Working (our butts off) to Preserve Cultural Policy in Oakland

by Jacinda Abcarian

I think we all know that our place within Maslow’s hierarchy of needs determines how much time, energy and money we can spend on enjoying and creating art.  For many of Oakland’s youth, physiological and safety needs are top priorities.  This is why free and affordable arts offerings are so important but often left out of cultural policy discussions. Families with money can always find cool, engaging programs for their kids. But what about families that can barely pay the bills, or teens and young adults who cannot afford to work as unpaid interns at progressive arts organizations or focus on their personal development because they need to work? This is where Bay Area nonprofit organizations such as Oaktown Jazz WorkshopsYouth Radio and Youth Speaks come in to play critical roles.

Teens and young adults in Oakland are the reason I love to come to work each day.  Their energy, resilience and love of life are refreshing and make my job of chasing funding to keep Youth Radio thriving all worth it. When they walk through the doors of our 20,000 square foot headquarters at 17th and Broadway, they enter a safe, professional and respectful environment.  We provide a setting that stands in stark contrast to the bleak, authoritarian schools and juvenile halls they come from.  Unfortunately, nonprofit leaders are burning out at high rates from trying to string together miracles on a shortage of cash. We need help, but help is clearly not on the way. Today’s headlines show that the government needs to cut 4 trillion from the budget, but is not looking to cut one cent from the Pentagon. As the classic bumper sticker reads: “It will be a great day when our schools have all the money they need and the military has to hold a bake sale to buy a bomber.”

On my “up” days I like to think that arts and culture can’t be stopped due to lack of funding. Just look at the birth of hip-hop culture in New York City in the early 80’s.  Created by “have-nots” hip-hop culture is now central to a multi-million dollar industry that has spread in popularity worldwide! But back to reality…with so little financial support for implementing cultural policy in our schools and communities, Oakland’s teens are hurting. The dropout rate is at a staggering 40%, making the Oakland schools known across the nation as “dropout factories.”  A little infusion of innovative arts programming would go a long way in this city. Take 17 year old Oakland high school student and participant at Youth Radio, Ria. I saw her crying on a park bench one morning and asked her what was wrong. She told me that her grades were not good enough to secure a work permit, and furthermore, she may not have the credits she needs to graduate. I phoned her principal who stated, “Ria is failing all of her classes except for one.” “Which one is that?” I asked. His reply-“Performing Arts-she has an “A” in that.” Ria told me that she got to take performing arts as a senior but that all of her other classes were so dull she just couldn’t pay attention.  If she had that class freshman year, she may never be in the position she is in today. Of course I do not mean to take away from the importance of hard work and just plain home-work, but I share this story to show how one simple offering, like a class in performing arts, can inspire a young person to get up each day and actually look forward to going to school.

Cultural policy is not just about making sure the local opera house stays open, it is about preserving what most would view as basic elements of a decent and just society including public libraries and public broadcasting. With funding for these and arts education being stripped away daily, as Arlene Goldbard so well describes, our youth need nonprofit organizations now more than ever.



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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