It has recently come to my attention that I am part of the problem.
I am a public sector employee.
Twenty-five years ago, I began employment with the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, managing a Community Arts Development Program that brought federal Housing and Urban Development (HUD) funds to low-income census tracts for small arts-related capital projects. HUD officials were trying new ways to stabilize some of the poorest and most troubled inner city housing projects and neighborhoods by supporting small theatre companies, dance and visual art classes that offered kids creative ways to explore their own creativity.
I remember a volunteer dance instructor in Jamaica, Queens telling me “if we don’t give kids something constructive to do, they will find ways to be destructive.” She applied for and received a small grant to install mirrors and barres in a bare room she used for teaching, because she wanted her students to feel like they were taking a real dance class.
I believe we have a societal obligation to ensure that everyone has access to those things that give potential for success: education, employment, relevant cultural activities. In a caring society, this is how we measure our greatness. This is a democracy. In a democracy, we understand that it is most efficient to work together, establish mechanisms for accountability and pool our resources to achieve our common goals. That is the promise of the public sector. We may not get it right every time, but we simply must curtail the rhetoric that would strip us of this basic feature of democracy: public works.
Twenty-five years ago, at places like Harlem School for the Arts, Boys Choir of Harlem, Jamaica Arts Center and Bronx Council of the Arts, I saw young people totally immersed in all sorts of creative endeavors. I see it today in our community at places like Arts Corps, Jack Straw, Youth in Focus and the Vera Project. Wanting to play an instrument, dance, sing, act, draw, sculpt or paint are human aspirations. The basic hunger to express ourselves freely is a defining human characteristic, the perfection of which is a source of immense power.
Public sector support requires these opportunities be accessible to underserved communities. Should that access disappear?
When I took that job in New York so long ago, I did not intend to make public sector employment a career. I didn’t even bother to enroll in the city retirement system. I actually thought I’d do it for a year or two to demonstrate that I was suitable to work in an office, so I wouldn’t have to do construction work to support myself between gigs as an actor. Having been in the trades, I know how draining it can be. That is why it is important to me that people who labor to keep our communities functioning are equally able to access cultural activities. Grants that allow organizations to offer free and discounted tickets, and support public access to facilities are some of the ways we’ve found to address issues of equity and social justice.
As it turns out, I now have had a 25-year career in public administration. I stayed in public administration because I saw my work having an impact and I felt real satisfaction when I saw kids blossom because they were given a chance to learn something about themselves and to excel.
Am I part of the problem or the solution?
Back2School Bash, Southeast Seattle Community Youth Orchestra © 2010 Kyle Ploessl