On the third floor of the Art Sanctuary in South Philly, Lorene Cary fills a skillet with batter and pops it in the oven. The founder of the arts organization is making cornbread, answering emails, giving an interview and getting ready to head to a business breakfast downstairs. The Penn lecturer and nationally recognized novelist is busy, to say the least.
And today, she’ll start a new job—as School Reform Commission member. Appointed by Mayor Nutter a couple weeks ago, Cary joins the five-member commission that’s charged with running the city’s school district and managing its money, from awarding contracts for repairs or electricity, to divvying up materials like books and pencils. With a background as an educator and founder of an arts nonprofit, Cary doesn’t quite fit the mold (the other SRC appointees are lawyers, life-long civil servants and heads of schools), and she’s an even more bold choice given that most of her career, she’s been a writer. But with four of the five commissioners resigning in the past year and budget cuts all around, some new blood might be just what the district needs.
We caught up with Cary to talk about her new gig, her background as an artist and how it all ties together.
What’s the work you’ll be doing with the SRC?
Every five-member team assigns different roles. Before we go into our first meeting, [we have to decide], what is it I bring to the table that’s different? I’m sure that one of my roles, that’s happening a whole lot, is listening. That might not sound professional or important, but I think that’s huge. And then decide what to do with that.
Have you started work yet, in that respect?
I can’t tell you how many emails, how many people stop me in the street, how many people are saying to me, “Let me tell you what happened to my kid.” My daughter’s a teacher. My son was a teacher for four years. We have to help our children tell narratives that they can grow with. Because we tell them all kinds of other narratives. We tell them deficit narratives. We tell them what they don’t have. We tell them, “Don’t end up in prison.” Who the hell goes to William Penn Charter and says to kids, “Don’t end up in prison?”
What are the biggest problems that need to be addressed by the SRC?
I think the biggest challenges of the SRC will be fiscal, and there’s no secret about that. To figure out a way to get through the school year with much less money than the district needs. That’s a fact. And for the SRC to support the school district as strongly as possible, while at the same time trying to help them do more with less. And all the other challenges come from that, really.
Are you open to getting more revenue into the schools?
Yes, of course. How to increase all the revenue streams there are, and to think of ways to increase not just revenue streams, but resources. Clearly the school district needs to scoop up every income possibility there is. And there’s already a lot of private money going to help.
Is it OK to place ads in schools or buses, which has become a new revenue stream for districts?
I don’t like ads inside the schools. But once again, I don’t get to say without talking to our whole team.
How has your work with the Art Sanctuary related to education?
It is about this art, all of it—music, dance—as almost a community curriculum that can be used in all kinds of ways. One piece of music of Hannibal Lakumbe’s coming up, world premiere, this December. He’s the lynchpin for starting a program in the prisons, which is writing in a band in Philadelphia detention centers. The song will also centerpiece a curriculum for students who attend the premiere.
You’ve mentioned the fine line between entertainment and art. Do you think that’s an issue that comes up in teaching?
This is hugely important … how to teach hip-hop in the classroom. Teachers would say, “I didn’t grow up with Nas, I didn’t grow up with KRS-One. I hear stuff on television, or on the streets, and it’s bling, it’s allusions to murder. Tell me again, how is this going to be helpful in my classroom?” We have young scholars—I call them young, but they’re in their 30s—come in and talk to teachers, give them a sort of primer. Then you can do Zola Neale Hurston and Nas. Or you can do Emily Dickinson and—I’ll be mad at myself if I make a stupid example, but you see what I mean.
Why should we teach hip-hop?
Kids get it ... you can take one (genre) and sort of slide people into another. Somehow you got to get in [the door]. One whole lesson in our hip-hop curriculum specifically talks about using criteria for determining beauty. Criteria for romantic poetry requires some statement of the pastoral. Criteria for hip-hop requires some statement of the urban. (It’s not) just saying, “My stuff is good, but your stuff isn’t.” Which sounds to a lot of people like, ‘Mmm, straight hair is nice, but kinky hair isn’t. Thin noses are good but wide noses aren’t.’ Then you’re gone, now you’re lost, now you haven’t even talked about beauty.