Creating Real Outlets for Cultural Arts Expression

by Jacinda Abcarian

BEMIE ( is a 23 year old artist from Oakland. As a “punk rapper” his two self-proclaimed necessities are food and a cell phone.  But faced with mainstream media outlets that shut out new talent and literally play the same seven booty-music songs in rotation each hour, he struggles to get known.  While Facebook, MySpace and YouTube provide free platforms for self-promotion and marketing, they still do not come close to the exposure he would get on KMEL or Wild 94.9 for example. This sad lack of outlets for artistic expression calls on us to explore new routes.

Nonprofit organizations like Oaktown Jazz Workshops, Youth Radio, and Youth Speaks, work hard to create real outlets for artistic expression in a time when there are so few. Youth Radio’s reporters are on national outlets including NPR and, Oaktown Jazz Workshops’ musicians play venues including Yoshi’s Jazz Club, and Youth Speaks’ poets are featured on HBO.

When doors shut in the faces of our youth we work hard to create new outlets for them. Take the Oscar Grant tragedy for example. Youth Radio worked with community artists to create a public mural in memory of Oscar Grant, the Oakland 22-year-old who was shot and killed by BART police officer Johannes Mehserle.   ( An effort to transform the community’s pain and anger into art, Youth Radio invited muralists from the group “Trust Your Struggle” ( to paint on boards covering the windows of organization’s home in downtown Oakland.  The downtown group created an iconic picture of Grant’s face that supporters of Grant’s family replicated for Facebook avatars and tribute posters.

Unlikely approaches to fostering artistic and cultural development often work the best.  My ex-husband from West Africa told me that as a youth development strategy, all of the “discotechs” (dance clubs) in his hometown would open their doors to teens from 4-8pm, the critical after-school hours when most youth crime happens. They would serve only juice and soda and have DJ’s spinning, providing a safe and fun place for youth to be themselves. After 8pm the clubs would only be open to adults.  What a creative way to utilize the community’s resources!

When it comes to implementing cultural policy in Oakland we must be open to non-traditional, innovative models that inspire young people to engage with the arts, but most importantly, that are accessible to the youth themselves.




Jacinda Abcarian is a graduate of Youth Radio’s class of 1993 and is its current Executive Director. She moved from a student and peer teacher to an award-winning reporter and producer. She has worked as a reporter for WRFG-FM in Atlanta and as a journalism fellow at NPR in Washington, D.C. Awards include a Golden Reel from the National Federation of Community Broadcasters for Accidental Shooting, and the Alfred I. DuPont-Columbia Silver Baton Award for her producer role in the series, Emails from Kosovo. She was recently honored by the Gerbode Foundation with the prestigious 2010 Gerbode Professional Development Fellowship award. Abcarian has been active in initiatives promoting prevention of tobacco use and gun violence among youth. Abcarian earned a B.A. in Sociology from UC Berkeley and completed Strategic Perspectives in Nonprofit Management at Harvard Business School. She is also a member of the City of Oakland’s Cultural Affairs Commission and The Crucible’s Advisory Council.

Don’t miss Reframing the Arts : Advocating for the Public Culture at Oakland Museum of California (OMCA)on Saturday, April 16! Register here.

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