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An LA citizen...for a spell

It is not uncommon for people to register mild shock or disbelief when we say that the NEA Big Read program issues awards to nonprofits nationwide. The misconception is understandable since our name, Arts Midwest, implies that we only serve organizations and artists in a certain swath of states in the middle of the country. While that’s true for several programs we offer, the NEA Big Read is one exception. As part of running the NEA Big Read for the National Endowment for the Arts, we travel to awarded organizations and their communities from time to time to learn best practices, make evaluations, and connect with the people who do all the heavy lifting to make the program a reality. Recently, I had the opportunity to escape snowy Minneapolis and travel to Los Angeles, California to commemorate the tenth iteration of the NEA Big Read there.

Since their first award in 2008, the department of cultural affairs staff has spearheaded the development of a series of reading programs each year around a different book in the NEA Big Read library. For 2018, they chose Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric as a basis for a several-months-long, city-wide offering of literary and artistic events that address topics brought up in the book, predominately racism vis-à-vis microaggressions.

During my visit, I attended their kick off of their tenth Big Read by speaking during a proclamation ceremony at City Hall accompanied by dozens of students from several nearby Los Angeles high schools.

Los Angeles high school students posing on the steps of Los Angeles City Hall with their free copies of Rankine’s book.

Walking into the council chambers felt quite intimidating, to be honest. I received instructions on where to sit, when to stand, and who to meet as all parties got settled. To mark the occasion, a group of three singers serenaded all in attendance in the city council chambers with an acapella piece entitled, “A Change is Going to Come.” Certainly, they were a tough act to follow especially when the council president asked for an encore. Check out this video of the performance and proclamation [skip to 38:25].

To mark the occasion I provided a little history of the impact in Los Angeles with over 2,000 NEA Big Read programs and over 280,000 individuals served. Given the immense size of the Los Angeles metropolitan area, these may not seem like mindblowing statistics but they are equivalent to serving an entire small suburban town each year. That’s pretty impressive! I especially appreciate the work they’ve done with homeless men and women over the years at the Los Angeles Mission, giving them opportunities to express themselves in writing workshops as well as providing free books and journals.

Sadly, the timing of my travel did not coincide with a visit to the Mission but I had the chance to make my own blackout (erasure) poetry. I’m confident this won’t win any awards but it was a fun exercise to do with the library’s withdrawn books.

Mood dark. Time. Time to cheer up. Run strong, folks, you see…always be in the gaps.

I leave you, dear reader, with an image that hopefully demonstrates how dedicated and creative Angelenos can be.

Notice the ketchup hearts on the second dog.

I look forward to what they cook up for their next NEA Big Read!