Chang­ing fu­ture his­tory

Pasatiempo - - 2010 Governor’s Awards - Work­ing ClAss­room

Nan El­sasser couldn’t pre­dict that Work­ing Class­room would amount to any­thing when she founded it in 1988. “I didn’t plan it,” she said in a phone in­ter­view. “It was a lit­tle vol­un­teer project that I started; I didn’t set out to de­sign a pro­gram. That’s what has made it so won­der­ful. It’s gone where op­por­tu­nity has pre­sented it­self.”

El­sasser ad­mits that it’s not easy to de­scribe what the Al­bu­querque-based or­ga­ni­za­tion does. The short ver­sion is that it gives stu­dents the chance to work with men­tor­ing pro­fes­sional artists in vis­ual arts, theater, and lit­er­a­ture. These stu­dents go on to be­come cu­ra­tors, di­rec­tors, and pro­duc­ers.

“Our over­all mis­sion is to ex­pand the voices that are un­der-rep­re­sented in the Amer­i­can canons of theater, vis­ual arts, and writ­ing by of­fer­ing young artists from his­tor­i­cally ig­nored com­mu­ni­ties ac­cess to high-qual­ity, long-term train­ing — and long-term sup­port that they need to con­front their chal­lenges and pur­sue their am­bi­tions,” El­sasser ex­plained.

“His­tor­i­cally ig­nored” is a term that a Work­ing Class­room stu­dent came up with in 1989, when the non­profit was just one year old. “It’s a stronger term than ‘ un­der-rep­re­sented,’” El­sasser said. “It’s a com­mu­nity that has been pur­pose­fully ex­cluded for a long time. It’s peo­ple who are here, who are part of our nation, but you still don’t know about them. Or maybe what you know about them is oned­i­men­sional or slanted or just a car­i­ca­ture.” She cited the Viet­namese com­mu­nity in Al­bu­querque as one ex­am­ple.

Work­ing Class­room serves about 175 stu­dents a year in its Gold Av­enue of­fice, which is about 5,000 square feet. The or­ga­ni­za­tion has pur­chased a new build­ing on Fourth Street that will dou­ble its train­ing and per­for­mance space. El­sasser said that she would like to see her staff of seven full-time peo­ple and four part­timers dou­ble in size and move into that larger build­ing within the next few years. She knows the group still has many chal­lenges to over­come.

“As ev­ery non­profit knows, a ma­jor chal­lenge is eco­nomic sur­vival and find­ing strate­gies for stay­ing open,” she said. “An­other chal­lenge for us has been pro­gram devel­op­ment. We have a his­tor­i­cal ten­dency of spend­ing time on the moment, on the stu­dents, and on the ‘ now’ pro­gram, while ig­nor­ing the in­sti­tu­tional build­ing we need to do.

“Technology is a chal­lenge, too. When we started, 22 years ago, the kids did not have email or cell­phones, so when they came to Work­ing Class­room, it was to­tally their com­mu­nity. They were not con­nected to any out­side al­ter­na­tive or com­pet­ing com­mu­ni­ties, and now we have to have rules writ­ten into the con­tract that they turn them­selves ‘ off’ when they come in the build­ing.”

Nan El­sasser

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