Arts advocates must get tired of repeating the same old lines about why public funding for the arts is important: Funding the arts creates jobs. Creative industries generate billions. Arts education in schools boosts literacy and critical thinking skills. And sometimes, creative people come up with creative ways to better their communities. 'Tis the season for feel-good newspaper profiles, so here are three local organizations using the arts to do just that.
Back in June, we profiled "street librarian" Laura Moulton, who runs mobile library Street Books—which provides books to people who are homeless, transient, or otherwise unable to take advantage of the public library system. Maybe you've seen Moulton and her book-laden bike trailer—she parks at the Skidmore Fountain around lunchtime on Mondays and Wednesdays, rain or shine, and she's recently begun serving Old Town's Right 2 Dream Too tent city. Donated books are loaned out via an old-school card catalog; patrons have the option, if they like, of sharing their photograph and book selection on the Street Books website. There are no due dates, no late fees, and no real expectation that books will be returned—but repeat patrons, as well as Moulton's regular visits to Right 2 Dream Too mean some loaned books do return to circulation.
"It's impressive to see how well the Right 2 Dream Too camp has come together, in terms of organization and community," Moulton says, "and the residents' commitment to the community can definitely be seen in the number of books we get returned."
In addition to Right 2 Dream Too, Moulton has benefited from relationships with other community organizations: Ecotrust offered Moulton free storage for the many donated books she's received, Portland Pedicabs provides garage space for Moulton to store the trike that doubles as a mobile book cart, and Street Roots donates free ads to help Moulton connect with new patrons.
Moulton is working on acquiring nonprofit status for Street Books, and she hopes to expand operations over time. She also has plans to introduce a book club—fittingly, the first book will be Peter Rock's My Abandonment, the fictionalized account of a father and daughter living off the grid in Forest Park. (Rock, who lives in Portland, has agreed to do a Q&A at the end of the book club. Broadway Books has committed to donating 8-10 copies of the book.) And because this is Portland and it is winter, "We are offering Ziploc bags to anybody who checks out a book," Moulton says.
Street Books is currently fundraising for summer operations. Support Moulton's ongoing efforts at streetbooks.org, and stay tuned for details of upcoming book drives.
The New Memories Project
"Curious Comedy's mission is to improve the lives of children, adults, and seniors through the art of comedy," Artistic Director Stacey Hallal tells me. That mission has unfolded in various ways in the three years since Curious Comedy opened its doors as a venue and improv school in Northeast Portland—in addition to regular improv shows, the nonprofit is working on a literacy program for kids and organizing a festival to support female comedians. But their newest venture is their most innovative to date: The New Memories Project aims to use improv to improve the lives of people with Alzheimer's.
During the four-week pilot program, teachers from Curious Comedy led improv workshops and games in an assisted care facility, an experience Hallal described as "amazing."
"Alzheimer's patients spend a lot of time in this [frustrating] state of not being able to remember what they want to remember—so we're trying to use improv, which is about being in the moment, to offer relief from that," Hallal says. "The goal is to relieve agitation and increase positive interaction; the loftiest goal would be that we would have a positive effect on their actual memory." Plus, it's just supposed to be fun: "The last time, as we left," Hallal tells me, "one of the women said, 'It's so fun to be goofy again!'"
To prepare for their visits, Hallal and her team participated in a program put on by the Alzheimer's Association called "Alzheimer's 101," and observed a facility's activity director working with a group of patients.
"We've done four pilot workshops and really honed and developed the curriculum, and every single time has been really moving and really fun," Hallal says. "It's a powerful experience for everybody involved. What's amazing to us is that you have these seniors who may not remember you're coming week to week—on our third workshop, one of the residents told us it was her first day at the facility, but as we started to go through the workshop she remembered the game and had actually thought up an activity for one of the exercises. It's fascinating how certain areas of memory are still functioning and others are not."
After the success of the four-week pilot program, Curious Comedy plans to extend the New Memories Project into an eight-week program in the new year, for which they recently received a $3,500 grant from the Oregon Arts Commission.
"Seniors are really an underserved group," says Hallal. "I think a lot of people in the arts are doing things for the middle population, and a lot of granted funds go to things for kids, which are all valuable and important, but there's something really powerful about working with seniors. The goal is really to create an experience where they can enjoy being in the moment."
If you're interested in learning more about the New Memories Project, or supporting it with your dollars, visit curiouscomedy.org.
PHAME has been around for years, but the organization has undergone some big recent changes: When I sneak into a choir rehearsal in Northeast Portland's Grace Memorial Episcopal Church, it's only the second time brand-new Music Director Matthew Gailey has rehearsed with the group. (Third, if you count the audition that was part of his job interview.) The choir is practicing Christmas carols; Gailey, a vocalist with a background in music education, sings along with soloists when their voices flag, going squeaky-high to sing along with female vocalists and dropping into a more natural range for the men. It's an enthusiastic room. When someone has to leave early, the whole choir shouts goodbye.
The PHAME choir comprises around 55 people, ranging in age from 17 to 70, with developmental and/or physical disabilities. Since 1984, PHAME Academy—it stands for Pacific Honored Artists, Musicians, and Entertainers—has offered classes in the visual and performing arts. Tonight, the choir is preparing for a Dec. 21 show at the Grotto.
"Okay, next up, 'What a Wonderful World,'" Gailey announces. "Not a Christmas song, but I think it'll fit in."
"When I tell my mom we're singing a song that's not a Christmas song, she's gonna be like, what?" one woman shouts.
Gailey laughs. "You can tell her that Christmas is a time of giving, of appreciating what you have around you, and this song is about that."
"I challenge someone to be unmoved by a PHAME performance," says PHAME Executive Director (and former Mercury freelancer) Stephen Marc Beaudoin. "Experiencing the talent and tenacity of PHAME artists and performers will fundamentally rearrange your atoms. Audience members watch and experience PHAME, and find themselves looking in the mirror in a way they perhaps were not anticipating. Everyone has different abilities and talents. Each of us has strengths and weaknesses, places where we belong or feel we do not belong. PHAME puts this all on stage in a humane and compelling way."
PHAME's choir rehearsal concludes with a roll call: Each student stands up, says their name, and belts out, "I love to sing"—some are flamboyant, some timid, some just plain lovely. Beaudoin's right: It's impossible not to be moved.
To donate time or money to PHAME, visit phameacademy.org; while you're there, check the calendar for upcoming performances. Interested PHAME students can email firstname.lastname@example.org for more details on the program.
The Uprise Books Project
Justin Stanley founded the Uprise Books Project with the simple goal of getting books in the hands of underprivileged teenagers. Citing strong links between illiteracy and poverty, Stanley believes one way to end the "cycle of poverty" is by encouraging teens to read. But here's the hook—Uprise aims to connect kids with books that have been banned or challenged, books they might otherwise not have access to. Stanley hopes to tap into teenaged curiosity and rebellion by urging kids to read books that adults think they shouldn't.
In September, Stanley launched a Kickstarter page for Uprise; after attracting the social-media support of internet celebs like Wil Wheaton, he raised $10,000 to build a website. The site is a key component of the project: Teens will be able to browse and request books from a pre-populated selection (based on banned books lists compiled by the American Library Association and others); their selection will be sent to their homes, free of charge. The site will also allow donors to support specific requests, while still protecting the anonymity of the teenagers involved. When it all comes together, Stanley envisions a project that combats poverty, illiteracy, and censorship, all with one simple move.
Stanley is still waiting to hear if Uprise's application for nonprofit status has been approved—in the meantime, he's focusing on developing the site. "The best thing to do right now is to follow us on Twitter and Facebook and let us know how they'd like to help," says Stanley of interested volunteers. "We'll soon need volunteers to help test out the site, help spread the word, etc. We'd especially love to hear from people who'd like to volunteer their web design/development skills. Sure, the Kickstarter campaign was funded, but we're pinching pennies wherever we can. Every dollar we can save in the design and development process is a dollar we can use to buy books later."
Follow Uprise on Twitter at @uprisebooks or see uprisebooks.org for more info.