Poet and Activist, Tara Bracco
Artist, writer, and non-profit consultant Tara Bracco is the co-founder of The Project Solution and the founder of Poetic People Power, an ongoing project in New York City that combines poetry and activism. Her op-eds and non-fiction writing on feminism, the arts, and economics have appeared in a range of national and local publications including The Huffington Post, Cosmopolitan, American Theatre, Brooklyn Rail, Clamor, and BUST. She is also a Fellow at the Woodhull Institute for Ethical Leadership.
In 2003, Bracco created Poetic People Power to raise awareness on social and political issues through the expressive art of poetry. Since then, she has provided work opportunities for emerging poets by commissioning nearly 50 political poems and producing spoken word shows on topics such global warming, universal health care, and the water crisis . Now with the project in its eighth year, Bracco is becoming a recognized leader in the area of art and activism. Her work with Poetic People Power has been profiled in Time Out New York and has received awards from the Puffin Foundation and the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council. She has spoken about her career as an artist and activist at Barnard College, Marymount Manhattan College, and has performed at colleges, fundraisers, and venues throughout New York.
Bracco's activism and leadership are also reflected in her non-profit work. She has a deep knowledge of the non-profit sector with over ten years experience working for feminist and arts organizations. As a non-profit consultant, Bracco has advised on and developed fundraising strategies for Our Time Theatre Company, the Duke Ellington Center for the Arts, Savvy Ladies, Bitch magazine, and Girls Write Now. She is also on faculty at the Woodhull Institute for Ethical Leadership, where she has traveled across the country training hundreds of women in public speaking and advocacy.
Tara Bracco inspires uniquely. Her willingness to "just do it" is impressive and very much needed in a world that can easily feel too full and very overwhelming. Where others may decide that they don't "have enough time" or that "one person really can't make a difference", Tara's life and work provides an engaging roadmap for what is possible!
DR: Tell me about your work.
TB: When I got out of college I wasn't sure what I was going to do.
I was crashing on the floor of a friend's apartment here in New York and I was in a place where I was just trying to “figure it all out”. So, I decided to go on a cross-country poetry tour because I was interested in seeing what the energy was artistically across the country. I had about $600 and an empty credit card. By bus and train, I went for about two months to cities across the country. I would get to a city and pick up the equivalent of the Village Voice and see what poetry was going on and just show up and start reading and meeting artists. This had to be about 1997...
DR: And you were by yourself?
TB: I was by myself. Yeah. It was something that I just felt I had to do.
I didn't feel like I fit in as an artist in the poetry culture that existed at that time. There was the literary poetry culture and then there was the slam poetry culture world. Neither of those cultures were reflective of the work that I wanted to do. I enjoyed the energy of the slams but I wasn't interested in being graded by a number or doing it for other people and the literary world wasn't exactly the kind of work I was into doing. I had a theater background and so I came from more of a performance place.
DR: How would you describe your niche now?
TB: Early on it started as more performance poetry and now I would say its poetry that can be either read or heard. Some pieces tend to be more performance oriented. As an artist I grew into finding my own voice and I think that is what is really important about having opportunities to perform. They allow you to grow.
Going across country showed me what the different scenes were like across the country. People were doing such a range of work and it was really inspiring because it allowed me to see that I could do things in my own way?
DR: Do you have a favorite place or experience?
TB: Well it was really exciting to be in Chicago at the Green Mill. That was pretty cool. In terms of favorite cities? I really enjoyed San Francisco and Seattle because there was an energy about the artists there that was really about just sitting in a cafe and writing and then getting up and sharing.
DR: So did you actively participate?
TB: I did. This was so early on. There was no formalized method and that was what was really exciting. It was just about people coming and sharing work in their communities, which is what I think poetry and activism should really be about - community.
I came back to New York and I was thinking about all of these things. I ended up getting a job with a feminist theater company called The Woman's Project and Productions, an Off Broadway theater company. A lot of elements came together there. I figured out how to put a show together and I getting a greater sense of what the poetry communities could look like.
I also felt as a young activist that I wanted to have something that I was doing continually to keep activism alive in my life because I sensed, and I'm glad that I sensed it, that as I got older it would be harder to stay involved...
DR: Just because of...
TB: Because of life! In college people are really engaged because they are part of a larger community. But then as you have to...
DR: As you have to take care of yourself and survive...
TB: Yeah! And you're not exposed to twenty other students with twenty other ideas all the time. So how do we book time in to be citizens and be responsible as citizens?
All of these things came together as I created a project that incorporated these different elements. It was very intentional in that way.
DR: How did the Poetic People Power project come about?
TB: The way we got off of the ground happened to be as part of the Poets Against War movement and organizing a reading down at the Blue Stockings Bookstore in 2003 and then we just kept it going each year focusing on a new political or social theme and commissioning artists to write new works. For artists that's a big challenge because they are used to getting an inspiration or a feeling about something and then just writing it down, so to go to them and say that I want them to learn more about a topic and that I want to give them the resources and ask them to write about it, was a real challenge for some of them.
DR: It sounds a little bit like journalism mixed in with poetry...
TB: In terms of the research, yes. But I really allowed them to take any angle they wanted and as artists I think that we are storytellers and so I encouraged the work to be very personalized.
I MC the shows and then I invite the artists up to premiere their new works. Part of my job as MC is to create the context around what we are talking about, to set up the stage and to communicate why the issue is important and how it is affecting our society. Then we grant the poets the artistic freedom to take on the topic in their own way. It really allows for a range of voices and a range of art.
I want to encourage poets to look into a new topic that they may not have otherwise explored. I pay the artists and so there is this commission aspect that is really encouraging...
DR: What are some of the real life ways that Poetic People Power has made a difference in communities.
TB: A couple of years ago we did a show about Universal Health Care before there was a lot of dialogue in the country about what was going on. People would come up to me after the show and very quietly tell me about their parents who almost had had file bankruptcy because of medical debt. People would tell me these stories but they would tell them to me privately. It became very clear to me that we often think that we are having some kind of personal issue when there is really a national policy issue. Poetic People Power is about figuring out what our society is being effected by and encouraging people to talk about it publicly so that we can move the dialogue along in a more public way. Once you have people start to recognize that other people are dealing with something there is less shame in their own experience. I think that is really valid in terms of pushing us toward an environment of real change.
DR: That sounds so much more productive than the conversations we are exposed to and bombarded with daily. Healthcare for instance –those contentious conversations and the conversations that do not sound like they are originating from "the people" but rather that they are originating out of someone's personal agenda...
TB: That is exactly it. How do these issues affect people? When you start to hear it that way, and when you start to hear the poetry from the poets themselves, it's shocking.
One of our poets, Jonathan Walton wrote a poem that starts out talking about how his brother's left arm was longer than his right arm because when he broke it his mom wrapped him and laid him on the couch because that is what you do when you have no health insurance.
Skyrocketing rents, the closing of beloved spaces, and the changing culture of the city are pushing artists out of New York. In Poetic People Power's 12th annual show, poets will premiere new works about how New York City is no longer a haven for poets, musicians, visual artists, and performing artists. For 12 years, Poetic People Power has creatively explored social and political topics. This year's poets include Tara Bracco, Andy Emeritz, Vaimoana Niumeitolu, Scottt Raven, Shetal Shah, Pamela Sneed, and Justin Woo.
Date/Time: Wednesday, July 23rd, 2014 at 8pm
Price: $15 online and $20 at the door, plus service fee
DR: My gosh...
TB: These are the stories about how these issues affect people. When you tell them in a public space people are very moved and inspired because they get what the issue is.
I had a friend who came to that show. It was called Sick and Tired: A call for Universal Care. She said that she came because I was her friend. The work is so personal and it gets to the root of how people are affected that she left feeling really connected and really changed.
DR: It sounds like your work has the kind of potential, possibility and relevancy of The Federal Writer's Project. Have you had thoughts about doing something on that scale?
TB: In our own way we are doing what is needed. We didn't need a government program to do this. That is true activism. You don't sit around and wait for the policy to change. If something is not working, you change it. That is part of our citizen's responsibility to engage in our communities and to engage with our government in this way.
The other example that I have about the show and how we impact and make a difference -
We did a show last year called Tapped Out: Words About the Water Crisis. It was about what is going on globally with water. It's important that we all realize how precious this resource is and what we can do about insuring that all people have a right to water. After the show people were coming up to me and telling me that they don't buy bottled water anymore or that they fix leaks as soon as they happen. That kind of thing, just that little bit of shift from people, is all it takes to make a big difference in the world. Raising the level of thinking in someone's everyday life is the real value.
One of the things I love about theater is that it is a live event. You come to it and there is a community element. I really feel that putting a show together is important for that reason. We could just put the poetry on the page and then publish it somewhere but if it is a show about activism and it s a show for us to grow together as a community, for me it warrants being so that people can come together and go off and share.
Also, in the program each year I print a list of resources that are included on the website so that when people leave the show, they can take the next step. It really is about giving people information and then encouraging the next step.
DR: You talked about how being in college provides sort of the luxury of being able to be an activist and to pursue issues that we are passionate about. Again, how would you encourage people who perhaps don't feel like they have the time or the energy to remain active?
TB: The luxury of time is an issue but the willingness to take a stand - you have to figure out who your community is and what you want to say and who you want to say it to. Some writers work very well in isolation but if you are talking about taking a stand on something, it's because you have a message that you want heard. If you have a message that you want heard then you want people listening and you want some kind of action. Those are the ingredients for a real event.
I was really fortunate in the sense that growing up, I listened to a lot of Punk music. I was part of a “Do It Yourself” culture that encouraged non-conforming views and that encouraged thinking for yourself, challenging mainstream thought and challenging what you were told. Because I grew up in that mindset I have really been informed in the way that I am able to move through life as an artist. There is something really "punk" about just saying, "I am going to go out and do this because I want to"...
DR: It was something that was ingrained in you so that you didn't even have to think about it...
TB: Yeah! I didn't think about it! The other great thing about growing up in "punk" is that it's not a culture where people sit around and think about whether or not other people like them. That is very valuable in terms of building the spirit of somebody who is going to be an activist or a leader. You go after something because you believe in it. You assume that you are not going to have fifty people behind you who share your view.
An artist needs to find their voice and what they want take a stand on and finding the community for it even if the community begins with two or three people.
DR: This is reminding me of a recent incident...
It's a nice day and Auguste gets home from work and we decide, as an excuse to go for a walk, to go and pick up a case of bottled water. And, Gussie, our activist teenage daughter, gets very upset about the fact that we would even consider buying bottled water, let alone a case (I have been sneaking bottled water behind her back). I initially brush her off but after listening to a minute or two of her impassioned plea, Auguste and I are converted to being bottle-less water drinkers.
It dawns on me that:
We are her community! And, she made a real difference with us in less than three minutes!
About Poetic People Power
Poetic People Power was founded by writer/performance poet Tara Bracco in 2003 to create an ongoing project that combines poetry and activism. Each year, a diverse group of poets are commissioned to write new works on a political or social issue. The new poems are then brought to a public audience in April to celebrate National Poetry Month. Poetic People Power entertains and informs. It raises awareness on specific topics and engages audiences through the expressive art of poetry.
Previous shows include Women's Words About War (Bluestockings Bookstore, 2003); Voices on Voting and Democracy (Ars Nova Theater, 2004); Coming Clean: Poems for the Earth (Bowery Poetry Club, 2005); Raise the Wage (Nuyorican Poets Cafe, 2006); Sick & Tired: A Call for Universal Care (Bowery Poetry Club, 2007); Activism: The American Way (Bowery Poetry Club, 2008); and Tapped Out: Words About The Water Crisis (Bowery Poetry Club, 2009). To date, this project has produced 7 shows, worked with over 20 poets, and commissioned 47 new poems on social and political issues.
TB: And so now you might mention it to a friend and then they'll mention it to someone. A seed was planted. Eventually you get to a tipping point...
DR: This is not a little point we are making here. I think this is the cool thing about your work: Encouraging concern for things that are beyond our own mere survival and helping to foster the belief that we can make a difference and that there is no effort that is too little...
TB: This was a factor in putting together this project - How can we continue to be educated on these topics when our lives get busy? I wanted to take that on. I do that for my community each year by exposing them to something new. It is something that our audience looks forward to.
DR: What do you have on the horizon?
TB: We are doing a show in May called Price Check: How We Became a Culture of Consumption.
TB: We are really going to take a look at how we got to this place of consumerism as a culture.
One of the things that I am interested in doing is helping people build a critical lens about these issues. I think that it is important to recognize the individual responsibility that we have but to also realize the larger things that are happening, that we sometimes don't know about, that are forming the under current in which we live our lives. We are looking at issues from all angles and we are not letting people off the hook individually, but we are also looking at how we got here – how have the credit card laws changed over the years? Wages stagnated at a time when credit became more accessible. What a perfect storm...
TB: There are things that were playing out that brought us to this place and we want to put a show together that explains that and explains the real cost of this culture of consumption and what we can do about it.
The next project that I am working on is called the Project Solution. The Project Solution gives everyday people the opportunity to fund projects overseas and help make the world a better place. In my fund raising work we have these philanthropic advisers for people who have a lot of money but what does the person with ten dollars do when they don't want it to go to some big non-profit as overhead; when they want to feel like they are really making a difference?
My friend Joe Gonzales and I started a project that is funding shovel ready projects overseas. This began because Joe was doing some volunteer work in Africa in Cameroon. He was editing a proposal for a water project. When he realized how little it would cost to complete the project we decided that we could raise that money ourselves, among our family and friends.
This community in Cameroon in Africa had been intending to extend a water pipeline to another pipeline for over thirty years. The project started and stopped and got stalled...
DR: How much was it? How much did it cost?
TB: it was $900. When we found out it was only $900, we were able to raise the money, send it down and, in under three months, they had three new water pipes for that community. The new pipe is now serving over 500 villagers. People that were walking hours for water because it wasn't in their community, now have water in their communities. It was so simple but it made a huge difference. It just took us knowing about it and having the spirit to say "yes".
Our next project is building a well in Zambia. We are finding these projects throughout the world that are really not expensive projects at all and we are building a community of local donors here who give anywhere from ten to fifty dollars. We are and pooling the money to send it to these projects.
DR: What do you hope that Poetic People Power and The Project Solution will ultimately contribute to society?
TB: We hope to inspire people and to hopefully change some of their patterns. Like in the case of the water show, we hope people stop buying bottled water and develop a greater consciousness about conserving water. We hope that they go out and watch documentary films about water like Blue Gold.
Ultimately I hope that my work becomes irrelevant. I don't think many artists would say that. We are performing later this week in Maryland at the Amnesty Internationals' Human Rights Festival and the producer asked me to participate in another aspect of the event unrelated to the water issue. He wrote and asked me if I had any other human rights pieces and I wrote back and said that I had a couple of piece on healthcare but they are irrelevant now and, how wonderful!
What I think is exciting is the work that we have done, in some cases, no longer needs to be done. That is a wonderful goal. Most people don't aim to be irrelevant but if you are an activist and artist and you want to see change, then the best thing that can happen is that a piece that you wrote two years ago, no longer needs to be performed.
DR: Your work really gives people an opportunity to stop and think for themselves...
TB: And that transcends an event, right? That is not about a one-night event.
DR: A hundred years from now, what do you want to be remembered for?
TB: Again, it would be great if we could look back at this work and realize that the work is no longer timely. That would be awesome, to know that we participated in a dialogue in something that led to change years later.
We are moving into our eighth year but around year ten I am hoping to publish a book of the work from the first ten years and getting a sense of how we grew as a country (or how we didn't) and what we still need to do.
Change happens from person to person and it is not something that you can't always measure. If we are really going to impact people's lives, it's about making a little shift for people in a way that we may never really see.
It's not about the book on the shelf or winning the next award. It's about engaging with people so that we can start creating a world that we all want to live in.
A hundred years from now?
There's that popular quote that “When you die you don't want it inscribed on your tombstone ‘I wish I would have worked more'”. That seems a little bit weird to me. I love to work because I have been fortunate to have work that combines what I am passionate about and that helps, in a small way, define what the culture will look like.
The Project Solution
The Project Solution is a collective group of individuals all working toward a common goal. Our focus is providing funding solutions to global groups for local community growth.
The Construction of a New Classroom for the Njinikejem Village!
This is a 10-Cent Project Solution Program
Four new classrooms are underway to be built for local students in Cameroon, and we're going to be building one of those new classrooms! Take a look at what a classroom will look like:
A few local schools in New York City are collecting their dimes to get the new classroom built! Keep checking back to see our progress.