Punk and Politics: A High-Maintenance Relationship
February 4, 2008
(Editor's note: This is the ninth of a ten-part series produced by the All Ages Movement Project, in which the leaders of community-based youth organizations share tips and tricks of their trade. All stories are researched and written by members of organizations using independent music--punk, hip-hop, rock, noise, electronic and more--as a vehicle for social change.)
I grew up in Reno, Nevada until I fled to Seattle at 17. I watched excitedly as the Seattle-based arts and music venue, The Vera Project, grew. It came of age together with me, and it was in full swing when I turned 21. As I watched it grow for seven years, I murmured to myself, "Man, if only Reno had something like this."
After working with Vera in different capacities, and being a longtime fan, I bit the bullet and moved back to Reno at a time when most 20-somethings get as far away from their hometowns as possible. Together with a number of dedicated Reno kids, I started a project modeled after Vera--The Holland Project, named in homage to Vera and the Dutch Vera that inspired the Seattle-based project.
The Vera Project Vitals:
Nonprofit, community-run arts and music space
Music Genre of Focus:
Popular music, emerging music
A city-owned, state-of-the-art venue that has a showroom, recording studio, and silkscreen studio. The building hosts 10 shows, 15 classes, and one gallery opening a month.
Free to $20
Where the money comes from:
Grants, fundraising efforts, individual donations, municipal funding.
Claims to Fame:
Support from Pearl Jam, Death Cab, Ian MacKaye, Shellac, Sub Pop.
Vera is the poster project for Seattle's all-ages scene, and one of the only stable venues offering all-ages shows on a consistent basis.
Once Upon a Time: Seattle and the Teen Dance Ordinance
Imagine this, if you can. Seattle, the birthplace of both Jimi Hendrix and grunge, once had a mandate called the Teen Dance Ordinance (TDO) that made it virtually impossible (and illegal) for anyone between the ages of 15-20 to gather and listen to music or dance in public spaces.
Sound draconian? It was.
Among the provisions slated in the ordinance--should an all-ages event take place--it was mandated that three off-duty police officers were to be hired, a $1,000,000 liability insurance policy was to be purchased, no one over the age of 18 was allowed in the vicinity unless accompanying someone under 18, and those under the age of 15 had to have a guardian present. It's no wonder that in the 15 years of the ordinance, very few promoters' licenses were issued. Just hiring police officers and obtaining the insurance policy were so costly that almost no one who wanted to put on an event would be able to recoup the expense.
The immediate results of the ordinance were felt at a time when Seattle was in the national spotlight for its burgeoning music scene of the '90s. Many touring musicians refused to play Seattle because they only wanted to play for all-ages audiences. Young people had to travel to neighboring cities to see either hometown or traveling acts.
No music and no dancing for teens. And soon the grumblings of some became the grumblings of many, which grew into widespread outrage and finally into action. This progression is important, not only for the story of The Vera Project, but for the story of community change. Sometimes it's the darkest before the light, and sometimes we need a reason to be moved to action.
In 1995, the Joint Artists and Musicians Political Action Committe (JAMPAC), comprised of musicians and promoters, was founded by Krist Novoselic of Nirvana with the specific goal of repealing the TDO. Simultaneously, the Music and Youth Task Force was created by members of the Seattle City Council to identify the current issues facing youth and to start to outline solutions.
It was in this political climate that the foundation for Vera was laid and the TDO was finally repealed. But victory didn't come easily. A new youth-friendly ordinance was proposed and approved by the city council only to be vetoed by Seattle's then Mayor Paul Schell. JAMPAC issued a lawsuit against the city of Seattle, which they lost. But young people eventually prevailed when Schell was voted out of office, and the new Mayor, Greg Nickels, championed the gentler All Ages Dance Ordinance (AADO) in 2002.
The fight was not without fanfare. Two of my favorite stories from this period include a surprise dance party attack by AADO proponents in city council chambers with music provided by Ken Stringfellow of The Posies and Sean Nelson of Harvey Danger, and the ever-hilarious councilwoman Margaret Pageler vs. singer and songwriter Rocky Votolato showdown, in which she chased him around a community center as AADO supporters danced and he dodged her while singing and playing guitar.
Now Enter Vera
The formation of the Vera Project is a great story that could easily fill a book. For brevity's sake, here's a fire version of how it all began.
James Keblas, a University of Washington student, was set to travel on a study abroad to Groningen, Netherlands. Before he went, he caught a Fugazi show and as luck or fate would have it, the opening band, The Ex, was from the Netherlands. He left with a contact name of Peter Weening at the original Vera Club, located in Groningen. With the blessing from The Ex, James was ushered into the Vera world as soon as he arrived in Groningen, and a dream world it was. Vera had killer talent almost every night, was all volunteer-run (from lights, to booking, to bartending, to manning the door), supported by the government, and always all-ages. Another fellow University of Washington student Shannon Stewart, now the director of the All Ages Movement Project, also became a regular at the club. They soaked up all things Vera and began to form a vision of creating a similar organization back home.
When they returned to Seattle, still in the midst of the TDO, it just so happened that the Music and Youth Task Force was looking for answers--and James and Shannon had them.
The Relationship With the City
When James returned from the Netherlands he brought his report, called "The Vera Model," to the University of Washington. The University awarded both James and Shannon fellowships to continue their work, and with these fellowships came their most important tool: access.
Because they had the legitimacy and credibility of a major academic institution behind them, they were given access to city hall and to people who'd ultimately become their biggest and most important supporters. According to James, he believes this was, and is, a unique path.
But what's not unique is knowing that you need to have credibility to move forward with any new project--and the best way to get that credibility is to find people who already have it, and reel them in. Whether it's a local politician, head of the school district or a successful business person, find someone with some clout and get them on your side. It's step one.
For The Vera Project, this person was city council member Richard Conlin and infamous DIY Pacific Northwest all-ages organizer Kate Becker. Kate played a huge role in helping Shannon and James understand and navigate Seattle politics, and she's considered by many to be Vera's strongest advocate and the third founder.
James and Shannon will tell you that working with the city was and continues to be fundamental. Vera could not exist if Seattle wasn't behind it 100 percent. They created a model that worked within the confines of the local government, and one that also relied on it for financial support.
As they got support, first in the form of the University backing, and later from important local politicians, Vera was kept alive in council discussions and agendas. Eventually, the council and the Music and Youth Task Force joined in as well. The timing was perfect, since the antagonistic climate in Seattle opened opportunities for change. James maintains that it was very important that they were collaborative instead of confrontational in their relationship to the city. In fact, this was key to most of Vera's strategy.
At the time, Seattle was in the midst of a vast economic recession with over $60 million in debt. Many thought it was a crazy idea to start a nonprofit at a time when programs and staff were getting cut. Nevertheless, Vera got $25,000 from the city as seed money, and hosted its first show with Murder City Devils, Botch and the Blood Brothers in 2001.
It's also important to note that both James and Shannon had internships with the Seattle Arts Commission, which allotted $20,000 to Vera. Additionally, Shannon did a community survey among young people to build the case of why an all-ages community music venue was important.
A High-Maintenance Relationship
Getting initial support from the local government was one thing; keeping that support and maintaining the relationship was much harder. In the early days, many hours were spent keeping officials in the loop by informing them of every step along the way. This meant inviting them to events and fundraisers, giving them membership cards, personal letters, packets with any recent press on Vera, and an abundance of thanks in various forms, including postcards designed by local artists and signed by Vera members. Vera made sure it was a constant presence at relevant council meetings, and made sure they delivered on each and every task presented. Now, according to Vera's Executive Director Shannon Roach, the relationship is easier to maintain. The trust is there.
Vera and the Community: Why Do Kids Need a Punk Place Anyway?
Vera wasn't always a million dollar state-of-the-art venue. It once moved twice in one year and went months without being able to put on shows. Now that Vera's in a long-term home--one they raised an incredible amount of money to secure--they get some flack for being too clean, too shiny, too much in the city's pocket. As a music industry darling, Vera constantly rides the line of "selling out" in favor of being a stronghold in the community, much like its Dutch inspiration. Some of those concerns are valid. As the novelty is wearing off, Vera will have to figure out ways to address criticism without defensiveness to continue to be a responsive, relevant and community-driven organization.
Pop Culture and Politics: Building Power and Civic Engagement
The Vera structure is keen on providing young people with as many opportunities as possible to learn, grow and engage in an abundance of issues, activities, skills and events. By giving young people both the access and tools needed, Vera kids are given a leg up--they know how to maneuver through multiple industries--whether in music, government, arts, politics or other businesses and nonprofits. Because the culture of Vera is built on a relationship with the city and overcoming social and political odds, a civic engagement component is always lurking in the air--it's something that makes Vera both unique and exciting.
Why Seattle Makes Vera Unique
Seattle itself has a stellar music community producing some of the best national talent. It also houses outstanding music record labels--such as Sub Pop, Barsuk, Suicide Squeeze, and Up Records--and music festivals like Bumbershoot, Capitol Hill Block Party, and Sasquatch. It's liberal with lots of money and a philanthropic nature. Seattle has strong independent media, including two weeklies, The Stranger and Seattle Weekly, countless bloggers, a university daily paper and KEXP, one of the best independent radio stations in the US. It also has a rich history of activism and social change.
Seattle--as a place--is as pertinent to the success of the Vera project as any other element. Its music and arts community is almost unparalleled, as is the amount of wealth and the generosity of the amounts people like to give. It's also no stranger to younger, vocal participants, and active, successful young people, so the organizers behind Vera were in good company when they got going.
And then you have the weather--nine months of grayness creates perfect conditions for seeing shows, silkscreening, making music and other creative stuff.
But most importantly, Vera fought a good fight, and its inspiring success paved the way for people like me and projects like Holland Vera to begin all over the place. It's spawning a generation of engaged and aware young adults, now tackling their chosen industries in Seattle and beyond. It has been a leader in recognizing and fostering the power of young people--and we're happy to join the revolution.
Britt Curtis is currently the director of The Holland Project, Reno's first all-ages arts and music nonprofit. She has worked with various arts and issue-based organizations, and music clubs including Seattle International Film Festival, Choice USA, Rock the Vote and Pearl Jam among others.