THE BLOG

President Obama's Arts

10/21/2008 03:31 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

At 10 years old, Mordecai Santiago was already the toughest kid at the 52nd Street Project, the renowned Hell's Kitchen not-for-profit where I volunteered as an academic tutor and arts educator. Though diminutive in stature and "held back" in school, Mordecai wielded an authority beyond his years with children and adults alike. Officials at his over-crowded elementary school had diagnosed Mordecai with A.D.D. and wanted to put him on Ritalin. He shared a small, low-income-housing apartment with four other siblings and two parents. They had no computer.

But Mordecai was a natural on the piano. He loved to play Beethoven's Fur Elise by ear on the only piano in the after-school clubhouse. Since he'd never had a proper lesson, his fingering was incorrect, but he hit every note flawlessly. The only way I could get him to finish his homework, was by promising him "piano time" at the end of every tutoring session. He often would rather play his own haunting compositions than go home.

His unadulterated love of music inspired me to ask fellow Harvard alums to donate piano lessons to kids at the program. Offers flowed in by email in overwhelming numbers. However, the administrators of the program, already under-staffed, under-resourced and over-worked, regretfully explained that they could not accept.

In Mordecai, a tough, brilliant, little kid in baggy jeans and a puffy North Face jacket, I saw up-close the precarious fate of millions of American children who might evolve into great artists or great criminals, at the flip of a coin. Without proper funding for programs like the 52nd Street Project, the latter possibility becomes an inevitability for too many kids.

In order to stay true to the campaign's message of hope, progress and action, I would like to see an Obama administration accomplish a broad array of arts policy goals. Arts education must find its way back to American public schools, not only as a proven measure to bring up students' math and science scores, but to allow students a means of self-expression that will save their futures - as well as saving the system the cost of trying and incarcerating many of them. Even if they never go into the arts, a youth's acquired creative problem solving abilities will serve her in any field.

Imagine art and performance exchanges between students from different areas and strata of American society, in order to create dialogue that bridges psychological gaps between demographic groups and regions.

More than an educational tool, the arts offer unique diplomatic opportunities. In the Kennedy tradition, there should be exchanges between students and adult artists from our country and other countries around the globe, perhaps in partnership with the U.N.

Controversially, during the Cold War, the CIA infiltrated Eastern European theater groups, in order to inspire revolt within oppressive regimes and prevent democratic regimes from turning Communist, as illustrated in The Cultural Cold War:The CIA and the World off Arts and Letters, by Frances Stonor Saunders. Whether one agrees with such secretive programs or not, do they not reflect the diplomatic potential of the arts, as an alternative to overt military policing?

Acting in Hungary, a country famed for its great composers, I saw young students well versed in classical music. How wonderful it would be to see original U.S. musical forms as part of every American child's curriculum: jazz, folk music, rock'n'roll, and hip-hop. What could be more patriotic than embracing our nation's cultural contributions to the world? And why not include world music and dance as an integral part of the American-immigrant and global stories?

With an eye toward valuing the contributions of artists, as all other developed nations do, I would like to see artist-tailored unemployment and healthcare insurance for those who can prove a history of work in their chosen field. And, to offer alternatives to a justice system that now reinforces the dehumanization inherent in an excessively stratified society, I would like to see more programs like Rhodessa Jones' "Medea Project," that helps rehabilitate inmates in the Bay Area correctional system, by allowing them to enact their own stories, thereby exorcising the causes of their anger and accepting responsibility for their actions.

Visual art projects helped children overcome the trauma of having witnessed 9/11. Imagine the benefits of music and art therapy for every soldier returning from Iraq who suffers from PTSD.

The arts humanize society, not merely in a spiritual and emotional sense. We have tangible historical evidence of how the arts have directly contributed to the fortification of a troubled America. F.D.R.'s New Deal - especially relevant now, as we face the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression - included the Federal Writers Project, Federal Theater Project, Federal Art Project and Federal Music Project, each of which employed artists in ways that served and uplifted society and the economy as a whole. In their 1995 essay, "New Deal Cultural Programs: Experiments in Cultural Democracy," Don Adams and Arlene Goldbard state that, rather than homogenize distinct regions with a big government agenda, these projects set forward in vivid relief the unique beauties of each region, inspired progress within the labor movement, and led to commercially viable enterprises.

Today, Barack Obama often speaks of a deficit, not merely economic, but of empathy. He reminds us that, "I am my brother's keeper." Obama's campaign has inspired an unprecedented amount of creativity through songs, artwork, dance and dramatic arts, and captured the imaginations of people worldwide. If a President Obama chooses to utilize his historic grassroots organization beyond the campaign, in order to successfully put forth initiatives that stand up to corporate special interests, he must remember that the arts will be the primary mouthpiece for galvanizing the people's partnership.