This past Thursday, patrons of the New York Public Library and spoken word fans gathered in Lincoln Center's Library for the Performing Arts to hear recitations from 3 emerging poets. However, while one may have expected that the all women-of color lineup would have a purely political bent, the theme of the night was simply love. As host and New York Public Library cultural ambassador Miles Hodges explained, the evening was an invitation to think critically about love and elevate the voices of women of color- the most oppressed group in society-- and the stories and perspectives that only they can tell the world.
The event was part of a series entitled For the Public, hosted by Hodges but sponsored by the New York Public Library. Launched in 2015, the series aims to attract a younger, more culturally diverse audience to the library and bring them into its programming through free spoken word events, curated by Miles and featuring young poets of color. Thus far, one of the series most innovative programs has been performances and workshops hosted for inmates at Rikers Island. For many, this engagement with the cityś most oft forgotten population legitimizes the programs claim to open up the resources of the New York Public Library to those who traditionally do not have access.
With 92 branches, including 4 scholarly research centers, located across the 5 boroughs, the New York Public Library is the largest public library system in the nation. The sheer magnitude of the system itself allows for them to house an impressive 51 million items and host 67,000 free, public programs annually. However, despite these immense resources, the primary audience of the library continues to be older, wealthier and predominantly white arts patrons or professional writers and scholars. Thus, the events and workshops presented by the libraryś main branches have often targeted this relatively small population.
It was not until 2011 under the new leadership of Tony Marx, current President and CEO of the library, that an intentional shift in focus was made. Since then, the library has launched new efforts to engage with New York City residents and library patrons who live in low income communities and often rely on their local branches for necessary services such as school books, after school activities and internet access. Thus, programs such as For the Public invite younger, New York residents of color into the library, while also filling in gaps left by arts and culture programs that are often underfunded and prevent students from developing into either creatives or patrons of the arts. Particularly at this time, when the existence of current programs and cultural institutions may be further compromised under our new presidential administration, the efforts of the New York Public Library are especially necessary.
Yvonne Morel, 22, is a Queens native who attended Thursday's performance and highlighted how the event presented her with a refreshing deviation from typical library offerings. The evening was not only her first time seeing a live spoken word show, but it represented an opportunity or her to re engage with the Library. “This is the first program put on by the New York Public Library that I've been to in a long time” Morel noted, “When I was younger, in elementary school, I would always go to my local library to attend whatever event was going on for children. However as time went on programming came to a minimum, and I eventually lost interest.” For Morel and other guests however, the Library seemed to have finally achieved its aims in re-sparking that interest and asserting that all New York residents have equal ownership over the city's cultural institutions.
As the demographics of the nation become more racially and economically diverse, it is crucial that individuals of a wider variety of backgrounds are given both access to the arts as well as a platform to speak their own truths. Particularly with the tensions building under our current political climate, it will be interesting and hopefully fruitful to watch how other New York City cultural institutions follow the lead of the Public Library and actively engage with the populations who arguably have the most to say, but have been silenced for too long.
For more information about the New York Public Library and its For the Public series, head over to: https://www.nypl.org/forthepublic
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