An American in Germany

I just got back from Germany and I’m upset!
But, I didn’t know why, until just now.
Several months ago, I led a workshop in Montreal, Canada, called “Can Hip Hop Save Lives?” I was invited by my colleague and fellow Open Society Foundation grantee, Merith Basey, whom is the Executive Director of Universities Allied for Essential Medicines(UAEM). On face value Arts Corps and UAEM may seem to have little in common, but our interlocking themes of access, equity and youth-driven campaigning is clear. Our work is stronger and more impactful through out creative connections and shared vision. UAEM’s tag line is “We Have a Drug Problem,” and their mission is to bring awareness to, and change policies that create unequal access to drugs, like insulin, that people need, in order to live.
Our workshop led participants through how to use youth culture aka hip hop culture to create social media campaigns that could be used to highlight the inequities in the health care system, in a thorough, yet easily digestible way. In order to do that, we first had to explore our relationship to hip hop culture and the ways that is manifested in the media we digest. For example, there is something called Hip Hop Cupcakes that Duncan Hines sells. Snoop Dogg sells Pepsi. Busta and Missy Elliott teamed up with Tyrion Lannister and Morgan Freeman to hawk Doritos and Mountain Dew. In Seattle, there’s Trap Vinyasa. Obviously, the target ages 18-34 love hip hop culture, yet we often ignore that culture in our schools and in “professional” settings. I proposed we use global culture to make the public aware of public health inequities such as the fact that 1 in 6 people globally have a neglected disease. Those one in six are typically low income, people of color, immigrants, and/or women. The participants were inspired and created songs, Instagram Stories, memes, gifs, and visuals that helped highlight the public health issues facing the world. 
The workshop was such a success, that I was invited to present at UAEM’s European conference, held in Hamburg, Germany. However, my first stop was in Berlin, where Merith introduced me to the European ED, Priscilla Li, and their staff. In between planning conversations, I was able to see the sights around Berlin. I saw the Brandenburg Gates, which reminded me of Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn. I saw the Berlin Wall and the US inspired graffiti that decorated the walls. As I was walking along the Wall, I was able to read(in English and German) about the rise of Nazism, Communism, and it’s impact on the city and the country. It reminded me of the 9/11 memorial, also in NYC. I saw the memorial to the young people that died in the Holocaust, and to relax, I tried German schnitzel and very tasty schwarz bier that complemented the food very well. Everyone was very nice, spoke English, and when I spoke German, they were very supportive and helpful, even though my German was god awful. 
After a day and a half we went to Hamburg together, and I was equally blown away by how nice everyone was, how everyone tolerated my German, and the numerous signs in pubs and establishments that said, “No Nazis Allowed.” 
Oh! And both cities were incredibly diverse, much more diverse than Seattle. With the number of refugees that came from Syria other parts of the Middle East, and Northern Africa, I heard multiple languages spoken, and saw multiple cultures represented. I learned that because of socialized medicine and education, everyone was provided free health care and education. Even universities, which are costly compared to other services, are still 100 times cheaper than schooling in the states, and therefore affordable. 
I knew I had to modify my workshop a bit, because of Germany’s relatively equitable health care and education system, but it wasn’t until I experienced it first hand, that I realized how much I would need to modify my workshop. I was still able to focus on youth culture, which unsurprisingly, was similar globally. (Everyone loves Migos. Go figure 🤷🏾‍♀️). However I did have to edit the access portion because of socialized medicine and focus on how drugs were tested, and to whom they were readily available. For example 80% of drugs, even those for women, are tested on men. Though health care is free to refugees, they have to pay for things like insulin. It is much cheaper than the states, but it does come with a price tag. 
Amazingly, the participants were as inspired as their North American peers. They even recorded a rap song about drug pricing, set to the tune of Coolio’s Gangsta’s Paradise.  The participants and the UAEM team were ecstatic, and they would like for another Arts Corps presentation at their next conference..
Yet, I was still upset. 
When I landed back in the States, went to work, and took the bus around Seattle, I reflected on my experience. The entire time I was in Germany, I acted like a typical impatient American, saying everything reminded me of the US, and was loud and irritable. I took up too much space in places and while I was sightseeing, I barely enjoyed the monuments, memorials, and views around town. What I realized a week or so later was, that I was jealous. I was very jealous that this country has tried to come to terms with their historical atrocities. They didn’t shy away from them, but addressed them head on. They acknowledged that some really bad things (I know that’s an understatement) took place and they have worked for the past 30 years to rectify that. This hasn’t happened in the USA and I’m not sure if it will ever happen. I still see confederate flags. White supremacists have their own social media channels that are widely accepted, because of free speech. I still have to be wary of police officers, as do my 10 year old children. Andrew Jackson is still on the $20 bill. “Make America Great Again” is a slogan that we don’t bat an eye at, even though, in that America, my grandparents couldn’t vote, go swimming in public swimming pools, or even live in the same neighborhoods as their white counterparts. 

I’m aghast at the situation in the USA right now, so I’m going to challenge myself and you to use art to help us come to terms with our history. I’m thinking of the Songs of Civil Rights music that broke color lines and brought awareness to the issues facing society. I’m thinking of the art made by the children to help make sense of the atrocities that they experienced at the Japanese Internment Camps, in Puyallup. I’m thinking of how the documentary, “Surviving R Kelly” successfully ended the career of a predator. 

I’m thinking of how Beyoncé used her platform as an artist to shine a light on black excellence, black colleges and black humanity. Her Homecoming performance breathed a sense of belonging into the culture at a time when we were all feeling distraught and beat down. I daresay that her celebration of the HBCU experience may have indirectly led billionaire Robert Smith to promise to pay off all of the school loans for the graduating class of 2019, at my proud alma mater, Morehouse College. Of course, that is just conjecture, but I know the power of art, and its ability to inspire and empower.

So what are YOU going to do, today, tomorrow, next week, that changes the world so that our children won’t travel the world upset? So that our children won’t feel distraught and beat down. So that our children won’t have to doubt their own humanity. Instead they can say “yeah when the ish hit the fan, my folks promised to Make Art Anyway.” 

Bless up,