Young poet Issa performs at the Sacramento Area Youth Speaks summit at UC Davis (Photos courtesy of ZFG Promotions)

Let’s Believe in Sacramento’s Art Community

An open letter from one Sacramento resident on the importance of arts education and engagement

Back Commentary Feb 3, 2017 By Andru Defeye

In response to Mayor Darrell Steinberg’s new investment in the arts and creative economy, this is my open letter to Sacramento as a whole. To the creators. The developers. The decision-makers. The people.

Children are dying in our streets. Sacramento has one of the fastest rising rates of violent crime in the nation. Our city’s residents are trying to raise families in food deserts with no access to grocery stores or farmer’s markets. We have a President that wants to cut arts funding.

If we don’t do something to continually create and sustain arts education and engagement for our youth, there will be no artists to reap the harvest of the seeds we are trying to sow right now. A thriving downtown metropolis is important to the economic growth and sustainability of a city and the arts are an essential part of that. But a safe, creative space is where all artists start, and all of the residents of our city deserve that chance.

I believe in the magic of Sacramento’s arts community because I’ve lived it. When I first came to Sacramento, I was specifically told by poets in San Francisco to find Khiry Malik and Mahogany — the longest-running urban poetry event in Sacramento (held at Queen Sheba restaurant on Broadway every Wednesday night). I’ve been involved at Sol Collective, where I learned the traditions of Dia De Los Muertos from Aztec Dancers and met Punjabi Hip Hop artists that have shaped the way I think and write. I’ve shed tears as a judge at Sacramento Area Youth Speaks (SAYS) competitions where teenagers have performed slam poems that made me question my fears, my bias and my privilege as a writer. I have participated in activations and events at The Brickhouse that have given me a new understanding of “community.”

Last year, my business ZFG Promotions was asked to be a part of the Crocker Art Museum’s Block by Block initiative to bring arts engagement into some of Sacramento’s underserved communities, including Oak Park, Del Paso Heights and south Sacramento. This is important because focusing solely on the creative talent and passion in the downtown grid is a disservice to the entire city, especially considering the violence and crime that we know can be combatted effectively through the arts and mentorship.

“Sisters Quilting Collective” at the Brickhouse Art Gallery (Photos courtesy of ZFG Promotions)

In many of these neighborhoods, there is an outcry for creative expression but no outlet or venue and little resources. When the education system falls short, there is a responsibility for artists and community leaders to support and teach the next generation. There are schools that need arts education. There are libraries and community centers that need support. There are neighborhoods that need a space.

Sacramento is a city of innovators. I know we have it in us to create new models and formulas to address these problems and we have a mayor that supports our experimentation.

Art can change the world, not just boost economies and tourism. Sacramento is bigger than just Midtown. And there is far more at stake than increased revenue and sustainability for artists: We have a chance to be an example of how impactful city governments and artists can be when they work together. First to hear and learn from each other, and then to work together to address the needs of their communities. We are the capital of California. We set an example.

Related: Sol Collective Close to Buying Building

While we continue on this path of development and artistic expansion, I am asking that we don’t use “cultural equity” and “diversity” as buzzwords. As we push the conversation forward about how to spend the city of Sacramento’s newly-invested $500,000 in the arts, we cannot cut corners and simply turn human rights into catchphrases — we must be brave enough to honestly evaluate ourselves as a city for both our strengths and our flaws and work to create the city we are advertising to the rest of the world for all of our residents first.

Cultural equity and diversity must be ever-present on the agenda. Sacramento has programs and task forces surrounding cultural equity, which are great, but they are also telling of our current battle to achieve this goal. Sacramento was hailed by Time magazine a few years ago for our diversity of population, but often, that’s not represented proportionally in our city’s committees and stakeholder meetings.

Questioning your own privilege as it relates to equity is often times uncomfortable. I have been the only straight, white male in the room while poets and rappers speak about the systemic oppression of minorities and low-income communities of color. Some of the most meaningful friendships in my life were born out of those most uncomfortable moments. Growth is never comfortable, but it is necessary. And that is where we are, Sacramento.

This is not to condemn or accuse anyone. We are a city currently hard at work to create these things and what we are doing is bold. This is meant to encourage all of us to remain steadfast in questioning what these phrases really mean and dig together to find an answer we can all be proud of. When I talk about this city to my friends around the world, I brag heavy about all of the work being done in the trenches out here. I tell them that Sacramento is a city where you can create your own lane. It’s what I’ve always loved about it.

Before we’re a world class city and draw the best and brightest from around the globe for our food, tech and art, shouldn’t we be a city that uses our food, tech and art to create a safe path for our kids to make it home at night?

I love you Sacramento.