Grass-roots Activists Meet With Obama Administration Officials

Dancer Liz Lerman was among those who met with officials.
Dancer Liz Lerman was among those who met with officials. (Melina Mara/twp - Twp)
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By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 13, 2009

A group of grass-roots activists representing arts, environmental and social justice organizations met yesterday with White House officials to discuss how they could collaborate with the administration on its economic recovery and general policy plans.

They wanted assurances of the Obama administration's commitment to the arts, and to offer their creative involvement when wider government initiatives intersect with their fields. The attendees met with seven administration officials during a two-hour briefing at the Executive Office Building.

Afterward the activists retreated to Busboys and Poets on 14th Street NW to develop strategies for their future involvement. Ideas included a follow-up conference, a partnership with the Labor Department and a Top 10 list of why the arts are important as talking points for the president.

Nick Rabkin, a former deputy arts commissioner in Chicago and now director of an arts research center at the University of Chicago, called the meeting "a first." "It was a demonstration that the arts have potential in helping the greater public good," he said.

Wendell Pierce, an actor featured in HBO's "The Wire" and the film "Ray," said administration officials made it clear there was an "open-door policy." "And I felt we can inform them more than they could inform us. They acknowledged they are inside the bubble and we are where the rubber meets the road," said Pierce, who also founded a redevelopment project in New Orleans.

The more than 60 participants, who paid their own way to Washington, were organized by the Nathan Cummings Foundation and three other partners. The diverse group of attendees represented organizations including the League of Young Voters Education Fund, the Advertising Council, the Old Town School of Folk Music, the Asian Arts Initiative, Roadside Theater/Appalshop, and individuals such as artist Judith F. Baca, writer Jeff Chang, hip-hop DJ Davey D and muralist Michael Schwartz.

"It was really, really inspiring," said Yosi Sergant, just appointed to the Office of Public Engagement, who's sometimes called the White House's "hipster in chief" for his campaign work with Obama poster creator Shepard Fairey. Sergant said the participants were particularly excited that "we have a president who values [both] arts and community organizing."

In general, advocates for the arts have been pleased with efforts of the Obama administration to include them in its initiatives. During the campaign, the Obama-Biden committee issued a platform on arts and culture, saying "the arts embody the American spirit of self-definition." The transition period continued this inclusion with an arts and cultural review team, headed by former NEA chairman Bill Ivey.

Last month the White House announced that actor Kal Penn would join the public liaison office with a concentration on arts and entertainment sectors, as well as the Asian American community (he was not at yesterday's briefing).

The arts groups were heartened by the $161.3 million for the National Endowment for the Arts in the budget proposal submitted to Congress last week, a $6.3 million suggested increase.

Still, the administration hasn't appointed directors for the three federal cultural agencies: the NEA, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

Rha Goddess, a Brooklyn-based performance artist and administrator, said the message she was taking home to her constituency of hip-hop entrepreneurs was one of service. "I want them to give back and develop more mission-driven enterprises," said Goddess.

As the participants divided into working groups at Busboys and Poets, Liz Lerman, who founded her Washington area dance company 33 years ago, declared: "This room is a think tank." She liked the way the White House "had tried to make personal connections," and said the challenge now was on both sides. "How do we continue to get our ideas to them? Artists are poised to work alongside" the administration's ideas, said Lerman, adding, "we just have to know what they are."

Staff writer Garance Franke-Ruta contributed to this report.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company