Often times, one of the first things people ask when I first meet them is, "So what do you do?" I've always found this question frustrating and insanely pointless, as if it's simple to sum up your existence in a few words. But I've found myself talking about my teaching and non-profit work more than my artistic practice. So I'll explain my take on the non-profit sector, at least my experience of it.
Without being too sentimental and/or self indulgent, I spent a lot of time volunteering as a child, primarily in homeless shelters. My mother was a pastor, so the majority of weeknights and weekends were spent at church, or doing community service with the church. If I'm being quite honest, I loved every minute of it. As the only child to a single mother, I found family within church and everyone in it. Since my mother had raised me in church, I honestly knew nothing else and thought service was a contribution everyone made if/when able to. I realize now that this fostered a bad behavior of taking on too many tasks, with the justification that it was my duty, but that's another conversation.
As I've gotten older, I do still feel that it's your obligation to help others, within your means, of course. But I also feel that it's a calling for certain people and simultaneously one of the most draining activities. I've never known how to describe what I do, and I hate calling it community service. I feel like it can often imply that I don't enjoy it or that there are ulterior incentives, but none of that is true. I genuinely don't know what else to do, I like being in the community.
Throughout my primary and secondary education, I spent a good deal of time working in homeless shelters and group homes; primarily working with recovering female addicts and their children. When I began college, that was the first time I had no desire to do work in the community. I'd spent a great deal of doing that in my childhood and teenage years, and finally wanted to focus on my own art practice. However, when I began at my school, a private art school in Baltimore, which is also currently one of the largest gentrifying forces in the city; I was disgusted at the lack of care for what was going on around our school. Eventually, it led me to distance myself from my school community and further push myself into the communities surrounding.
Four years have passed and I've been teaching all over the city, sometimes funded by grants and city programs, and often times as a volunteer. The most rewarding part of this hasn't been what I've been able to teach, but what I've learned from every person I've worked with. There are so many people in the city who have a lot to say; they're aware, they're angry, and they love their city. But there aren't enough tools, resources, or people my age willing to give them a platform to speak their minds. And often times what they want, is just someone to listen, even if only for twenty minutes.
Non-profit work is one of the most difficult fields, especially at the grassroots level. You have many people extending themselves beyond their means simply because they believe in what they're doing and they want to make a difference, but there is not even city, state, or government funding for the programs that are doing a bulk of the work. Of course with many of the radical social and political movements of the 60s and 70s, came a large movement by our lovely government to devise ways in which to undermine and delegitimize these movements and the people within them.
We can look at the criminalization of the Black Panther Movement, the delegitimization of the Women's Movement, and the attempted abolition of the Trans and Queer Movement to name a few. And all of this happened during the massive shift of the global economy. There is a disgusting neglect for those in state custody, mass incarceration has now become the problem itself as opposed to being the solution; a way for people to successfully reform and return to society as contributing citizens. We have witnessed the separation and competition of different oppressed communities; creating a hierarchy and struggle within those same oppressed groups. Many non-profits have now become professionalized and spend most of their time chasing the money of large "philanthropic" donors. They have transitioned from organizations fighting to make change, to quietly coming up with temporary solutions to the issues, instead of actually dealing with the problems. I don't say this to say that the entire non-profit world is corrupt, but a vast majority of these non-profit organizations have CEOs making six to seven figures, while those on working on "ground zero" are barely make $30,000 a year.
Despite all of this, I absolutely love what I do! Luckily, I've yet to reach the corporate level of non-profit organizing, well not completely, but I believe in every single organization that I work with and if I don't; I leave. My main point of this slight ramble, is to hopefully get people to be aware of the fact that we have the ability to impact change, help people, and educate yourself about how your community works. However, it's also your responsibility (and yes I believe it's everyone's responsibility) to take a step back, educate yourself about what's going on in your community (good and bad) and do something about it. This doesn't mean go volunteer at a soup kitchen for an hour so you can post it on Instagram; do it because you truly want to help and you're not looking to put on a show. This could be as simple as checking on your elderly neighbor to see if they need help, or even organizing a composting pick up for your block; anything to start engaging with the people who live around you and helping to the mental, physical, and/or financial means that you're capable of.