Cara Ober Interviews Ryan Dorsey about Being an Artist AND Running for a Seat on Baltimore’s City Council

Ryan Dorsey believes the voices of artists need to be heard in all of Baltimore’s local government decisions. He has taken this charge so seriously that he, a musician and artist, is running for City Council. In this interview, Cara Ober asks Dorsey about his qualifications, beliefs, and goals for the future if he is elected to city office.

A life-long resident of Baltimore City’s 3rd District, Ryan Dorsey, 34, was raised in the Belair-Edison and Mayfield neighborhoods and attended Saint Francis of Assisi School. Following his graduation from the Peabody Conservatory with a bachelors degree in Music Composition, Ryan began working full-time as a project manager at Soundscape, a local, third generation family business started by his grandfather on North Avenue in 1930.

Ryan contributes in various ways to affect improvements throughout Baltimore City. He participates in park clean ups and other activities with Friends of Herring Run Parks and is presently working for reinvestment in the North Harford Recreation Center and facilities. Additionally, Ryan is working in numerous ways to make transit safer and more effective throughout the district and the city. He is a member of the Transit Choices coalition, seeking improvements in safety and effectiveness in Baltimore City transportation, and he is working to improve transportation for Baltimore City Public Schools through the Smarter Schools Challenge.

Ryan is a passionate advocate for the arts and has been a part of Baltimore’s artistic community for many years. He studied violin at the Baltimore School for the Arts and is currently a member of their Alumni Advisory Council, aiming to prepare graduating students for college and careers in the arts and encouraging fellow alumni to remain active in giving back to the school and community. Ryan has worked in summer programs teaching elementary school aged students how to compose and perform their own music. Ryan presently serves on the board of the Baltimore Annex Theater.

Ryan is a homeowner in Mayfield, less than a block from his parents.

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You self-identify as an artist, specifically as a musician. Can you talk about your background in art or music making and how this might inform your decisions as an elected official in the future?

My family has always placed an emphasis on the arts. My father grew up in Govans and played in a community drum and bugle corps. Having that opportunity landed him a full music scholarship to Calvert Hall. My mother’s father was first generation Italian American and learned to play violin from an Italian immigrant who for some time just after his arrival lived in my great grandparents’ home. My grandfather became the concertmaster of his high school orchestra. He raised a family of seven kids just outside of DC by working days at the State Department and gigging nights and weekends playing weddings and stately affairs. He said one of the greatest moments of his life was playing for Kennedy at the White House.

I was raised in Belair-Edison and my mom, a public health nurse, took me to museums and concerts at every opportunity. I started playing violin in 6th grade, electric bass in bands in 8th grade, and then I went to the School for the Arts, where my life was really transformed. More important even than the creation and appreciation of music and art, at BSA the arts were a common thread of interest that allowed young people to relate to one another, taking us beyond the geography, race, and socioeconomic factors that often divide us in Baltimore.

Baltimore’s all-ages music scene was really wild when I was in high school. Ben Valis was 16 and got his mom to co-sign a lease to open The Small Intestine on Belair Road. I started having shows in my parents’ basement. I have a flyer from one of them on my living room wall right now, where the opening act was three of the four members of Animal Collective. Many of the other musicians from that bill are still fixtures of the Baltimore scene today. I was in a couple of different bands then, too, and was making tapes with Eze Jackson from the time we met at BSA in 1997. Eze and I started Soul Cannon together in 2006, right after I finished my degree in composition at Peabody. We live together now, and he’s been involved in my campaign since day one. Early in my campaign I was asked who I had working on it with me. I said Eze Jackson and the response I got was, “The rapper?” That’s how most people know him, but he was also the President of the Coalition for Marylanders for Marriage Equality.

It’s not so much my experience as a performer or musician that might influence my decision-making, but simply this lifelong exposure to the arts – a breadth of experience with people who make incredible things out of nothing, who experiment and bring dissimilar people to equal footing at an unfamiliar table and expect great results. Think High Zero meets City Hall.

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What made you want to run for office in Baltimore City?

My social network is pretty huge. I have meaningful relationships with people all over the city, all across the racial/socio-economic/cultural spectrum. And I had spent enough time outside of the city to feel like I had decent perspective. Everybody seemed to ask the same questions. Why the hell do we own a hotel? Who actually thought a casino was a good idea? What the hell was that car race about? Basically a whole city asking a huge WTF?!

I love Baltimore. One thing that really got me up in arms was that Boston blogger naming SRB as the worst mayor in America. I knew that even if it wasn’t true that there had to be something seriously wrong with things in Baltimore, if we were even giving that impression. I wasn’t having that anymore.

I think most people in Baltimore, even the most cynical, believe that not only do we deserve better, we could actually have better. Everybody seemed to think that just about anybody would be better than the leadership we have presently, but not one person was saying they were going to run. Too busy. Too disgusted with politics.

I had no room in my heart, no place in my mind where I could accept resignation. I’m a Baltimore artist. I’m DIY. I was fed up with everyday people not feeling like the city was run by people who represented or shared their values and interests. Also, a couple of friends had suggested it, I guess cause they knew I had this huge social network and I loved Baltimore, and they trusted me in ways none of us trusted our leadership. And we all knew that if somebody authentic didn’t step forward, you could count on the establishment railroading their person in there.

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It wasn’t a single issue that pushed me over the edge, but knowing I wasn’t a politician was a good start for me believing I was somebody I could trust in principal. Knowing I wouldn’t run and chance losing was the other thing. I knew once I raised the first dollar I was all in.

It was never a question of what I would stand for. We have literally EVERYTHING to fix in this city, and I was sure that I would get all the guidance I would need from every single person who was happy just to see somebody running for all the right reasons and none of the BS. We have tons of heart and talent that is ignored and untapped because of politics and bureaucracy. I was very happy to avail myself of any and all of it on the campaign and in office.

From there things started to come together very naturally, identifying issues and how they relate to one another, learning the ins and outs of the city and politics, and slowly learning to articulate the things I already knew to be true.

And then I started thinking about political speak and soundbites and instantly knew this election could so easily sound just like every other: “invest in our children”, “strengthen our community”, “fight for more resources”, and “fix our broken school system.” Tired. Pithy. Platitudes. I knew we needed real Progressives in office, the kind that are common in the arts community. I got stoked to hold a high level of dialogue, engage voters as intelligent people, talk about systemic inequality and institutional racism.

And all the while I thought how unique it would be to be the guy who came from the arts into city hall and what potential that held to be a game changer for Baltimore. The School for the Arts has always been a success because from the outset it has insisted on employing not arts educators but working artists, mentors not teachers. If the arts are going to play a serious role in Baltimore’s future then we need an artist, not an arts advocate, in City Hall. We’ve never had that before.

Eze Jackson said it best. “The one thing we’ve never tried is putting artists in office. Artists have been throwing rocks at the building like forever. Fuck it. Just walk through the door.”
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Can you talk about the particular seat you are running for and how you want to serve Baltimore?

My neighbors and I in the 3rd District have had the same councilman for the last 20 years. Robert Curran was preceded by his brother, who was preceded by their father. He’s the uncle of Katie Curran, the wife of Martin O’Malley. He’s missed or abstained from more votes and hearings than any other council member. He’s the epitome of machine politics. His last campaign was primarily funded by other politicians, most of whom are clients of the same fundraiser. He hasn’t brought a single dollar of capital investment into the district in the last three budget cycles.

Despite being a city led solely by Democrats, we’re stuck in the holds of neo-liberal and conservative ideology. I would like to move us in a more progressive direction. The council is the gateway between everyday people and the powers that can readily affect change. We can have representation that balances constituent service and having a legislative agenda, and in doing so can win the confidence of residents and business owners, break through racial, social and economic divides, and create solidarity behind progressive and creative ideas. And if I can show people that a person who has never been a political insider can get there and remain independent, all the better to inspire future generations.

There are three keys to a healthy city: a robust transit network, a workforce empowered to maintain family-supporting careers, and a safe and affordable housing stock. If we have these things then we’ll have an environment in which crime reduction, quality education, and public health are all reasonably attainable. I plan to address the district and the City’s needs at the root and systemic level. Poverty and crime go hand in hand. I’ll introduce legislation to raise the minimum wage to at least $15 an hour. Transit access is the primary determinant of upward mobility. I’ll prioritize complete streets development for transit equity and moving away from being a car-centric city. I’ll call for inclusionary housing requirements to be placed on residential developments in high opportunity areas, and reject inner harbor TIFs and PILOTs unless we’re also seeing similar investments outside of the harbor area.

The 3rd District has a lot going for it, but certainly it could be better, and I believe our biggest improvements will be the results of policy shifts in the city that reduce inequality and break down racist structures. If it takes making Harford Road the example of best practices in complete streets infrastructure, in order for the city to see how such investment supports neighborhood safety, transit equity, and local business support (and subsequent job creation) then I’ll be happy for the 3rd District to be the leader for the city.

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Although Baltimore’s creative class is growing quickly and making a significant economic impact in small businesses and non-profit ventures, it is rare for artists to be included in strategic city-wide planning. Can you talk about your desire to bring creative professionals, artists, and musicians to the table — in making larger decisions for the future of Baltimore?

I don’t think most people, artists or otherwise, really want to sit through strategic planning meetings. Generally in life, when something has obvious value there’s a mad dash to have more of it. Somehow this principle is lost when it comes to many things in Baltimore.

We see artist-driven development like Le Mondo reviving long-vacant structures and spurring economic growth without the help of speculative investors, or artist housing spaces like the Annex, Copy Cat and H&H being a valuable part of neighborhood stability. City leadership should find it an imperative to be asking these residents and entrepreneurs why these things matter, why they work, and how they can be replicated and expanded in this City of blight and joblessness. Artists and the arts are such an asset that the City should be asking how it can help artists in ways other than grant funding (but still with grant funding!). Political leadership should go hand in hand with cultural literacy and cultural leadership.

In a City of poor black neighborhoods suffering mass depression from generations of public disinvestment, unjust incarceration and discriminatory policing of epic proportions, and having no leverage against the oppression of white supremacy, artists like Robert Hardy, BFly, and Bobby English Jr. are addressing cultural stigma, drug use, conditioned beliefs and many other everyday issues. But our City leadership is just absent where this is happening. Where was even a single elected official during the Baker Award ceremony, honoring Paul Rucker for his incredible work addressing racism in history and present day?

Failing to be present and connected to those who create and applaud this work is a squandered opportunity to mobilize and leverage large numbers of people in their most excited moments, people going out of their way to be part of challenging the status quo. As a City we end up applauding those who speak truth to power, rather than having leadership bold enough to bring power to truth.

And while nothing aside from catastrophe and sports seems to be able to rally Baltimore, we should be placing a premium of emphasis and influence on anything else that can. How many politicians have posed with Ravens or Orioles players? How few have taken a photo with Alex Fine or Dan Deacon?

Carol Ott was successful in building political will to abate absentee landlords and blight by collaborating with Nether, Gaia, Nanook, Pablo Machioli, and others on the Wall Hunters project. The artists all wanted to be part of this because it was good for the City. What else do artists want to see addressed in the City? How else are artists interested in participating in building political will? These are the things our elected leaders should be asking.

What do you see as Baltimore’s biggest problems?

Institutional racism – structural inequality, the disengagement and quality of elected officials, the state of public education, housing, transportation, employment, environmental concerns. This is all related at the systemic level, so I don’t frame or rank Baltimore’s problems by size. Whether we’re talking about decreasing our murder rate, improving grade-level performance in schools, or even reducing property taxes, the solution is to help people to have access to healthy, affordable housing, living wage employment, and reliable and efficient transportation. These resources have been missing and stripped from black communities for this City’s entire history. We must stop fooling ourselves into thinking policing and incarceration will reduce crime and violence, or that we will have improved public health or educational outcomes if we don’t address the conditions in which we expect people to thrive.

It is the complacency and self-interest of a controlling majority of our political class– and the dominance of the machine that keeps them in place– that keeps people from knowing and ultimately realizing their power. I’m in this middle ground where I have been fortunate enough to develop a wide network from which I can fundraise without the establishment backing me, but I’m still having to work like crazy to stay ahead in my race and living paycheck to paycheck. The influence of money on the existing political structure, and the lack of accountability for politicians who betray the interests of their own constituents, seems to be the only explanation for the incredible misplacement of priorities for so long in this City.

We have murder rates through the roof because drug trade is a violently competitive business, and gangs participate in acts of violence as a requisite matter. But, drug slinging is good money, a way better alternative to minimum wage, part-time work, or unemployment. People need better job opportunities, but we also need to just stop –unequivocally stop– with this god awful war on drugs– which is and was even conceptually begun really as a war on black and brown people– and put every available resource into infrastructure and drug treatment.

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What can you, as an elected official and creatively trained person, do to address these problems? Can you talk about some of the initiatives you are interested in implementing?

As a legislator I’m going to address some of the problems that have plagued Baltimore City for decades. Passing a minimum wage bill that starts at $15 would be one part of addressing income inequality. Being able to get around reliably, having transit equity is another part of the social and racial justice picture. Studies show transit is the most determinant factor in opportunities for upward mobility.

Even while we have a Republican Governor cutting funding in about every possible way to Baltimore City, including transit, Baltimore can still stretch its own transportation budget, wisely investing in things as simple as restriping of pavement and rebuilding sidewalks and curbs to create more urban roadways, complete streets, that provide greater pedestrian safety and prioritize mass transit and cycling over car travel. The results from this kind of investment will make Baltimore more attractive, which will translate down the line into political power at the state level, which will in turn mean even better things for the city.

I’d also like to use the budgeting process to steer resources toward programs that prioritize the arts. I want to see the incorporation of arts education in our schools and rec centers to turn STEM curriculums into STEAM curriculums. Part of my larger strategy for the improvement of my district and the rest of the City is to employ artists in divested areas. We need them in our schools leading arts programs and inspiring our children– especially children of color– to think creatively through the lens of design. I think we will end up with more MICA students, more software designers, and more engineers in the long run. I could really go on about arts education, too.

And I want the arts community to know they have a friend in City Hall. When AVAM, The Walters, Station North, MICA, The School for the Arts, or a local band has a big idea– or even a small one– I want them to pick up the phone and call my office. I want to help artists navigate the City’s mountain of red tape and bureaucracy so that their projects become a reality. That means helping secure permits for special events, negotiate with DOT and DPW to make public art displays happen, and facilitating dialogue between artists and community groups to ensure that artist driven development projects have local support before they get underway.

There are so many special interests that have a seat at the decision making table in Baltimore. I’m claiming one of those seats for artists.

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Although a lot of artists often opt out of politics, seeing it as impossibly corrupt, you are opting in. Can you say anything to encourage Baltimore’s creative professionals and thinkers, who often sit home on election day, to get off their asses and vote?

It’s not wrong to see City politics as corrupt. Right now, the same fundraiser that put O’Malley in office as Mayor and then Governor is running candidates in local races and counts about half the council as clients. They hold the purse strings and will work to help maintain the status quo of service to their donors’ interests. The O’Malley machine does not have our best interests at heart, but they have power. When people talk to me about apathy, I don’t associate that with voters, I associate that with politicians who are satisfied just to have their paychecks. Voters aren’t apathetic, they’re resigned and disheartened. The machine can be broken though.

I would go farther than to say to go vote. I would say there ought to be more artists running for office (maybe not in this crazy crowded mayoral race, though) and getting directly involved in campaigns. Artists can put together Whartscape, Fields Festival, High Zero, ScapeScape, Transmodern, Charm City Craft Mafia, the Prints and Multiples Fair – even just filling the room at H&H and putting on a Baltimore Afrobeat Society Performance is an accomplishment on a scale that not many other sects of the population can achieve. Artist have the numbers to be a powerful force in Baltimore, especially at the mayoral level. Organize and message to bend the political will. Hold a candidates forum. Write a pledge for candidates. Create a PAC. Control the dialogue.

Kelly Walker just hosted a fundraiser for me. Artists from all over the city donated works that we sold at silent auction. Many of my favorite local artists contributed. Gaia, Laura Amussen, Pablo Machioli, Karen Buster, Jackie Milad, Joseph Hyde and many others donated works, and we had performances by Bond Street District, Anna Fitzgerald, Evan Moritz and Carly Bales, Lexie Mountain and more. Instead of the $100 or $250 minimum typical of political fundraisers we asked only $10. If I can go to a show at WindUp or The Crown any night of the week for $8, and our community grows and remains healthy because of a low cost of access, why should political engagement be any different? This is the kind of thing our arts community is uniquely capable of doing. Politics affect all of our lives whether we like it or participate or not. Knowing that, we can’t honestly say we love this city and ignore our opportunity to be directly involved in affecting the political landscape.

Music and the arts made me who I am, changed my life and continues to shape me. I support the arts because they change lives, and I’m engaged in politics for the same reason. The political world would be a lot less disgusting if we had more people at or closer to the top who knew something about DuChamp and Steve Reich, Sonic Youth and Kendrick Lamar. I would love it if City Hall felt like home to folks in our arts community, and it could with persistence.

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What else do you want BmoreArt’s readers to know about you – as an individual and as a person running for office in Baltimore?

In 2012 I hiked the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine. I work at my family’s business, Soundscape, on Cold Spring Lane, which was started by my grandfather on North Avenue in 1930. I am a board member with Baltimore Annex Theater because they do great work. My musical hero, Greg Saunier, the drummer from the band Deerhoof, made a donation to my campaign! #ibikeivote #blacklivesmatter

Check me out at electryandorsey.com. Make a donation! Or volunteer!

Author Cara Ober is Editor at BmoreArt