If the past year has taught us anything (well, besides the importance of washing our hands), it's that people need to support each other. It's the only way to make the world better and, clearly, get through the most difficult times. Throughout a pandemic, a national confrontation with racism, and a presidential election that felt more divisive than ever, many of us discovered the power of community, as well as the necessity of taking action, of giving back, and of getting involved.
For Curtis D. Young, however, the call to community service and civic engagement is nothing new. The New York-based nonprofit executive, activist, and philanthropist has been making his mark as a public leader and organizer from his early days of interning at the White House to his current role as Executive Director of Artistic Noise, an organization dedicated to uplifting system-involved youth through the power of artistic practice.
With degrees in political science from Hampton University, Urban Planning from New York University's Wagner School of Public Service, and a certification from Columbia Business School's Executive Education Program for Senior Leaders of Nonprofit Organizations (whew!), it's safe to say that Curtis knew his path and followed it.
But even beyond his professional work, he somehow manages to find the time and energy to commit to the causes he cares about. In the "before times," you could spot Curtis dressed up in his dapper best at fundraisers and events about town, all while taking meaningful action in his own backyard. Whether he's knocking on doors to register voters, making moves on his local community board, cleaning up a park, or standing in solidarity on a picket line, Curtis proves that getting involved is seriously the coolest thing you could do.
Between all of that, we managed to catch up with the power-house leader for good to talk all about his various efforts, his advice for those driven to take action, and whether we might be seeing his name on a ballot anytime soon.
What's your earliest memory of being moved to public service?
I’d say my earliest memory of being moved to public service came from my grandmother. She was such a graceful woman who gave so much to her local community and family. In fact, the spare room in her home was often filled with people in need or going through a rough time. She nurtured and exemplified what it means to be human. She also loved President Clinton. As a young saxophonist, I remember her watching Bill Clinton perform on the Arsenio Hall show and her turning to me and saying, “you can do that”...meaning, I could do good in the world while also staying connected to the arts (that was my interpretation). It was the first time I actually saw a politician openly express an artistic side.
Coincidentally, that early inspiration, somehow led me to working in the Clinton White House while in undergrad. That experience took my passion for public service to the next level. While there I was assigned to the Office of Cabinet Affairs where one of my bosses was Thurgood Marshall Jr. (yes, son of the First Black Supreme Court Judge)....It was a full circle moment and can all be traced back to my grandmother's positive affirmations encouraging creativity and public service.
What has your work with Artistic Noise taught you about the unique intersection of the arts, social justice, and youth development?
Serving as Executive Director of Artistic Noise has reminded me of the important role the arts can play in shifting narratives. Art is such a powerful tool to effect social change and to promote personal growth. This is one of the things I love most about my work at Artistic Noise. We are not only providing access to a life enhancing art education curriculum, but also therapeutic services for youth in need of additional support to truly transform their lives and establish a path towards success.
Each youth comes to us with a very unique set of needs that range from concrete, like housing and finishing high school, to abstract, like a vision for their future. The relationship that they build with us, which occurs primarily through the platform of art, is meant to provide youth with the tools they need to make positive decisions that prioritize personal safety and overall well being. This is why art is so powerful.
In addition to your extensive professional career spanning international education, politics, the arts, and the nonprofit sector, you're on multiple community boards and have personally been involved in outreach, activism, and philanthropy. What has some of that entailed, and why do you think it's so important to take time in your "off hours" to dedicate to issues you care about?
I come from the belief that in order to be successful you must be of service to someone else. One of my favorite quotes is from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who once said, “Not everybody can be famous but everybody can be great because greatness is determined by service... You only need a heart full of grace and a soul generated by love.”
Spending my “off hours” in service, albeit serving on the community board or being part of numerous advocacy organizations is very much intertwined with the work I do from 9-5pm with youth. It’s the culmination of everything I am part of that makes me come alive. I call it, “the Core of Curtis!” So serving as Chair of the Public Safety Committee on my community board, being part of the Arts and Social Justice Coalition or even my role on the Department of Youth and Community development Neighborhood Advisory Board - it’s all interconnected and done with a great deal of intention and reflection prior to me even saying yes to the work.
This has been a great part of my evolution but at the same time, looking back I’ve always been the “type A” personality. In high school, I was a class officer, band president, on the tennis team, ran track AND maintained my “cool kid membership” by being elected Homecoming King. My best friend seems to believe that I wouldn't be successful doing only one thing, which is probably accurate.
How have your community efforts evolved over the past year(s)? What's been the most rewarding or impactful moment they've led you to recently?
Last year was one of my most challenging years for me. Leading a nonprofit organization during such an unpredictable moment, certainly kept me up at night. On top of leading through challenging times and adapting to our virtual work, we had to respond to heightened racial injustices. It was a moment that afforded us an opportunity to reflect on the important role organizations like Artistic Noise plays in the conversation on reimagining public safety and equity work in general.
Also, over the past year my work has become hyper-local - considering the shutdown. We were all confined, so I found myself doing more neighbor-to-neighbor check-in calls, volunteering at the local food pantries or shopping for seniors in my building who couldn’t leave their apartments. All things local! I also became Co-President of my local political club, Uptown Community Democrats. So, not only did the old adage of “all politics is local” remain true, I added…”all public service is local.” It’s really about helping the person closest to you and moving from there. Going back further, I was on the Advisory Board for the Young Patrons Circle of American Friends of the Louvre Museum, Young Ambassador for Malaria No More, raised money for American Cancer Society Dream Ball After Dark and served on countless other committees, but around the time #45 was elected. I knew I needed to dive deeper and give back in a much more meaningful way. Don’t get me wrong, I still love to put on my tuxedo, but these days, I prefer canvassing boots!
Recently, one of the most rewarding experiences was assisting neighbors who were being deprived of a new lease. Because of the rent freeze many landlords didn’t offer leases which I believe to be a backdoor way to an expeditious eviction. Without a lease you are technically a month to month renter. With so many people in need and not being able to pay rent, it places tenants at an additional risk not to have an actual lease. I assisted in organizing local tenants and was able to get leases sent out after management caught wind of our organizing. It really is a small thing but it was so rewarding.
It's safe to say you inspire people to step up. Who inspires you?
Oprah Winfrey for her authenticity. Barack Obama for his unassuming strategic acumen and Beyonce Knowles-Carter for being Beyonce and using her star power for good.
How do you avoid burnout? Do you have any favorite self-care rituals or ways to center yourself when it comes to refilling your cup?
I’m an avid runner. It’s the best way for me to decompress after a week of stressful zoom meetings or to kick off my week. I aim for a six mile run on the weekends around Central Park and at least one short three mile run mid-week to refresh. Being outdoors has been the best ritual for me to boost my energy and refill my cup. When running doesn’t do it, I resort to a long bubble bath or watching my favorite French television series, “Plus Belle La Vie.” I fell in love with this show while living in France many moons ago.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to get involved with their community and beyond, but doesn't know where to start?
It’s important to grow where you are planted. I encourage everyone to become connected to issues that spark the light in them, making it possible to illuminate the world. Community Boards are always in need of diverse groups of people, especially folks under 40. Because of committee structures, it’s possible to become focused on specific areas of concerns in the community. As for making time in their schedule - we are in an all hands on deck situation here... everyone has to step up and do their part. It may not need to be a board or committee, but the bare minimum, and as a final takeaway - at least commit to voting in every election!
What’s next for you? Have you considered running for office yourself?
Great question. As I said earlier, I believe in growing where you are planted. I enjoy my work. You should consider running for office when you believe there’s a difference you can make, and not just because there’s a vacancy, as we see so frequently in our city. It’s not about a political opportunity but public impact. If the opportunity presented itself in the future and I felt able to make a big impact, then I’d say, yes to running for office. Otherwise, I’ll be perfectly content with the difference I’m making where I am planted for the time being. But I'd never say never.