November 5, 2023—I recently read an interview with the award-winning writer, university professor, policy leader, and Rhodes Scholar, Tope Folarin, about the importance of the arts during both personal and social crises. The interview was posted on Medium at this link.
I believe Mr. Folarin, who also serves as the Executive Director of the progressive think-tank, the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C., and teaches fiction writing at Georgetown University, represents future generations of arts leaders whose work recognizes and integrates the arts in every facet of what they do.
In the interview, he shares how he was initially torn between his pursuit of academic goals and his passion for the arts. But while studying at Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar, where he earned two master’s degrees, Mr. Folarin recognized that it was possible to have a “really rich creative life” that would not detract from his academic interests. Based on that determination, he pursued both tracks and became a recipient of the Caine Prize for African Writing, and the author the highly regarded novel, A Particular Kind of Black Man.
“I think the arts are even more important now than they ever have been. They enable us to draw connections between ostensibly disparate topics, at a moment when people the world over need to learn how to work together to confront the challenges that are facing us, the multiple crises that are bearing down on us, the environmental crisis, the economic crisis, the crises in our democracies. The arts are not a back page thing for me, they are front and center and teach us how to relate to one another as human beings.”
He also had advice for people pursuing a career in the arts, based on his on struggles:
“I was poor, I was trying to write poems, nobody was publishing these poems, the future didn’t look very bright at that point. But looking back, it was by far the most important point of my professional life, because it was a crisis and I tried to think about it as an opportunity, and I spent a lot of time just working on craft…. I decided to dedicate myself to living as an artist. And I can say confidently if I didn’t do that for a year and a half, then I wouldn’t be successful now. So, I think that if you’re interested in making it as an artist, you have to separate yourself from the notion that it’s a straight ladder up; there will be various points that you have to step sideways and do other things.”
Mr. Folarin is Nigerian-American and draws from his experience of being the child of immigrant parents. There are a few additional pearls of wisdom from which I think any young professionals or youth you may be mentoring can benefit. Encourage them to check out the interview at this link.