Ahmed Tigani, a sound and light designer/technician, full time urban studies graduate student, and Vice President of the Manhattan Young Democrats, talks about the arts as a common denominator for organizing, the importance of persistence, and learning to live without all the answers.
I’m from Ethiopia. My mother is Ethiopian and my father is Sudanese and Dutch. I was born in the Bronx. I grew up in public housing in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, and lived there until I moved to Manhattan as an undergrad at Hunter College. Now I am a resident of Astoria, Queens.
I like the individual aspect of New York, the feeling that I can walk from one part of the city to another part of the city and feel like I’m walking from one country to a whole different one. The walkability and livability and cultural immersion, it’s just fantastic.
The spot where I feel the most comfortable is 5th Avenue in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. It reminds me the most of growing up, which is always a good feeling. My favorite spot is Owl’s Head Park in Bay Ridge. I hung out there a lot when I was a kid. Astoria, hands-down, is the most fantastic place to get fresh produce and food, and, for me, cheeses. When I want to be quiet, and just want to think, the water by 23rd St and 1st Ave is a great place to just go and relax, sit down, and read a book in the summer.
I love the train. The train disconnects me from all cellular technology. I get to turn off, and just read a book. It’s also the most awesome place to view people, to examine your fellow citizens. You can see people interact in different way. This is my theater side coming out. It’s useful when you’re an organizer and you want to be able to relate your message to specific people. When you’re talking and writing about specific policy issues it’s important that the initiation and the desire is ignited by your own desire to see change. On the train I try to watch and see what people are feeling. The train is a great place to learn about other people.
I went to college to get my Bachelor’s in Theater and Political Science, because I wanted to be able to be Stephen Colbert when I grew up. But I realized that was much harder than I’d originally anticipated.
I started to get involved in a lot of student organizing when I was an undergrad — student government, etc. I worked with a lot of different ethnic groups that had their own clubs to create cultural events that spoke about their traditions. I thought that was very interesting. I tried to get a job with the Department of Cultural Affairs, and I succeeded. That was fantastic. I ended up working for a program called Materials for the Arts, a 32-year-old support network.
The purpose of Materials for the Arts is to divert gently used and new material from the waste stream and into the hands of artists who can use it to prop up art programs around the five boroughs. There’s a sustainability and reuse aspect, where we’re trying to help the environment. We’re trying to prevent things from becoming trash. And there’s an art component to it: we encourage the rebirth of these items into any kind of art manifestation you could think of.
The arts are a great common denominator for learning about all different kinds of issues. I think they allow people a universal language in which to express how they feel about what’s going on in current events. It tells personal stories in ways that people can digest without feeling awkward or embarrassed, or tell stories without feeling awkward or embarrassed. I think that good or bad art becomes a benchmark for us. It becomes a great indicator of where we are as a community when we’re able to show how appreciative we are of different styles that emerge. The diversity of our art is like the diversity of our community.
I remember one after school computer room project that kept twelve computers out of the waste stream, preventing harmful effects to our water. Another project had us redirecting seven floors of office furniture to about fifteen different schools, government agencies, and non-profits.
Trash is necessary, but we can always do more to reduce it. I think as a society, we’re becoming more and more open to considering reuse as an option before buying new.
We all worry so much about money, having money, buying things with money. There would be more money in our pockets if we reused things. I find that one of the best ways to get people’s foot in the door about trash and the importance of reuse is to talk about something that relates to their everyday pressures. They might not have all the time in the world to think about the environment, but they do have time to think about saving money.
There’s a good group that provides a good example of it is the Madagascar Institute, located in Brooklyn. They take pieces of metal, old machinery, and discarded wood, and create these fantastic objects that just come to life. They built something called the “Miracle Wheel” out of leftover metal parts. It spits fire. It’s amazing. It runs on bike power. It’s operated out of a Brownstone in Brooklyn.
These are the kind of groups that we work with — groups that give rebirth to things that would otherwise be thrown out. Now these things have a whole new life and take tours around the world. We help these organizations stay alive by providing them resources like desks, office supplies, and computers. That way they can take their money and not spend it on administrative materials. Instead they can put it towards programs or hiring more teachers or expanding their offerings.
I started working on political campaigns because I love talking to people…and because I’m a glutton for punishment. My first big one was in Queens, working for Mel Gagarin. A really good guy. A really young guy too. He was running for City Council. I was a staffer and field coordinator. It was a very eye-opening experience. I learned how to take all of this information about environmental policy, school education policy, housing policy, and boil it down into the 30 seconds that people were willing to give me in order to talk about these issues. So I learned very quickly about formulating messages that are clear and concise.
I got to know more people in the political world, specifically young people, and I wanted to meet more young people, because I thought that it was interesting that we couldn’t get many activated during the City Council campaign. It was very much that we were speaking to an older crowd, which I thought was ridiculous because a lot of the issues we were talking about were going to affect us in ten to 15 years.
I think the most effective way of bringing about change is by showing up in person and being persistent.
People assume that you’ll give “one ask” — tell them about something that you want and then fade away. But if you say, “I want a tenant organization started in this building and you, in 2A, need to help me do it,” and then you come back a week later and ask about it again, they think, “this person might be interested.” If I come back a third time, then they know that either you’re crazy, or the issue is important enough for you to give your time to. If you really care about something and you want to see change happen, you have to be willing to dedicate time and effort. Through that you can inspire others to give their own time and effort.
Being a good neighbor is really about being helpful when asked, and also being helpful when you’re not asked to be so. When people ask you to do things, you’re there for them. When people say “participate in the public planning situation,” you go, and you give your comments. But when you see that no one has asked for the public’s opinion, you also give your comments, and you tell you tell other people that our collective comments aren’t being asked for. You do both.
One of the biggest things that people who organize do is that they put a lot of pressure on themselves to always have all of the answers. The reason why you’re organizing is because you’re trying to get other people involved. The reason why you organize is because you believe in grassroots. In a grassroots situation you’re all supportive of each other. So as an organizer, you don’t have to have all of the answers. You just have enough to get another person with you. And then the two of you have to have enough answers to get the third person with you, and so on and so forth. And at some point, collectively, you’ll have a cumulative knowledge to push forward the issue.