Monday, September 08, 2008

I Am A Community Organizer #1 | MCAI 20th Anniversary

“I guess a small-town mayor is sort of like a 'community organizer,' except that you have actual responsibilities.” - Sarah Palin, 2008

This past week provided so many uplifting moments. Maybe Sarah Palin’s sniping made me see more clearly how much my life is made better by people in my community who care enough to take actions which make our lives better.

I probably wouldn’t have taken the time to write about these powerful moments. But, I was shocked that anyone - especially an elected official - would denigrate the very people who help keep government small.

I’ll be posting some of these snapshots over the course of the day.

SNAPSHOT ONE - Multi-Cultural Arts Initiative

On Friday evening, I attended the 20th Anniversary Of The Multi-Cultural Arts Initiative
From the MCAI website:
"Over the years, MCAI has awarded close to $7 million and over 600 grants. During this time period almost a third of MCAI funding was directed toward providing operating support dollars for targeted African American arts organizations."

They enact their mission by identifying
“four strategic goals:
1. Institute an organizational and financial infrastructure, which allow for achievement of the mission.
2. Increase the quality of culturally diverse programming.
3. Strengthen African American arts organizations and infrastructures to support individual artists, providing increased value benefiting the primary customer (consumers of the African American and culturally diverse arts programming.)
4. Increase awareness and visibility of culturally diverse arts in the region.”

I can’t believe they have been around for twenty years now. They have been involved with me and my art work for 14 years. They have been directly responsible for any success I've had.

Back in 1994, I was in post-production on my first (and final) 16 mm film. They were the first to support my project. Without them, I would have never been able to complete my film.

Later down the road, as I headed into my performance art career, they were the first to support a non-profit organization I cofounded with Christiane Leach. Our mission was to support emerging artists. Sun Crumbs produced over 52 programs a year which included visual arts exhibitions, The Bust-A-Myth Series, the Sun Crumbs Performance Poetry series, the Pittsburgh Poetry Slam, and commissioned an interdisciplinary arts collaboration on an annual basis.

During the five years, Christiane Leach and I were running Sun Crumbs, we provided support and economic assistance to emerging artists of all colours. For many of the poets we served, it was the first time any reading series had provided: one on one consultations about career development; paid them university wages; housed them in a posh hotel; gave them opportunities to work with children. Many of these same poets such as: Staceyann Chin, Roger Bonair Agard, Regie Gibson, Al Letson, and Tyehimba Jess have gone on to contribute to the national and international community.

We commissioned Staceyann Chin to perform her first interdisciplinary collaborative performance with local jazz musicians. Later, she went on to create a one woman show off-broadway. Roger Bonair Agard went on to be a founding member of The Louder Arts Project - a very Sun Crumbs like group of artists who create opportunities for artists in New York City. Al Letson has had tremendous success as both a playwright and performing author of a one man show. And Tyehimba Jess has been a recent winner of the National Poetry Series with his stunning collection, Leadbelly. Without the belief of MCAI, we would not have been able to touch directly and indirectly so many lives.

The 20th Anniversary event was an exciting evening. The performances and visual art exhibited reflect the true diversity of African voices. A stunning performance of drum and dance by Africa Yetu; a beautiful modern dance piece, art from Women Of Vision and a video documentary tribute to Thaddeus Mosley. Thaddeus Mosley was the honoured artist that evening.

The highlight of the evening the premiere of a new jazz piece by Sean Jones and The Mission Statement. (More about Sean Jones.) Entitled “Oliver: The Master Builder,” it paid tribute to Oliver Byrd, the man who has kept the MCAI going. Without his brilliant leadership, the MCAI is a 20 year old non-profit which has never run at a deficit. Pretty amazing. But, more importantly, MCAI is not some behemoth foundation made by the super rich to alleviate their tax burden. MCAI is able to contribute to the community by pulling together big donations, small donations and a lot of people power. (Envelope stuffers, committee members, round table participants, etc.)

The most amazing thing to witness was that in these hard economic times, the diversity of my fellow celebrants amazed me. With a fifty dollar entrance ticket, folks from unions, blue-collar workers, big corporation employees and executives, individual artists and regular folks managed to find a way to get there. That’s saying something about the way they enrich our community by their support. These days fifty dollars is hard to come by and still folks found a way.


Keith said...

This is a great post, and I really appreciate reading how you've made the issue personal.

Regina said...

Great post! I think one day Sarah will come to really hate and regret that statement of hers.
I think the organizers of this movement should be applauded for getting the word out about this Blogging Day For Justice! I am honored to join the ranks of other Community workers to let our voice be heard! I am proud to be a Community Worker and Community Organizer!