I often joke that I’m majoring in “don’t hire me”; with my degree being in a combination of studies with no semblance of a clear career path going forward, I don’t really know how far off I am a lot of the time. Throw in the fact that I was far from on top of my game during our alumni mixer this month, and I had all but decided that I would be camping out in my parent’s house until the end of time. Thinking about our time in Washington, DC a little more though, I am happy to report that I now believe I was wrong.
Throughout the month, our class posed more insightful questions at our site visits than I could ever remember, and the responses (almost) never failed to be articulate, reflective, and honest. There was one question consistently posed to each person that our class met with; something along the lines of “what did your career path look like getting to the position you are currently in?”
While we could really never fully anticipate what the answer would entail, the one predictable thing was that the explanation would most likely be prefaced by some sort of disclaimer about how they did not have a “linear path” or take the “traditional steps” to get to their position. Putting it all together, it seems like there’s no clear path to anyone’s job; something that I have been finding to be incredibly reassuring.
While examining the connections between arts and democracy, something that was consistently touched upon was the idea of having to remain neutral or apolitical. This idea was highly relevant in relation to any sort of publicly funded art or arts organization which is — spoiler alert — a lot. It was my belief coming into this course that there is no such thing as neutrality; the presence or absence of literally anything is motivated by a political bias, agenda, or preference whether explicit or implicitly so. I stand firmer than ever in this belief now.
Additionally, I have a new understanding of just how intertwined the arts are in politics, and visa versa. There are those that are obvious at a surface level, like how the publicly-funded Smithsonian American Art Museum could be influenced by policy. Or how the lobbying firm of Americans for the Arts might have an invested interest in promoting arts funding and education. Or how art displayed in the Capitol building could send some sort of message about what America values (and doesn’t). Or how the art we saw on U street can interplay with the gentrification of the neighborhood it finds itself in. Or how the signs I saw at the Women’s March showcase the political power of art. To each of these examples and countless more, there so many different nuances that one would have to dive into to fully understand the intricacies in the relationship of just how intertwined arts and democracy truly are — I could go over the word limit for this response tenfold discussing how the curation of the National Museum of the American Indian or the mere existence of Theater J is inherently political. Replace either of those names with any other place listed on our course schedule and the sentiment stays the same.
While examining the actual curation and pieces of art is vital to understanding these connections, something that our time in DC really opened my eyes to is the human side of these things. Obviously, I have always understood that any choice is made by a real person, but throughout the month putting faces to these mysterious figures really shed light on all of the nuances that go into what is showcased, created, or amplified — and what is not. Every person approaches something with their own situated perspective influencing how they process things and how they respond to stimuli of any sort.
One conversation has been ringing in my head on a loop since we had it; the final question posed to our panel of National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) employees was Professor Epstein asking how administration changes influence working at publicly funded organizations, especially ones which have their chairman appointed by the president. Naturally, none of the employees mentioned any presidents or parties by name, and they gave answers that pretty eloquently summed up that while administrations impact all areas of life, as employees they focus on doing the job they were hired to do. The final word of the meeting was shared by the longest-serving NEA employee that we met — she was reluctant to even answer the question. When assured that we really did want to hear what she had to say, she said that she could not share how she really felt because of her position. Nonetheless, she said that she knew that the work she was doing was important — otherwise, she would not be there. Going on to say that while she is unable to vocalize her politics at the office, she puts on her protest hat in her personal life.
In the past month, I’ve been reflecting on my own civil identity more than ever — it’s hard not to when spending all day, every day interacting with civil servants in the hub of American politics. The final comments from our meeting with employees from the NEA and NEH have been at the forefront of my mind when considering where my space is and what my civic duty is. This balance between doing work that makes a difference and being able to speak your mind is something that I don’t know how well I would be able to handle. Obviously, not all jobs that make a difference require the stifling of political opinions. But, I’ve been feeling increasingly as though my vocational path could lead me into a job where I would have to carefully consider that balance, despite my classmate Anna Cook’s prediction of me making a presidential bid in 2036.
At the same time, I have felt encouraged more than ever about my individual political voice and the importance of showing up. Our first full day in town, we met with a staff member in representative Angie Craig’s office. The next day, we met with Minnesota senator Tina Smith. A number of us went on to meet Amy Klobuchar later in the month. Each time I entered a building on Capitol Hill, I was shocked by just how easy it was to get in and access our representatives. Walking through the hallways and passing by the offices of people whose names I hear or read daily felt surreal; being located in the nation’s capital really lets you be positioned among those who make choices to change the course of history.
A fair amount of the rhetoric I’ve heard in our national dialogue regarding DC characterizes everyone working there being unwelcoming or holier-than-thou. That is not what I’ve found in the past month. At nearly every level, I felt the best intentions motivating the conversations I had. Take for example beloved Hotel RL employee, Manny, making me laugh every time that I returned to our home for the month. Or my Trader Joe’s checkout clerk who introduced himself as David, the one and only David and didn’t give me a hard time for typing in my debit card incorrectly not once but twice. Or every single employee who took time out of their day to deal with a couple of dozen liberal arts students from Minnesota. Or my 23 fellow classmates dealing with me going up and shaking their hands with too much enthusiasm while we had class in a hotel basement at 8 am. I’ve spent the past month surrounded by people who — in big ways or small — I believe are going through each day really trying to make it better for those they meet.
Often times when our class would point out problems with somewhere we visited or an experience we had, Professor Epstein would remind us that we can’t get everything we want out of any one place. It’s true; some places won’t be accessible, others won’t have the representation we want or the funding they deserve, or any other of the infinite possibilities of we could find an issue with. When you throw together every organization and site that I got to learn about this month though, the ideal becomes clearer. So while no one thing is perfect, I really do believe that I got everything I wanted out of my time in DC — except maybe a little more time.