I’d be lying if I said the last few weeks have been easy. I’d be lying even more if I said the last 40+ years of my life have been easy. I’d be lying if I said I had the answers. Or any answers. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel emotions. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t wake up with sweaty hands every morning, and I have since I moved to Seattle. I’d be lying if I wasn’t worried about my children, or my brother’s child, or any child, especially Black and Brown children stuck in an educational system that doesn’t value their humanity or existence. I’d be lying if I ever felt calm.
But I’d be telling the truth when I say I am scared.
At age 10, an officer held a gun to my head because I was racing my cousin as we left a mall. He pulled out the gun and asked if I’d stolen anything. And when he couldn’t find anything on me, he said I was “lucky” because he could have told my parents. It would be several years before I realized he had no reason to stop me, let alone conduct a search.
At age 17, I went to jail for looking at graffiti while waiting on the train:
Cop: “What are you doing?”
Cop: (Referring to graffiti) “Did you do that?”
Cop: “I don’t believe you… prove it.”
Me: (Taking off my bag) “OK.”
Cop: “Why are you removing your bag? You trying to run away?”
Cop: “OK, smart guy. You’re going downtown for destruction of property and resisting arrest.”
I ended up in jail for the night. For no reason.
In my mid twenties I was enrolled at Brandeis University’s MFA program. I worked at the local movie theatre in Waltham, MA, 10 miles west of Boston. Our uniform at the movie theatre consisted of a white shirt, black tie, slacks, and dress shoes. Although it was a laid-back work environment, we were all avid film fans and therefore took our work very seriously. We often argued over whether The Godfather or The Godfather II was the best movie ever made; we resoundingly hated The Blair Witch Project, which, unfortunately, was showing on two screens. Our distaste stemmed from the fact that before patrons could acclimate to its handheld camera work they would vomit in the aisles, leaving us to take turns sweeping up human bile in the darkened theaters. One night on my walk home from work, two police officers pulled up and blocked my path with their cruiser.
“Where you going?”
“Oh, really? And where, pray tell, might you live?” (I pointed at my house, which was across the street.)
“And where were you before… if you’re going home now?” (I turned around and pointed at the movie theatre, 20 feet from where I stood.)
“You sure you didn’t rape anybody? We got a call that there’s a rapist matching your profile.”
“My profile? In Waltham? I’m the only person in Waltham that looks like me. I work twenty feet in that direction and live twenty yards in that direction. I know that can’t be true… sirs.”
“Watch yourself. Don’t want you getting into trouble. We suggest you go inside and don’t come out.”
I walked away from the cruiser and toward my house. My roommates were hanging out in the kitchen and I told them what happened. They were outraged but not surprised — they were also Black and two of them were from Boston proper. During the school-sponsored “House Hunting Weekend,” we were the only Black grad students in attendance. Understanding that it was Boston, and that we were definitely “other,” we figured there was strength in numbers. And somehow we were able to find a place not too far from campus, though if I remember correctly, only the other light-skinned roommate and I ever met the realtors in person — she was accompanied by her parents and I wore a shirt and tie… the same shirt and tie I had on when confronted by police and accused of rape.
Those are just a couple stories from my experiences with the police, and are tame compared to the brutal murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Jamel Floyd, Charleena Lyles, Mike Brown, Eric Garner, and… many, many, many more.
In fact, I almost didn’t share these stories because I didn’t want to add the trauma of other folks that have been lost loved ones due to police actions. I am only sharing to write about how I dealt with these traumatic experiences. It was through art. All of the above stories have been taken from other pieces of writing I have done. By writing about these interactions, I have been able to find a way to process my grief. Using my art form of theater, I have been able to translate those experiences into characters I have portrayed, and stories I have told to audiences. It has helped me navigate the life I live through creative expression. It has helped capture an archival moment of my life that I have passed onto my children, so they know that though this may happen to us, it doesn’t define us. We are more than our interactions with police. We are more than a hashtag. We are more than what they see(and don’t see) on TV.
We are the wildest dreams of our ancestors. Art has the power to uplift, incite, and change the world. That’s why we do what we do at, Arts Corps. To provide a platform for youth to talk about and through things that they are unable to do, in a typical classroom, or school setting. It is why during school closures, we didn’t miss a beat, and immediately started to make online content for students. We made culturally responsive coloring books. We made activity books, and passed out art kits where free lunches are distributed. It is why we have kept paying our teaching artists, our wonderful amazing teaching artists, because we know that the work they do provides a beacon of light for youth and families in our region. It is our raison d’etre. It is why we Make Art Anyway.
But the future is uncertain. We don’t know when our economy will recover. We don’t know when we will be able to be back in schools. We don’t know when we will be able to shake each other’s hands again, hug each other again, hold each other again. We will need to make some serious shifts in programming to better meet the needs of youth and their families. We will need to reimagine what Arts Corps will do, and potentially what Arts Corps can no longer do.
We do know that we will continue to center the voices and experiences of the youth we serve. We know that we will still prioritize the TAs that lead the work in the communities, in and around Seattle. We know that gig workers have been hit the hardest, during this pandemic, so we are dedicated to hiring more part time salaried TAs, providing them with a steady income and health insurance. As we are in the midst of financial recession, coupled with loss of expected revenue for the coming year, we have had to make some cuts and shifts in programming.
Below is a list of we will plan on doing in the upcoming year:
- Thanks to secure funding, we will continue our Creative Schools LAB program at Hazel Valley, Mt View, and hopefully MLK Elementary Schools.
- Although we will continue to work with Interagency sites, it will be in much smaller doses, and we will be providing curriculum, career exploratory learning, and the arts credit these students need to graduate high school.
- Provide professional development for HPS, SPS, other school districts(TBD).
- LIT will move from a six month long program to a Spring Break Intensive and Summer Intensive, pending funding.
- ALLI will be postponed from Summer 2020, to Fall 2020, so that we can best plan for virtual workshops that would be engaging to the youth, as we probably won’t be able to meet, in person.
- We will deliver Art Kits to all New Future sites and Art Space sites, as we won’t be able to meet with those youth in person.
- We will start Strategic Planning, ASAP, to further align our mission and work.
- We continue to facilitate workshops, write blog posts and journal entries, speak at international conferences, and advocate for educational policy shift in Olympia through emails, calls, letters.
- As some of our partner programs have successfully become their own non-profit organizations, we are left critically thinking about how we work with teens in our community. We will take time to reimagine our Teen Leadership programs to be efficient and stronger.
Things are changing so quickly, and so drastically, this list might evolve and change again, as we work to best serve our community and partners. What will stay the same is that we will stay to true to our mission of revolutionizing arts education, and our creativity and innovation will guide us forward.
Stay safe and healthy.
— JAMES MILES, Executive Director