I LOVE YOU DC!!! Lessons in “soft”power in the battle for racial equity

Natalie Hopkinson
5 min readNov 8, 2021

By Natalie Hopkinson, Ph.D.

Thanks to At-Large DC Council member Robert White for stepping up to the plate to introduce emergency legislation to rescue our nominations to the District of Columbia Commission on the Arts and Humanities (CAH). Thanks to his courageous intervention against the actions of the powerful Council Chairman, on Tuesday, Nov. 3, the body voted 12–1 to approve the nominations of Former First Lady Cora Masters Barry and Dr. Natalie Hopkinson to the arts commission. We won!

Dr. Natalie Hopkinson and former First Lady Cora Masters Barry at the “Don’t Mute Black Women” musical rally on U Street on 11/2, in advance of the 11/3 emergency vote on our arts commission nominations. They blew up my and Dr. Lea’s arts redlining map and posted it to the side of a go-go truck. We got to be serenaded by some of my favorite DC artists, including J’Ta Freeman, Jus Paul and Shorty Corleone. Thank you to those African drums. We prevailed with a 12–1 vote.

Thank you to ALL of the Council members who made a politically difficult vote, and for Mayor Muriel Bowser for sticking with her two pushy women nominees, and for being our Pushy Mayor of Washington, D.C. As I intimated in my initial “Color of Art” post, frankly, I was not expecting to get much support from representatives from the majority-white wards that the current arts map favors (Wards 2,3, 6 and 1.) That ALL of those elected officials (except the Council Chairman) voted for us to continue our work seriously challenges my cynicism and gives me hope.

I’m grateful not just for myself, because I do this work anyways and will continue regardless of politics. (I started working on an urban folklife project with the National Endowment for the Arts and Howard University in 2019 — before I was was tapped to join the local arts commission.) But being tossed from the commission would have sent a seriously chilling statement to anyone who speaks up forcefully and succeeds at disrupting inequitable systems.

I’ve been hearing from people I have not heard from in years. My late husband Rudy McGann’s law school friends, his former law students, our fellow PTA moms and dads, neighbors, other scholars, journalists, people have been showing up. For my entire career, Rudy has been the ultimately troll-slayer. I would tell him to ignore the comments on my articles I published. But he was a true gallant Southern gentleman, always eager to put his brilliant analytical mind and commanding grammar to use defending his wife’s honor! I would have never imagined the trolling would come on stationary I paid for as a taxpayer, or that I would be alone fighting for myself.

But I was not alone. Cora Masters Barry is a G. She is a political scientist, former UDC professor, who knows how to push the levers of power on behalf of the people. I do not know why our connection has lead to so many sparks. About a year ago, I published an excerpt of an oral history that we collaborated on for the archives in the New York Times. There were powerful voices trying to attack us and push us out out of the frame even then. Mrs. Barry has become a personal friend who helped me through the worst year of my life. Since joining the commission, I lost to cancer both Allison R. Brown, my best friend since age 11 and my husband and college sweetheart, Rudolph McGann — both Howard graduates and public interest lawyers who loved to cheer me on in a debate. Mrs. Barry would give me tips on being a widow, cry with me. She would send me flowers, give me hugs, and then swiftly yank me back to the work of the people. Besides my mother Serena, I have never seen a person more confident in her value and regal in her bearing. Also, she is into tennis and loves a good party like my mom too. I have truly learned things about women’s “soft” power that will stay with me forever.

A BIG thank you to everyone else who picked up the phone and wrote letters, showed up at the Don’t Mute Black Women rally and march on U Street organized by the tireless Ronald Moten and the NAACP DC chapter’s Akosula Ali, Lead with Black Women, Listen Local, everyone who sent us supporting notes or texts, tweets, and pulled strings behind the scenes.

Below, I put some links to some of the news media coverage of the arts redlining issue, as well as some of the raw data that people kept asking for, especially for additional years of DC arts funding.

The lowest hanging fruit was to dismantle the entitlement to the city’s wealthiest, mostly white arts organizations and change to more equitable funding formulas. We did that in August. The picture for 2021 and 2022 still does not look much better as you can see from the maps below. Next will be the 44 recommendations from Mrs. Barry’s Equity Task Force to make the process of applying for grants more accessible to artists across the city.

I hope we have sparked a conversation that will continue about how to get this right. It is not up to any individuals, and CAH’s fabulous new Chairman Reggie Van Lee will need everyone’s support to continue steadying the agency after years of instability, political chaos, and under pressure from powerful interests who are plotting for a return to the status quo. He will need everyone’s support to make the hard decisions and do what must be done to make arts policy work for everyone. Burn some sage around this man. I am now certain DC will have his back. We got this.

CAH Staff produced these maps for journalists who wanted to see the numbers without the demographic and other context that Dr. Lea’s and my maps provided. Here is CAH Funding FY 2020.

Here is some links to some of the coverage:

Before the vote, live shot from the Don’t Mute DC/NAACP and allies rally with live music:

https://www.msn.com/en-us/news/politics/controversial-and-polarizing-mendelson-rejects-2-bowser-nominations-to-arts-commission/ar-AAQcQmo

Washington Informer, after the vote.

https://www.washingtoninformer.com/barry-hopkinson-keep-their-seats-on-d-c-arts-commission/

And here is is CAH funding FY 2021. Still favoring the whitest wards.

ArtNews, recognizing the national implications of the District vote, and how we are leading national policy discussion:

https://news.artnet.com/art-world/washington-d-c-council-confirms-two-activist-nominees-to-culture-commission-2029731

WUSA9, after the vote.

https://www.wusa9.com/article/news/local/critics-say-most-funding-for-dc-arts-go-to-wealthy-white-communities/65-569cffd0-9df2-437c-a5b9-a1611f66763a

Finally, here are the CAH funding numbers for 2022. There is a lot of work to do. But Mrs. Barry’s Art Equity Task Force delivered 44 recommendations for the agency to tackle. I know there are many more great ideas out there for how to make this map more equitable. I hope this clear vote by the Council of DC inspires people to share them without fear of reprisal or retaliation.

And finally, the iconic Washington City Paper with the zinger of a headline in the Nov. 5, 2021 print edition: “JERK OF ART.”

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