Change is in the Air for Arts Corps

The fifth inning of the World Series had just ended, with the Chicago Cubs taking a 6-3 lead over the Cleveland Indians. It was game 7 of a seven game series, and if it’s not clear from my numerous tattoos and all that I talk about when people ask me about anything related to Chicago, I’m a HUGE Cubs fan. I love the Chicago Cubs since I was a baby. Growing up in Chicago, close to the baseball field, Wrigley Field, the one aspect of my life that was certain was my allegiance to the best baseball team in the multiverse, the Chicago Cubs. 

I happened to be in Chicago, with my colleague and dear friend, Jamel Mims, to pitch a hip hop education project to the International Education Funders Group. The presentation was the following day, so we were able to enjoy game with some my high school friends. Though the game was in Cleveland, Chicago’s streets were crowded with everyone spilling out of bars and their homes to celebrate a run for us, and decry a run for Cleveland. 

By the 8th inning, the game was tied. I was bent over at the waist, crying, because Cleveland was looking strong. I hadn’t eaten food really and only consumed beer, which seemed to have no effect on me. All of my Chicago friends looked the way I was feeling: lost and depleted. Executive functioning was limited as our hippocampus refused to hold memories. We repeated the same conversation over and over again. We were all prone to drastic mood swings. Time was mutable for us and each minute seemed to last either a second or an hour. Though the 8th inning ended, we didn’t fully grasp that the 9th inning was the last inning of the World Series. I was fixated on each individual play as if I alone had control over the outcome, and my computational skills were minimal.

Maybe I was feeling the beer after all…

With the game tied after the 9th inning, the rain started to come down hard in Cleveland, causing a rain delay. Time slowed. We waited. We drank more beer. I ate a hot dog and some chips. We barely spoke. Jamel looked at all of us warily, not sure of what we would do next. 

The tenth inning began with Cubs at bat. They started strong and scored two runs, which we celebrated loudly with tears. Cleveland was up at bat next and after two outs, they scored another run. The entire city of Chicago was silent for 2 minutes as the final Cleveland player stepped up to the plate. The pitcher threw the ball, Cleveland hit a groundball up the third base line, which was caught and thrown to the first baseman, who tagged the base for Cleveland’s third and final out. 

Time stopped when we realized the Cubs won the World Series! This was the first time the Cubs won, since 1908!! We jumped in the air, yelled, cried, and immediately went outside to hear others celebrating and crying and screaming too. We hugged strangers, laughed loudly, and even high fived police officers. It seemed as if everyone and their mother, including my own, was outside smiling ear to ear. It was the happiest day of my life. The next day, Jamel and I had a fantastic presentation, made some wonderful connections, and flew back to New York. My euphoria lingered as I went back to work, proudly wearing a Cubs hat and  nothing could bring me down. 

A week later, an alleged criminal was elected to be the next president of the United States of America, and all of the happiness and joy I was feeling disappeared, almost instantaneously. Those same pangs of distress I felt watching the World Series game increased 1000%. My amygdala was overexcited and my cortisol levels increased. My generally healthy lifestyle went by the wayside, my skin broke out, I was depressed, I was angry, and felt this way for the next four years. 

One of the only positives during the past four years has been working at Arts Corps. A month after the 2016 election, I flew to Seattle to interview for the role of Executive Director, and three weeks after that, we moved to Seattle. I started on January 21st, 2017, to coincide with Inauguration Day. I counted my days in office, and compared them to our new president’s. Every vile policy, he enacted, we worked to address those actions using creativity and empathy. As he tried to divide, we sought to unite. We brought love into schools, and appreciation into the lives of young people. We shed a light on the power of arts to make change. We resisted and remained resilient. We sometimes bumped heads, but we all believed in the work we were doing. We believed in young people. We grew, we shrank, we grew again. We had good times and we had bad times. We experienced fracture and we made steps towards healing. We worked shoulder to shoulder, until we were asked to stay 6 feet apart. We shifted and we adjusted. We prevailed.  We made art anyway. 

Quickly, November 2020 was coming closer to being a real date, and a feeling of unease built. My family became more emotional and scared of what would happen. Every time I saw one of my neighbors, we could barely manage a congenial hello.The schools where we work were struggling with maintaining normalcy in abnormal times and the election added to their concerns. The future was uncertain. The whole country voted, and then we waited. My screen time increased 120% over the past week, constantly checking the results of the election. It was impossible for us to see what tomorrow could hold because of this sense of inertia.

My parents In Ohio called everyday to check on us. My friends in NYC and California texted regularly that they couldn’t get out of bed. Then on Saturday morning, I hear fireworks going off. I looked at my phone and saw 75 texts. My wife said we elected a new president, a different president, a president that wants to heal, and I felt a release. We felt a release. As an organization, as a city, as a state, as a country. We can see a future where there’s more possibility. Where there’s a black woman in office. Where the White House could look more like the people that it serves. We see a path forward. It will be hard work, progress will be slow, but I think we can all feel a collective weight off our shoulders. I know, this is the first time I breathed a deep breath in a very long time. 

Yet, I also know that racism, hetero-paternalism, and xenophobia didn’t disappear overnight. On Saturday, I was just as likely to be pulled over, arrested, and potentially killed by police as I would have been Friday evening. My kids would still see images of whiteness as a default, and told their brown skin and African curls aren’t ‘beautiful.’ Many of the youth we serve would remain outsiders inside the only country they’ve known, and my non binary friends and colleagues would still have to click ‘other,’ on medical forms. There may have been a historic election of many firsts, but until we no longer need to add the moniker of ‘first (fill in the blank)’ there is still work to do.

Arts Corps will continue the work we have been doing for twenty years, serving over 3000 youth in south King County. Arts Corps will remain one of the only organizations consistently employing teaching artists and providing creative outlets for families across the region. Arts Corps will still make strides in providing our culturally responsive arts based framework to educators across the world. Arts Corps will do all of the above and more, but it will happen without me, as the Executive Director. 

Though the timing is coincidental with the election cycle, my decision was not predicated on the outcome. Working on advocacy and policy has been of interest to me since I quit acting and became a full time educator in New York City. As happenstance would have it, I was recently presented with the opportunity to be the Executive Director of Mentor Washington, and organization that does advocacy and policy work centered on youth development. At the same time, Arts Corps became a tighter and stronger organization, and most importantly, a stable organization.

Leaving Arts Corps has been one of the toughest decisions I have ever had to make, yet I realized that like the White House, new leadership was required. That leadership will come from Carrie Siahpush, our current Director of Development and Communications, who has been with Arts Corps for over four years. She will step in the role as our Interim Executive Director, and I have nothing but faith that she will steward Arts Corps through the next phase, and into another 20 years of amazing arts based programming. Carrie brings with her a focus and acumen needed to keep pushing towards meeting Arts Corps’ mission. She is both an incredibly successful fundraiser and astute at administrative management. She is passionate and she is thoughtful. She is awesome. 

Like the release I felt during the 2016 World Series, like we all felt after the 2020 election results, we are excited about the future of Arts Corps. Though I will no longer work here, I will hold it dearly in my heart, and “stan” from the sidelines. Much love to Arts Corps, to the teaching artists, the board, the staff, the youth, the community, and to our supporters. As I am writing our catchphrase for the final time, I hope we can all continue, no matter what, no matter who, no matter how, to Make Art Anyway. 

Bless up,