Alanah Davis: I Do Politics — So Can You

Image by Alanah Nichole Davis.

A note from the author: I’d like to dedicate this piece to my resilient family of artists in Baltimore City. It’s been a year since the start of the global pandemic, which has affected us all in one way or another. We are all engaged in the arts at different levels. We all have a different knowledge set, vocabulary, and understanding of what goes into arts funding.

I wanted to write this being sure to include definitions for this process — not only because I’m learning it, but because you should learn it too. I’m no smarter, better, or more important than stilt walkers at the harbor, face painters at festivals, or poets at open mics across Baltimore. I’m one of you. We can all have a hand in these kinds of giant steps forward, for our own collective good and I just wanted y’all to see that.

With Warmth and Inclusion, Alanah

 

On Monday, March 8 I received two emails and one Facebook message about testifying at a hearing in favor of Baltimore Council Bill 21-0022R. The bill is for the purpose of ensuring Baltimore City artists get a piece of the pie if the United States Congress gives $1 million to Baltimore City after passing a $1.9 trillion relief bill.

If you ask me on most days honestly I’ll say, I don’t do politics. That doesn’t mean I don’t vote. Too many of my ancestors have been murdered for me to sit on my butt and act like we aren’t still being murdered, barred from housing in certain areas, spat on both figuratively and literally, treated unfairly in every arena including work, school, and even the damn grocery store because of ideals set in place by the racist forefathers of this country. Held in place by their lineage, I might add. Marginalized folks are fed trash, and I mean literal poison in neighborhoods where there are no supermarkets.

On the days in between most days, where I refuse to binge-watch CNN, Fox News, or graze on tweets about what Ted Cruz or the guy who founded Amazon are doing, I care about this country a lot. I just usually have better things to do with my time, like not be an anxious wreck or be ruled by the fear that this country is going to H-E-double hockey sticks in a handbasket. OK, I’m done with my rant. 

The first message I received on March 8 was from Nicholas Cohen at 10:31 a.m. describing that he had worked with Ryan Dorsey, the city councilman for Baltimore’s 3rd District to draft a resolution and get a hearing for Bill 21-0022R to drum up interest with the rest of the Baltimore City Council. For folks who are newer to doing politics like me, Ryan Dorsey is a part of the Baltimore City Council, which is the legislative branch that governs the City of Baltimore and its more than 600,000 citizens. It has 14 members including Dorsey, who are all elected by district, and a president elected at-large; all serve four-year terms.

My friend Nicholas Cohen is the executive director of Maryland Citizens for The Arts; he in fact also does politics, specifically for the arts in Maryland. Cohen spends a lot of his time in Annapolis at the Maryland State House. In his role with MCA he oversees the statewide strategy, implementation, and engagement for advancing public policy and investment in the Maryland Arts sector.

Makes sense to me, to do what people do in Annapolis, advocate on behalf of a population of people they really care about. I care about artists too, so I answer emails from folks like Nicholas when they say they need help taking action on a bill. It took very little for me to answer affirmatively with glee that I’d testify because the body of his message said, “strongly encourage you to testify!!… hopefully we’ll get some cash set aside for artist grants.” I even agreed to skip class at MICA for a bit on Thursday morning not remembering that there was a mini spring break. Ha! Don’t tell my professor.

The second message I received was from Erin Fostel, who is a brilliant visual artist, friend in Baltimore City and also Councilman Ryan Dorsey’s life partner. I wonder if she gets to go to fancy balls with powdered wigs — I’ll have to ask. Siri set a reminder for me to ask Erin if her life is anything like Season 1 of “Bridgerton.”

Erin’s message read, “Hey, I was wondering if you would be willing to testify at a bill hearing this Thursday morning. Ryan is trying to get $1 million of COVID relief money set aside for Baltimore artists…You were the first person I thought of, as someone who has literally raised money to help artists during COVID.”

I was very honored! Not only to be asked again but that folks remembered all the work I did in organizing Alanah’s COVID-19 Emergency Fund for artists and freelancers. I sent Erin a quick reply via voice message letting her know that Nicholas was working closely with her betrothed and had already reached out and that it was on my to-do list to send the councilman an e-mail for the Zoom link to participate on Thursday, March 11. She replied saying, “Yay! I am so glad that Nicholas reached out to you, too. What is a good email for you? I will get it to Ryan and they can email you.”

They did in fact e-mail me. By 1:07 p.m. I was in an email thread with Ryan and Sumner, a legislative aide at the Baltimore City Council. I affirmed to both Ryan and Sumner that I’d be in attendance and ready to testify about Bill 21-0022R on Thursday. 

On most days I’m trying to close my laptop by 6 p.m. like a normal human being would, but it’s likely I’m still writing ideas, supporting clients, doing homework, being a mom, etc. I’m glad that on the 8th of March my laptop was still open. I received that aforementioned third message from Jocquelyn Downs, who serves as director of the Arts Council with the Baltimore Office of Promotion & The Arts (BOPA).

Jackie is another friend and collaborator in the city. Last year she and I alongside a coalition of partners who answered the call to action to create a fund for artists called the Baltimore Artist Emergency Relief Fund, inspired by the generosity of artist-led relief efforts in Baltimore and across the country (myself included). I was ecstatic to be a part of that work at such a trying time in the city and the world over on behalf of my artist community. Jackie’s message, like the others, affirmed that I knew first-hand the importance of supporting independent artists of color and the email subject read, “We need your voice!” I of course filled Jackie in as I had done Nicholas, Erin, Ryan, and Sumner that I would without question or hesitation be testifying on March 11. Jackie said, “Seems we are all thinking the same thing!” 

On the morning of the hearing I was admittedly nervous, never having done such a thing before but I was also feeling so affirmed in a life and choices I have been making to focus on the arts so much. I felt valued, that three different folks from different entities and arms of the city would reach out to me to testify — it meant something to me. A sign that I’m on the right path, perhaps? We don’t get those often but when they come I appreciate them.

I yelled for my daughters to head upstairs, set up my ring light, and just an hour before the hearing I cobbled some heartfelt words together to recant in the virtual City Council chambers. A friend had called me on Wednesday who is connected to all this, and we’ll call him CB. CB reminded me that if the funds did come through, the process should be fair and equitable; we chatted briefly about artists being included in the disbursement of the funds. I emailed the words I wrote to Ryan and Sumner. Ryan quickly replied asking if he could include me on a panel of people to go even prior to the public testimonies. I was sweating. 

Shortly thereafter the hearing started. I of course saw Ryan, Nicholas, Jackie, and other arts advocacy and adjacent folks like Maggie Villegas, Jessica Solomon, and artist Cheyanne Zadia, who all gave public testimony of their own without failing to mention the work I had done to organize funds at the beginning of the pandemic.

I should mention there were two other funds led by cultural workers Abdu Ali and Sharayna Christmas. I’m never alone in this work. No one really ever is. It feels like that sometimes but with just a few emails we were all able to connect to each other and support this bill — which, by the way, all the council folks in attendance said aye to in a parliamentary procedure called a voice vote. After all that I guess if someone asks if I do politics, I’ll say “aye” too. Would you? I’m still not watching CNN, though.

You don’t have to know someone who knows someone like I did to be a part of important hearings like the one that happened on March 11 for Baltimore Council Bill 21-0022R. Baltimore City publishes a public hearing schedule. You can keyword search for things you care about using ctrl+f on your keyboard, type words like “art” or “community.” You never know what initiatives you could help move forward. 

Alanah Nichole Davis, Testimony Transcript on Baltimore Council Bill 21-0022R:

“Last March of 2020 was a harrowing time for artists in Baltimore, the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic shook an already loose infrastructure of ever absent and always late support systems for many artists in the city. It is still a harrowing time. Performance, visual, literary, and multidisciplinary artists and the likes typically rely on venue bookings artist fairs, festivals, and vendor experiences to make money to support ourselves and our families.

“Much of that — no, forgive me…all of that ceased. None of us was prepared. Artists are the cornerstone to how this city churns week to week, even minute to minute. The sounds of Abu the flute maker on Sundays at the farmers market underneath the JFX; the bucket drummer usually affixed close to the aquarium; Ghostie, a young Baltimore rapper who had to start a GoFundMe after and I quote being a “Black homeless artist in dire need of a home,” his partner in life is expecting. His GoFundMe, among many others I’ve seen sewn onto my timeline on social media since the start of the pandemic has been met, by the members of our artist community despite the financial deficit we continually work from.

“We’ve turned to each other just like early mutual aid funds that dedicated cultural workers like myself, Abdu Ali, and Sharayna Christmas all started at the beginning of this unexpected moment in the world. We are exhausted by this world’s commitment to not seeing artists as the mothers, fathers, cousins, friends, and humans that we are. Our needs deserve to be met, we are worthy of this council investing at least $1 million if not more of those funds to establish an emergency fund to assist Baltimore City artists.

“And when I say Baltimore City artists, I don’t just mean white or understood, I mean Black, Queer, non-traditional, risque, obscure, in the shadows, not well known, housing insecure. Baltimore City artists should be involved in the disbursement of those funds for equity purposes. Traditionally, we would not ask for help, we would just do amongst ourselves, as we do. These are not traditional times and this is my untraditional plea for you all to provide critical emergency economic relief for Baltimore City’s artists who have suffered undue hardships caused by the health and safety closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

 

Alanah Davis
Alanah Davis is a Baltimore-based artist, community advocate, social change and arts consultant. She recently earned a master's degree in social design at Maryland Institute College of Art.