Youth arts microgrants as an organizing tool for the socially mobile, geographically isolated poor

I went to see the musical Billy Elliot with Chiara, Florence and Oona.  It was really awesome and I was surprised how some sections made this really powerful connection between state oppression of the Thatcher government against miners and internalized gender oppression within the mining communities.  I was really stoked when I overheard a young usher asking an older usher about the political context.  Another usher brought up the parallels between Reagan’s neoconservative policies in the U.S. and Thatcher’s policies in the UK.  The young usher followed up by asking “why do people say Reagan was a good president?”  The arts are a really powerful way to learn and think about the world, but they’re also inaccessible to many.

Florence and Oona have been interested in taking dance classes for a while, and they’re taking an elementary hip-hop dance class as part of their after-school care, but I think seeing a really impressive performance finally pushed them over the edge to try something more demanding.  Unfortunately, dance classes seem to cost around $150 for a 10-week session.  Our household could probably swing that once, but it’s pretty uncertain if they want to stick with it.

The arts are severely underfunded.   This sucks and we all know it.  People who want to fund the arts for youth tend to focus on funding arts institutions, which makes sense because they have the most leverage to foster arts programming in schools or communities.  I think a lot of this funding is directed at under-resourced communities without arts programming in schools or local arts organizations.  In Chicago, this might look like an established arts organization getting funding to offer free arts programming at a school or community center in an under-resourced area.  Again, this makes sense because it seems most fair to support communities with the least access and resources.

Still, this model of support leaves out poor children who don’t live in areas of concentrated poverty.  Their parents may have hustled to be able to move into a more resourced area for better schools or a safer environment while still facing many of the challenges of poverty.  These families seem to be isolated, because of the demands of overcoming poverty, from wealthier people in their community, and also from other families in their same situation living in other parts of their city.  While it is unfortunate that these youth can’t take advantage of programs or resources directed towards areas of concentrated poverty, the graver consequence is that it creates a situation where it makes more sense for parents with scarce time resources to end up struggling to get more opportunities for their children rather than struggling collectively to improve access to arts for an entire city’s children.

Also, school arts programs are awesome and crucial, but might be geared towards overall participation and accessibility and not offer the rigor that a kid who was really passionate about a particular art form might need.  I think this is particularly true of arts education for kids who are younger than high school age.

I’m interested in the idea of micro grants that low-income families could use to pay for things like dance classes or a trip to see the orchestra or some other kind of concert.  This would give low-income youth living in areas without institutionally-funded arts opportunities access to things like classes.  Moreover it would  help create a network of low-income families with a passion for the arts who could start organizing together to identify gaps in arts access and fill those gaps.  Also building this network could be a platform for using future waves of funding.

Does anyone know of anyone doing this kind of organizing with what I guess I would call the socially mobile, geographically isolated poor?  Or using micro grants to link people up with each other rather than just being a money hook-up?

Photo from Oude School via Flickr.

Tormenting the poor

Judah pointed me to Barbara Ehrenreich breaks it down in her NYTimes op-ed, Is It Now a Crime to be Poor?:

Maybe we can’t afford the measures that would begin to alleviate America’s growing poverty — affordable housing, good schools, reliable public transportation and so forth. I would argue otherwise, but for now I’d be content with a consensus that, if we can’t afford to truly help the poor, neither can we afford to go on tormenting them.

This is definitely something that Bloomington should keep in mind, and I suspect a lot of people who live in neighborhoods and communities that are confronting more visibly human faces of poverty.  Still, I’m not content with criticizing middle-class suburbanites|yuppies|city governments|business associations|police are whack for tormenting people experiencing poverty or trying to ignore it.   I feel like I’ve inherited, despite my best efforts, the cultural anxiety with poverty and I think we need to have a frank discussion about what scares us so much about poverty and poor people and how we can get over it.  One of the problems with intense efforts, over time, to racially and economically segregate our communities is that many of us in this country who grew up in those segregated places have no tools to accurately assess our real safety.  We just rely on the mythologies about the potential dangers that people who we perceive as different than us might pose.  I don’t think the antidote is to fetishize poverty either, but I hope there’s a way out.

california communities at the margin

I think that California always has had this iconic quality of Americanness, capturing the most extreme visions of both this country’s aspirations and its challenging realities.

Collapsed structure near the Salton Sea

This weekend, Greg rented a documentary called Plagues and Pleasures on the Salton Sea about the Salton Sea, an area in California that, in the previous century, due to a strange set of ecological circumstances, saw both incredible development and growth and later, an equally magnificent collapse.  The landscape is now one of flooded and collapsed mobile homes and other structures and a small population of people, many of who moved there to escape conditions in larger California cities, or who moved to the area during the Sea’s boom and now find themselves without the economic resources to leave.

Today, I saw this video from the BBC via BoingBoing about tent cities inhabited by people who have lost their homes in the fallout of the subprime mortgage crisis.