NYC Mayoral Candidates on Literary Arts: Dianne Morales
This spring, the NYC Literary Action Coalition has been meeting with mayoral candidates, asking them how they plan to support and uplift writers and the city’s storied culture of literary arts. The following is a transcript of the Coalition’s conversation with nonprofit executive, educator, and Democratic candidate for mayor Dianne Morales. The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
If you are a candidate and want to chat with the Literary Action Coalition, please reach out to Alejandro Heredia at [email protected].
What role do you see the arts and literary arts specifically playing in the resuscitation of New York City post-pandemic?
Here’s what I think. I’m an educator, first of all—my roots are in education. I understand multiple intelligences. I understand what the access is to all forms of arts, the impact that has, and the difference that it can make on our children. I’m going to start with that perspective first. Both of my children suffer from learning differences. And they both went through the New York City public school systems and struggled terribly.
I will tell you that for my daughter, it wasn’t until she found the arts that something dramatically shifted for her. And it’s the arts actually in the broadest way you could define it. She’s a writer. She writes beautifully. She’s also been a performance artist. But I saw the role that played for her in terms of learning, so I recognize the value of the arts and writing in education. I am the founder of a 27-year-old national organization that focuses on literacy development in early childhood, so I understand the role that language and literacy can play even for our littlest ones.
We are living through some really unprecedented times. And the need for us to be able to tell our stories is, as far as I’m concerned, a critical part of the healing process and the reckoning process. We need to reckon with our history and our roots in order to actually be able to deliberately choose different paths. So I understand the importance of the literary community in that process and in that journey, and particularly in representing and elevating the voices of those who have been most impacted by the multiple pandemics that existed long before COVID. Those communities affected by issues that have only been exacerbated and exaggerated as a result of COVID. Literature can actually play a role in not just documenting our history and our current status, but in also enabling us to make different choices about how we move forward.
“Literature can actually play a role in not just documenting our history and our current status, but in also enabling us to make different choices about how we move forward. To me, the literary arts are about healing, about the people, about taking care of our people and elevating the voices of the communities that I have committed to centering in my campaign and in my administration.”
To me, the literary arts are about healing, about the people, about taking care of our people and elevating the voices of the communities that I have committed to centering in my campaign and in my administration. And then there’s the economic issue, because New York City is supposedly the center of the world for arts and culture. I understand that the literary community is a critical part of that. I recognize that. So I think that those are all very important components that the literary community can play and should play in our recovery. I would look to you all to help us move forward.
What role do you see local government playing and supporting the arts, specifically literary arts?
I think we should be providing all sorts of grants and targeted programs specifically to support the arts in this process of documenting what’s happening in our communities. I think there’s something so powerful in documenting the experiences of our communities in surviving these pandemics, and I think there’s something so important about elevating those voices. So I would want to really work to figure out how we provide the financial support and the resources for the literary community. Not just to do that but also to connect it right to the education system. How does that work? How do we provide and create those opportunities for our children and youth? Because I don’t think we’re addressing quite the way we need to be addressing the mental health impact that this period is having on all of us, even those of us who might claim that we were the healthiest before the pandemic. There’s no way that this isn’t having an impact.
When I talk about healing, I know that there is a powerful role that writing, whether we’re sharing it with others or not, can play in the healing process. And to me, there are multiple layers to this. There’s the literary community insofar as it is creating art that can be shared with others, but then there’s also the healing process that is more personal and more internal and more private. It’s not all about hiring psychologists, social workers, and psychiatrists, right? There are lots of different forms of healing. And as someone who has run programs that had art therapy as part of it, and arts in the broadest sense of the word, I think there’s a critical role that the literary arts community would play in all of our recovery as a city. I think we need structured programs, I think we need grants and different incentives to allow artists to do their work. Whether that be in terms of funding or in terms of creating and supporting spaces, we need to support our writers.
Have you yourself been a part of New York’s literary community? Have you taken part in public readings or an open mic or an author’s evening?
Full confession. I had a reaction when Daniel [Gallant] signed on because the Nuyorican Poets Cafe is a special place to me. My daughter started to get into spoken word in high school. She’s a junior in college now. We went to several poetry events like the youth poetry slams at the Apollo, and that’s when I started talking to her about, “Oh, if you think that’s great, I’ve got to take you to the Nuyorican Poets Cafe.”
I am a particular fan of the spoken word tradition. I really love the flavor of the culture that comes through sometimes. I was thinking about this earlier, as I was thinking about what this conversation would entail. But I’m particularly drawn to the narrative and the storytelling of communities that have been historically oppressed or marginalized. I’m never the one on the stage, always as an audience member. I like it that way. Except when it’s my daughter. When it’s my daughter, it’s a whole different story.
“When I talk about healing, I know that there is a powerful role that writing, whether we’re sharing it with others or not, can play in the healing process. . . There’s the literary community insofar as it is creating art that can be shared with others, but then there’s also the healing process that is more personal and more internal and more private. . . And as someone who has run programs that had art therapy as part of it, and arts in the broadest sense of the word, I think there’s a critical role that the literary arts community would play in all of our recovery as a city.”
We’re concerned about underrepresented voices and getting them into the publishing and literary arts community. Do you see any way of increasing or enhancing the role of writers of color or stories about underrepresented communities in New York City?
I think about two different things, right? I think about the pipeline: how we invest in, nurture, and support the pipeline. To me, part of the solution is through schools, and what is happening in schools to allow our students the creativity and the freedom to explore and develop those skills. And that’s why when I started off this conversation, I was talking about, well, let’s talk about education, right? Because I think that there’s a critical role that the literary community can play.
I’m a big believer in teaching artists. I was the executive director of an organization that some of you may or may not know called The Door. The Door serves young people in the city that have been failed by multiple systems: the education system, the child welfare system, the juvenile justice system. I was the executive director there, but I also went there for services as a high school student. I had Frank McCourt as an English teacher in high school. And Frank sent me to The Door. He was my teacher, but he was also my friend at a point in my life when I was really struggling.
I share all that because he got me to The Door. Then when I was there, as the executive director, we really emphasized and expanded the teaching artists program that gave young people a wide range of options in the arts, including writing and poetry, just to figure out how to express themselves. And it was also part of the art therapy program that we ran as well. So I think there’s a critical role that the sector or the industry can play for young people.
I also think young people should have opportunities for apprenticeships and internships in those areas. And I do wonder about the role that you all could play in helping to make that possible, particularly for young people who are interested in pursuing writing. I think about the pipeline for how we do that, how we develop that, and the exposure that we give to our students, our young people, to learning and healing in all kinds of ways. And this is one of the most critical things that I think is not just underutilized and underdeveloped in our public school system. We’re still teaching our kids in classrooms that look exactly the way they did in Little House on the Prairie days. And we need to shake that up.
Are you going to come up with your own strategy, your own steps to benefit writers and literary organizations in New York City?
Yes, I am. And I think that’s going to include things like increasing funding. I recognize when I was at The Door over 10 years ago that even then, the NEA was decreasing funding to our programs. I think there’s a need to increase funding and also find other ways to integrate the literary community into the lifeblood of New York City overall. And that includes protections for people.
Y’all haven’t asked a lot at all about COVID-19. I think the basic thing we need to be doing is actually taking care of everybody by providing them with a monthly basic relief income, right? Let’s take that off the list so that everybody can be safe, everybody can stay home, and so that artists can do their thing as well. I can only imagine the beauty that would come out of this period of time—the painful beauty, no doubt, but the beauty that would come out of this period of time if people had the freedom to stop worrying about survival and create.
I just believe in both the educational and cultural value of nontraditional forms of learning and expression. And I think that writing is a key part of that. It’s also one of the things that is a critical part of my own process, my own healing, my own reflecting.
“When I think about my life, my personal life, and my professional life, the poem of my life would be ‘Still I Rise’ [by Maya Angelou] because I have just been able to—whether it’s because of luck or fortitude or that awful word, ‘grit,’ that I hate that they apply to students of color all the time, or a combination thereof—I have been able to and blessed to successfully overcome some really, really challenging systems. And I think that poem is reflective of women of color and communities of color and so many of us in our capacity to survive, thrive, and experience joy along the way however we can. Our very existence and survival is an act of resistance in so many ways.”
So it sounds like as mayor you would definitely have an open door and open ear to the concerns of the literary community?
Yes! I talk a lot about co-creating solutions. I’m not presenting myself as the savior or the hero for New York City. By no means do I have all the answers to everything. But what I do believe is that the people who are closest to the challenges are closest to the solutions. I believe that if we create meaningful, authentic partnerships between our government and the communities that are most impacted by a variety of challenges, that gets us so much closer to actually creating solutions that are really going to get to the root of the issues. It gets us away from tinkering around the edges or rolling over a new Band-Aid.
I talk a lot lately about lulling people back into a false sense of complacency that doesn’t actually fundamentally address the deeply rooted challenges that have been amplified over this past year. And I really do think that it’s time for us to move forward with a level of moral and political conviction that looks different than it ever has in the course of our history. I don’t have the answers to all of it. But I would actually turn to you all to say, “Okay, how are we going to solve this? What are we going to do about this?”
That’s what I think is fundamentally different about the vision that I have for New York City. In a New York City where I’m mayor, people would be at the table in a real way that’s not just symbolic. I’ve served on plenty of those commissions or advisory boards that really just served the purpose of checking a box for City Hall. I know how frustrating that is, but also what a waste it is of really valuable resources and intelligences. I would bring y’all with me, essentially. It’s not just me.
Who is your favorite writer, and why?
So it’s going to be between Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison. When I think about my life, my personal life, and my professional life, the poem of my life would be “Still I Rise” because I have just been able to—whether it’s because of luck or fortitude or that awful word, “grit,” that I hate that they apply to students of color all the time, or a combination thereof—I have been able to and blessed to successfully overcome some really, really challenging systems. And I think that poem is reflective of women of color and communities of color and so many of us in our capacity to survive, thrive, and experience joy along the way however we can. Our very existence and survival is an act of resistance in so many ways. And being able to find joy in that is key.
Visit Dianne Morales for NYC Mayor (dianne.nyc) to learn more about Morales’s campaign.