Thursday, December 29, 2011

After ObamaCares

It’s been 2 ½ weeks since the op-ed piece that I wrote for the Los Angeles Times, “Obamacare to the Rescue” was published, and I’m still getting emails from people, thanking me for outing myself as another middle class, uninsured American. Many people wrote to say, "Me too!", and best of all, some people wrote to say that they were now benefiting from PCIP, thanks to my piece. I already knew plenty of hard working, ordinary middle class people who could no longer afford their health insurance premiums. I outed myself awhile ago, locally, just to get people thinking………

"Your PTA president can no longer afford the monthly $1,500 in health insurance premiums. If it could happen to her, it could happen to you……”

Now I’m faced with everyone’s worst fear: I have cancer. After getting the dreaded news on November 7, I went into shock, intensified by the fact that I was uninsured, without any sort of financial safety net, because the recession had robbed my family and I of it all. Thankfully, through the fast thinking of my good friend and fellow nonprofit leader, Becky Constantino of Access Books, who did some online research, I found out I qualified for PCIP through the Affordable Care Act.

Before I knew I was sick, I had channeled all of my frustration into my own art, because that’s what artists do. And I’m still doing it, only now I’m writing and drawing about cancer and health insurance. I started writing about the recession’s impact on me and my little nonprofit a couple of years ago. I had managed to mitigate my resentment and heartache that whole time by making my own art, cartooning and writing. I made so much art that I got my own solo show in October. And I published a book of cartoons, ART by Spike Dolomite, taken from the latest cartoon strip that I created, all about my favorite subject: the arts. I have also managed to keep my nonprofit going during this time, but at a huge personal cost to my health. Keeping it going has been really, really stressful.

I’m not alone. I know of many other nonprofit leaders, who, out of true love for their work, and absolute commitment to their nonprofit’s mission, have managed to keep their nonprofits going during the worst economic time in American history since the Great Depression. People seeking help from various charities have popped up in record numbers, yet many people are turned away because nonprofits have either gone out of business or are beyond their capacity. The recession has kept people from giving to charity which has crippled all of them (ironically, Ron Paul, when asked during a debate about what should be done about a hypothetical, uninsured thirty year old man who shows up at an emergency room, about to die, first implied that he should just die because he made the poor choice of being irresponsible by not buying private health insurance, and then he said “Let the charities and churches take care of him”. HA! How much more out of touch can these politicians be? The charities can’t do it! The blatant indifference and ignorance of our politicians is frightening.)

I’ve thought a lot about my fellow nonprofit leaders and their employees over the past 2 ½ weeks. Most of them don’t have health insurance either. Small and mid-sized nonprofit organizations usually run on shoe string budgets, and can still make a dollar go a lot further than the average for-profit company can, because they are so passionate about the work that they do. They’re not in it for the money. Money is a necessity, it’s not what drives them. Their missions are what drives and sustains them, not their bottom lines, high salaries or hefty benefits.

Before the recession hit, we had developed a three year strategic plan wherein we had positioned ourselves to not only build and expand our infrastructure so that we could impact more kids and schools, but that we could be an arts education organization that everyone would want to work for, not just for our outstanding programs, but because we could offer benefits like health insurance. We were transitioning from a Stage 1 organization to a Stage 2 organization, and we were doing really, really well.

Then the rug got pulled out from underneath us. So much of what we had built came crashing down. The only thing that kept me from feeling like a personal failure was the perverted comfort I got from seeing it happen to everybody else around me. It was horrible. I was really hurt, because Arts in Education Aid Council has been like my third child. I felt like it had been violated and abused, yet I could do nothing about it. As a result, I got very, very angry. I couldn’t turn my back on it and all of the kids and adults who were depending on me, so I kept it going by taking a few steps back (into familiar Stage 1 territory), where I planned to nurse it back to health until the economy recovered, at a great personal and financial cost. One of the first thoughts that went through my mind after getting the cancer news was, “This thing is killing me”. I’ve heard other nonprofit leaders say the same thing.

For every fifty messages that I have received after that op-ed came out, thanking me for telling my story and letting people know about the Affordable Care Act’s PCIP (Pre-existing Insurance Plan), I have received one hateful, mean spirited, narrow minded message condemning me for being irresponsible and lazy. Some lambasted me for being an artist, accusing me of living in a fantasy world. I have been hammered for working for a nonprofit (assuming that nonprofits are not real businesses and that anybody who “works” for one doesn’t really “work” - if these people had any clue what it was like to start and run a nonprofit! I have never worked so hard in my life!). I have been labeled as a socialist (caring about other people doesn’t make me a socialist - look it up). Some people went way out of their way to Google me and dig stuff up on me to make me look like I was working for the Obama administration or I was running for political office or something. Some pointed out that since I am a self proclaimed activist, I must be up to something. Since when is “activist” a dirty word? Girl Scouts are activists, PTA parents are activists, church members are activists, anybody who stands up to right a wrong, speaks out, or goes out of their way to make their community a better place is an activist. Hell ya, I’m an activist!

A couple of these outspoken critics have accused me of being anti-American. The worst emails came from a few people who actually came right out and said they didn’t want to pay for my Obamacare and that they wished I would just die (to such critics: PCIP is an insurance plan. I pay premiums, deductibles and co-pays, it’s not like Obama bought me a car or paid off my mortgage, he’s saving my life. To these same critics: I have been paying into Medicare, Social Security, and Unemployment Insurance since I was 15 and have never received any benefits from any of these federally sponsored programs, but I am happy to contribute!)

Receiving such hate mail has made me acutely aware of how easy it is to manipulate and control the masses. Most of the hate speech directed towards me comes from a few sources – they are just repeated talking points and buzz words that have been designed to carry forth a message to get people to believe that Obamacare means socialism. They have been duped into fearing Obamacare when what they should really be afraid of is their own insurance companies and the politicians who benefit from them by receiving contributions and/or hefty returns on their personal investments in those companies. Americans have been duped into believing that health care is a product to be consumed, which means you can only be healthy if you can afford it. Health care is not a human right in the richest, most powerful nation on earth? Why do some people buy into this idea (literally), that health is a commodity that only the privileged and lucky can afford?

I would like to challenge everyone who has parroted certain talking points propagating the fear of socialism to investigate what they are repeating. Do your own research to fully understand what you have been handed and what you are helping to spread (some of the authors of some of the emails I have received have sparked the public education/arts education activist in me………..if America would only educate its citizens properly and encourage creativity, we wouldn’t produce so many ignorant, hateful, closed minded people!) While you are at it, research universal health care and ask yourself why we are one of the only developed countries that doesn’t have a universal health care plan. Common sense will give you the answer, but look it up anyway.

I turned my back on politics out of disgust, because I felt like our elected officials, on both sides of the aisle, were playing with my life. I felt like very few of them actually represented me, or cared about the common American. American politics was just a dirty, power game, and I and the rest of the 99% were just mere pawns. By turning my back on my elected officials, I made the irresponsible choice to disengage, which meant I missed important news that had a positive impact on my life, like what has already passed with the Affordable Care Act. Once a politically astute voter, I had cut myself off from the political process out of desperation and a desire to protect myself and my family. I’m not proud of that, but again, I wasn’t alone. A lot of other smart people I know did the same thing. Bad idea.

I have written several op-eds over the years, mostly pieces about arts education, or how much I can’t stand the No Child Left Behind Act, or why I think parental involvement is critical to public education. I’ve stirred up the local pot a couple of times by writing such pieces, so I’ve had some experience in creating public debate over my written words (the most positive feedback was I should run for school board, the most negative was I was just a clown), but I have never experienced anything quite like what happened with the “Obamacare to the Rescue” piece. By mid morning, the Atlantic’s wire had picked it up as one of their top five picks of the day. It was shared, tweeted, reposted, and republished in record numbers (and in different languages!) all around the world. People were talking about it on radio and TV, and Al Sharpton’s producers were trying to track me down all day, wanting me to go on his MSNBC show. This all happened on the same day that I was to see my oncologist for the first time to find out if I was going to live or die. It was the weirdest, scariest, freakiest day of my life. I only wish people cared this much about public education and arts education!

I was motivated to write that piece for two reasons: The first was I was so paralyzed by fear that I felt like the only way out of that scary dark place would be to get outside of myself by helping somebody else. Others in my same situation would surely benefit by hearing the good news about PCIP, because nobody had ever heard of it! The second reason was to make it up to President Obama, who I had campaigned for, but then turned my back on, because I didn’t get everything I wanted with the Affordable Care Act. After the last election, when voters stupidly voted against their own interests and the political theatre took over, I re-registered as an Independent to send the Democrats a message: Don’t assume you automatically get my vote, work for it! I had also blacked out the top of the “h” and the top of the question mark on my “got hope?” bumper sticker so that it read "got nope." As a well known public school parent and nonprofit leader driving around Los Angeles with that bumper sticker next to the other bumper sticker, “Support the Arts in Valley Schools”, I felt I needed to do more than take the “got nope” sticker off. I needed to replace it with something that I wanted every American to hear, “ObamaCares”. I never doubted that he did. I just got mad at him because he didn’t try to beat his enemies at their own game, by fighting back hard.

I am not an expert on the Affordable Care Act. But I will be by the time I am cured of cancer. I have committed to that. I want to help dispel the myths that have been propagated for political gain. Do I have a simple answer to the health insurance crisis in this country? No, I don't, but the Affordable Care Act is a start. I'm going to do my part to educate myself about all of this, and I challenge all of the doubters and critics to do the same. Do your own research. Do not be used by the few who benefit the most from all of this. And if my critics can't see themselves in me, then picture this: What if your mom or sister lost her job and health insurance and then couldn't find another job with benefits in this economy, and then found out she had breast cancer? What would you do? Would you let her die? Would you pay for the treatment yourself? Or would you tell her about PCIP? We can't afford to play around with this any longer. More and more people have run out of cash and are uninsured. More and more people are going to find themselves in my same situation. We're all a paycheck away from disaster.

If you are one of the millions of Americans out there, clinging to the ledge like I was, not wanting to look down as you ride this economic nightmare out, I'd like to ask you now to please come back and re-engage because, guess what? It could get worse.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Day I Received Rob Bourden’s Drum Kit

If you are 35 or under, you probably logged on to read how I got close to Rob Bourden. If you’re over 35 you may be reading this because you are curious to learn who the hell Rob Bourden is and why I would get his drum kit.

Rob Bourden is the drummer for Linkin Park. He isn’t your typical celebrity who is so full of himself that he doesn’t give a damn about other people (except anyone who might adore him and buy his records). He grew up in Calabasas (at the far west end of the San Fernando Valley) and played music as a kid. He’s one of those exceptionally talented people who became famous but never let his ego get the best of him. He’s a well rounded guy – the kind of son a mother could be proud of, for in addition to his remarkable talent and accomplishments, he has an abundance of friends of all sizes, ages and colors, many of whom are not famous or even in the music business. One of them is my husband, David, who doesn’t care too much for rock and roll recorded after 1972, especially really, really loud rock and roll. He had never even heard of Linkin Park until some teen aged girls came to a holiday party at our house several years ago and freaked out to find Rob Bourden sitting on our couch. That’s when David learned he had a famous friend.

As a soldier for my cause to get music in schools, David hit Rob up for help. He, of course, obliged by saying he would donate something. For readers 35 and under, you might as well stop reading now because the rest of the story isn’t that interesting. If you are over 40, read on.

Ever since I started my arts education nonprofit twelve years ago, I have never, ever refused any sort of donation, and have happily, gratefully accepted whatever gets passed my way. This has resulted in some pretty amazing gifts, connections and experiences, but it has also amounted in more junk piled up in our garage when my husband wasn’t looking. When Rob told David that he wanted to donate something, and that I could pick it up at his apartment any time during a certain week, I assumed I would run in and pick up an autographed drum head or a small, electric drum machine or something. I did not expect to find myself in an I Love Lucy episode.

After driving my minivan to Sherman Oaks, and finding a parking spot quite a distance away from Rob’s apartment building, I walked up the many stairs, through the heavy gates to the manager’s office where I was told to ask for his key (he had just moved out and had left the donation there for me to pick up – the manager was expecting me.) I was directed where to go and after a walk through the pool area and a ride in the elevator, I finally reached Rob’s apartment and opened the door.

There, sitting in the middle of an empty apartment, were lots and lots of boxes. I could see right away that I may need some help and a dolly, because I had neither. As I looked around the empty apartment, I laughed. Teen aged girls in America would gladly sell an organ to get to be where I was at that very moment, alone in Rob Bourden’s apartment. Yet here I was, a middle aged, married woman with two kids, a PTA president, with a mini van parked at the end of the street, waiting to carry my latest charitable load. Alone with this amazing piece of rock and roll memorabilia, I pondered: How in the world was I going to get all of this down to the street, and once there, would it all fit in my van? I was Lucy without an Ethel. Rob’s drum set was John Wayne’s footprints in cement.

After trying to push each box down the hall myself (huffing, puffing and grunting in my sweats), I set about walking the grounds to look for help. After some time, I was finally able to get some assistance from the custodian who had a dolly. We rode the elevator and then walked to the apartment together, chatting. Once he realized where we were going, he paused outside of Rob’s door and asked me dreamily, “Are you his mother?”

Oh God, it's official, I thought. I am not cool anymore. I'm old.

Since my little helper was no longer star struck, we hustled and got everything out the door, through the complex and out onto the street in a pretty timely fashion, for he had no more questions for me.

At a board meeting soon after I brought the drum set home, we put our heads together to try and figure out what to do with our new kick ass donation (Rob signed the side of a drum head and some sticks and a paper saying his signature was the real thing). One of the board members had a son who was a concert promoter in LA and vouched for the band to the rest of the other middle aged board members. "Linkin Park was HUGE", she assured us, and that perhaps we should just charge teenaged girls ten dollars a piece to touch the stool that Rob actually sat on. We nixed that idea because none of us really wanted to go to where the teenagers were to solicit their ten dollars. We decided to donate it to a very excited high school music department director instead, who promptly gave it its own locked room after dubbing it, “Jesus’s drum set”.

As a nonprofit leader, I am touched by Rob's generosity, for this was a large, personal gift. As a mother, and as an artist, I am moved by how he has managed to follow his bliss, play so well, be so successful, and stay grounded amidst so much fame and all that comes with it. He's the ultimate rock and roll role model (donating this drum set to my little nonprofit is just one of the many things he has done for young people in our community). His mother must be so proud. She raised an incredibly talented, humble, generous human being. He's the real thing.

I was inspired to blog about this because rock and roll is on my mind a lot these days. I have been creating and posting rock and roll ART cartoons all month. It’s funny how life ends up working out sometimes. I didn’t move out to Los Angeles 24 years ago to turn kids on to art and music. I wasn’t even thinking about kids. I was young, cool, and focused on having fun. My only goal in moving out to L.A. as a young artist was to design rock and roll album covers and to party with the boys in the band.

I did better than that. I grew up in L.A. My course changed, and I eventually had two great kids of my own who inspired me to bring art and music into the lives of many other children. While traveling this road I have been given many gifts, one of which was receiving the ultimate compliment: I was mistaken for Rob Bourden’s mom.

To view this month’s daily rock and roll cartoons, visit ART by Spike Dolomite on Facebook.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Who Will Be the Next Steve Jobs?

I have a big art show coming up, not the usual type of show that I have been producing for over a decade for kids, teens, or other artists, but for myself. This is a solo show for me, an exhibition for an artist who has turned to her own art to get her through one of the most difficult periods of her adult life: staying afloat during the recession.

This isn’t the first time that art has gotten me through tough times. Art saved me as a kid, too. I didn’t have a Father Knows Best childhood. I didn’t even have a father. He died when I was eight. The adults in charge in my life weren’t anything like Margaret and Jim Anderson. I was raised by a post-feminist movement mother whose new found freedoms were all consuming. Life for all of us was made even harder and more complicated by the abuse of alcohol. I learned at a very young age to rely on myself. This doesn’t sound that unusual by today’s standards, but back in the seventies, it was novel. The only constant in my life was my creativity. I could trust myself and my art. Making art was safe, dependable, and constructive. Whether I was alone in my room, or down in the basement creating something, I was master of my own universe. I could tune the world out, be free and in control.

This is one of the many reasons why I advocate for the arts in schools. It’s not just that an arts education makes for a complete education, or that participating in the arts raises test scores. It’s about finding and nurturing passion, about turning kids on who would otherwise be lost without art, music, writing, theater, etc. Offering arts education in schools is about giving right brained kids their due respect and much needed dignity, and helping them find and follow their bliss.

Tragically, however, our society is so busy, over whelmed and self involved, that we look upon these kids as being deficient in some way. They’re in the way. They won’t conform. They move too much. They don’t focus. They don’t go along with the status quo (all qualities that are usually revered after someone like Steve Jobs makes his mark, but are shunned, stifled and snubbed until society finally approves). We mistakenly label and medicate these kids so they’ll settle down and go along with the flow, or not upset the apple cart. Or challenge us. Or protest when we tell them to march and take their place in the status quo line.

Labeling and medicating children has become an epidemic in this country (and only in this country – we’re the only society that starves itself, gets depressed, and labels and medicates its young). This is a serious epidemic that needs to be eradicated by having all Americans slow down and take a good look at itself. Quit looking at kids and isolating their behaviors as if they are the problem. Our lifestyle and attitudes are the problem. We need to ask, what are we doing to our children? If we keep dosing our kids, who will be the next Steve Jobs? If the next generation is too zoned out to question, to take on challenges, or to push the envelope, what will become of them? What will become of us?

Monday, September 12, 2011

American Girl

It was a great summer, but it’s been a morose Back to School season. My daughter is mourning the end of summer, and dreading the newness of fourth grade. She is anxious and fidgety, emotional and restless, mostly because she doesn’t have any of her old friends in her new class. The only way my husband and I can see this glass as half full is by reminding ourselves that we’re lucky that she hasn’t started her period yet. Teen aged hormones are like Miracle Grow on complicated, intense, girl emotions. To make matters worse for all of us, I’ve had a publishing deadline, so……………. I’m STRESSED OUT.

I’ve been a mom who has worn three different hats for the past 17 years. I was a stay at home mom for the first three years of my son’s life. He was an easy, fun baby, and I really enjoyed my role as a stay at home mom. But as my son got older, I was concerned that he’d see me as a one dimensional female who didn’t do anything but take care of other people. So I threw myself into creating a new cartoon strip, “P.S. I’m a Girl” (pre-Sex in the City – about four realistic women who weren’t obsessed with men). Soon after, I started teaching art to preschoolers and loved it so much that I turned my focus completely toward arts education.

After my son entered public school, my passions grew and I ended up starting an arts education nonprofit so kids in my community could have art in school. I ran it out of my house for about eight years. This worked out well when the time came for us to adopt our daughter, because that meant that I could be at home with her, too.

I learned the hard way that “having it all” isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. When a woman chooses to work from home, what she is really doing is moving from juggling tennis balls to juggling bowling balls. There is no end to her work day, and their is no line between work and home (in other words, her kids really don’t care, or notice, if she's working or not). “Can I ________?, Where’s the _______? and MOM!!!!!!” is the soundtrack to the Stay at Home Working Mom Show.

After my daughter entered school, I was able to get an office outside of the home. That became my happy place, as I hadn’t been alone in silence like that in over fourteen years. Sometimes I would just go there and sit there and do nothing, soaking up the quiet and solitude. I could hear myself think. My nonprofit really grew during this time, and I became a successful working mom. But that, too, has had its own season.

The recession forced us to make some cuts, just to stay in the game. As a result, I found myself with less to do, because there was less money to do anything with. Frustrated, heartbroken, angry, I turned to my own art to help me ride out the economic and emotional storm.

Which means I have been spending a lot more time back at home - working from home. I’m either painting in my art studio in the back yard, drawing cartoons on our dining room table, or I’m obsessively working on my laptop, AND keeping my nonprofit going, AND trying to be a good mom, which means I’ve squeezed in summer play dates, trips to the beach, and four day camping getaways, all on a really tight budget.

This all leaves me feeling on some days like I haven’t accomplished anything at all, because I’ve tried to do too much in one day. I may reach one goal on any given day, but because I have so many other goals waiting to be checked off of my list, I can’t feel much satisfaction in completing anything. Maybe it’s a Work At Home Mom Thing. Or Super Woman Thing. Or an OCD Thing. Whatever it is, I’m frazzled.

Some of my mom friends who work outside of the home feel guilty because they feel like they don’t spend enough time with their kids. And some of my mom friends who stay home with their kids feel guilty because they don’t bring in any money (or they would really like to get away from their kids). Then there is me and some of my work at home mom friends who feel guilty because we’re trying to do it all, all at once, and be good at it, but we know we can’t. While we’re tending to our kids, we feel pressure to be working, and when we’re working, we feel like we’re neglecting our kids. The house is always a mess. We never feel like we’ve nailed “it” (whatever “it” is). There isn’t a boss or any co-workers who mark the end of our work day with “Thanks” or “Good job”. We don’t have to dress for success which means we usually don’t. We get used to the stay at home mom chic (t-shirt and sweats) which gives us more guilt if we absent mindedly end up somewhere in a public situation (because we’re always in a hurry, doing two or three things at once) where everyone else is dressed for success.

An unintended consequence of the feminist revolution is that women my age are stuck trying to pull it ALL off – in between the roles of our mothers who had kids and kept house, and the roles of the younger, single, childless, career women who are focused on their own work. We’re squished in the middle, trying to do it all, without any role models of our own.

One difference I have noticed with raising a son and a daughter is that I never wanted my son to see me as a one dimensional female, so I never worried that I was modeling Super Woman for him. I have always thought that a son viewing his mother as a multi-dimensional, hard working, hard loving, competent female is a damned good thing. But now I find myself questioning myself with my daughter. What kind of signals am I sending her about her future as a woman? Will she have to juggle bowling balls, if she chooses to do it all like her mom, or will her generation have this figured out by the time she finishes college?

I decided to talk to both of my kids at the same time about the great strides that women have made in this country (my son has heard it all many times before, but this time I wanted to tell the story with his younger sister in the room), and how important it is that women have the same choices as men, and how it was just a short time ago in human history that women did not have any choices, and so on. As I continued on with my lesson on feminist history for my kids, I flashed on one of my favorite memories.

I was at the Hong Kong Art Museum. It was during the SARS epidemic and there wasn’t anybody in the streets or in public places. Hong Kong is one of the most crammed places on earth, but on that day, because of SARS, I was all alone, and I had the Hong Kong Art Museum all to myself! I entered an exhibit of one man’s life during the Cultural Revolution. I was really taken with it – a huge, empty room, with small artifacts placed throughout of one man’s life; a small bed, a tin cup and plate, a uniform – all of it grey or tan – NO COLOR. He was anonymous and that was the point of the exhibit. This man could have been any man (or woman) in China at that time. That alone was fascinating to me, but when I heard Madonna sing over the stereo system, I was moved to tears. As I viewed this exhibit of this anonymous person’s life, and contemplated the consequences of the Cultural Revolution which ultimately led to my daughter one day being born and adopted by us, I was overjoyed with the thought of all of the many open possibilities for her, who was alive and waiting for me, but whom I had yet to meet. She may have been born female at a time in Chinese history when being born female meant a life of servitude, but fate intervened and she would be adopted by me and my husband, and she would be an American girl, which meant she could grow up to be anybody she wanted, even somebody like Madonna, the ultimate symbol of a woman succeeding in a man's world, if she wanted that. I was excited for her. And excited for me, because I’d get to support her and watch her grow and choose.

I turned back to scrubbing the toilet and gave up feeling guilty about what my American girl was inheriting. I’ll leave it up to her to decide how she wants to juggle having it all.

Friday, June 24, 2011

School's Out for Summer!

I made it. I dropped my daughter off for her last day of school, and then fought my way through the insane morning traffic, against all odds, like I’ve done every day since September, until I arrived safely in my very own driveway. Making it home every school day is always such a welcomed relief, as school zones in Los Angeles are the most dangerous places to be in in the mornings. It’s such perverse irony - children on their way to school in the mornings endangered by the very people who are supposed to care the most about them. I drop my daughter off at the safest time of all – before the gates open. I’m one of the first parents to arrive and I’m one of the first to get the hell out of there, just before the daily insanity starts: Moms who are late, talking on their cell phones, cutting people off, making three point turns in the middle of the busy street, letting their kids out on the opposite side of the street and then waving them into traffic (ignoring all posted signs that say don’t do that), dads who text while driving with people everywhere, cars speeding through stop signs, inconsiderate jerks parking their cars right in front of neighbors’ driveways, blocking them in. The list goes on and on. It’s the same story at every school.

School zones, which should be trusted safe zones, are dangerous in the mornings, because of parents. They’re more dangerous than the last call bar flies who hit the freeways after closing time at 2 a.m. because there are so many of them.

A reasonable person could deduce that anyone caught in the act would be ashamed of themselves, but quite the contrary. This is Los Angeles, where people look out for Number One, and all bad behavior can be rationalized or blamed on someone else. It’s nuts. Bad parents are rarely ever confronted. If they’re so willing to blatantly break the law and put lives in danger (including their own children), what do you think they’d do or say to anyone who actually calls them out? I’ve seen that happen and it never ends well for the confronter. I remember watching the evening news a few years ago where a local news crew parked themselves outside of an elementary school in an affluent neighborhood (I mention this only because the elite are so big on appearances) and filmed parents breaking one law after another. When confronted, on camera, many of these parents got so defensive they threatened the reporters and camera operators! One of them was still in her pajamas!

The other irony in all of this is that you rarely ever see any cops in these danger zones. It’s a well known fact that school zones are extremely dangerous. So where are the cops? Are they making drug busts and chasing gang members at 8 a.m.? With the city in such dire financial straits, I don’t get why the cops aren’t planted at every school site, writing tickets left and right, bringing in lots of money for the city first thing in the morning while keeping our school zones safe. Seems like a no brainer to me, but then again, this is Los Angeles.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Let Someone Else Do It

When I started a nonprofit organization twelve years ago, I wondered to myself, “Why is it that this has never been done before? There is an undeniable need in my community, a sleepy little town of over one million people. Surely this has already been tried, and if so, why did it fail?” I feared that I was entering into some forbidden territory where nobody dared go, because it was too dangerous and impossible to achieve. Was I naïve? What was it that everybody else knew that I was doomed to learn?

It's been a long time since I asked myself those questions, but I know the answer. It wasn’t that what I was attempting to do was an impossible, unrealistic dream or not feasible. It’s that in my region of over one million people, the average resident is perfectly content to “Let someone else do it”.

I live in the San Fernando Valley of Southern California, where people stay in their houses and venture out to make a living, get their kids to school, or go to the grocery store. We don’t have a vibrant civic life or cultural center where people gather, appreciate good food, company, art, music, or learn anything new. It doesn’t exist. There is no reason for people to leave their houses, and the average Valley resident likes it that way. Even the celebrities. They move out here so they can be left alone and only leave their houses to further their careers (their housekeepers or personal assistants go to the grocery store for them). After Los Angeles became a boom town in the earlier part of the 20th century (oil, land development and the movie industry), the farmlands of the San Fernando Valley got gobbled up by tract housing, a chunk at a time, to make way for a new suburbia for Los Angeles. The original homeowners of the average home bought in to a suburban lifestyle where the people matched the houses – they were all the same. The subdivisions of the Valley haven’t changed much (except for gigantic mansions that have been built along the edges), but the demographics have changed dramatically. Original homeowners are getting older and passing away. The public schools at the end of the block where all the kids in the neighborhood went are now over crowded with children from people from all around the world. There are certain zip codes in the Valley (in areas where the homes are worth more than $600,000) where kids still go to the neighborhood public school, because the parents there have done enough fundraising on their own to turn their average school into a decent school. If they’re not satisfied with that school, and they can afford it, then they send their kids to private schools. The rest of us poor schmucks are left to apply to magnets, charters, or hope for open enrollment to get out of sending our kids to the neighborhood school. It’s not a fair or balanced system. But it’s the only system there is.

My oldest child attended our neighborhood school from kindergarten through fifth grade. There were two blonde kids in his entire kindergarten class and he was one of them. I was fearful of this school when we first moved into the neighborhood, because I paid way too much attention to the negative news reports and what everybody was saying at Mommy and Me and at my son’s preschool. Los Angeles moms are neurotic! The school system has made us this way. The message I got, loud and clear, is that good mothers do not send their children to LAUSD schools.

After snooping around our neighborhood school when my son was about four, I started to let go of the paranoia and started thinking for myself. My husband and I decided to give that school a shot. Contrary to popular, paranoid belief, I didn’t subscribe to the theory that every moment spent in kindergarten was going to determine the quality of the rest of his education or life. It was only kindergarten and if we didn’t like what was going on there, we’d pull him out. Seemed like a reasonable, sane plan, and a relief from the frantic Mommy Talk.

Soon after my son entered kindergarten, I started volunteering in the PTA and teaching art in his classroom. I learned right away that this school, and all schools, were dying for parent and community support, but that they had all been abandoned. They were left alone to try and educate a diverse group of children, with limited funding in a dysfunctional system, set inside a lifeless, disinterested community. That really bothered me. I could see that I could make a significant contribution to this little school by volunteering to teach art. The school was delighted to receive my help.

Soon after I started teaching art in my son’s classroom, I was approached by other teachers who asked if I’d teach some lessons in their classroom. How could I say no? But how was I going to be able to afford the supplies, etc., on my own? At the same time, I learned from my involvement in PTA that if schools didn’t have a PTA, their kids couldn’t go on any field trips. I was so naïve as a kindergarten parent I thought that buses came with schools and if you wanted to go somewhere you just called up the Bus Barn and they sent one out. But no, that’s not how it works. Everything costs in LAUSD – usually triple what you’d pay outside of the system, because everything is padded to maintain the top heavy status quo (a well known fact to most people who had been around, but a shocking revelation to me as a new parent). It didn’t seem morally right, or even believable, and I was outraged.

So I started doing some research on what I could do to raise money to purchase supplies for me to volunteer teaching art at my son’s school, and what I could do to raise money to take the kids on field trips to art museums and other cultural institutions (we have a lot in LA). I didn’t want to propose such trips to our tiny PTA because it was already committed to funding buses for every grade level for traditional field trips that enhance an “academic curriculum”. I may have been a naive kindergarten parent, but I wasn’t naïve about how people viewed the arts – they are the first thing to go when money is tight and I wanted to figure out a way to make these things happen without being weighed against other needs when money runs out.

What I learned, in my initial research, was that I should probably get set up as a nonprofit organization so that I wouldn’t have to spend most of my time “earning” and running a small business. And since the children that I hoped to serve didn’t have any money, it didn’t look like that would be possible anyway – I didn’t want to charge kids for art, nor did I believe parents or schools should have to pay for it. The arts should be offered in public school along with all other subjects. If parents were expected to pay, that would mean that some kids would get left out, most likely the kids who needed it the most. So I needed to learn how to set up a nonprofit corporation (501 c 3) so that all kids could benefit from an arts program, without burdening the school or their parents with financial requests.

I talked to a number of people who had already done it and then I purchased a copy of the NoLo Press’s The California Nonprofit Corporation Kit and did everything it said, a step at a time. I found a fiscal receiver, opened up a bank account and started fundraising. I learned very quickly how to write grant proposals and conduct various fundraisers. I taught the art lessons myself, adding 100 new kids every year (a new grade level) at my son’s school, fine tuning the curriculum that I wrote. As the money came in, the programs expanded and in a few years we adopted another school, and then another school. We put on festivals and art shows that benefited the entire Valley. We donated supplies to many other new schools and partnered with almost every arts organization in Los Angeles along the way. Los Angeles foundations have been the most generous with us – most of our funding has come from them. But our own residents and the business community of the San Fernando Valley? Very, very few have taken an interest in us, or any other local charity, because the average Valley business and eligible individual is not philanthropic. We have a lousy reputation for being civic minded, culturally astute, or community based (except for a few annual galas where the same old people who give to the same, popular causes, get the same old pictures taken and are published in the Daily News). Other regions of Los Angeles have a lower median of income (like portions of the Hollywood area) yet their residents are active in their communities and donate time and money to causes they believe in. Then there are other areas like Pasadena, which are flooded with generous donors who fully understand how critical it is to support education, arts and culture, and many other causes in their community. And it shows. So what’s up with the Valley?

The Valley mentality hasn’t changed much since it was first developed as a post war suburban utopia. The people may have changed, but the “Let someone else do it” attitude is alive and well. The sleepy suburbanites cocoon themselves up in their own little worlds and send their kids anywhere but to the neighborhood school, if they can. Then the large immigrant populations are content to let the neighborhood schools take care of everything and do it all. They don’t support their children’s schools the way they should. The answer to my question twelve years ago “Why hasn’t this been done before?” has to do with priorities. To fight for something, you have to value it first, then you have to make the time for the fight. It’s not enough to say you care about something. That just makes you look good. For communities to be healthy, vibrant and active, we all have to make some sort of personal contribution by doing it ourselves. "Someone else" left the building a long time ago.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Artist’s Statement

It’s been about two years since the nonprofit that I started, Arts in Education Aid Council, was punched in the face by the recession. I felt it at work before I felt it at home……. a very big grant that we were counting on came in at 80% less than we expected, which forced us to put on the brakes for our expansion plans. Eighteen months prior to this, the little nonprofit that I started in our family den had grown so much that we had opened an office, hired internal staff to take care of the daily operations, and paid outside consultants to help with fundraising and board development. I had risen within the arts education and nonprofit sectors as a leader in both fields. I felt like Queen of the World, woo-hooing on top of my little mountain, looking forward to growing and adopting more schools so we could turn more kids on to the arts. And then POW!, through no fault of my own, I was sucker punched in the face and knocked off my little mountain, by forces completely outside of my control, all thanks to a heartless, greedy, elite few.

Heartbroken and very pissed off at those who caused the economic collapse, I turned to the one thing that has always sustained me through the dark times of my life: my own art.

For the past eleven years, most of my creative energy and time has gone into kids – raising my own and providing the children of my community with an arts education at no cost to them or their schools. During this time, I painted some, wrote quite a bit, and cartooned a little. Faced with one of the most difficult crises of my life, I knew that the only thing that would get me through it was to get busy and get creative.

My family and I set a goal to visit as many national parks as possible within one year, as cheaply as possible, and I would paint at least one painting from each park. Most of our plans were built around a planned trip to Colorado for my 30 year high school reunion. We had a blast living out of our car as we toured 14 national parks. I did more than paint one painting of each park (I have about 60 canvases total!), and had a wonderful time escaping in my studio to paint subjects that I truly loved, creating lasting memories for myself and my family, while healing myself by relying on my innate talent – the gift of creativity.

Everything that I have been teaching kids for the past 11 years I applied to myself. I can’t go wrong in my studio. This is the only place where I am truly free, where I don’t think about how angry I am at what has happened to education, Los Angeles, the state of California, or our nation. Yes, in my own little funky art studio in my back yard, I am free, relaxed and happy. And now I have a nice body of work to show for all of my released tension. That’s not just good for my artist’s soul, that’s good for my health and state of mind.

And then there is cartooning……my first art love. I started cartooning as a little kid, drawing characters in situations that were totally inappropriate for my age, but made some adults laugh until they cried. This was the ultimate buzz for me as a kid – smart ass validation! I’ve created many different strips over the years. Some of them published and popular, some not. But I’ve always enjoyed doing it, no matter what. I started cartooning our camping and travel adventures, and then I felt compelled to pick up with a strip idea that came to me two years ago, while attending a dry, redundant, long conference for arts leaders. A few of my colleagues are very smart and funny, and I always try and sit with them at these things so we can keep each other entertained with our silly zingers. I have been to a lot of these meetings, but this one gave me a headache. I grew weary of listening to one person after another talk about the same old thing, using “insider language” that the average person doesn’t use. We sounded like a bunch of artsy-fartsy snobs. We finished up with a break out session where we were all given an assignment to think about our purpose as arts leaders. When our facilitator was done pontificating, one of my funny, smart colleagues (who will remain nameless so I don’t incriminate him with my smart ass synopsis at the end of this), said, “Well, I guess we can see now why people don’t think we are any fun”. I busted out laughing, but I was alone. No one else laughed! Everybody at our table was the stuck up museum type (over educated with no sense of humor). And they all spoke Art Speak.

I haven’t gone to many more of those types of gatherings since then. I can’t take it. Things are just way too bad in California to pretend like they are not, and I refuse to show up to any of these things so I can wag my tail and hope that someone will throw me a bone. No, from that moment on, the notes that I take about the art world don’t have anything to do with spin, strategic planning, branding or bragging rights. I’m not going to show up to any more meetings and compliment the Emperor on his new clothes. I’m afraid I’ll jump up on top of a table and scream, “LISTEN UP EVERYBODY! The Emperor is NAKED!” I can’t afford to shoot myself in the foot over principle these days, so I hide out in my studio as I wait for the recession to blow over, making whimsical observations about the art world, in every day language, with my cartoons instead.

After my colleague blurted out the obvious and made me laugh that day in 2009, my notes stopped being about Art Speak, and were more about art for art's sake, artists, the business of art, and arts education, with a satirical slant – the way I see it. I endured the rest of that conference, thanks to the wise crack of a colleague. My headache went away and a new comic strip was born, “ART”. My goal with this strip, at this point in my life, is to make myself laugh out loud. And if I can make myself laugh until I cry, well then, that would make me feel like Queen of the World.

“ART” – that’s my statement.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Car Pool Lane Rules are for Suckers and Commoners

Every morning, at my daughter’s new school, I’m annoyed by the parents who drop their kids off. It’s not just this school. It’s the same story at every campus throughout L.A. This new school is a lot more efficient in getting kids dropped off in the morning than her former school, for a number of reasons. The first is that it is a magnet school so many of the kids are bused in, which cuts down on the car traffic. And since it’s a magnet school, the kids come with parents who are generally more conscious than the average LAUSD parent. If they’re concerned enough about their kids’ educations to get them into a magnet, then they’re generally going to be more concerned about their children’s safety in the mornings, and more considerate of other drivers, the car pool rules, and will read signs. Even so, though, there are always a handful of parents who could care less about other people, rules and signs. And one of them bugs me every single morning.

I get my daughter to school pretty early in the mornings. It’s a bit of a drive so I like to beat the school and work traffic by leaving before most people get on the road. I like to drop her off and get the heck out of there before the crazies show up. But one car in particular really bugs me. The red Jeep. She shows up every morning, right when the gates open, just ahead of the no parking zone, in front of the rest of us, who are all parked behind the no parking zone, to let her precious, “gifted” son out of the car. She never bothers waiting in line. She doesn’t cut in line. She brazenly passes the rest of us every morning and parks in front of the line. Like her son, she must be “gifted”; special, not like the rest of us, entitled to extra privileges not afforded to average people. I get it. All of us rule followers behind the No Parking Zone get it. We’re just a bunch of commoners and suckers.

She annoys me, not because she is dangerous and careless, like so many other drivers in the morning, but because she’s so selfish. Everybody behind the no parking zone is respectful of the carpool rules, and we teach our kids to wait their turn and not cut in front of anyone in line. The message she is giving all of us, and her son, is that they’re not like the rest of us, and are therefore more entitled. That’s why she bugs me.

After I send my daughter off to school, with a smile and good wishes for the day, I get out of there as fast and as safely as I can, so I can miss the idiots who double park, make three point turns in the middle of the busy street, block driveways, speed, honk, cut into the car pool lane (right in front of the “do not cut into the car pool lane” sign), jay walk (right in front of the “do not jay walk” sign), text, pick their nose in the middle of the street (it’s true – I watched a dad stop dead in the middle of the street to dig a big one out), talk on the phone, or let their kids off at the end of the block and then follow them at walking speed until they get into the gate, just to make sure they aren’t abducted in the three minutes that it takes to walk in to the playground. Sometimes they have volunteers who keep the traffic moving. When they’re there, people tend to be more civilized. I won’t volunteer to do that, though, because I don’t think I’d be too civilized about car pool duty. I’m apt to drag somebody out of their car some day, just to give them a what for because I’m still pissed off about my kid almost getting hit by a crazy mom who pulled up on the curb after making a three point turn in the street a year ago at my daughter’s other school.

To get home, I need to pass by another school - a middle school, and the parents are CRAZY. Many of them cut in line by speeding past the turn lane to make a U-turn to cut in line. I’ve seen three people do this at once, one of them from the far lane. Don’t honk at them, or you’ll get cussed out or flipped off. Parents who do this are bad enough. But with their kids in the car?

As I headed south on my route home today, I got stuck behind two women, in separate cars, who were first in line at a red light. They were BOTH putting on make up. The light turned green and neither one of them knew it because they were putting on mascara. At the same time! It might be funny later, as a cartoon, but this morning, it was just another frightening, stupid moment trying to get my kid to school.

The city of Los Angeles is broke. I don’t get why the cops aren’t at every school in the morning, busting people left and right. They’d bring in some decent revenue for the city while keeping our school zones safe. And they’d get that red Jeep, and everything that it symbolizes, out of my face.

Friday, April 1, 2011

From Pawns to Players: What if Public School Kids Had Their Own Union?

If I wasn’t so busy running a nonprofit, taking care of my family, and making my own art, I’d start a Kids Union. I have always wanted to do that. I researched this a few years ago because I saw it as the only possible way for kids to assert their rights for a decent education, since the status quo doesn’t seem to really care that much about them. Back in my Burning Mom days when me and my radical public school mom peeps were out on the streets, attending rallies, going to meetings, and protesting on the steps of the capitol in Sacramento with our kids, I learned about the beginning of the Teamsters union and the teachers unions (and some of the negative, unintended consequences of both). I researched Cesar Chavez and his leadership of the United Farm Workers union and was most inspired by them – regular people getting organized and confronting the status quo, and how the El Teatro Campesino, (the farmworkers theater) traveled from field to field and performed on flat beds of trucks to educate the workers and their families about their plight and their cause. And then there was Mother Jones, who fought for children’s rights, and the working conditions of factory workers. I was excited to learn that she led hundreds of kids on a march from Kensington, Pennsylvania, to Long Island, New York in 1903 where President Theodore Roosevelt was vacationing at his mansion with his family, to draw attention to the hardships of children who were forced to work in factories, deprived of an education, paid next to nothing because they were just kids, and were forced to work in filthy buildings with dangerous machines. Even with all the publicity that their demonstration generated, Roosevelt still blew her and the kids off after they walked ten miles a day for 22 days. He blew them off! He wouldn’t talk to them.

Sounds like what most of us here in L.A. experienced two years in a row with our California Children’s Rally at the state capitol, six hours away. Some of us, like me and my kids, were lucky enough to have a successful meeting with our assembly member after our three hour demonstration on the steps of the capitol. Our representative, Lloyd Levine, was a pro-public education legislator with an arts background. The experience was great for our kids who got some face to face time with their assemblyman, but we were preaching to the choir – what we really needed to do was take it down the hall to where the Republicans were. Others in our group were turned away or placated by a 20 year old intern who promised to take their concerns to their bosses. Even with all of our theatre, music, and out of the box demonstration antics starring our kids, we were pretty much ignored. We were organized, we had a clear message, we were entertaining, and we had fun, but the big shots still blew us off. Those two excursions to the state capitol have gone down in history not as the days that changed public education in California forever, but as educational family field trips with very little broad social impact other than our kids all got to see their parents taking action and exercising their American right to free speech, demonstrating for them how to be good citizens by participating in the democratic process. We didn’t shake the hill like we thought we would. State assembly members and senators just walked right past us, or stayed up in their offices. A typical day in Sacramento for most of them is stepping over demonstrators on all four sides of the capitol, with a latte in hand, on their way to “work”.

I am inspired by all of the historical movements and organizations which resulted in dramatic changes for ordinary people. With the so much attention on Wisconsin now, the time might be a ripe to get organized for public education in California – not on behalf of the status quo, but on genuine behalf of kids and the future of our state. The time has come. The teachers have their own union. The administrators have their own union. The bus drivers have their own union. The custodians have theirs. Nobody is at the table who has any real power to speak and act on behalf of the kids, who are getting ripped off by all of the political games the adults in charge play (especially at this time of year), who all use the kids as pawns in a tug of war of "who cares the most", and then drops them on their heads when the game is over. The kids need a union rep of their own who will tell the other union reps, LAUSD, and lawmakers that if the kids don’t get a decent education and are well cared for, that they will go on strike. And if the kids go on strike, then everybody is in really big trouble because they need as many butts in their classroom seats as possible, every day, because butts translate into dollars for the adults in LAUSD. No butts, no paychecks.

I really do believe that if parents got organized and pulled their kids out of school until their demands were met, that we’d see some real action, for we’d be able to choke the dysfunctional beast right where it lives and breathes – in the bank account. Money is the only thing the status quo really cares about. So if we starve it to death, perhaps all of the parasites who feed off of the beast will shrivel up and fall off. If there isn’t any money to pay everybody who is responsible for keeping the system so sick, then they’ll all just have to go away or find jobs in the competitive real world where workers need to do a good job if they want to stay employed. This is not a rant against bad teachers - this goes for everybody employed in LAUSD. Some of the rudest, laziest employees in the city can be found in our schools. Last year I delivered all of my newspapers personally to all of the middle and high schools in the Valley to meet people face to face and go over my mailing list with them to make sure all of the teachers and principals in my data base were accurate. One third of the front office personnel in these schools were professional and courteous, another third completely ignored me, and the final third were so rude to me that in the real world, they'd get fired on the spot. We have all heard stories or experienced for ourselves the dreaded drive downtown to have to deal with downtown employees who give people the run around, or many different answers to the same question. And we all know of numerous administrators, consultants and "coaches" who don't have much to do, but by golly, they have worked their way up the ladder and have earned their rest! They get away with acting like this because they can. Just more symptoms of a very big problem.

LAUSD is not going to fix itself. It can’t. Too many over paid adults benefit greatly by the system staying just the way it is. So the answer is to either organize a Kids Union and beat them at their own game, or outlaw private schools and force the elite to send their kids to public schools. That should do it!

All of the frantic outside fundraising that is being done now, the campaign for tax extensions, and new charters popping up on a regular basis, are temporary solutions and none of them are going to fix the real problems. They aren’t going to change the diseased culture of public education and the way business is conducted in Sacramento. They’re just quick fixes that will keep the status quo running for a little while longer. Parents taking back their schools with The Parent Revolution and the parent trigger law, is that the answer? No, but it is AN answer. El Camino Real High School going charter in order to save itself to maintain what they worked so hard to create over decades? Is that the answer? No, but it’s AN answer. Is home schooling the answer? No – just another possible answer. They are all options that give parents a choice, which they have a right to, but none of these options really fixes the real problem. Parents in L.A. today feel like they have no other choice but to go with some of these options, which weakens the entire system all the more. The majority of students who will be left in LAUSD schools in the very near future will be mostly English language learners and special ed students who are protected by law, and the kids who are stuck with parents who won’t or can’t look for other options. This makes everything that much more stressful and worse for the poor teachers and kids who are left behind.

The entire culture of how LAUSD functions needs to change. It’s so stuck in the past that Rip Van Winkle wouldn’t notice any changes after waking up on his elementary school playground after being asleep for 100 years. The campus would look the same and his second grade teacher would still be there because she has seniority! We’re just plugging up holes on a sinking ship with all of our desperate attempts to fundraise and look for someone or something on the outside to rescue us. By constantly going back to the parents to fundraise to save valued programs, RIF’d staff, or copier paper and supplies, we’re tapping our poor parents out. They can’t afford to keep patching up the holes in the sinking LAUSD ship to prolong the inevitable. The kids need to go on strike.

So concludes my rant against the paid adults in public education and politics. Next rant: "Do nothing parents".

Friday, March 11, 2011

Rocking My Own Life Boat

I’m a boat rocker. I’ve been rocking all sorts of boats over the past 48 years. Some needed it and some probably didn’t, but I rocked them anyway.

These days I’ve been rocking my own life boat. I’ve been pretty quiet about the imploding public school system, the threats to arts ed programs, and the emergency status so many nonprofits have found themselves in, having to say “No” to the record numbers of people who have turned to them for help during this recession, because they no longer have the ability or resources to help. Through no fault of their own, many have had to shut their doors, leaving more and more people out in the cold.

I’ve been quiet because I’m heart broken and exhausted. I feel betrayed by those in control who are responsible for this whole mess, and I’m angry because they don’t seem to care. I’m frustrated with the masses who seem so numb and indifferent to their plight. In order to make sense of the whole American tragedy, I have turned to my own art to get me through it. That’s what I’ve always done when life has punched me in the face. My painting is my therapy. It relaxes me and makes me happy– letting me forget the never ending BS that plagues my city and our nation. And with my writing and cartooning, I can say things that aren’t really appropriate for me to say in my role as PTA President or nonprofit leader. If I can make myself laugh out loud with a new “ART” cartoon, I rock my own boat, and that’s good enough for me these days. I’m still doing my activism, but from the comforts of my own creation.

Sometimes though, like today, after doing a couple of cartoons on LAUSD laying valuable music teachers off (facing the very real possibility that the music departments in these schools could close) I feel sick……..really sick. This is very personal to me. I am an artist. I am a mother. I’ve dedicated the past eleven years to restoring the arts to schools in my community. I was one of those kids whose life was literally saved by art and music in school. This is too close for comfort for me. I can not believe this is happening. I feel so powerless. It’s so wrong.

So I draw some cartoons to expose the hypocrisy of the LAUSD, but I don’t laugh out loud. I cry. I want to take a shower because the whole thing is so icky. And I wonder, “How much more are people going to take? When are they going to rise up and say they’re not going to take it any more?”

I feel like I’m fighting a losing battle, trying to pass on the gift of creativity, individuality and freedom of expression to kids, because so few seem to care. They’re numb and preoccupied. Why?

The more I think about it, the more I believe that the failing education system in America is by design and that scares me. I’ve taken solace in the fact that I have gone above and beyond what is expected of an ordinary citizen to try and make a difference in the lives of thousands of kids in my community, and I’ve made sure that my own kids are OK. But what about their future? What kind of world will they be moving out in to?

I jumped ship at the end of the last school year. I found a life boat for my daughter and I, and we got the hell out of the way. She is safe in a magnet school for a couple of years. And me? I have survivor’s guilt, watching the sinking LAUSD ship behind me, and the people left on deck who never jumped. I can’t help them. It’s too late.

While I work through this crisis in my own, creative, constructive way, I hope that the masses will rise up and take on the Status Quo. Grassroots activism is the only answer. We need to take a few lessons out of the French Revolution Playbook and quit settling for day old cake!

Friday, February 18, 2011

“Should I Start My Own Nonprofit?” Another Idealist Asks

People have called me over the years, asking me for my sage advice on whether or not I think they should start their own nonprofit. I’m always happy to share my experience with anyone who is interested, for two reasons: people were really generous with me when I first got started, telling me how they did it, so I consider taking the time to do the same for others as a “pay it forward” kind of thing, and I’m always happy to meet anyone who is passionate, dedicated, and willing enough to try and make the world a better place by starting a nonprofit organization of their own.

All of the information I have collected over the years, all of the knowledge that I have acquired through my own successes and failures, and the psychological hurdles I have managed to jump over (dealing with lots of different people, politics, stress, and my own personal growing pangs from developing as a leader), are good, juicy stuff that should be put down in one single book. I think I’ll write that book.

There are plenty of books out there that cover the logistical aspects of starting and running a nonprofit organization, fundraising, board development, leadership, managing volunteers, marketing, strategic planning, and operating a business. I have read a whole bunch of them. But I have yet to come across a book that alerts you of the challenges that come from going from being “The Mom” (or “Dad”) of an organization, to a mature community leader.......all of the stuff that the experts don’t tell you, or are written down in any “how-to” books you seek out when you first get started, when you’re all starry eyed and ready to right the wrongs of the world.

Like the time it actually takes to get a new nonprofit off the ground. Or how much money you will spend out of pocket. It’s like giving birth to a new child – you have to prepare for its birth, and then when it gets here you have to take care of it, twenty four hours a day. And, just like with raising kids, the job of being “mom” to a nonprofit is a pretty thankless one. You worry about it. You love it. You guide it. You protect it. You wear yourself out taking care of it. But then in return, you get the satisfaction of birthing, loving and guiding your baby out into the world, where it will hopefully make a positive difference.

When I started working on putting my nonprofit organization together twelve years ago, I didn’t know the first thing about starting a corporation, forming a board of directors, or fundraising. All I knew was that the kids of my community needed and deserved to have the arts in their schools right away. Whatever I had to do to make that happen, well, I would just do it. I was determined to right that wrong. I put one foot in front of the other, getting advice, reading, and taking classes along the way as I ascended the mountain. I was wise (more like naïve) to never look up to see how much further I needed to go or how high I would need to keep climbing. Instead, I was focused on each step. When I reached the summit, I thought of two things. If I had looked up and known how far I would have had to climb in the beginning, I may have passed on the whole idea (which most people end up doing). Once I was at the top of that mountain I could really appreciate all of the hard work that it took getting there. It was worth it, I thought, just like raising kids. It’s a lot of hard work. It wipes you out, but you wouldn’t have it any other way.

The first thing I like to ask people when they inquire about whether or not I think they should start a nonprofit is “How pissed off are you?” You need to be pissed off and you need to stay pissed off about the injustice that has inspired you to start a nonprofit in the first place. You’ll need to really believe in your idea, full heartedly, because you will be challenged, non stop, every step of the way, as you climb that mountain. Your anger and passion are what will keep you focused and pointed in the right direction as you continue to climb. Stay angry. Hold on to the passion. If you love what you are doing, really believe in the cause, and are pissed off and passionate enough, then hell ya, do it!

Friday, January 28, 2011

He Faked It!

I’ve been out of the loop for the past twelve hours, reading a book. Look what I missed by not turning on the radio, TV or Facebook! Breaking news!

The news of the day is that the LAUSD cop who got shot at last week faked it! He faked it! Turns out there isn’t a crazed, forty-something, white man with a pony tail and gun, hiding in somebody’s garage in the west valley after all!

Lots of people have rotten eggs on their faces this morning. This story has had a bad smell to it, ever since it broke. My first thoughts when I heard it were: Why all this media and police attention? It’s a horrible thing when a cop gets shot at, but it happens all the time in L.A., and the news doesn’t always cover it. Why now? Was it because it took place in an affluent area of the west San Fernando Valley? Why did they close streets and schools all day? Why so many cops (reports are 300-400) to search for a bad guy on foot? Why did the cops declare the senior citizen who called 911 a hero? A hero? For doing what every decent citizen is expected to do if they witness a crime? A HERO? Since there was no bad guy, why did this old man call 911? Or did he? And then there were the public speeches made by prominent elected officials and the newly appointed people of power. Lots of free TV ad time…… I’ll bet they wish that could give that TV time back now.

What happens to the faker now? I was really happy to hear Superintendent Cortines come out strong this morning, saying “You’re fired!” But will he fire him? Can he? Or will this be another disgusting defeat for human decency if his union steps in and rescues him?

If his union doesn’t end up fixing things for him, and I really hope it doesn’t, perhaps he’ll hire a lawyer to get him off. He could use the Twinkie combined with hot coffee and Prozac defense, where he ends up the victim of chemicals and heat. That might work, but only if he gets an attorney east of Reseda Blvd. The attorneys west of Reseda Blvd were pretty freaked out when their streets were closed, cop cars and news trucks were everywhere, and their kids had to pee in trash cans on that fateful day when the LAUSD cop faked it.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Every Good Mom Deserves Jail Time

So a mom in Ohio just got five days of jail time for doing the exact same thing a lot of good moms I know here in L.A. do all the time: lie about where their kids live so they can get them into a decent school. Why did she go to jail? Because she is black. No fast calls were made to her friend, the attorney, to get her out of trouble (unlike us white moms in the San Fernando Valley – our friend, the attorney, would be all over this, making all sorts of trouble for the school district and the state).

One disgusting reality of our public education system is that it forces good moms to lie. Since all good moms, no matter what color they are, or what their life situations are, will do anything for their children, they will lie about where they live to escape having to send them to their failing neighborhood school, if they have to. What’s more disgusting than having to lie, is that when white moms do it, they’re regarded as just being good moms. Ohio mother of two, Kelly Williams-Bolar, isn’t a good mom for lying, she’s a criminal.

Fifty seven years after the Supreme Court declared that the states could no longer segregate schools based on race (Brown v. Board of Education), things aren’t as equal for children of color as they should be. The evidence of this can be found in every failing school district across the nation, or in today’s news, with the Kelly Williams-Bolar story. She did the same thing many moms do, but she has to go to jail. I am outraged.

Why? Why should I care so much about this? My kids are fine. Why should I care about this mom and her family, or any other mothers’ kids for that matter? Why should I care about the many children of immigrants in my community? Plenty of people have turned a blind eye to them, or even blamed them for the deterioration of public education in our city……innocent kids - the scapegoats of a national epidemic. Why am I so worked up about this? Why do I feel guilty? Why can’t I just enjoy my good fortune, like so many others, and mind my own business?

Because I am acutely aware of the fact that my “good fortune” has nothing to do with anything that I have earned. My good fortune is that I happened to be born white.

Even though I live in Los Angeles, a large, international city rich in diversity and culture, racial and class inequities do exist. Just last week, 400 cops closed down a portion of the west end of the valley where I live to hunt down someone who had shot at a school police officer (off campus). Nine thousand kids in various schools were put on lock down all day. Every news station televised the hunt. Public speeches by city officials were made. Cops get shot at all the time in the poorer areas of the city. Sometimes the news doesn’t even cover those stories. The all day lock down and hunt in the valley was quite a spectacle, and they didn’t even catch the guy. Meanwhile, at the same time, a youth was shot a block away from another high school, but in a poor neighborhood. Only a few cops showed up (and it’s not because they were all busy in the west valley).

The only difference between Kelly and I is circumstance. Judging anybody on the color of their skin is absurd and ignorant, but to jail any mother of color for doing the exact same thing that lots of white moms all over the country do is criminal!

Have I ever lied about where my kids live so I could sneak them into a good school? No. But I would if I had to. I’d do anything to make sure my kids were safe, well fed, educated, and healthy, including sneaking them into another country to escape poverty, political or religious persecution, or sickness. Any good mother would. Inequities in public education are not as black and white as people would like to think (pun intended). There are many variables as to why our education system is such an abysmal failure. To understand how this all happened, we need to first educate ourselves, and stop blaming and scapegoating others. Today I say, “Give all the good moms of every color and creed, and their kids, a break!”