By Emilie Syberg
“If you could change one thing about your life, what would it be?”
Abby Harris-Ridker, a book club leader for Literature for All of Us, posed that question to a small group of high school students at their weekly Tuesday meeting at an alternative school in Humboldt Park. The book club members—all young parents—offered their responses after a moment of thought.
One would move to a different neighborhood; two would have waited to have their children. Another would have stayed off the streets. Harris-Ridker listened intently, thanked everyone for their contributions, then switched gears.
“All right, we’re going to get back to the book we were reading last week,” Harris-Ridker said.
Literature for All of Us uses literature as a vehicle for discussion, support, and self-discovery for teenagers. In the next hour, as the students read aloud from the book The Knife and the Butterfly—which tells the story of a boy ensnared in gang activity—their personal connections to the book surfaced repeatedly. They discussed relationships, incarceration, their children, and the murder of loved ones. Harris-Ridker held the room in careful control, deftly moderating the conversation as the students’ voices gained in volume and confidence.
Literature for All of Us received $20,000 in funding from the National Endowment for the Arts for their 2017 programming. According to recent reports in The Hill and The New York Times, the National Endowment for the Arts has been placed on the potential government budgetary chopping block, which could directly impact the funding that allows these students to meet and read together.
“Most of the kids we work with have a deficit in their education…their educations are always interrupted by the chaos that they’ve been subjected to,” said Karen Thomson, the founder of Literature for All of Us. “If the NEA gets cut, it’s just one more blow to the kind of work we do, which is positive for healing individuals and communities.”
Collaboraction Theatre Company is producing the second year of Peacebook, an arts festival devoted to the promotion of peace and dialogue and the cessation of violence. Peacebook grew out of their highly regarded “Crime Scene” performances and programming, which explored violence in Chicago—a central cause for Collaboraction.
Held in Chicago neighborhoods ranging from Englewood to Uptown, the Peacebook festival produces 21 world premiere short plays about peace in Chicago. The event drew around 2,000 attendees last year, and featured the collaborative work of 255 artists. Collaboraction works closely with the communities beforehand, in what artistic director Anthony Moseley called “cultivation events”. These are designed to build the relationships that are key to the success of Peacebook.
The NEA awarded Collaboraction $10,000 for last year’s Peacebook festival—specifically for these cultivation events—and $10,000 in general funds for this year’s upcoming Peacebook, which will take place in the fall. Schoen Smith, Collaboraction’s director of development, said that the festival costs approximately $90,000 to produce, an amount that covers the cost of technicians, artist stipends, musicians, marketing and publicity, high production values, and the free food provided for festival-goers.
“It’s a flagship program for us…it’s extremely important to what Collaboraction does,“ Smith said. “We are literally piecemealing our budget together through grants. So even though it’s a little bit here, a little bit there, every little bit literally counts.”
Smith said Collaboraction’s budget is divided evenly among grants, individuals, and foundations in addition to their ticket sales and for hire work.
“Doing the research [and the] manpower to find that money takes time and money,” Smith said. “So every time money goes away…we have to work harder to make up for that loss of funding.”
Moseley said a threat to NEA funding made a very specific statement.
“[They’re saying] we don’t value your most important piece of programming enough to give it this critical cash that it needs to make maximum impact,” Moseley said. “The two things we’re looking at when we think about the NEA are artistic excellence and community impact. A boy in Englewood can be on stage in Englewood, and all his family can come and see him on stage. He can transform his life, his own perception of his own possibility, and the way everybody in his community thinks of him.”
“Our most special piece of programming—that is community building and artistic excellence,” Moseley said.
Cristine Davis, from Performing Arts Alliance, the arts advocacy organization, said NEA funding can help arts organizations attract other donations to their programming, and that cutting that funding would have a ripple effect.
“The NEA is an investment, and it spurs other giving,” Davis said. “For example, many of the grant programs will require a match, and if an arts organization receives an NEA grant, it’s a bit of a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. But it also spurs giving from the private sector—philanthropy and charitable giving. It really is a catalyst.”
Davis said advocacy will play an important part in protecting the NEA from elimination.
“Advocates have to really step up to the plate through the relationships they have with their legislators and talk about what’s important—the local impact, and what could be lost if that agency [funding] is lost,” Davis said.
The Performing Arts Alliance, along with national organizations like Americans for the Arts, provide tools on their websites for individual acts of advocacy for the arts. On February 17, 24 senators signed a letter to President Trump asking for his support of the NEA.
At Literature for All of Us, Karen Thomson said people are natural artists.
“We’re creative beings. It’s never going away. They can cut our funding, but art’s not going away. And we’ll find other ways to do it, because people have to express themselves,” Thomson said.