We spoke with musician and educator Rashida Phillips to learn about how the School is evolving, what the role means for her and her family and how she defines Black generational wealth.
By Olivia Cunningham
This year the Old Town School of Folk Music, the nation’s largest community arts school, celebrates its first-ever deputy director, Rashida Phillips.
The St. Louis native has spent the last 15 years working in Chicago’s cultural and educational sectors and performing at jazz venues across the city. Phillips says she joins during a significant period of change for the 61-year-old institution. She hopes it’ll mark a time when the “folk” at Old Town School of Folk Music will be more inclusive—reflective of Chicago’s vast musical history as well as its people.
Phillips shared what her new position means for Old Town, the Chicago art scene and her family. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Can you talk about your role as the school’s first deputy director?
I work primarily with the education programs: community initiatives and operations and school-wide initiatives. The responsibility for me is to think about the enrollment of the future, what those future populations [of students] look like, and coming to ourselves in terms of moving out of a “folk” label. Some people feel like it’s just banjos and guitars, and they don’t understand what folk means.
We started the Teen Collective program that’s growing. We know that Chicago has an active community of young folks, so if we don’t change, they’re gonna change it for us. That’s for sure.
What are a few of your goals for this new position?
We have initiatives that are happening here on [our Lincoln Square] campus. We have a lot of these programs building in North Lawndale and Englewood and its surrounding South Side communities, around arts and community wellness, and that programming is still in its infancy.
What we’re trying to do in those neighborhoods is help smaller, grassroots organizations build capacity, number one, and bring in resources to those communities. That means maybe musical instruments, some funding, shared knowledge of development strategies, instruction in arts and music and supporting professional development and job opportunities. We are supporting some of their ideas around community health and community wellness. We’re really trying to avoid this trickle-down scenario where you have larger arts organizations just handing out the remnants to the Brown and Black community.
Coming into this position, I specifically said I don’t want to “other” those initiatives. We shouldn’t think of them as these alternative programs, these programs way across the city that don’t have anything to do with our programming here on the North Side. We really want to work on being the authentic partner.
What’s the department culture like here?
We’ve been around for 61 years and we were really seeded here not only in the folk movement but in the Civil Rights Movement. “We Shall Overcome” came out of here. Mahalia Jackson was here in the early days working, and they were documenting music of hers. We had a lot of folks coming together with that justice mentality of that time. I’m hoping that we can infuse that in our programming a little bit more because that’s the pulse of this city.
What led you to this position? Tell us about your journey.
I had always really been engrossed in music and came out of parents that educated me on what Black culture looked like and the power of Black people historically. Jazz is what spoke to me in my heart. In high school I started singing jazz and really just found a power in it through stories and storytelling.
Coming out of Oberlin [College], my undergrad, one of the first colleges to educate women and Black people, there was always that consciousness in place. I’ve always been interested in the intersection of arts, of education, of history. I found myself in a place that supported the stories of young people, the Chicago Children’s Museum.
Then I worked at Chicago Arts Partnerships in Education, where we looked at arts integration into school curriculum. I think the youth now are so much more ahead of that game than I was at that time. [Art is] the medium in which they express themselves and communicate their life interests.
I had a mom who was a high school teacher and she said, “I always loved high school because they always kept me young, they always kept me hip.” I get that, so I’ve tried to follow that pathway in providing opportunities for young people to find their voice.
What are you most proud of professionally?
I’m most proud of getting to this point. I promised myself that getting into these upper positions, I would be my most authentic self.
In the interviewing process, the executive director had said something like, “Why now? Why is it important?” and I said, “You know what? It’s my time. Particularly it’s time for the Black woman. We have put the elbow grease in. We have helped folks through. It’s our turn to step into the spotlight and not just support people and hold folks up, but really take the reins because we’ve earned it.” And I said to him, “I feel like I’ve earned it at this point. And I feel like a lot of Black and Brown people and Black and Brown women have the right to be at the helm of these institutions.” So I felt proud in being able to take that on.
This summer at City Bureau, we’re looking into stories about Black generational wealth in Chicago; how it’s gained, lost and passed to the next generation. How do you define Black wealth for yourself?
We got a lot of wealth just because we are rooted in ourselves. That’s the advantage that we need to take into consideration beyond the money. And the money is an issue, but the wealth of our culture is so rich. I think sometimes we need to lean into that a little bit more and support each other in terms of our communities. That’s really where our wealth lies. Because we don’t have the legacy of wealth that some of these billionaires have, we gotta think about wealth differently in our community and in our society.
So my wealth is having my children be proud of me, having the opportunities that I can help provide for them and for each other. That’s what I consider wealth.
How do you define Black wealth? This summer we’re collecting stories of Black Chicagoans and compiling a holistic picture of Black generational wealth. You can contribute by emailing email@example.com or using the hashtag #BlackChiWealth on social media.