"We Are All Existing in an Opportunity Gap"

Mic Crenshaw reflects on being a 2019-21 Fields Artist Fellow

Shoko Festival, photo provided by the author

In the next few weeks, Beyond the Margins will feature stories and reflections from the inaugural cohort of 2019–21 Fields Artist Fellows. The 2021–23 cohort of four Oregon-based artists will be announced on July 8. 

On applying for and receiving the fellowship
This fellowship started as a leap of faith in terms of my decision to apply. Many times over the years I’ve felt as if I was almost blacklisted for my beliefs in radical leftist ideals. So it was an exercise in believing that if I took the chance, maybe this time the world would provide assurance that I did indeed deserve what I was wishing and working for. 

When I got word that I was a winner, I felt a lifting of my spirits in a deep and heartfelt way. I had recently lost my grandmother, had her house foreclosed on and taken by a bank, lost the family dog in a tragic accident, separated from my wife, and been in a bad motorcycle accident. Winning the Fields was a welcome award as I had spent the preceding months feeling like I had gotten kicked in the stomach by a mule. The first and most important effect of knowing I had won was joy. Joy in knowing that so much of my pain and stress was going to be less dominant than it had been. 

Challenges and uncertainty 
The initial surprise was that I got the award at all. I believe in my work and am passionate, purposeful, committed, relentless, and diligent. The reason I developed those traits is that I come from a place where hustling is mandatory, and the concept and reality of scarcity is always something I’m fighting to get ahead of in a material sense. 

The process of being a fellow and having access to more financial support than I’ve ever had has been a journey of self-realization as well as conflict and contradiction. What are the chances that as an unprecedented global and economic crisis thrust billions of human beings out of a stable relationship to health, safety, and economic stability, I would have a substantial safety net as a Black artist in one of the whitest cities in the US? Initially being able to slow down from the fast pace was a welcome blessing. Before long, I was back at it, and I am now busier than I was before I got the fellowship. 

The fellowship’s impact on his work and community
The most important thing this fellowship has allowed me is greater faith in myself and the world to recognize, support, and validate my work. The money helped a great deal too. To not have to worry as much about bills, to be able to make purchases that were integral to my career path and technical work, to take a trip with my daughter that was not work-related, to buy a car after getting into a motorcycle accident, to know that my work is valued, not just verbally or theoretically, but in the most practical and material sense. 

The ability to do the things I need and want to do with confidence, as a result of all I have done to center my purpose and passion, has given me a deeper sense of confidence and certainty that I was able to share with my loved ones, colleagues, and the youth I serve in education and the arts. My collective network got to breathe a sigh of relief and strengthen their convictions about our shared purpose and passion.
For the first year of my fellowship, I was able to focus on strengthening the projects I was engaged in as a teaching artist. I was able to purchase a high-quality camera and hardware to begin documenting and creating visual records of my projects. I traveled and began developing and coproducing a podcast about the history of antiracist and antifascist activism in Minneapolis and Portland called It Did Happen Here. And I was able to bring an artist mentor to  Portland from Tanzania, East Africa—a former Black Panther, who has lived in political exile for fifty years—and have my students work with her on a music and video project.
Addressing the opportunity gap, before and after the fellowship
My work has historically been grounded in developing critical thinking and social consciousness through hip hop and education. The work I do is often in classrooms as a teaching artist and hip hop educator combining creative writing, social studies, and project-based learning for K-12 students. So many of my students are young people who exist in the opportunity gap: non-binary-identifying students, homeless youth, students of color, poor students, youth who have struggled with violence, addiction, abuse, and various traumas. In a world impacted by a global pandemic and an economic and ecological crisis, it is realistic to say that we are all existing in an opportunity gap if we are working-class people. The opportunity gap is vast and within the context of a changing society and transforming civilization, there is even more opportunity for change than before. The status quo is not sustainable. My work will continue as it has prior to and during the Fields Fellowship, but now with a higher degree of recognition, relevance, value, and validation.

Gaining a cohort
We are lifelong companions now. We were inaugurated into a historical event and occasion that will be ongoing. My belief is that the work we are committed to doing [to address] the opportunity gap is work that will continue to make the world a better place. We were able to be the first in a continuum of Fields Fellows, and I trust we will forever cherish this opportunity as a collective. In addition to the opportunity to elevate our craft and careers, we got to know each other better and bond on amazing team-building retreats throughout the state of Oregon. Rafting on the Rogue River with the other Fellows has got to be one of the most fun things I’ve done in my life.

Growing as an artist and advice for future fellows
I took time during this fellowship to develop my skills as a podcast producer, work on my first book, and write my first screenplay. This is growth for me, and I am proud of the ways in which I am pushing myself to learn new crafts and skills. I am excited and enthusiastic about the future and definitely want to apply for further funding and seek resources to push my work to new heights. I hope the Fields Fellowship will lend itself to making me a more attractive and qualified candidate for other grant opportunities, residencies, and awards.

For future fellows, I would want them to know and understand that they deserve this award and that they were picked from 257 candidates not by chance but as a direct result of the impact their work has—and that it is apparent to those of us who reviewed their applications. I would advise them to immediately let go of roughly $20,000 for taxes and to make sure they do not procrastinate at tax time to avoid penalties. Lastly, I would advise them to have fun and make the most of having access to so much money. Do as much as you can.

Additional links to Mic's work and media coverage

"It Did Happen Here" podcast

 "Elegy for John Trudell"

"Make It Through" 

"In the Streets with Antifa", a profile in The New Yorker


Opportunity Gap, Fields Artist Fellowship, Hip Hop


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