As one of just six Regional Arts Organizations in the United States, Arts Midwest plays a critical role in partnering with the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and our member state arts agencies to ensure that American taxpayers’ investments, duly appropriated by Congress, extend to every corner of our nation.
Reaching every Congressional district in America, NEA programs carve new pathways to ensure that every American, no matter their income or location, can access the discovery, joy, and connection that comes from experiencing the arts.
President Trump’s budget proposal, released on March 16, which proposes eliminating all funding for the NEA, is an alarming recommendation that has been met with both overwhelming opposition by fervent arts supporters as well as a dangerous level of support from those who want to see the agency eliminated.
We are reassured that those divides are not entirely based in party lines. In fact, former Arkansas Governor and Republican presidential primary candidate Mike Huckabee stated recently in The Washington Post,
[T]o someone such as me—for whom an early interest in music and the arts became a lifeline to an education and academic success—[NEA] money is not expendable, extracurricular, or extraneous. It is essential.
We agree, and want to share a few examples of these essential activities with you—activities that would disappear under this budget proposal:
Arts Midwest World Fest brought musical ensembles from China, Israel, Québec, and South Africa to Thief River Falls, Minnesota, over the past two years. Through week-long residencies in schools and community spaces, these artists inspired residents young and old to experience new, global music, and to find empathy and understanding for cultures different from their own.
Thanks to a grant from the Arts Midwest Touring Fund, the Sisseton Arts Council in South Dakota brought contemporary dance company Thodos Dance Chicago, to their community. This was the first professionally staged dance performance to ever occur in Sisseton, a community that is outside of a typical tour circuit yet eager to participate in the sharing, beauty, and mindfulness that comes with creative experiences.
These stories, including those shared in the current issue of the newsletter below, offer a glimpse into the ways in which we leverage federal funding from the NEA to bring the arts to the Midwest. These programs deliver powerful and positive impact. They are programs for our neighbors, our families, our friends, our children.
We urge you to take action today to support the NEA. Your voice matters now more than ever.
Ka Joog constituents celebrate Somali culture and history during Somali Week, an event that draws 30,000 people to celebrate Somali Independence and July 4th. Photo courtesy of Ka Joog.
By Emma Bohmann, development manager
As Ka Joog approached its tenth anniversary this year, it underwent an examination of its operations. The organization, which provides youth engagement programming for the Somali community in Minneapolis’s Cedar-Riverside neighborhood, was at a crossroads.
“Our staff was putting in so much work,” said Executive Director Mohamed Farah. “We were stretched too thin.”
For help, Ka Joog turned to ArtsLab, Arts Midwest’s training program for arts organizations. From September 2016 to January 2017, Ka Joog participated in ArtsLab’s Twin Cities Performing Arts Peer Learning Community.
The Cedar-Riverside neighborhood boasts a thriving arts scene, with more than a dozen theaters, music venues, and galleries, and Ka Joog’s staff grew up participating in this cultural scene. It made sense, then, that Ka Joog turned to the arts to help deliver its message.
“Art is part of the Somali culture,” said Farah. “It’s an easy tool that can be used to build bridges between both generations [immigrants and first-generation Americans].”
Somalia has historically been known as a “Nation of Poets.” Ka Joog’s arts offerings—which encompass theater, spoken word, sculpture, and music—help connect Somali youth with their cultural heritage. But the arts also help Ka Joog give voice to subjects that are often considered taboo in the Somali culture, such as mental illness.
“[We’re] using art as a means to open a dialogue,” Farah said. “We’ve been very successful over the years in talking about issues that a lot of people don’t normally talk about.”
Yet to continue this important work, Farah knew the organization needed to make some changes.
As part of ArtsLab, Ka Joog joined a peer learning cohort with nine other Twin Cities organizations. With assistance from the group, Farah and his colleagues examined Ka Joog’s purpose and how it aligned with its programming.
“[ArtsLab] helped us realize what exactly our collective vision is moving forward,” said Daud Mohamed, corporate relations manager at Ka Joog.
Left: Ka Joog Executive Director Mohamed Farah shows his ArtsLab peers how growth in demand for their programs has outpaced staff capacity. Photo by Bill Cameron. Right: Ka Joog partners with Wilderness Inquiry to take Somali youth on educational outdoor trips to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in northern Minnesota and Yellowstone National Park (pictured). Photo courtesy of Ka Joog.
Mohamed said that Ka Joog would agree to partner with organizations, even if the project fell outside their mission. Through ArtsLab, they realized that they could maintain partnerships while ensuring that the relationship aligned with their mission.
Now, Ka Joog has begun to develop new relationships with other ArtsLab organizations like Minnesota Boychoir and Contempo Physical Dance. The organization hopes to involve these new partners in Somali Week, their week-long festival that celebrates Somali Independence Day and the 4th of July each summer.
The diversity of organizations in the ArtsLab cohort emphasized for Farah the many opportunities and ways that exist for people to become involved in the arts.
“I want to see that in the Somali community,” he said.
Farah also recognized that Ka Joog had much to share with their cohort peers.
“Around this neighborhood [Cedar-Riverside], there are over 200 artists of different kinds,” he said. “And so I think the more that we’re able to teach the mainstream art world about these great other forms of art that we have is better for us.”
With new partnerships in the works and a clear understanding of its direction, Ka Joog is poised to continue its work and expand its reach in the community. No longer at a crossroads, Ka Joog has found its way forward.
Student leaders and Albion College volunteers walked in Albion’s NEA Big Read Kick-Off Parade. Photo by Madeline Drury.
By Emma Bohmann, development manager
In our 2016 end of year newsletter, Arts Midwest shared how NEA Big Read helped unite the town of Albion, Michigan, in the wake of school closings during their 2015 programming. We recently checked in to hear about the community’s 2016 NEA Big Read.
After years of declining enrollment and school closings, the public school district in Albion, Michigan, officially shut down in the summer of 2016, sending Albion students to school in nearby Marshall, Michigan.
There’s something quite shocking about a school system going away. Kids [were] coming up to me and…asking what was wrong with us that everyone was leaving.
—Jess Roberts, associate professor of English at Albion College
In the midst of this upheaval, a group of 8th, 9th, and 10th grade Albion students participated in the 2016 Big Read Student Leadership Program. Created and led by Roberts, the program is part of Albion College’s NEA Big Read.
The 18 student leaders spent the summer on the Albion College campus, reading Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and participating in activities designed to build their confidence, leadership, and love of reading. During October’s NEA Big Read, they teamed up to lead seven book discussions, engaging college students and adults in conversations around themes like character, censorship, and loyalty.
Albion students took part in NEA Big Read activities while sporting the Fahrenheit 451 flame to promote the program. Photo by Madeline Drury.
In addition to helping the students become comfortable on a college campus, the program also offered them a chance to embrace their identity as Albion students, despite now attending school in Marshall.
The Big Read program values Albion and values [the student leaders] as kids from Albion. That’s a really important thing that they carry with them into the [Marshall] schools.
Roberts cited the program’s small moments as being the most powerful. She told the story of one young woman who is ordinarily quite shy, but who began to open up throughout the program. At the end of October, Roberts asked this student if she was willing to be recognized as a Big Read student leader during an all-school assembly at Marshall Middle School.
“Her eyes all of a sudden got really wide,” Roberts recalled. “And she said, no, no, I don’t want you to do that.” But then the student changed her mind and agreed to be recognized.
Student leaders shared their excitement immediately after leading a book discussion with nearly 20 Albion College students. Photo by Madeline Drury.
Roberts understood the importance of this seemingly small victory. As Roberts announced the student’s name to the school, she said that the Marshall students sitting near the girl congratulated her on her achievement.
“She got to feel the pride of being a leader, but she also got to feel the affirmation of her peers,” Roberts said.
The power of NEA Big Read lies in such moments. The program helps communities like Albion use reading to empower people and foster community.