Saturday, November 21, 2015

Get with the Program

It's been a week.  The highlight was last night, when Antonio Adams was part of a big gig downtown Cincinnati at the Weston Gallery.  He created a huge assortment of sculptures for "GIMMIE GIMMIE GIMMIE," a show curated by artist Todd Plavisko.  He created the pieces for about ten months in the Thunder-Sky, Inc. basement -- lots of hard work, inventiveness, Antonio's usual.  And he came to the opening last night in full seersucker-and-face-mask regalia.  Look at those shoes too.  The sculptures, kind of like enlarged Christmas toy soldiers, lined the windows of the place, on guard and protecting whatever needs protecting.  Antonio's mom and family came, and lost of friends, supporters... 
A couple days before, I was in Columbus at a conference about people with developmental disabilities getting employed in real jobs.  The main speaker, a soft-spoken bureaucrat with blank-cut hair and a sweet face, said something that has stuck in my head.  She said she has to keep correcting herself from using the word "program."  She said that she's trying to rid her vocabulary of that word, in order to replace it with "supports."  "Program" is no longer the go-to bureaucratic word when talking about services for people with disabilities. 
Semantics is often a way for bureaucracies to skirt the issue, and to move the emphasis from actually doing something to talking about doing something, and I'm sure that's a strategy at play here in Ohio, where all kinds of changes and forces are in place now to desegregate people and reinvent "programs" that are "supporting" people with developmental disabilities to become a part of the "community."  I put air-quotes around "programs, supporting and community," because I want to figure some stuff out, to detangle the language from the practice maybe. Those three words are the holy trinity of the way we all B.S. about how to help people with developmental disaiblities, as well as how tax-payer money gets spent on doing it, so those words become freighted with meanings and non-meanings that we all take for granted.  The speaker at the conference Wednesday, when she said she was intentionally eradicating "program" from her bureau-speak, seems to be making a pretty smart move, keeping in mind it's still just a move in an ongoing dance of course.
What does "program" actually mean.  Straight from the dictionary:  a plan of things that are done in order to achieve a specific result.  So in trying to rid the world of that moniker, I guess, the bureaucrats who oversee policy and funding are trying to get at the way we organize our activities in the helping-people-out biz around plans and results.  What have we wanted to accomplish all these years?  (I've been doing this stuff for close to 23 years now, trying to help people with developmental disabilities be a part of the "community,"etc.) 
What results have actually happened?  We've had great intentions but hardly any results that actually do anything beyond setting up "programs that support people to be in the community."  Air-quotes again.  We set up programs in order to set up programs that are done in order to achieve the sustaining of programs.  I know all of this by heart.  I help set up a program called Visionaries + Voices that did not start out as a program.  It started out totally grass-roots without a plan and then got a series of plans that morphed into "programs."  The plan at the beginning was to create a studio where any artist who needed support of any kind -- artists with or without disabilities -- could get it.  But then we started to realize that the majority of the artists who were becoming a part of V+V had disabilities, and from that realization came another realization:  V+V needs to become a program because programs get grants and government funding.  We pursued program funding then; we became a program so we could be a program.  That tautology ruled for the majority of my tenure, and we snowballed into segregation pretty smoothly, starting out in a building with a bunch of other artists and eventually realizing we needed to leave and have our own place, and then another place, and then we went from 10 artists to 100 in what seemed like overnight. 
A program is born.
Results for that program were judged by programmatic measures:  numbers of people served, how many staff hired...  Columns of grant-proposal spreadsheets dictated behavior.  And so on.
I left V+V in 2009, and so did Bill, my partner who helped set it up along with other great people who got hypnotized, I think, by the notion that we were onto something here; our telescope hit on a target.  We didn't just have a ragtag group of artists helping each other out.  We had us a great program.  All we needed to do was perfect it.
The soft-spoken bureaucrat on Wednesday was letting me know (unintentionally -- she wouldn't know me from Adam) that we should have never pursued ProgramLand.  But you can't put that genie back into the spreadsheet column.  All you can do is move on.  And that's what we all have done.  V+V is a program that's doing great work, albeit in the form of yup programming. 
But the original intent of the whole she-bang wasn't programmatic.  It was supportive.  That binary is useful.  You don't have to have a program to offer someone some help.  Antonio's picture above is proof of that.  He left V+V about the same time we did.  All three of us were integral in making the thing happen, and yet we decided we couldn't be a part of it any more and came up with Thunder-Sky, Inc., in Raymond Thunder-Sky's name, the artist whose bravery and spirit started the whole stinking journey.  And since 2009 we've been "not a program," but a collective of artists supporting each other.  Not 100 artists by any means, not even 25, but we do OK.  Nothing to brag about.  But why would we need to brag anyway? 
Now, besides Thunder-Sky, Inc., I focus solely on helping people with developmental disabilities get employed.  Going through all that ProgramLand turmoil is the main reason I think I've gone down this path.  It's a hell of a lot harder to help someone figure out where they fit in in the actual world than where their place is inside ProgramLand.  You have to know them really well, what they can do, what they can't, what they're interested in and how that interest fits into the actual world around them.  How do you help someone become a part of the community?  That's community without air-quotes.  First they need some kind of economic self-sufficiency:  they need a job.  A lot easier said than done, and a program that focuses on that result really isn't a program in the conventional sense any more because the "results" of the "plan" are to support folks enough so they no longer need the program -- to help them get to the point where a program is no longer necessary.  
It's a beautiful conundrum.  One I keep trying to figure out.
Maybe Antonio already has though.  He works part-time bussing tables, spends a lot of his time making art, perfecting his opening-night outfits, and being a part of -- you guessed it -- the community.  On his own terms.   

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Big Shot

A couple days back we stumbled into binge-watching Show Me a Hero, a miniseries on HBO that debuted back in August, but I'd never heard of it before.  Serendipity definitely has its rewards.  Show Me a Hero chronicles the true-life tragedy of Nick Wasicsko, the mayor of Yonkers circa late-80s whose fever for political power got circumvented into practicality by a federal judge demanding low-income housing be built in the area, despite the angry protests of Yonkers (white) residents.  Wasicsko's story is the main one, but like he did in The Wire and Treme David Simon (Show Me's writer, along with William F. Zorzi, and director Paul Haggis) creates a Dickensian universe here, following bureaucrats and politicians and Yonkers citizenry, as well as people living in the projects who will have to enter a lottery to gain access to the housing.  The housing itself is eventually built to specifications that try to eradicate slums in favor of townhomes cushioned within already flourishing neighborhoods. 
And there's the rub:  the "flourishing neighbors," at least those who are the most vocal, create proto-Tea-Parties against this idea, or really any idea that includes including poor (read black) people amongst them.
A maelstrom of backroom politics and maneuvering ensues, but what makes Show Me a Hero such an incredible piece of work (and an emotional experience) is the intensity with which it considers every aspect of the goings-on.  It's a mural really, made out of all kinds of details and minutia and fragments that accumulate incredible power over six or so hours of watching, until by the end I felt as devastated as I did when I first saw Death of a Salesman.  There are no heroes in the piece, and like Willie Loman finally realizing in the end that he is nothing special even while he screams "I am not a dime a dozen," Wasicsko's desperate attempt to be somebody becomes mythic even though his part of the history seems incredibly small and never really recognized by anyone the way he needs it to be.
Oscar Isaac plays Wasicsko's with such skill and nuance and energy you feel connected directly to his burning ambition to ascend, which actually is the root of his failure.  Isaac does not leave any space for judgment here, turning each scene he's in into ways to witness what Wasicsko wants and to also understand how he's not going to get it no matter how hard he tries.  He yearns to be a big shot, and his first foray into that status comes when he uses the divisive housing issue as his way into office, promising homeowners in the area against the issue that he'll appeal on behalf of the city against the judge's order, kind of knowing deep inside it won't work.  And it doesn't, and he's saddled with backtracking, but then by doing so he grows to understand the importance of the issue.  He never recovers, however, from the vitriol involved, confusing love with votes, and finally, in 1993, he kills himself. 
Other people fare better in the story, and you could really argue that the soul of the piece is Catherine Keener's Mary Dorman, one of those outraged homeowners who at first gives into the needs of the mob she's a part of.  She yells and screams indignantly, and tries to tell herself the true reason for her outrage isn't because the people moving in are black but because of "property values."  Then as she begins witnessing the actual behavior of the mob it all gets clarified for her:  this is a moral issue.  Keener gives us Mary without decoration or heroism.  She never has an epiphany.  Eventually her transformation registers as just plain old working-class common-sense finally coming back.  Mary slowly becomes an advocate for the people she once wanted to deny entrance.  It's hard to put into words how Keener manages to dramatize Mary's growth because she never actually changes, except somehow she does, and in one beautiful scene when she helps escort some of the new residents to their townhomes you get a feel for Mary's moral outlook.  Two ladies in the neighborhood are standing defiantly outside the bus as everyone unloads and walks over to their now homes.  These ladies are definitely not part of a welcome committee.  They scour, arms folded, ready to spit fire.  Mary Dorman walks over to them, and Keener gives them that same exact scour, that same fiery attention until they both back away, not defeated by any means, just denied. 
One of those residents visiting for the first time is Norma O'Neal, played so effortlessly and gracefully by Latanya Richardson Jackson I almost remember her not as a character on a TV show, but someone I knew way back when.  47, diabetic, Norma is going blind, living in the projects, trying to get some help through a home-health agency but none of the aides want to come to her apartment because they're scared of the surroundings.  When she gets the word that she's won the housing lottery and is able to move into a new townhome, she's happy but also knows the neighbors don't want her there.  But her son and daughter talk her into making the move, and when she enters the new home you get this feeling of both exhilaration and exhaustion:  she's found her place in the world, but the world doesn't want her there.  Jackson lets us know she'll be okay though.  She plays Norma without "playing her," delivering a performance that's so real you can't help but know even though her life has improved she knows it doesn't really matter.  She's still going blind.  She's still in a place where she's not wanted.  But she knows she will survive.  She knows it's going to be whatever it's going to be, and she'll have to make her life from that, which has always been the way.
In the end, Show Me a Hero doesn't show us heroes, as much as how "heroism" is never the point.