social service agencies serving the city’s most vulnerable, particularly low-income seniors, who are so often provided with processed foods. It’s an impressive cycle all aimed at “ensuring that neither food nor people go to waste,” and one that was noticed by the AARP Foundation, who awarded them a founding grant of $1 million, the largest single AARP grant in its history.

Tapping into the power of food and potential of people, I’d say Robert is disrupting more than just senior meals. L.A. Kitchen has also started a for-profit subsidiary—Strong Food—which will compete for food service contracts, employ graduates of the organization’s training program, and ultimately support L.A. Kitchen to be self-sustaining. That’s important to Robert not just from a financial perspective, but from an advocacy perspective as well. Too often the organizations best positioned to advocate for policy changes are prevented from doing so because of their funding models (most grants specifically state that funding cannot be used for advocacy) or their 501(c)3 status.

I’ve seen the power of culinary training programs with my own eyes–someone close to me, who’s faced their share of challenges, is currently enrolled (and thriving) in one—but L.A. Kitchen takes this to a whole new level, in a way that truly inspires my farmer’s-market-shopping-foodie heart. If you ever have a chance to meet Robert Egger or hear him speak, do. And be sure to check out the amazing work that L.A. Kitchen and D.C. Central Kitchen (the organization Robert founded and ran for 25 years before heading to Los Angeles) are doing.

 

the achievement gap

the achievement gap

We recently passed Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s new book A Path Appears around the office. From the publisher: “With scrupulous research and on-the-ground reporting, the authors assay the art and science of giving, determine some of today’s most successful local and global initiatives to fight inequality, and evaluate particularly effective forms of help such as early childhood education.” As we took turns reading the book and flipped those final pages, we were each struck by different chapters. This post is the third and final in a series inspired by the book. Read the first and second posts.

Grace:
When I was six years old, I was the lowest achieving kid in class. I knew it because our scores were clearly written on the board for all to see. And the one at the bottom, usually me, was given several hits with a bamboo switch.

This was the Chinese education system, and I was an American kid whose only other education experience at the time was half-day kindergarten, complete with nap and recess. After moving to my new school, the injustice I felt a age six was insufferable.

But here’s a twist: I wasn’t the only one who got the switch. The kids who sat near me also got it. To eliminate this achievement gap, the teacher made it the other students’ business to make sure I caught up. We were in it together.

As an adult, I now understand what’s truly unjust is that many children don’t have access to a good education. American elementary school students are also punished for underachievement. If an elementary school returns low standardized test scores, children often have school funding taken away, and some of their teachers fired.

In America—where a child’s ZIP code and skin color are significant factors that determine academic opportunity—it’s a grossly unfair way to be held accountable. It’s also grossly unfair that children are held accountable when CEOs are not, but that’s another story. With these pejorative tactics, there is little hope for lifting achievement, equitably or otherwise.

Dominique:
The achievement limited by those factors—ZIP code, skin color and the layered and complex challenges tangled up in them—isn’t just limited to academics.

My first job after college was managing programs for at-risk girls—from middle schoolers in gang-impacted neighborhoods to teens with incarcerated mothers and those who were incarcerated themselves. It was an up-close and personal look at the way cycles of poverty, abuse, and incarceration play out in real lives.

What really resonated with me from reading this chapter, was the idea that solving problems—teen pregnancy, job preparedness, academic achievement—requires looking far beyond the problem itself. Acknowledging and addressing head-on the complex challenges faced by vulnerable populations, and providing not only the technical skills they might need—like access to contraception and the knowledge of how to use it, for example—but the hope and determination to envision a future where there are other possibilities.

Grace:
Agreed! This book is about spreading opportunity. Kristoff and WuDunn offer innovative thinking and models that came with statistical evidence. They lay out a clear case that early investments offer the highest returns.

Dominique:
And it’s important to note that there are many individuals and organizations that are working to make meaningful change, particularly when it comes to children and disparities in education and elsewhere. We’re lucky to work with some, like the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. We count others as our neighbors here in Seattle, such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation—particularly their work on education pathways in Washington state.

Grace:
Reading A Path Appears together connected us through stories—the stories in the book and our own. I hope as more people read this book and have substantive conversations, more people realize it’s in everyone’s interest to lift others up. If we don’t, we all hurt.

 

Photo credit: Don Harder, via Flickr.