Chicago’s wealth divide teaches Seattle’s art scene how to bridge the gap

The Director of Seattle's Office of Art and Culture uses what he learned growing up in economically-divided Chicago to help bridge wealth gaps in Seattle.
The Director of Seattle's Office of Art and Culture uses what he learned growing up in economically-divided Chicago to help bridge wealth gaps in Seattle.

Editor's Note: This is the second in a multi-part series about the teenage years of Seattle-area creatives. Read part one, Samantha Updegrave's story about Washington's Poet Laureate Elizabeth Austen, here.

Dantrell Davis was only seven years old when he was shot and killed by a stray bullet from a rooftop sniper on his way to school in a Chicago housing project. Seventeen-year-old Randy Engstrom was living in Chicago and read about the murder in the newspaper.  Engstrom was one of those kids that split his time — mom during the week, dad on the weekends. For him, this meant experience with opposite worlds, one in the affluent Chicago suburbs, the other with a sightline into the history of poverty.

Crosscut archive image.

Randy Engstrom at age 17 with his youngest brother.

Spurred by the senselessness of Davis' murder, Engstrom began volunteering his mornings as a tutor in Cabrini Green, the housing project where Davis had been killed. In the afternoons he worked as a camp counselor in his mom’s suburban neighborhood. Seen side-by-side, he noticed a striking dichotomy. The kids who lived in the middle of the war zone that was Cabrini Green, an environment that seemed like a death sentence, were alive, happy and engaged. But the rich kids who had everything, those who would presumably run things in the future, were miserable.

That was 20 years ago, but the experience still resonates. Now, he credits his ability to move through different worlds and to “interpret and be a cultural translator of those different experiences” to that time and he believes “that there is a better way to function, to be with each other.”

Eventually, Engstrom left the Midwest to study at The Evergreen State College where he learned about the political, economic and social underpinnings of the poverty and wealth he’d witnessed growing up.

“It took a long time, and it was painful to unpack, that I’d unknowingly participated in all these systems that created poverty around the world,” he says. Engstrom went to protests, but found that they didn’t create the kind of social change that he believes people are capable of. He was also involved in Olympia's late 90s music scene, and worked as a DJ at the school’s community radio station.

“Sure, the hipsters in their skinny pants would kind of laugh at me for playing hip hop,” he says from his tidy corner office, “but I was really good at organizing events and parties.” Those events, he found, brought people together and he discovered that art and music were a way to build community.

Today, from his view on the seventeenth floor of the Seattle Municipal Tower, Engstrom quotes Buckminster Fuller. “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

In 2009, the Puget Sound Business Journal selected him as one of their 40 Under 40. According to that profile, Engstrom's passionate cause” is using “art and culture as a vehicle for civic engagement and community development.” Because art and culture and music are “not inherently dogmatic,” he says, “they can be the bridges across differences, the way by which we can change the world.”

Crosscut archive image.Now, as the Director for Seattle’s Office of Art and Culture, he oversees 500 plus arts organizations and manages a $7 million budget. It’s one heck of a place to have an impact. From downtown's prized McCaw Hall to the Central District's scrappy, historic Washington Hall, Engstrom's approach to linking art and community helps “the city shape itself in such a way that we show up as our best self.”

“If there’s a metaphor for my life,” Engstrom says, “it’s DJ’ing. You take one recorded source and add another recorded source, and by manipulating the speed and pitch, you match and blend them, creating a third way by combining the two sounds.”    

Randy Engstrom is an advocate, entrepreneur, and DJ. He spends most of his time these days as Seattle’s Director of the Office of Art and Culture. He attended countless art events in 2013. 


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