Reimagining the Power of the Arts

Photo credit: Nichole Washington

December 25, 2022—As a life-long Champion for the Arts, I am optimistic about the profound visionary and transformational powers of the arts. That’s why I want to share with the readers of Arts & Culture Connections an inspiring story I recently heard about a group of artists in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

The Diatribe is a nonprofit creative collective, which was established about eight years ago to utilize performing arts to empower youth. Over the years, it has had remarkable success with participants learning to share their stories, becoming more aware of social issues and becoming engaged to create change in their communities.

The Executive Director of The Diatribe is Marcel “Fable” Price. Mr. Price was the city’s first poet laureate of color; the first not to have a college degree, as well as the first under the age of 40. A recent widower, he passionately believes that the arts are restorative and have the responsibility “to disrupt historical systems of oppression by reimagining education, holistically honoring the community…(and) creating an unapologetic vision for liberation that is accessible to all.”

After the pandemic, The Diatribe began a public murals project. Partnering with a software company that created an app, the murals project became a gateway for teaching the community about its history—from redlining to the historic diversion of resources. This led to a bilingual, community listening project—the artists held scores of listening sessions with as many neighbors as possible to ask the community about its vision for Southeast Grand Rapids.

What the neighborhood wanted most was affordable housing, truly affordable housing, as well as economic opportunities. The Diatribe launched a fundraiser to purchase a 20,000 square-foot building for mixed use, to house its headquarters; offer affordable studio and two-bedroom rental apartments; create co-working space; provide retail rental space, and a dedicated performance space. Their vision for this project includes empowering the tenants with access to financial literacy so that when they leave, they will have money for their next move or even money for a down payment.

The Diatribe also applied for American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) money for this venture. At a public meeting sponsored by the Board of Kent County Commissioners about ARPA funding, Mr. Price had an opportunity to have what he hoped would be an enthusiastic conversation with an unnamed commissioner about the project to buy and rehabilitate the building. He recounted the conversation in an radio interview:

“What do you do for a living?” the commissioner asked.

“I’m executive director of this nonprofit,” Mr. Price replied.

“What’s your specialty?” the commission responded. “Did you go to college? Are you a developer by trade?

“I’m a poet,” Mr. Price replied. “Most of my life I’ve been a poet; a fulltime time artist and storyteller.”

“A poet?” the commissioner responded incredulously. “What qualifies you to do a project like this?”

Mr. Price went on to tell the interviewer: “I am somebody who deals with a lot of imposter syndrome. I grew up cash poor. I grew up not doing good in school; got suspended often. But I am (also) an everyday, extraordinary human being just like a lot of the people around me.

“For a while, I was defeated by that conversation,” Mr. Price said, “and then I took a step back. I realized, who better to reimagine the world and the way systems work than artists and creatives? Who better to try to create something prolific and that hasn’t been done than a poet, and the people who talk about the world that they want to will into existence through literary arts?”

The Diatribe did not get the ARPA grant. But benefactors and donors have since been responding to their plans for the new building and the organization has raised more than $1-million towards their goal.

I know from conversations with colleagues and friends that many of us have faced similar situations in which our qualifications, interests, desire to develop new programs, or launch something that has never been done before has been challenged by people in charge of the purse strings. Sometimes the challenge comes from within our own hearts and we either limit or don’t pursue our dreams.

I firmly agree with Mr. Price. As artists, creatives, arts administrators, curators, arts marketers, teaching artists, arts organizations, and cultural institutions we must not be deterred. It is imperative that we continue to reimagine the world and do the hard and sometimes painful work of bringing our visions to life.

As always, I would like to know what you think. I invite you to share your thoughts or comments below.

I wish you and your loved ones a safe, happy, and healthy holiday season and may your work make an even bigger difference in the communities you engage in 2023.

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