Guest Opinion: A Lifeline from a Former Outcast

By Mikel Moss


Dear Miss Ruina and the Concerned and United Young People of IHS,
Before I even get into my response to your erudite, elegant, and all too relevant letter, let me thank you all for being an amazing example of what even a small adjacency to the arts can do to the soul and spirit of those of us they seem to forget. YOU ARE WHO THE ARTS ARE FOR!

About me: My name is Mikel, I am a former outcast from the Ithaca City School District Arts Program (class of ’98). I am currently living in Melbourne, Australia, where I am working towards my PhD in Global Mental Health at the University of Melbourne. My focus is on creating a new approach in drama therapy that is based in researched and validated in “colonized Other” communities (communities adversely affected by European colonization).

Before moving to Australia, I obtained a master’s degree in Clinical Psychology with a triple concentration in Global Mental Health and Trauma, Psychological Research Methods, and Community Psychology from Teacher’s College, Columbia University.

Before attending Columbia, I studied Drama Therapy and Counseling Psychology and took Acting classes at the Actor’s Workshop of Ithaca.

Before that, I obtained a Bachelor of Science in Liberal Arts with concentrations in Psychology and Creative Arts Therapies from The New School University…..
Before all of that, I was right where you were wondering when the Ithaca City School District Arts would throw those of us more melanated folks the proverbial bone. I was extremely lucky in that during my time there I had the opportunity to be surrounded by a community of truly progressive artists who saw the value in the arts as a relevant catalyst for growth and development for all of us.

My first production at Ithaca High School was “The Wiz,” in which I had a leading role. The Next show we did was “Fame” where the cast was still pretty diverse. Our production of “Oklahoma!” had a Curly who was African American and Native American and Judd Fry was white…

During my time there, we all knew how lucky we were to have these bits of dissonance in the general tapestry that was the arts in Ithaca and Tompkins County. We gobbled up these opportunities because we knew they were fleeting. The students weren’t supposed to know it, but we were quite aware of the amount of red tape and politic it took to get the powers that be to stage and support these shows and make these casting decisions. It was more than it ever should have been in such an “enlightened” city. There are so many stories that remain untold…

I see not much has changed.

In a very odd and roundabout way, this adversity prepared all of us for the world outside of those 10 square miles. If you can believe it, your experiences are bad, but are actually an improvement. What that says about Ithaca and the arts scene, I will leave to you to draw your own conclusions. The arts and the institutions that support and are adjacent to them in general aren’t a space where those folks who are on the margins are able to make a way unless we make our own way… Does that make what happened to us and what is happening to you any better? Hell no!

But here is what I think you should do:

  • – Keep screaming! Keep this conversation going, keep talking about these issues and sharing your perspective. It is the constant engagement with this oppression and systemic racism that ultimately will make the change. It may not be a huge change, but it is change nonetheless.
  • – Make your own way! Create your own space! There are so many examples in the past few years of folks who look like you and I diverging from the traditional path and making such a huge impact on how the world sees the arts. From what I can tell, there seems to be a nice sized group of you of like mind and willing to take on a challenge…
  • -Use this experience! Channel everything that you are experiencing into where you are headed. As you move on in your life and move forward with whatever it is you are going to do, make sure you always remember how this system treated you and if you can, stand in the way of it happening to someone else. I have never forgotten the malice and negativity visited on me and others like me in the theater. A place that is sacred. But it is because we spoke up, because we all made sure those negative experiences were not buried and forgotten that a little bit of change was made. I personally have never forgot those bad (and good) experiences and have dedicated my life to providing a space in which those of us who look like you and I can utilize these powerful tools for healing and strengthening ourselves against the adversity we experience on a daily basis.
  • – Continue to hold each other up! You all came together to speak out against an injustice that may have been invisible to some people until this point. Continue to support each other and those who are of like mind. Reach out to others and provide them with assistance as much as you can.
  • This work isn’t easy, but your courage to tell your story and open yourself up to the community as you have shows me that you are willing to put in the energy that is required to make an impact and continue to blaze the trail for those who may come after you. I made it, and so will you!
  • Never forget, YOU ARE WHO THE ARTS ARE FOR!
  • I will leave you with some words from one of my favorite shows, “The Color Purple”:
    “I believe I have inside of me everything that I need to live a bountiful life. And all the love alive in me, I’ll stand as tall as the tallest tree! And I’m thankful for every day that I’m given, both the easy and hard ones I’m livin’. But most of all, I’m thankful for lovin’ who I really am. I’m beautiful. Yes, I’m beautiful. And I’m here!”
  • Keep moving forward. In solidarity from the other side of the world.