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Culture in the Balance: African American groups excluded from county funding

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photo by Joyce Kryszak
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AACC Dance Class

By Joyce Kryszak

http://stream.publicbroadcasting.net/production/mp3/wbfo/local-wbfo-951454.mp3

Buffalo, NY –

The Erie County Executive's decision to shut out dozens of cultural organizations from his budget has raised a host of concerns. Among them, some critics question why there weren't any African American groups chosen to receive funding.

That's the focus In the second part of the WBFO series, Culture in the Balance. Thrusday and Friday WBFO takes a look at how these groups - and the African American neighborhoods they serve - are especially vulnerable. That includes two of the largest groups.

You can stand outside and hear the drum class echoing deep within the walls of the plain, white cinder-block building on Masten Avenue. It's almost like the heartbeat of an institution that's kept on pumping for 53 years in this ailing, East Side neighborhood.

The African American Cultural Center provides dance and drum classes for children, theatre, festivals and events for people of color, and a host of after school programs that keep kids off the streets.

"What is going to happen to our children...it's going to be a real sad situation if something isn't done," said Bain.

Agnes Bain has watched a couple generations of those children grow up at the Cultural Center. The Executive Director started here herself when she was just a teenager in 1976.

Bain leans forward with her body propped against her arms on a desk piled high with papers, grant proposals and a large calculator. She admits that years of roller coaster funding cuts have taken a toll on her. But she worries most about the Center. "If the current [public funding] trend continues, ther won't be an African American Cultural Center," said Bain.

When the county pulled out, the cultural center lost $132,000 for it and all of its umbrella programs - roughly a quarter of its budget. Bain said they especially count on that money to sustain the after school and cultural programs that teach kids to become good citizens.

Right now, these classes are free. Bain said parents in this neighborhood would have a tough time coming up with money for after school care. Bain said it is only fair that the county should assist them by helping to support an alternative.

"As we said to the county exec, there are African Americans who pay taxes," said Bain.

The County Executive declined a request to comment on tape for this story. But his spokesman pointed out that the county did provide $300,000 of funding last year for an expansion project at the Colored Musicians Club.

But some county lawmakers said that one-shot funding decision was politically motivated. Still others have stronger words for why African American cultural groups are getting no operational funding.

"I would say it was racist, only because that's what he's showing me," said Ghirmatzion. I'm going to call it like I see it. I think it's just absolutely racist."

Rahwa Ghirmatzion is the executive director for Ujima Theatre. The nationally acclaimed theatre has been training African American actors and directors and performing award-winning shows for multi-ethnic audiences for more than three decades.

Ghirmatzion stepped into the management role to help her mother-in-law, legendary Ujima founder, Lorna Hill, keep the place running as county dollars dried up.

The box office phone gets disconnected from time to time. And the lights go dark once in awhile having nothing to do with theatrics. Most startling, this professional theatre company has operated with an all volunteer staff for several years now.

Ghirmatzion and Hill both work full time jobs in addition to running the theatre company.

County funding went from about $58,000 a year, down to $18,000 last year, and now zero.

Sitting in a cold room backstage, Hill pulls a thick sweater tighter around herself and straightens a couple inches taller in her chair. Hill said they are being starved to death.

"If you honest to God don't want us to be here, tell us to go sit down. But, see no one's ever going to tell you that. So, we keep showing up and the table. And we'll keep showing up at the table until you tell us to go sit down," said Hill.

Hill said the more county money they lose, the more they get punished with even less money the next year, based on the current funding scheme.

And Hill said this is not money for entertainment. She said they are reconnecting people with their own culture and building community. But Hill said, tongue in cheek, there are other ways to spend the money.

"Tasers and perhaps have a public works program where they install bars and security devices on our homes. That's what they should do with the money," said Hill. "Because when you deprive people of beauty and an aesthetic education, there will be consequences."

Both the African American Cultural Center and Ujima said they will keep doing what they can, for as long as they can. But Hill said Ujima's season opener next fall, For Colored Girls, could well be their swan song.

On Friday, WBFO explores the impact of the funding cuts on two of the smallest African American arts groups, Locust Street Neighborhood Art Classes and the Buffalo Inner City Ballet.