Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Role of Government and Nonprofits in Culture

People who work for nonprofits in the United States often operate from a frame of scarce resources. The starting point is “There isn’t enough money to go around.” Now to be sure, this frame is not created from nothing—this is the lived experience for a lot of nonprofits. But the problem is when you start with “not enough” then you immediately have to go to arguing why one kind of nonprofit is more important than another. The questions become absurd very quickly: are hungry children more important than the symphony? Are homeless adults more important than homeless cats? Are homeless children more important than hungry adults? Recently a right wing organization in California, arguing that water ought not to be regulated, declared that California’s legislators cared more about “a fish that is smaller than the palm of your hand” than the well being of farmers. But in fact, the well being of this fish is an indicator of the health of the water and polluted water will not grow good crops.

But what happens in a country where that type of juxtaposition is not in play? According to the Christian Science Monitor, (Sept. 27, 2009), German doctors are experimenting with a new kind of preventive medicine: prescribing culture for children. (Of course, Germany has universal health care.) For example, in North Rhine-Westphalia, every child ages 7-15 who goes in for a check-up comes out with two free tickets to the theater. The program is called “Culture Shot” and encourages pediatricians “to support children’s 'physical, emotional, and intellectual health,'" says Hermann-Josef Kahl, who is spearheading the program. The program rests on a simple, (but not terribly American) insight: Culture fosters better health habits. Exposure to culture helps people want to be better educated and better educated people generally have a healthier life. (Germany has universal education also.)

So far this program is being paid for privately by the Association of Pediatricians. There are 180 Children and Youth Theaters in Germany, so there are plenty of shows for kids to go to. (Germany has a lot of government support for the arts). Stefan Fischer, head of the Dusseldorf Children and Youth Theater, calls the concept “revolutionary.” He says, “The project makes clear that culture is a basic nutrient and not a luxury.”

Instead of scarce resources, imagine nonprofits having a common belief that everyone should experience theater regardless of family or social background. And imagine a nonprofit sector that insisted that government do its job to make health care, education and culture were universally available. This imagining exercise is not just to pass the time: remember that Einstein said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.”


Rona Fernandez said...

Great post Kim. Haven't had a chance to read your blog in a while. Am going to share this on Facebook. You should link your commons blog to your Facebook account--your blog post will automatically show up as 'notes' on your FB page and you'll get more comments from friends.

Jeremy Adam Smith said...

Kim, would you be willing to expand this piece by about 200-300 words and allow me to publish it on the new site I edit, http://shareable.net/ ?

Shoot me an email at jeremy (at) shareable.net and let me know.