Wednesday, October 15, 2008

When Did You Last Show Anyone How to Fish?

"Give a man a fish; you have fed him for today. Teach a man to fish; and you have fed him for a lifetime”—Chinese Proverb

Today is Blog Action Day and the topic is Poverty. Those words in the proverb, most of us have heard it before, probably agree with it. So my question is, when or how was the last time we taught anyone how to fish?

Poverty is such a huge thing that we could end up chasing our tails taking about it. What is the good in that? Talking about it I mean. I looked around for some facts, some figures, some riviting quote to put out there. That time spent in itself is a good thing. There is some interesting information out there on poverty in the USA. I focused on us because it is too easy to look at the so called third world. How glamorously distant and poetic it is to travel to an exotic place and scoop up a child of Poverty. I am not saying don't do that. I am not saying there aren't enough poor people in the world. What I am saying is it gets a little tougher to put the romance to it when it might be closer to home.

Here's something I found: 18% of our children under 18 are living below the poverty line. That's about 13 million if I did the math correctly. If you are a kid, move to New Hampshire or Wyoming. Do not live in the District of Columbia or in Mississippi. Over 50% of the children in DC are poor if I read those charts correctly. And Mississippi, well don't get me started about those lovely, but poor children. New Hampshire had the lowest per cent as did Wyoming. Louisiana and Texas have about the same 24-25%.

I get upset about this topic, I get overwhelmed because it is pervasive and ongoing. Hey, you all saw those rooftops, those masses of poor in the Ninth Ward. You think we weren't aware? Think again. It was a constant awareness and a constant frustration. If the Ninth Ward was in Kenya or Darfur maybe it would have had more global romantic appeal. And more press sex appeal. But one more black male with a gun in his hand is really hard to get all squishy about. And no not all the poor people there are criminals, don't take that the wrong way. But locally we really hated getting shot at, robbed, held up, murdered in our homes and then have the whole thing blamed on poverty, circumstance, or history. That disrespects everybody. Blame does not get anyone anywhere except to more finger pointing, rhetoric and a continuation of the status quo. And more people on rooftops. Action begets more action.

Locally some of us were on it. Look this up. Look at the return on investment for cultural and arts dollars spent. Last look it was 8 to 1. Yes, for every 1 dollar invested in the arts or culture there is a return of 8 dollars. Talked to a broker lately? Got anything comparable? Here's what I did:

I realized I did not have the big answer. But I did know a few things. And I had access to some resources both public and private. So I designed an Artist in Residence program, pitched it, got the gig. And not for anything near what it is worth. But lets not talk about how the arts are valued here. Here's the point. I did it anyway, in spite of the time and effort it cost me. That Artist in Residence program, that effort, touched over a hundred kids, poor and rich. And it is replicable. We worked together. Let me say that again: with public and private resources we worked together creatively using the arts and literacy to impact over a 100 children and their sense of community. Take a moment. Reread that last sentence.

Now here's something important to me. As a favor, in addition to the ongoing Artist in Residence program, I was asked to design a joint project that would have somewhere between 60 -100 kids work inside an hour and a half in rotation to complete an art activity on one particular day. Something memorable. Something that would be a culmination of their time together after this school year of shared learning, field trips, and projects. 10 year old girls and their teachers asked me to do this as a favor to them. They would pay for the supplies and supply some parents as volunteers. I came up with the idea of a canvas mural of their year. We would paint and collage a symbolic map of what they had lived. It would be a personal cultural icon and record for them. These are second and sixth graders remember. And this was extra ( not paid). This is where you walk the talk. Here's where you show what an investment in a child's future through the arts means.

And here comes the payoff, actually one of many. At the very beginning of that hour of madness and potential chaos, I put a paint brush in a second grader's hand and said you get to be first, "Here's the paint, here's the brush, there's your river." This is a young boy from that "poorer" school a few blocks over. The look on his face, his surprise and delight to be given that tool and the freedom to use it to paint his still is pretty hard to describe for me. I touched his life. He told me he had never been allowed, or had the tool. I got down on the floor encouraged him, but let him do it all on his own. Watching that boy paint with as much enthusiasm as I had at that age was like watching a door open to a new world for him and for me, convincing evidence that it was priceless, that investment. That moment is a touchstone for me. That brush stroke from his hand and the sparkle that radiated from his eyes, the huge smile on his face....will stay with me forever.

In the scheme of things it may not sound like much. But I made sure that our effort got it's due. We exhibited at the city's Children's Museum so the larger world could see what we did. His parents came to see the mural, as did a lot of the parents. The mayor did not...Ahem. The lt. Gov. sent his regrets, but also his support, he has been on his own Cultural Initiatives mission for some time now. I got Whole Foods to sponsor the refreshments. It was very cool. You should have seen the faces. The pride and the excitement. The ripple from brush strokes can be huge.

When the resume is asked for, when my credentials are perused. That's one of the things that I would put at the top. There's no way to measure just yet if my river painter will beat the odds. But he knows how to use a brush now.And he had such joy, such a sense of, hey that mark is mine. Yes, there was strutting. So I am thinking...that's kind of like fishing. He can paint paintings or a house. It really doesn't matter. I hope it just showed him, there are options...choices and along the way, some help if he needs it.

One at a time. We can do it one at a time. It ripples you know. So that is my little give a man a fish or teach him how to fish story.

Do you have one?


A Brush with Color said...

Wow--what a moving post, Janice! I didn't see it 'til this morning. I agree--we're so slow to realize right here in America poverty is a reality. I have volunteered at the Food Bank, and at times in soup kitchens, but on the road I'm not much help there. I was always fascinated with the guy who has given cameras to impoverished children to let us see what catches their eyes in "their" world. I believe, if I'm not mistaken, he's published books whose proceeds have gone to help them some.

Your ideas are powerful.

Janice C. Cartier said...

Thanks Suzanne. It was huge success. I think people tend to forget that it's not a spotlight car chase sensational thing, it is a series of small things. A hot meal, some extra food bank food, a brush or a camera in a kid's hand...and it is not something that breaks anyone's budget.
And here's another cool part, the Program was designed for leaders. Girls who statistically will lead and pass this on. So each of them carries the lessons forward and multiplies it a gazillion times over.
I am so going to Google the guy and the photo project you mentioned. I would be on that like white on rice. I did a WPA photo project with another artist in residence project and sophomore American history girls. :-)
So glad you liked the post.

Janice C. Cartier said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Parisbreakfasts said...

They did that camera program with poor kids in India.
Results were amazing!
Sounds a lot like the best kind or community organizing to me.

Janice C. Cartier said...

In India...I will look for it. Noblesse oblige is actually a useful concept. ;-)

Vered said...

What a beautiful post.

Kids living in poverty - that's the most heartbreaking, isn't it?

There's no excuse for it, really.

Anonymous said...

This is such an inspiring piece of writing. Personal, gritty, honest, moving. Thank you.

I loved how you took the topic and made it personal, and showed us (me) what one person can do. I loved that your contribution was based around your own unique gift.

And I loved this line:

"The ripple from brush strokes can be huge"

Thank you!

Janice C. Cartier said...

I love you guys!

Thank you Vered. It is heart wrenching, kids in poverty. They need choices. And basic care.

Joanna- Wow, I thank you for that. High praise indeed from a writer I really admire. I think it makes sense to use our individual unique gifts, just like using that list you made yesterday of the power of words. That's where things happen, with each of us. We have gifts. We can pass them on.

Anonymous said...

Such an interesting perspective, Janice. An artist's take on poverty.

As a former teacher (and elementary school principal), I saw the power of the arts to transform kids' self-concepts and perceptions of themselves at the very time that they were being cut from school budgets. But that's another story.

As a teacher, often working in low-income schools, I tended to give them lost of experiences in art because it was a kind of beauty in their lives that they didn't see a lot of. One year, three kids from my class came in first, second, and third in the state in the Duck Stamp contest, for their beautiful watercolor renditions of ducks they had studied at a local canal. What an achievement that was for hem!

Your work with those kids is something they will never forget. Thank you for this touching story.

Janice C. Cartier said...

Judy- You are welcome. It is so very shortsighted to cut the arts from funding. Honestly, huge costly mistake.
I created art projects and enrichments in conjunction with academic areas in these residency programs before the storm...filled in the gap so to speak by bringing the studio artist into the classroom on a project by project basis. Very very amazing stuff. Exhausting, but good. And priceless.
Thank you for your kind words.