I was making my way home from the Financial District to the Mission on BART after work; feet pinched by the not-so-comfortable shoes I wore that day as part of my day time drag; nose buried in some reading about cultural participation in the region while texting Ilia, one of the dancers in the group I sing with, about picking her up for rehearsal.
On the ride to Ilia’s, the personal, work, and creative “to do” lists duke it out for top billing. Sometimes all three fall to the floor in exhaustion and at times there are glorious triumphs among them that spark a call to Mom, excitement about an organization we’re funding at work, or a breakthrough on a melodic conundrum for Bomba practice.
Ilia and I arrive for rehearsal at Denise’s house, our lead drummer, in West Oakland. She’s prepared a roast with salad, freshly brewed iced tea and there’s beer and wine for those who need it. Eight hungry women push down her door some time between a seven o’clock call time and when they can make it. Between sharp elbows (my own included) and stories about dreams, family, and lovers I serve my plate. It occurs to me that the women, Las Bomberas de la Bahia, have made it to the center of my heart with the rewards outweighing the challenges, of which there are many! Dinner begins.
At the dinner table the conversation asserts its place in between stabbing hands in constant swoop at the night’s roast. The conversation centers on how we will pay for skirts, instruments, and teachers to come from Puerto Rico, Chicago, and New York where there are many more practitioners and teachers of Bomba.
I view Las Bomberas as a microcosm of the larger community in many ways. Although there never seems to be enough funds, it is a deep purpose and need that calls us to this work and motivates a DIY (do-it-yourself) spirit among us all. At the risk of romanticizing struggle, there is a fierceness and freedom in the DIY spirit that permeates the non profit cultural sector.
In my day job, I am the Arts & Culture Multicultural Fellow at The San Francisco Foundation. In this role, I have been able interact with and appreciate the myriad and diverse talent in the region among artists and arts administrators. In the Fellowship, I have been thrown into the mix of grantmaking head first and have been expected to come with a perspective while having extreme sensitivity to the challenges that the community and the non-profit sector experience in their effort to assert a space for creative work.
The role has allowed me to appreciate all the complexities of running an organization – mission, staffing, programming, budget, leadership, boards, funding, burnout, etc. – albeit from the comfort zone of being a funder. It has given me a new appreciation for the importance of supporting and building infrastructure for diverse traditions and creative communities to thrive. This is not an easy task because, although there are many non profits in the region, not all communities have the infrastructure to support a grant in the way the Foundation is set up to give them. There are many groups like Las Bomberas who play a vital role in communities but lack non-profit status and many times are without homes/organizations where they can build their work so they end up fully funding themselves.
Part of the onus is on the group. How do we come up to speed and develop a structure and presence in order to secure grant support? However, the onus also lies within philanthropy and government to continue to think about how to build infrastructure to support such groups and how leadership in these communities is recognized and engaged. How can philanthropy adjust itself to address this question?
In this work I have learned that, although there is a rigor involved in being a good grantmaker and supporting the development of creative spaces and individuals, there are still more questions than answers about how to sustain work in the cultural sector and, especially, in DIY-spirited communities of color. With the challenges this economy has presented, asserting the importance of the arts is all the more important. Bomberas is spirit work for me and good grantmaking, I have learned, is there to support the spirit as well.