Monday, February 20, 2023

Who Am I? Who Are You?

Last week's column for The Villager, inspired by some local events and an intriguing essay from Yuval Harari in Time Magazine.

Growing up in a small town in Illinois on the banks of the Mississippi River, just outside St. Louis, Missouri, I was raised a middle class, suburban Catholic kid who was aware of his heritage but never gave it that much thought. Though my heritage is Irish and Slovakian, I have no identification with those backgrounds other than to know they are where my great, great grandparents and their families lived. For the most part, my identity always lacked ethnicity, a reality that became clear when I went to a large college filled with diverse identities. Later, while living abroad in southeast Asia and then residing in the city of Chicago, a place filled with unique neighborhoods of cultures and ethnicities, my mind was opened even more to how we define ourselves through culture. And, like most people, I often wondered just who I am and how I define myself.

The noticeable void in a specific cultural heritage has, at times, made describing my culture and identity a bit of a challenge over the years as I encounter the rich diversity of the world, and my world. With that in mind, I occasionally refer to myself in relation to where I’m from, specifically my hometown. “I’m an Altonian,” I’ll say when asked about my background. For, even though I no longer live in my little river town, I believe it defines my character as much as any other affiliation I might have. As Morgan Wallen sang, “I’m still proud of where I came from,” and I will always look back fondly upon the place where I was raised. For a placid little river town just north of St. Louis, Alton, Illinois is a surprisingly well-known place with a big history, and it has enough funky eccentricities that, no matter where I am, I love telling Alton stories. Defining ourselves by our geography is a natural inclination, even as that tendency is rife with limitations.

People identify themselves based on many affiliations – their race or ethnicity, their religion or political ideology, their geography, whether it’s a town, city state or country, their likes and dislikes, the teams they root for or against, the lists just go on. And, too often, people think of themselves in terms or this or that, of us or them. In the most recent edition of Time Magazine, Yuval Harari, an Israeli philosopher and academic, wrote a fascinating essay on “The Dangerous Quest for Identity.” Harari identifies and explores all the aspects of his identity that extend beyond his race, religion, and nationality. For example, while he is obviously Jewish, he speaks of being a huge football fan, which is clearly British. He also loves coffee, so he acknowledges the Ethiopians, Turks, and Arabs as clear influences on his identity. Harari is incredibly well educated on history and anthropology, and in exploring the issue of identity, he observes that “People who, in search of their identity, narrow their world to the story of a single nation are turning their back on their humanity.” The point is that we are all humans, and that is the primary quality which we all share. Our shared humanness should unite rather than divide us.

Generational norms are a rather common shared experience, and people also identify themselves by their age. The Greatest Generation, the Boomers, Xers, Millennials, Gen Z, and those to come later all seem to coalesce around shared experiences based simply on chronological age. Douglas Coupland, the author credited with naming Generation X after he wrote a book of the same name, has said the term Generation X was never about a specific age group or demographic. Gen X actually meant a certain kind of person who chooses a lifestyle. Lately some have argued that there is no such thing as a generation, an increasingly relevant claim as society becomes increasingly diverse. Arguably, generations are legitimate divisions only in the sense that they reflect common associations and familiar references.

Often we define ourselves by what we do or who we voted for in the last election. Too often it seems like our sense of who we are is based on opposing those who we are not. And occasionally these days, where I am does not feel like who I am. As Harari notes, many of the ways we identify ourselves as separate from others comes at the cost of the humanity that aligns us.

So, who are you?

Tuesday, February 14, 2023

Maybe Students Should Spend Their Money Elsewhere

A follow-up column for The Villager on the local issue of the arts scholarship.

Art can break down barriers. It can open minds and connect communities. Art at its best reaches across borders. Greenwood Village City Council, however, has taken the opposite position with its recent meddling in the work of the city’s Arts and Humanities Council. With the decision to restrict and ultimately cancel the annual Greenwood Village Arts Scholarship, the city leaders prefer to close doors, build walls, marginalize people, and restrict arts funding. In fact, if you follow the thinking of the City Council, you might suspect the Village is closed for business to outsiders.

The GV arts scholarship had been a wonderful message and symbol to the community and the town’s neighbors across Arapahoe County. For thirty-five years, previous leaders of Greenwood Village set an admirable example of support for the arts among young people. With its generous and impressive guideline that opened applications to any student in Arapahoe County, the Arts Council used its independently-raised funds to honor the best among all the students attending school in the area. Knowing no city is an island and that consumers cross borders all the time, the Arts Council simply focused on its mission – supporting the arts.

Apparently, city council members are pretty riled up about giving money to artists who don't live in the city. I guess that could make sense because it’s not like the Village ever pays artists who don’t live here – like say the musicians who play the mobile summer concerts. I guess we’ve never seen non-resident artists and performers at the Mayor’s Lighting Ceremony or Greenwood Village Day. No, of course not. The Village can’t honor, support, and pay artists who don’t live in the Village. That’s the thinking of a City Council member who said “this is city money and we are elected to be stewards of city money.” However, that view is somewhat inaccurate and misleading because city tax dollars are not used to fund the scholarship. The Arts Council is self-funded through fundraising, donations, and grants, a point made clear by member Sandy Carson who noted “I find this particularly appalling because all monies for scholarships are derived from our earnings. City taxes are not involved in the scholarships.”

Sadly, current council members are surprisingly aloof to the nature of the town they profess to lead. For example, one council member responded to an email about the arts scholarship by saying she had “volunteered to chair the application and award committee” limited specifically to a Greenwood Village resident. Had she listened to the discussions with Arts and Humanities, she would have known that last year only two of the twenty-seven applicants were from Greenwood Village, and one of those applications was not even complete and did not qualify. The scholarship is a merit award, yet apparently some council members would simply award the scholarship to applicants based on their address. Clearly the council members have limited knowledge of the work the Arts Council does. In fact, that’s why the Village established separate boards and councils to specialize.

Greenwood Village is a small community of just fourteen thousand people. Thus, in a graduating class of nine-hundred seniors at Cherry Creek, the number of Village residents could be quite small, with no guarantee any of those residents are outstanding artists of exceptional talent. However, a phenomenal artist may literally live across the street from the Village in Centennial or just down the road in Littleton. Council members want to award the “youth of Greenwood Village,” but the youth of the community are not just those living here. It’s those who spend their days – and their money – in the Village. And, to be clear, of the nearly seventy scholarships given over the years, only twenty-nine went to kids outside the Village anyway.

As a Village resident, I’d hate to suggest people not support local businesses, but money talks, as the saying goes. Because the Council has made it clear they don’t value non-residents as members of the community, perhaps students should think more carefully about where they spend their money and the implications of those funds. A Centennial or Aurora student attending school in the Village may spend thousands of dollars in the Village over the years. Until the Greenwood Village City Council reverses its unfortunate decision about the arts scholarship and heals its relationship with the Arts and Humanities Council, the young people of Arapahoe County might want to consider spending their money elsewhere.