In the winter of 2014 I was literally running through the streets of New York City to my first-ever meeting with Gale Brewer, the borough president of Manhattan. I was freaking out. I had never met with a politician before; I was running late, and I never run late; and I was lost. I came flying into the restaurant nervous, sweating and on the verge of tears, thinking I had blown this incredible opportunity to talk about a new arts-centered initiative.
But that meeting changed my life. Gale listened to my concerns about stepping up as artistic director of Elisa Monte Dance (now EMERGE125). She was kind, patient and knowledgeable, and then gave me the advice that changed everything: "Well, Tiffany," she said, "you can't run a New York City dance company from New Jersey and be taken seriously. You need to move." So I did!
A little about me: I live in Harlem and come from a politically active family. I strongly believe that we as dancers need to train our voices like any other muscle in our bodies, so that when the time comes to stand up for ourselves in the classroom, the community or the boardroom, we are ready. I've been invited to speak at universities, artists panels, conferences and political events, and I'm regularly asked: "How did you get so comfortable with speaking your truth?" My answer is always the same: practice. And I've had lots of it. But we all need to start somewhere, and 2020 gave us an opportunity like no other.
At the beginning of the COVID-19 shutdown, I felt powerless and frustrated. To fight that feeling, I sought out people in government to form partnerships with because policy is power. We created movie and trivia nights, Instagram challenges, and virtual town halls with politicians on the federal, state and local levels. Dancers from all over the country got to voice their concerns about issues ranging from Planned Parenthood to the environment, student loans to racial injustice. Participants worked together towards actual solutions. Many were able to meet in person at the 2020 Juneteenth demonstration I helped organize at City Hall in Manhattan.
From my new connections, I learned who is in control of the levers of power. But I had much to offer my friends in politics too. My talents contributed to the "wow" factor at their events, by adding live dance performances, musical interludes and fun visuals, as well as providing a direct connection to a broad and diverse demographic they needed to know more about.
Last summer, I was asked to head up social media and special events for a council member and formed an all-women team of artists to aid me. As other candidates saw what we could do, they wanted our vision and capabilities. Now I am involved in three campaigns and have placed dancers in each one. I have organized demonstrations, written articles, and recruited dancers to volunteer and participate in phone banks.
Every time I sit down with a new politician, I speak to them about living wages for artists, arts education, possible public art projects, and opportunities for collaborations in their districts. I have reached out to publications and dance service organizations around the country to help me spread the word for artists to get involved directly in their communities. I want to see more of us on the frontlines leading the charge.
So it seemed natural to take matters into my own hands and run for office. And I would like you all to join me.
I am currently running for a seat on the county committee in New York City, which is the most hyper-local elected office. County committees (which exist throughout the country with variations in names and responsibilities) set the state's party platform, which drives policy and budget priorities that directly affect our communities and our cultural and arts initiatives. As a county-committee member, you choose local judicial candidates and party nominations in special elections, and help create policy for your party's platform.
In New York City, each election district is made up of a small number of city blocks, each of which has two to four seats. Thousands of seats are available throughout the city, and many are left vacant, simply because people don't know they exist and nobody runs. My goal is to fill these open seats with artists, because, quite frankly, the world needs our perspective. All it takes to run is joining a local political club, collecting signatures and voting for yourself (you can often win by just one vote!).
As this goes to print, we don't know the result of my race, but if for some reason I didn't make it onto the ballot, or something else went wrong, I will run again and again and again.
"I know politics can be intimidating, but I would argue that so many of our skills as dancers are transferable into this realm." We have thick skin, aren't afraid of the word "no" and have perseverance; we know how to work as a team, are adaptable, poised, self-reliant, detail-oriented, and probably have some practice at fundraising; we know how to communicate with people from different walks of life. Most importantly, we provide hope through our craft and create space for people to dream.
As we contemplate the similarities and differences from last summer to this one and our own personal growth during this time, I encourage you to also think about your civic duty: What is your part to play in making your neck of the woods a better place, and what does that mean to you? You can post on social media platforms, channel your activism into your creative work and show up to the ballot box. All of this is wonderful and necessary, but none of that should dissuade you from getting directly involved, as well.
Your opinions deserve to be heard. Our future needs your voice in it, so don't rob us of that opportunity or your brilliance. Continue shining bright, Dance Fam!