Steve Emrick never sought to be a leader—but leadership found him. This is the fifth in a six-part series of posts based on an interview I conducted with Steve about his three decades running arts programs in California’s prison system. In Section 5, Steve described how he kept working to reinstate art programs for prisoners even while he was working as assistant canteen manager at San Quentin.
Sarah: So how did it come about that arts funding was finally reinstated?
Steve: Laurie and I started getting access to politicians—Senator Leno and others. But Leno told us, Look, there’s no one with the political will to support arts in prisons right now—how can I ask for money for prison art programs when we’re cutting Medicare and Medicaid to people who desperately need it? But Laurie hung in there. A couple important developments really helped our cause. For one thing, we got California Lawyers for the Arts on board. Their political clout and connections gave us more access to the legislature. Then when Jerry Brown was reelected governor in 2007, that also created a shift, an opportunity. And keep in mind the economy was improving. Long story short, in 2014, the California Arts in Corrections funding was finally reinstated—at six million dollars a year. The highest it had ever been before that was three million. But keep in mind, six million is still only half of one percent of the Department of Corrections budget.
Sarah: That raises a question that was bound to come up in this conversation: What do you say to people who see you as greasing the wheels of a fundamentally unjust system?
Steve: Progressives have realized over time that if you keep standing outside the system throwing stones, you may not get as big a change as if you go inside. By going into the prisons, I’m changing culture. Laurie and I, by working hard for a decade, were able to bring back funding for Arts in Corrections. If we hadn’t somehow kept the San Quentin program going, as a demonstration program, with guys who could talk about how much it had helped turn their lives around, I don’t know if that would have happened. Instead, at this point the Department of Corrections and the public at large have made a 180-degree shift in their thinking. Before, the thinking was: Lock away the troublemakers. But now people realize, there’s no room in the prisons for all these people and it’s not good for the economy anyway. That’s what working within the system can do.
By working inside, I influence the prison staff. I’m able to help them realize that they have an opportunity to change inmates by working with them. And in my position now as the coordinator of all the volunteer programs, I’m even able to work with Laurie to help influence legislators and politicians.
This same dialogue goes on with the public school system. It’s easy to criticize the schools from the outside. But my partner Dana’s a poet who teaches in the school system and she gets so many comments from parents of students she teaches: “My son would never write and now he can’t wait to get to your class and he writes poetry and he’s completely engaged in school.” These things are small but they’re also huge. By working within the system, Dana has helped those parents learn to appreciate the arts. And she’s nudged those kids toward a different approach to academia and even to life. Administrators take note of things like that. That has more impact than if Dana were just to say, “The system sucks and I’m not going to be part of it.”
Sarah: I’m also curious how you answer the opposite challenge: that prisoners don’t deserve fun, meaningful, rewarding activities like art classes.
Steve: Yes, there are people who say, My kid doesn’t get art at her school but you’re giving these prisoners art classes. My response is: Everyone everywhere deserves to make art. And these guys’ experience with art is helping them develop into better citizens. The classes help them develop communication skills, and to create good art they have to get in touch with their humanity. They come out safer for your community and for themselves. Their recidivism rate is lower. So art in the prisons saves money for you, the taxpayer.
Sarah: I want to loop back and ask about your transition from assistant canteen manager into your current position as director of all of San Quentin’s volunteer programs. That’s a giant leap! How did that happen and when?
Steve: While I was the assistant canteen manager I returned to school to get a high school teaching certification because I knew I needed a more stimulating job. In 2012, right after I completed the coursework, the person in the position I have now, Laura Bowman, decided to move out of state. She approached me and urged me to apply for that job. She then approached the warden and recommended me for it. Because of my years of working with volunteers at San Quentin, I was given the position. So ironically, I wouldn’t have needed to do all that coursework.
Next: Mayberry with an Edge
- Jan 13, 2019 Managing to Build Bridges - Part 3: I Felt Pretty Stupid Jan 13, 2019
- Dec 9, 2018 Managing to Build Bridges - Part 2: Such a Bad Kid Dec 9, 2018
- Nov 23, 2018 Managing to Build Bridges - Part 1: The Pressure to Be a Certain Type of Girl Nov 23, 2018
- Oct 23, 2018 Leadership Without Ego - Part 6: Mayberry with an Edge Oct 23, 2018
- Oct 1, 2018 Leadership Without Ego - Part 5: Everyone Everywhere Deserves to Make Art Oct 1, 2018
- Sep 10, 2018 Leadership Without Ego - Part 4: I'm About Ready to Swear Sep 10, 2018
- Aug 19, 2018 Leadership Without Ego - Part 3: The Dalai Lama Breaks All the Rules Aug 19, 2018
- Jul 29, 2018 Leadership Without Ego - Part 2: The Kids Melted Under That Praise Jul 29, 2018
- Jul 10, 2018 Leadership Without Ego - Part 1: The Workshop Was Neutral Territory Jul 10, 2018
- May 26, 2018 The Alchemy of Service - Part 5: Watch Out, Someone's Behind You May 26, 2018
- May 6, 2018 The Alchemy of Service - Part 4: Fireworks and Tears May 6, 2018
- May 5, 2018 The Alchemy of Service - Part 3: Joann Wong! You Are Chinese! May 5, 2018
- Apr 6, 2018 The Alchemy of Service - Part 2: Mom, It's Only a Nickel Apr 6, 2018
- Mar 19, 2018 The Alchemy of Service - Part 1: Mouse Soup Mar 19, 2018
- Feb 18, 2018 Back to the Garden - Part 4: Mountain Lion Footprints on the Deck Feb 18, 2018
- Feb 3, 2018 Back to the Garden - Part 3: "You're a Good Egg—Happy Easter" Feb 3, 2018
- Jan 15, 2018 Back to the Garden - Part 2: "A Pretty Big Failure" Jan 15, 2018
- Jan 1, 2018 Back to the Garden - Part 1: "Aesthetic Shock" Jan 1, 2018
- Aug 15, 2017 Goodbye Self-esteem, Hello Self-compassion – Part 3: Real Love Aug 15, 2017
- Jul 31, 2017 Goodbye Self-esteem, Hello Self-compassion – Part 2: Mirror, Mirror Jul 31, 2017
- Jul 17, 2017 Goodbye Self-esteem, Hello Self-compassion – Part 1: Bashing Vasco Jul 17, 2017
- May 28, 2017 This Thing I Found: Teens Teach Us How to See Freshly May 28, 2017
- Mar 20, 2017 Dream On - Part 6: Dream Analysis Example Mar 20, 2017
- Mar 7, 2017 Dream On - Part 5: A Dream Analysis Technique (cont.) Mar 7, 2017
- Feb 20, 2017 Dream On - Part 4: A Dream Analysis Technique Feb 20, 2017
- January 2017
- December 2016