My first job out of graduate school landed me in jail. The brisk and humiliating body search. The clang of the barred door. “What have I done?” I thought, numb and disoriented.
I’d committed no crime, at least none that I knew of, and certainly none that would put me in the slammer. Somehow, though, at age 27, face covered with adult-onset acne, I stood toe-to-toe with glaring, orange-clad inmates.
What I had done was find employment with an arts non-profit in the Bay Area. I’d been accepted into Peace Corps, but at the same time, I got a job offer as a director of operations for a theater company that had made a name for itself with innovative collaborations involving the San Francisco County Jail and at-risk youth, and I just couldn’t pass up the offer. The pay was the pits, the benefits laughable. But I’ve always been a dreamer and overly idealistic, and I convinced myself that I could help more in my own country than in Central Asia through the Peace Corps. And truth be told, living in San Francisco was on my bucket list, and I rationalized that I could go dig ditches in third world countries when I retired.
In retrospect, it was probably the most character-building experience I’ve ever had. Its uniqueness came in multitudes. The non-profit organization was housed in the Center for African and African American Art and Culture (CAAAC as it was known back then, but they’ve since modified their name slightly). The center was in a part of town where people instructed me to never walk alone at night. I was one of three non-black people in the entire building. Clearly, my new employer was hell-bent on diversity, as his other employee was also not of African descent (a Caucasian Yale grad with an amazing knack for grant-writing. A super nice guy, by the way). The vibrant environment resonated with music (including a lot of rap) and dancing and glorious art.
It was also the only workplace in which my boss would show up in a zoot suit. He favored metallic blues and purples, though my personal favorite was the gold one. He wore many hats — sometimes literally — as executive director, theater company head and father figure to masses of displaced children, but most notably, he was a saxophonist and tap dancer. And he performed both simultaneously. In contrast to his wild outfits, he was a reticent and quiet man, pragmatic and kind.
I actually had two bosses, and the other one was a firecracker who kept me on my toes. She invariably burst into rooms, her red hair glowing, commanding attention with her gravelly voice and dramatic turn of phrases. A stage actress by training, she was fierce and bold and inspiring – a lioness. Legions of young actresses sought her out to train under her. Her life mission was to work directly with female inmates, extracting and crafting their stories, then teaching the women how to perform these stories and to heal themselves.
That in and of itself was pioneering, but what raised the stakes was that the performances were held outside of the prison cells at a public venue. The shows starred the incarcerated women themselves, and some of these women had committed murder. Not a group to be messed with. A large part of my role was to coordinate all aspects of this public performance from booking the venue, working with the Sheriff’s department to ensure maximum security, dealing with city ordinances and endless bureaucratic red tape, and interfacing with the women in the jails.
High stress. Funnily enough, one of the hardest tasks for me was to organize the post-performance gala. We had no budget so this required soliciting for pro-bono help and free food. Basically, I had to beg. I begged one of the moms of the afterschool program I oversaw to cater the event. She looked at me dubiously and asked, “Did you say 200 people? How you gonna pull this off with $100?” Somehow I convinced her, and I went around imploring restaurants, shops and bakeries to donate food. I beseeched stationery stores, florists and party shops to lend us decorations and platters and champagne flutes. My love of Trader Joe’s started then because they provided almost all of the ingredients and beverages for the gala, gratis. I am a woman filled with pride and begging is antithetical to my nature.
In the end, the performance culminated in success. Many tears were shed, excellent reviews written up, and all the rest. But the gala was my pride and joy, a thing of pure beauty. I remember taking all the foodstuffs to the caterer the day before the event. ”Girl,” she said with a look of wonder, “You NICE, but you ain’t a pushover.” Very few words have made me as happy as those. I hold them dear, as a personal motto. The caterer did a phenomenal job with all the TJ supplies, whipping up mini puff pastries, pint-sized crab cakes, crudites, dips and an enormous array of mouth-watering food. She even made a gorgeous cake and the whole set up was fit for an exquisitely tasteful wedding.
I wish I could say I had a thriving career as an arts administrator, but I didn’t stay at the organization very long — I lasted about a year. Mostly it was because my heart couldn’t take it, and I was burnt out. I was too young, too naive, too disappointed by the injustice. Yes, the organization and programs helped many people, but it was such a small percentage compared to the constant recidivism, of the endless revolving door of crime, despair, abuse. Mothers addicted to crack would stumble into my office to randomly drop off young malnourished children, barely stringing together a coherent sentence. It broke me seeing and taking care of those kids. I lingered many, many extra hours in the office for them.
I also don’t think I was whole enough myself to withstand the sorrow and distress that my job entailed. At the same time, I was afraid that I would become desensitized, which was something of a commonality in that line of work. Even after I quit, I continued to volunteer for literacy groups and assisted homeless shelters and substance abuse programs, but I knew that these were under the umbrella of “safe” volunteerism, the kind that kept me at arm’s length, away from direct involvement and emotional commingling. I could put in my couple of hours, paint a wall for habitat or tutor a kid once in a blue moon and call it good. The sort of charity work I observed the well-heeled doing when I lived in Los Angeles: the auctions held at four-star hotels, the sunny afternoons spent picking up a few pieces of litter while wearing designer gloves. I’m not saying it’s wrong and I’m not trying to judge, because I think any form of a helping hand is admirable and necessary. In fact, growing up with immigrant parents, my family had very little money and though I didn’t know it at the time, I was a beneficiary of those well-heeled folks on many occasions. And I am grateful.
I guess I just felt like I wasn’t doing enough to be of service after I left the non-profit. Defeated that I couldn’t handle the hard stuff. I’ve been thinking about those days at the theater company a lot lately; I faced adversity and joy and hope and hopelessness and foibles and strengths. Oftentimes all at once. I want to give back again — the dreamer and overly idealistic self is still there and I’ve noticed the void of service acutely these last few years. Sure, I’m trying to juggle family and regaining my health and cobbling together some semblance of work, but I sense that I’m presenting this weird life in which all I do is sew pretty clothes and draw cute pictures and compose dorky haikus and talk endlessly about myself. Can I contribute something worthwhile and do those things? Well, wouldn’t that be grand? I’m not sure how to make it happen yet, but the idea has lodged into my thoughts…
P.S. If you’re curious about the organization I worked for, it’s still around! Idris and Rhodessa are amazing!