Changing future history
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.”