Several years ago, I attended a Fulton County Budget hearing. There is nothing remarkable about that statement. My staff, board members, colleagues and I have attended dozens. We attend to show support for the funding of Contracts for Art Services. But at one particular meeting, I believe a major cut was on the table so many from the arts community were in attendance, a board member and artist named LaMar Barber took a photo of me speaking to the county commissioners. He posted it on Facebook. I commented on the photo, “Democracy!” LaMar replied, “…requires effort!”
Democracy requires effort.
That phrase rings in my brain a lot these days. You may be thinking it is because of the recent election. Maybe. It really has more to do with the fact that C4 is making a more concerted effort to be involved “at the local.” Let me preface the rest of this post with this: I am not trying to be self-congratulatory. This work is hard, and there are people I know who are much better at doing it. By “type of work,” I mean, showing up. Being there for the committee meetings, the neighborhood meetings, the council or commissioner meetings. How do they have the energy? How do they have the resources?
In the arts, we often complain about not being invited to the table. I agree with that. However, I also know that you sometimes have to pull up a chair. But when is this work off mission? My answer is that I don’t think that when you work in the Independent Sector that it is ever off mission. Our work intersects often with civic issues. We do ensure that we are staying within the bounds of non-partisan participation, which is within our legal right. Having said that, advocacy, or even just civic engagement, may take focus away from programming. How do you balance that? (I am really asking here)
In some ways, it is part of the growing pains of an organization maturing. In the start-up phase, job duties are fuzzy and resources, including time, are pooled toward creating programs. That quickly moves to maintaining and evaluating programs (maybe even sun-setting programs). As Executive Director, I am working hard to place staff members into roles that best fit their strengths. Roles become more defined. All this to say, being an advocate for the arts is not glamorous. There are no Twitter wars or celebrity endorsements.
I sat through a three hour meeting at City Hall just so I could speak for a minute to voice my concern about the proposed “Arts & Entertainment District.” (Not against a district, just concerned about what constitutes “arts” and how money will be allocated). Many of the meeting points were completely unrelated to our work at C4. I was hungry. Famished. This isn’t heroic work. I was mostly thinking about what I needed to do when I got back to the office, and how I wished the meeting time would fly by faster. This morning I missed another city meeting because my van started acting weird. Instead of driving to the 8 am meeting, I drove to my local mechanic. I texted Audrey, Education Manager, and she went to the meeting in my stead. The meeting went on without me.
Democracy requires effort
It is also slow. When it comes to government, I often think of that aphorism, “a camel is a horse designed by committee.” The process is intentionally slow. Our founding fathers designed our government process with a plodding pace in mind to protect citizens from wide sweeping change that came too swiftly. Campaign promises are mostly rhetoric. You have to vet ideas to ensure the process is in the best interest of the people–and often, unfortunately, it is only in the best interest of part of the people. The people who have the time or capacity to show up.
It is not that I believe that all campaign promises are empty. It is just that the heroes I see are the people who show up when they can, they research the issues, they present facts, they appeal to people’s common sense and humanity, they sit through the long meetings, miss lunch, they juggle relationships and maybe children, and they do it over and over again. People like Kyle Kessler with the Center for Civic Innovation. Kyle has an amazing knack for this work. He about local politics, zoning issues, Atlanta history, meeting dates–someone needs to download Kyle’s brain. I am always in awe of how much he knows and how often he shows up.
Over the last year, C4 has grown its advocacy committee so we can divide up meetings and tasks. Most of what we are doing is just listening. Listening and learning. There are a myriad of policies that affect the lives of artists and of arts organizations. Typically, advocacy efforts have been focused around funding. While important, there are a lot of missed opportunities when that is our only focus. There are several organizations that educate and advocate for the arts in metro Atlanta. There are also dozens of organizations that may make great cross-sector partners. Our advocacy platform is posted online. If you want to get involved, let us know.
Democracy, or even a republic, takes effort. It feels as though the nation is in turmoil some days. I am not going to suggest to anyone that national issues are not important–they certainly are important. This is a “yes, and…” moment. They are important but so are local policies, legislation, ordinances, etc. Let’s work together. Let our efforts be amplified through unity.