My Own Journey to A Little Creative Class Consciousness
A Letter From Founder and President
Brenda Ann Kenneally
In the fall of 2015 I was finally nearing completion of a twelve year commitment to a group of young people in Troy, New York that I had been documenting in words and pictures for nearly half of their lives. Earlier that year, I was fortunate enough to sign a contract to publish a book of these stories. Upstate Girls: Unraveling Collar City includes still photographs, videos, visual ephemera collected from The Rensselaer County Historical Society as well as pages taken from the kids’ scrapbooks and journals to piece together Troy’s industrial past with the coming of age stories of the youths in that City who have been a major part of my life since 2004.
“Completion” for me is a strange word, one that carries with it the bittersweet gravity that some how our relationships are winding down. The transition from constant interaction with the kids in Troy to days of writing, research and reflection about what I’ve learned and how to put that into a “thing ” to share with others, has been emotionally as well as physically painful. I am used to the chaos of chasing after kids while reporting and it is hard for me to sit still. I usually create simulated action by listening to Ted Talks or documentaries while I pace around and edit. I was nearing the end of the last draft of the book, when I came across a presentation by the Urban Theorist, Richard Florida. Many know Florida as the author of several books about the segment of a growing workforce that Florida named ” The Creative Class”. Florida, currently an editor at The Atlantic, has toured many of America’s formerly industrialized giant cities to lecture about how creativity is the new economy. Florida proposes that in an America where we no longer produce things, creativity and ideas are the widgets of industry’s current revolution. Florida cites Silicon Valley as one obvious example. He gives seminars about how economically depressed postindustrial cities can attract such creatives and thus, jump start a cycle of revitalization. Florida has gone through ten years of honing and revising his theory, yet he keeps to the basic premise that creativity is not only socially but economically valuable and transformative.
I was hearing Florida’s words as I pasted in the last of three hundred pages from The Upstate Girls’ Stories’. I became increasingly emotional along with the awareness that the landscape of these kids lives, could also be used as an illustrated manual in ways to extinguish imagination, diminish the prospect of possibility and limit the freedom to make mistakes that are essential to the development of creativity that Florida credits the rebirth of cities to.
The idea that creativity may be becoming a class privilege began to unfold for me. Arcs of punishment and reform replace goal setting and problem solving in the coming of age journeys of the kids in my book. The ways in which financial vulnerability and diminished social power are reinforced via public policy to create a physical and emotional climate in which these young people find it difficult to develop the healthy sense of entitlement necessary to be a part of the creative world that Florida speaks about, is apparent from page one.
The disproportionately negative effects of US incarceration policy among low income and minority populations, coupled with limited social and educational engagement for these young people is evident in the decision made by Kayla and Sabrina, two fourteen year old girls who’s stories begin the book. Kayla was pregnant and Sabrina’s cousin Jose 16 was the father. Shortly after receiving the news of Kayla’s pregnancy, Jose was sentenced to a multi year prison bid. Sabrina, whose own father had been in prison since she was three years old, formally took up the mantle of co-parent, agreeing to provide Pampers and formula and citing the first hand knowledge that she did not want to see another kid suffer because one of his parents was in jail. When Kayla gave birth in 2004, the United States imprisoned over 1.5 million people and her Upstate New York Community was rising to the distinction of having child poverty rates that surpass all others in The US.
This narrative of marginalization continues through to the book’s end. Those pages are from the journal of Billie Jean, an older girl from Kayla and Sabrina’s neighborhood, who permitted me to publish the spread on which, she had glued documents from her educational classification in the sixth grade that include the words “mental retardation” stamped in BOLD. Next to the assessment, Billie Jean made a collage from a decade of evaluations and personal improvement tests. Three months before her 29th birthday, Billie Jean graduated from the same vocational program where her mother had earned her GED when Billie Jean was a child. The book’s last page holds Billie Jean’s own GED Diploma. The pages in between as well, speak to cultural indoctrination along class lines. Early interventions through the child welfare system that set up an outlaw dynamic of mistrust that leads to further fear and trauma among these kids that this system is meant to support. School suspensions for kindergarten students, Medically pronounced “social phobia”, disability determinations based on school behavior, psychotropic prescriptions for six year olds. Juvenile placement facilities, mandatory school probation, jail and finally prison chronicle a common trajectory akin to rites of passage among the young people and their extended families that have grown up during my watch. For some of the children in Troy that I have known, school has facilitated their first encounter with the legal system rather than a bridge to higher education and empowerment. These kids’ stories reveal that for them, mistakes are luxuries and that the earliest missteps often carry lifelong consequences.
Two years ago, when I began putting the book together, I rewrote my artists statement to reflect that I was now interested in what, if any, change could come from the images that I had made. It now reads “I take pictures to remember what I learned while I was taking pictures”. There is no escaping what I learned when I look at the content I as it unfolds over time. For these same two years that I’ve been editing the book, the kids from upstate have been visiting me here in Brooklyn. I may have learned as much from their visits here as I have from the years I spent in their homes. The fear of the unfamiliar that kept them from coming in the first place and the way they embraced it once here, spoke to what I knew from my own past experience of having grown up with no interface to a wider world. Little Jessie, 14 who was afraid to come, yet cried because he desperately wanted to, and when he finally did, marveled about the sheer variety of the corner stores, yet feared The Brooklyn Bridge would collapse from under him as we walked. His older sister Christy, 16 saw the ocean for the first time at Coney Island and everything she pointed to was pronounced weird with a fascinated fondness. They were at once a bit embarrassed by their own naivety and attracted to the boldness of difference. We went to the 9-11 memorial and the family huddled visibly close together as we walked. I knew how they felt, as I was born near whey they live in Upstate New York and I never made it to New York City until I was 34 years old.
Indeed I know the transformation that being exposed to a major city has had on my own journey from childhood in a marginalized neighborhood in upstate New York. When I heard Richard Florida say there was in fact an entire social class that revolved around this urban cultural immersion, it came full circle for me. I had seen this new social and economic force at work in my Brooklyn neighborhood for over a decade, as streets that were once forbidding and avoided, filled up with cafes, grocery stores and bustling life… the rising cost of housing adding to the caliber of all of the above. Florida underscores the important role that the stimulus and creative mass found only in cities plays in the proliferation of this creative class. The city itself is an integral part of this social and economic equation of empowerment, however just as alternative, radical (Florida would call it “creative”) thought is not cultivated among young people like those in my book, who stand to benefit from it most, the basic level of economic and social comfort ability necessary to approach this incubator for mobility are scarce as well.
My Brooklyn neighborhood is a textbook example of the creative economy’s power to transform and invigorate the value of urban spaces.
In no small way, the house we have lived in for the past 15 years has become increasingly valuable thanks to this group.
So, in an effort to expand the ranks of the creative class, the house is being sold to purchase a wide open mixed use space where we will make a creative residency for youth from upstate New York ages 18-21, with little resources and lots of desire, to come and live for 12 weeks at a time in the alternate universe of creative Brooklyn, New York, This will be a place where we will ask why not instead of why, where beauty is as important as food, where conversation is nourishment and where through our imaginations, access to everything belongs to everyone.
I know as a journalist, this letter is what many would call purely anecdotal, however there are facts under each pull down menu in our tag line that ground what I have learned both through my own experiences and those I have shared with others.
The Foundation For A More Equitable Social And Economic Future Involves A Little Creative Class.
Brenda Ann Kenneally