Esperanza Spalding uses her platform to advocate for affordable housing.
Esperanza Spalding is a Portland-made composer and musician, and her recent performance marks the return of a legend. But more than that, she brings hope to her hometown by building community through one of her many awe inspiring talents. One of those things is Spalding’s timeless music that has performed Nobel Peace Prize ceremonies, Academy Awards, and festivals around the world. The Grammy-award winner always brings more than her music to town, and this time her return to Portland was marked by her support for affordable housing.
Bienestar, a nonprofit that builds low-income housing, is the chief benefactor of Spalding’s Portland performance that took place on Saturday, November 17th also featuring performances by DACA recipient Denzel Mendoza and Portland Cumbia trio, Sávila. The program, which serves over 500 families, many of them Latino immigrants and farmworkers, is growing because of the work of a young musician whose own family has experienced the impact of the life changing opportunities Bienestar provides. She Shreds took some time to sit down with Spalding to learn more about how her music and activism are related on the modern stage during a tumultuous time in American history.
She Shreds: What’s the bottom line of this event for you? How do folks get involved in this kind of movement?
Esperanza Spalding: There is so much work to be done here right now, so many layers. A really good place to start is by supporting people who are already engaged in the work. This is an event that supports people who are already on the ground. I think the best thing a person can do is find the people who already leading these efforts and support that community, because then you can grow to learn what they have with them. Bienestar has been doing that work, and my family has benefited.
So your family has history with Bienestar?
My mom spent a few years renting one of their apartments.
How did you get involved, or reconnect with the organization for this event?
I think it was maybe two years ago, or last year, that I was involved with the ACLU campaign in Oregon reaching out to sheriffs asking them to abide by these ten-points as suggested by the ACLU. When I was at the local ACLU chapter meeting, I realized there were no Hispanic people there. There were no Spanish-speakers in that room. That’s great that so many people are passionate about speaking up for our neighbors, but I feel like there should be somebody here from the community to speak directly about their needs and concerns. So that’s when I was inspired to reach out to Bienestar and be like “Hey, would you be willing to speak on behalf of the people that you work with, and help us make sure that our work is meaningful to you. This is our community, and theoretically we’re working on behalf of our neighbors, but none of our neighbors that are directly affected by this are present.” I thought that was a good way to connect some dots that weren’t connected. And I think that turned into a fruitful relationship between that group and Bienestar. They even helped bring those families supplies they needed because people were afraid of going to the grocery store. Even then, people had to be sure it was safe because ICE officers were going undercover and getting information to deport immigrants.
Do you think this event is timely, considering current affairs?
The event isn’t necessarily issue-specific, but this kind of event is always timely because it’s a way for the community to come together and share something we all love, which is music and performance. And while we come together and get to show support tangibly with our dollars and our presence for people in the community who are doing this work. Bienestar isn’t new, organizing like this aren’t new. But this is a way to engage, do something, to show folks they are not alone. There are people who have been living like this and working on these causes because those causes are their immediate lives, and we can show them real support.
How did you get involved with immigrant activism like this? Was it originally through the ACLU or something else?
I use to write a lot of recommendation letters for students to help them get their artist visas and pursue their careers or education. I wasn’t really engaged before that. My engagement isn’t really on the issue of immigration in general, but on protecting my neighbors when they are being targeted in a terror campaign. If immigration law is a way to remedy their current situation, cool, and also whatever goes on from here forward, it seems like there was always a little bit of disconnect in communities like where I lived in Hillsboro between our neighbors that we see every day and are interacting and working with, and the reality of their struggle right now. So in addition to immigration reform, to me it’s also an opportunity to come out together and share our musical experience and to get to know each other so there’s less of that “othering” energy around the work we do.
How does music inspire you and how can it inspire the next generation of artists?
Whatever your passion or skill or profession is, there is work for you and a place to contribute that unique whatever-it-is to the mission of healing our society. I just look at it as “this is what I’m good at, this is what I do,” so it’s just one of many ways people can move forward in helping others. That being said, music is a good incubator for collective work. An orchestra can only work together when every musician is there. The oboist has to really be a great oboist and the guy playing the tuba has to really mean it too. Everyone has to be an expert at what they do for it to truly be a changing experience. That is what music can do for the next generation and for anyone willing to become an expert today. It can force you to work with others for a larger good.