Take a moment and think of a big city. What is one of the first images to flash through your mind?
A landmark? A building, perhaps?
What about the way certain parts of a city take shape? What defines them?
Now, think a little deeper. Inside each city there are different cultures and arts scenes. You thought about it already without realizing it. You’ve categorized parts of New York based on its boroughs. Los Angeles can distinctly be drawn into areas based on its neighborhoods. The differences inside large cities such as New York and LA can oftentimes be defined by each neighborhood’s arts and culture, making them unique.
The arts and culture inside cities is something we’re always aware of even when we aren’t specifically thinking about it.
That is, unless you have the same thought processes as Maria Rosario Jackson.
The 1996 Urban Planning Ph.D. graduate has been viewing things a little differently than a typical urban planning student might, focusing her sights on the arts and culture in cities and what kinds of economic, social and cultural impacts they might have.
“I used to get this a lot – from some colleagues and others who do research to address urban poverty and related issues — ‘You’re concerned with poor people and low income communities, so why are you doing this art stuff?’ ” Jackson said. “It’s not among the most conventional concerns people have when they’re in professions concerned with the well-being of vulnerable populations, but it is crucially important. People’s ability to creatively express themselves and take control of their own narrative is critical to a community’s advancement and to quality of life. It’s a social justice issue and an important element of how we should think about equity and healthy places where people can thrive.”
It was that forward thinking, along the lines of race, ethnicity and urban revitalization, that landed her in a very prestigious national role.
Last year Jackson was appointed by President Barack Obama to the National Council on the Arts.
“These fine public servants bring both a depth of experience and tremendous dedication to their new roles,” President Obama said in announcing Jackson’s appointment. “Our nation will be well-served by these men and women, and I look forward to working with them in the months and years to come.”
Jackson recalled the time that it took to finally hear the President say those words.
After receiving “an initial cryptic phone call from the White House” Jackson had to go through a lengthy background check with the FBI and then had to be vetted by a group of White House attorneys and ultimately confirmed by the US Senate. It was a long process that ended with a fantastic charge. Plus, it was the culmination of a lot of prominent work and high-level associations that Jackson has been a part of since leaving the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs.
She spent nearly two decades at The Urban Institute, a Washington DC-based public policy research organization, serving as the founding Director of the Culture, Creativity and Communities Program before leaving to serve as Senior Advisor to the Arts and Culture Program at The Kresge Foundation. Jackson also has served on boards of the Association of Performing Arts Presenters, the National Performance Network, the Alliance for California Traditional Arts and on the advisory board for the Lambent Foundation.
Her work at the Urban Institute was especially revolutionary in how she was able to lead research on the roles of arts and culture in communities, support systems for artists and arts and cultural indicators, creating methods to measure community revitalization while participating in projects about public housing, public education, public safety and parks.
Part of what helped Jackson focus on her research lay in early focus groups she conducted. Working with local affiliates in seven major U.S. cities — Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Oakland, Philadelphia, Providence and Washington DC — Jackson identified areas to measure the presence and impacts of arts and culture in communities. As revealed in an interview on the National Endowment of the Arts website, “One of the most effective questions was ‘What do you miss the most when you leave?’ … People would talk about … a particular type of music or food, or even the architecture that was specific to a place. … It’s almost as if you needed that distance to be able to see what really mattered.”
While Jackson’s Urban Planning Ph.D. didn’t exactly follow the same path that others had gone down, her time at the UCLA Luskin School encouraged her to explore her own path within the realms of Urban Planning.
“I think that the preparation I received at UCLA was, in hindsight, extraordinary,” Jackson said. “It prepared me for many different kinds of options. More than anything, because of the mentors that I had there. There was a terrific set of people who were open to new ideas and who were eager to continue to ignite thoughts and ask questions that they hadn’t really wrestled with.
“The topic I took up was kind of a hybrid when I was there—comprehensive community planning in multi-ethnic contexts. But I didn’t find a lot of resistance to it. My experience was healthy because professors and peers pushed me to clarify my ideas. I was able to be creative and rigorous in my program and it launched me into a career that continues to demand creativity and rigor as well as leadership and good judgment.”