Spotlight on… Mazi Mutafa

Mazi Mutafa, Executive Director of Words Beats & Life, recently testified on behalf of DCCAH at the FY 2009-2010 Performance Oversight Hearing in front of the DC Council Committee on Economic Development, chaired by Councilman-at-Large Kwame R. Brown.

Councilman Brown:

Thank you for the opportunity to participate in this hearing, my name is Mazi Mutafa, and I am the Executive Director of a hip-hop non-profit called Words Beats & Life. We are a grantee of the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities and have been one for five of the eight-years we have existed. I am here today not to advocate for a particular position on the budget, because to be honest, it is complex enough and removed enough from my day-to-day life as an employer in the District’s Creative Economy, that I would not do an explanation of the budget justice at this stage in my professional career. I am one of the District’s employers still focused on trying to make payroll every two weeks; but I understand without knowing the details, that less funding for the Commission means that task is all the more difficult. We are in fact one of the grantees that this year is already dealing with the reduction in funding, or depending on how you look at the budget, the increase in applications from other arts based non-profits. I am here to tell you how the budget of the Commission impacts the work that my agency is able to do and how the dollars impact youth, artists, families and businesses in our community.

Words Beats & Life is a small business, which at its peak had six full time staff with 12 part time staff serving 300 DC youth and families annually. Today we are slightly smaller, with a full time staff of four, with seven part-time and 10 volunteer staff. These lean economic times have unfortunately required some shifts in priorities. This is not just true for our agency but for many of our peers and organizations that are far larger than us.

To put my comments into a context, the DC Commission is our second largest funder. We have received multiple grants from the Commission over the years. They include the Festivals DC Grant, Grants in Aid, The Upstart Grant, Travel Grant and the Hip-Hop [Community Arts] Grant. We have produced mural as part of MuralsDC, provided youth DJ’s for ArtsEve, and worked in partnership with the Mayors Office to create a mural at the 14th and Girard Park. WBL was also a finalist in the Mayors Arts Awards last year in the category of Arts Education, and in the same year we honored the Commission as government agency of the year at our Remix Award. I am telling you all this to make it clear that the Commission is one of our greatest resources for relationships and information, and it acts as a staunch advocate for the kind of work we do— engaging disconnected youth, programming for non-traditional arts audiences, and provide employment opportunities for DC youth in the creative economy.

The Commission is frankly one of the city’s most misunderstood and under resourced departments. I make this suggestion not because of what has been cut here or there from the budget, but because it seems that the city government has not learned the lessons of the federal government. The arts are not just for the elite. They are the means by which peace can be brokered, and communities can be healed. They can address the challenges of displacement, gentrification, and an over active police presence. At the same time, the arts can light a spark in the imaginations of the next generation of elected officials, engineers, scientists and teachers. I am here not to defend a budget but to challenge this body to think about the Commission and its potential in a new way. It can be the department that allows for a different kind of police presence in a community. It can be the foundation upon with new arts businesses can be created. It is one of the best departments for investment, because for every dollar of investment that it makes in an individual, an agency or a community, the return is 7 to 8 fold.

I am living proof of how the Commission’s initial investment can make the difference in an agencies ability to launch, grow and thrive. Thanks to the investment of the DC Commission, we have transitioned in just four years from being a one man shop to at our peak employing six DC residents, providing opportunities for skill set master for youth, employment readiness for young adults and the tools for the pursuit of a post secondary education to more than 300 of our cities youth. These are not small accomplishments and I am happy to say that we are not unique among their grantees in our effort or our outcomes.

I bring this message to you today because we all know that in a tough economy, there are fewer resources to be divided up, between what are determined to be essential and non-essential services. I am here to tell you that investing in the Commission is reducing the number of people on the cities unemployment rolls. Investing in the Commission is promoting academic excellence. Investing in the Commission is crime prevention and community beatification. It is not only investing in the future through our youth, but also investing in our past with our elders and our present.

I would love to talk with you about the need for an increase in the Commission’s budget, but I would also like to encourage the various governmental department heads for all those services deemed essential to think about setting aside portions of their budgets for dedicated arts funding.

I am hear to advocate that as we all talk about arts in the District; we see it as a mural on U street, and the Kennedy Center, and the Shakespeare Theater. But that we also see arts as Go-Go music, marching bands in public schools, the local recording studio, and DCTV. That we see the arts as the things that have a direct connection to how we work, live and play. I am hear to ask that when you think about the dedicated arts funding, you think about the fact that investing in the work of the Commission support the development of emerging entrepreneurs, in diverse communities of arts producers and consumers. The Commission’s budget is the very best investment that this body can make from two perspectives: revenue generated for the city in the form of taxes and from a social good point of view. I do hope that you will strongly consider the true value and benefit of investing in the DC Commission, because it has the power to truly transform our city.


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