The arts have the power to remind us that for each new challenge, there is a creative solution. That amidst uncertainty, restlessness, and divisive political narratives, there remain opportunities for connection and conversation.
That’s why our programs bring artists, grantees, and communities together to work toward making this world a better place—a place where the exchange of ideas and creative experiences inspires curiosity and understanding.
Amirah Sackett taught dance and hip hop history to students during residency workshops. Photo by Antar Hanif.
You come to us from another world
While participating in Arts Midwest’s program Caravanserai: A place where cultures meet, Muslim hip hop dancer Amirah Sackett choreographed a solo dance to a musical adaptation of Rumi’s poem “The Alchemy of Love.”
Though the poem dates from the 13th century, Sackett found inspiration in Rumi’s words. Both the poem and the dance itself reflected her hopes for the world’s understanding of Islam.
In its fifth and final year, Caravanserai elevated the voices of American Muslim artists, bringing musicians and dancers, like Sackett, into small towns for residencies and performances.
Five months prior to Caravanserai’s arrival in Grand Forks, North Dakota, a local Somali-owned coffee shop was attacked with a Molotov cocktail. This culturally-motivated violence was at the forefront of the artists’ minds as they arrived for their first stop on the tour in April 2016.
Having been the recipient of hostility even in larger cities, Sackett and the other artists were concerned about the reaction they’d receive in Grand Forks.
All opposites unite
While in Grand Forks, Sackett visited Red River High School, a school with a small Muslim population among its students. Many of the girls, like Sackett, wore hijab, the traditional Muslim head scarf. In Sackett, they saw a reflection of themselves.
“It was like instant love,” Sackett said. “I got so many hugs from those girls and so many selfies.”
And though it was a shared cultural symbol that led Sackett to make instant friends with the Muslim students, she had soon won over the entire group.
Sackett taught the students a form of hip hop dance called tutting, which primarily uses the arms and hands to create geometric patterns in time to a song’s beat. Even those students who were ordinarily shy joined in the dance.
“There’s something that happens that’s magic with hip hop,” Sackett said. “It really facilitates conversations between students.”
Discovery Elementary students joined Sackett in tutting, a style of hip hop dance. Photo by Antar Hanif.
Love embraces all
It’s that magic connection that Caravanserai hopes to bring not only to the communities it reaches, but also to the participating artists.
At the public concert at the end of her week in Grand Forks, Sackett performed the solo dance she had created based on the Rumi poem.
Through this piece, titled “Love Embraces All,” Sackett expressed not only her hope for understanding in the audience and community, but also her realization that her own beliefs, too, had been expanded by the program.
“Anything you do that is that intense changes you as a person,” Sackett said.
And so, while she began the residency in Grand Forks a little fearful and apprehensive of how she might be received as a Muslim woman and as an artist, Amirah Sackett left with a new understanding of the community.
“People talk about ‘Oh, these small towns, these people,’” she said. “I know [now] that they are really good people—free-minded, wonderful Americans—in these small towns. That was a beautiful thing for me to realize. That gives me hope in the world.”
Albion, Michigan student leaders who participated in and led activities in the community’s Big Read of A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin.
Wizards and dragons unite struggling town
Jess Roberts first recognized the need for NEA Big Read in Albion, Michigan, in 2013 when she was volunteering with elementary students. At the time, Albion’s school district was struggling. The district faced sizable debt, the high school had just shut down, and enrollment at the K-8 school was on the decline.
As Roberts, an associate professor of English at Albion College, forged a connection with the elementary school, she spoke with many young students who expressed concern about the future.
Over the next two years, it was revealed that Albion’s school district faced more than twice as much debt as previously thought, forcing program cuts at the elementary and middle schools, and layoffs for local teachers.
Roberts knew that her community needed a uniting force to overcome these struggles—and she knew NEA Big Read could help achieve that.
The loosing of the shadow
Led by Roberts, Albion College applied for and received a Big Read grant, presenting programming focused on Ursula K. Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea in October 2015.
“At a time when our children began to wonder what was wrong with them that so many people would leave their school, [NEA] Big Read offered them reason to feel good, to believe in and value themselves,” Roberts said.
Though unintentional, the timing of Albion’s Big Read and the school district budget cuts created a great opportunity for the community.
“NEA Big Read was a thing that everyone was excited about,” Roberts said. “Across class lines, across political lines, across racial lines, across age lines, Big Read activities created a shared sense of identity that valued everybody.”
The greatest of the wizards
From the beginning, Roberts knew she wanted the program to empower Albion’s students. Along with other members of the town’s Big Read planning committee, she trained 13 middle and high school students to lead their own book discussions.
The student leaders were initially hesitant about A Wizard of Earthsea, a 1968 fantasy novel that most were unfamiliar with prior to the program, but they soon discovered connections between the book and their own lives.
The novel follows Ged, the greatest wizard in the land of Earthsea, as he undertakes a quest to defeat a dark shadow he unwittingly released into the world. Empowered by his mentors to defeat the shadow on his own, Ged discovers his true self.
Like Ged, who traveled from his homeland to attend wizard school on the island of Roke, many Albion students were attending school elsewhere. As Ged battled a dragon, elementary students created dragon scales for Big Read art projects after their art programs were cut from the school. As Ged sought to find the shadow, student leaders were empowered to speak out about what the school district’s struggles meant for their future.
Making itself whole
At a time when the news out of Albion was of massive debt and failing schools, NEA Big Read provided residents with a reason for pride—in their community, in their neighbors, in their students, and in themselves.
Through NEA Big Read, Albion is working on reclaiming its identity and, like Ged in A Wizard of Earthsea, it has begun to make itself whole again.