Monday, May 24, 2010

Music with a message and service learning

Last week was an exciting and emotionally-charged week for me. I have the great fortune of being able to lead a class of twelve students on a journey of discovery as part of a service learning class, actually the first of its kind at USF Sarasota-Manatee, called "Ending Homelessness in our community: How can we work for social change?" During the first day of class, as each student introduced him or herself, I could tell that this was going to be a very special experience for all of us, as they had such heartfelt and commendable reasons for wanting to enroll in the class. Once they learned they would be providing service to the Resurrection House, a local day shelter for the homeless, they were even more enthused about the class. Several came up afterward to thank me for the opportunity, which is always a nice thing to hear, since it really wasn't clear to me how students would perceive such an unusual class. For the second session last week, we took a group tour at Resurrection House, and the Executive Director, Volunteer Director, and Development Director pulled out all the stops to give the students an informative and very memorable glimpse into the day-to-day operations of the shelter. At the end of the session, the students signed up for various tasks at the shelter, which they would take on each week. I was glowing with pride throughout the process, because I could hardly believe how lucky I was to have such a wonderfully caring group participate in this class. Their questions were wise and perceptive and their enthusiasm palable. It truly inspired me!

In the midst of the excitement from the first week of class, my husband and I attended a Michael Franti concert in Ybor City. For those who aren't familiar with this artist, he is a soulful poet who uses his music to make a difference in the world. He said: “I want to bring people together through music and its unique power. And I hope that somehow that sense of unity extends beyond the music.” What I love about him is his positive spirit and his commitment to peace and the welfare of all. He also weaves his love of yoga, which is a transformative experience much like music, into everything he does. This was actually our second time seeing him this year. Each time, he radiates throughout his performances, and he has a refreshing group of followers, perhaps, very much like the kinds of people I might have seen at Woodstock, had I been around then. For more about Michael, see his website:
One of my favorite lines from his songs is "All the freaky people make the beauty of the world" -- I just love this message, which to me, asks the questions, why do we need everyone to fit into a corporate box? Why must we demand that people conform to social norms?
Which brings me back to the theme of the summer class -- do we do this with the homeless? Do we expect them to find a way to fit in to our expectations rather than giving them the resources they need to expand our notion of what a normal life is or should be?

One of the students in the class mentioned that an experiment was done where a number of homeless people were given jobs and apartments, and within a certain period of time, none of them were able to maintain what they were given and ended up back on the streets. One of the things I want the class to consider is whether our system is largely designed for people who are able to work within a 9 to 5 paradigm. Is it possible that we have not yet found a way to be able to help people discover their strengths and become self-sufficient? Shouldn't we first acknowledge that living a typical life with a mortgage payment and bi-weekly paycheck may be extremely difficult for many people, and then help them find what works for them so they can live on their own? As the Resurrection House leaders told us, there are as many different stories as there are people who use the day shelter. We are going to try to come up with a variety of different creative solutions that might work to relieve the financial and emotional struggles of this vast and growing population, because there does not appear to be one clear antidote to this complex problem. The students are tasked with writing papers with innovative problem-solving ideas, and then presenting those ideas at the end of the summer.

Michael Franti is a great storyteller, and early in his career he wrote a song specifically about homelessness, which I commend to everyone called "Hole in the Bucket." In the song, he sings about being approached by a person with "dirty dreads" who asks him for spare change while singing the old tune, "There's a whole in the bucket, dear Liza." Michael doesn't stop because he doesn't have change, but he is affected by the interaction with this man and finds himself humming the man's song. Later, he's out runnning errands, one of which is to get a spool of thread (although he can't remember why), and gets some spare change after making some purchases. He sings: "...what's going to happen if I give a man a quarter? Will he find a dealer and place an order? I'm not responsible for the man's depression, how can I find compassion in the midst of recession?" He walks past the man and decides not to give him his newly acquired change. Then he thinks better of it when he gets home: "my cup is half full but his is empty." When he reaches into his pocket to grab the extra change to give to the man, he suddenly remembers why he needed that spool of thread! He sings, "While I was busy thinkin' if he would buy smack, the jingle in my pocket, it slipped through the cracks," and he has the sudden realization that spare change that means nothing to him, and which he could easily lose due to some faulty threads, could be very important for this man he met on the street.

Although the common wisdom is that we should not stop and give money when asked for it by someone who seems to be living on the streets, there are few among us who probably don't feel some pang of guilt for walking past. While we should not risk our own safety or well-being, there is always that feeling that we would like to do more. Franti's song could be viewed on a metaphorical level, not necessarily as a plea to stop and give money to people on the streets, but it also could apply to giving our free time or even small donations to local charitable organizations. Time that we waste surfing the internet or small amounts of money that we forget that we have could be better spent in the service of those who have fewer resources than we do. The service learning class is an opportunity for the students to give their time to a worthy operation, and to perhaps serve as ambassadors spreading the word about their experience to others who might wish to help but not know where to begin. Rather than just letting our spare time or spare change "slip through the cracks," we can find a meaningful way to give to others.

There is so much more to say on this topic, which I will save for the next blog, but for those who are interested, I will update you about the class throughout the summer.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Power of Art in Healing

Last night, I attended a wonderful program at the Ringling College on "the power of art in healing." The guest speaker, Naj Wikoff, is a pioneer in this area, and he gave an incredibly inspiring speech (Here is a link to his bio and The Society for Arts and Healthcare website:

Wikoff began his remarks by telling us how he transitioned from wondering "how is my art going to look next to a Brancusi" to learning how to use his artistic vision to reach people in need of physical and spiritual healing. This process began when he was hired at the Cathedral Church in New York with a nebulous but gratifying job description to "uplift the human spirit through the arts." On his first day, he was asked by a co-worker to hire an artist who had AIDS, at a time, as he said, when those with AIDS were being treated like lepers. Not only did he find a way to hire the artist, but he also decided to develop a musical theater production created entirely by artists with AIDS. The project took flight as he met more and more artists, including Tony Award winners, who had allowed their diagnosis to be a death sentence. He cajoled them into writing their last songs, and they did. With each deadline that passed in preparation for the show, he convinced them that the production wasn't quite ready and needed some tweaking. In this simple act of deception, he was able to extend the quality of life for this group of artists who naturally had become very engaged in the project. He said this experience gave them the chance to be close to one another, because no one was afraid of "catching AIDS." The chance for human contact together with the opportunity to express their creativity in the face of death resulted in a transformative experience for everyone involved.

I couldn't help but think of the chillingly beautiful song entitled "Glory" from the Broadway show "Rent," in which Roger, who was diagnosed with AIDS sings about his desire to write the perfect song before he dies. ("One song glory, one song before I go, Glory, one song to leave behind, find one song, one last refrain") Ultimately, of course, it was playwright Jonathan Larsen who wrote his last song before he died prematurely of a congenital heart disorder just a few nights before his play opened in an 0ff-Broadway theater in 1996. Although Larsen couldn't have predicted that this production was to be his final legacy as an artist, his rock musical about young people dealing with AIDS, has provided an irrepressible message of hope and healing for scores of audiences (if you haven't seen it, the film version is excellent and features most of the original cast).

Then, as so often happens when a topic is on your mind, at home last night after the Ringling event, I watched this week's episode of "Glee," which perfectly reflected Wikoff's remarks. Week after week, "Glee" has bombastically addressed important social issues with great depth, emotional range, and a healthy dose of fun. In this particular episode entitled "Laryngitis," the lead singer of the glee club, Rachel Berry, dramatically loses her voice in the midst of a performance, and simultaneously loses all hope. (For those who watch the show and know Rachel's character, this is a fitting response.) She says that she doesn't know who she is without her perfect pitch. The lead male vocalist, Finn Hudson, convinces her to visit a friend of his from football camp, Sean, who became paralyzed during a game and is primarily confined to his bed. She is so moved by her interaction with Sean that she decides to give him voice lessons (after she has carefully nursed her voice back to health). In a scene which exhibited a depth rarely captured on television or any medium for that matter, he asks her to take his hand, even though he no longer has any feeling there, so that he can remember the feeling of holding hands and see his hand in hers to capture that experience in his mind. The two begin singing "One" by U2, and as their voices soar, you forget he is laying in his bed and his hand cannot feel, and instead are transported by the raw emotional strength of their rendition. The words "one love, we get to share it, leaves you baby, if you don't care for it" are so resonant in this context. They both seem to realize as they sing that without a human connection, perfect pitch or the ability to play football are meaningless. What was especially beautiful about this scene was the fact that Sean was played by an actor, Zack Weinstein, who has a spinal cord injury similar to his character's, that happened during a canoeing accident while he was studying acting at Skidmore. This week's show was his first professional acting job, and in one fell swoop he managed to draw positive attention to spinal cord injuries and to produce an amazing hour of television, which is sure to be inspiring to so many people. In his blog, he said that his resolve to be an actor only increased after his accident, and in recounting his time on "Glee," he said, "There isn't a greater high for me than what I was feeling when I was able to be completely invested in those moments." If that isn't art for social change, I don't know what is.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

"Flag" by Jasper Johns

Hello and welcome to my new art for social change blog! This is a place for us to talk about the ways in which our experiences with the arts can help us better understand ourselves and others. If asked about a piece of artwork or a play, we tend to weigh in as to whether we enjoyed it or not, but nothing further. However, if you are like me, you may feel that you would like to discuss the impact of an experience with the arts on a deeper, more meaningful level. Here's the place to do it.

First up, I was just informed on a yahoo alert that the piece "Flag" by Jasper Johns sold for $28.6 million dollars at Christie's. This hit me on a number of levels -- first the fact that I could learn of such a sale at a moment's notice while sitting at my desk in Sarasota, Florida; second, the idea that the price tag on a painting is treated as breaking news; and finally, the fact that people with money to burn are probably hankering for "the America they once knew." "Flag" is considered an iconic piece of art, and I have to say on a surface level I find it very appealing (see photograph). But truly, it is Jasper Johns' interpretation of the flag we see every day. A sale of these proportions, one might say, is a testament to old-school American values. American symbolism and capitalism inextricably linked. In fact, the reporters note that investors are pouring their money into art of late, because of the volatility of the financial markets. Surely, it makes sense that a painting of a flag is now a safer investment than buying stock in Goldman Sachs, but it is certainly quite remarkable.

At a time when we keep hearing the refrain that the America of 2010 is not "my America" -- is it possible that the purchase of a $28.6 million flag painting is an attempt to hold onto America of the past, where greed was indeed "good?" (Note, ads are already playing for Oliver Stone's current take in "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps" again featuring Gordon Gekko, who originally coined the phrase).

As I said, I actually love the piece "Flag," but the ironies here aren't lost on me. I just keep thinking of the number of Americans who could benefit from that kind of money. In all likelihood, this piece will end up in the hands of another collector (it was owned by the late Michael Crichton), where Americans will never see it again. So much for the American dream.