By M. Scott Morris
OXFORD – Stacey Sanford won’t win the War on Poverty all by herself.
But she’s spent the past year trying to win little victories as a VISTA member based at the Yoknapatawpha Arts Council in Oxford.
Volunteers in Service to America was created during President Lyndon Johnson’s administration, and was brought under the AmericaCorps umbrella in the 1990s.
“It’s like the Peace Corps but in America,” the 27-year-old University of Mississippi graduate said. “We are supposed to alleviate poverty. We’re supposed to help people live better.”
Sanford has taken direct aim at those two goals while working at the arts council.
She’s overseen programs to expand access to concerts, plays and other events, and also helped teach struggling artists the skills needed to compete in a tough economy.
“The thing about Stacey is she’s a go-getter,” said Andi Bedsworth, 43, an Oxford-based artist and educator. “She is focused on what she’s doing.”
It’s important to note that Sanford didn’t spend the past year re-inventing the wheel. It’s more precise to say she’s put wheels in motion.
“A lot of the things that have happened were part of our long-range goals,” said Wayne Andrews, executive director of YAC. “She was able to carry them out. She’s our full-time person who’s making these programs happen – setting them up, meeting with people, making connections.”
Sanford has a deep appreciation for what the arts can do for individuals and communities. She cited a 2008 study that found young people who painted, acted, sang or otherwise expressed themselves through the arts were more likely to apply for higher education.
“The arts prepare kids for future opportunities,” she said.
Art for Everyone is a simple concept: Get event tickets into the hands of people who otherwise wouldn’t be able to take advantage of Oxford’s thriving arts and entertainment scene.
“How do we make it an equal opportunity for them?” Sanford said. “We didn’t want to make it feel like a handout. We wanted to do it without making them feel less than.”
Sanford worked with venues and donors to create an ongoing supply of tickets, then partnered with the Lafayette County & Oxford Public Library to get those tickets into the right hands.
“There is no card to swipe that says, ‘Oh, you’re poor.’ There’s no fee and no paperwork,” Sanford said. “You don’t have to prove how poor you are, so you don’t have to tell your story. You just use your library card. That’s it. Anybody can get a library card.”
It’s not a new idea. Library officials have wanted to put something like Art for Everyone in motion for years.
“They just didn’t have the staff to call around and get it organized,” Sanford said. “They needed someone to be the middleman and make it happen.”
Andrews heard about VISTA more than two years ago and decided to apply. The result was a three-year grant that will provide a new person to work at YAC each year. Sanford was the first.
“For us, it’s like having a grant that pays for an employee here,” Andrews said. “We didn’t have to raise ticket prices and we didn’t have to ask someone for donations.”
Sanford had attended arts council programs and events in the past, and she was familiar with the staff, so she was a natural fit.
“We needed someone who understands the goals we have and is enthusiastic about them,” Andrews said.
By the time her year of service ends, Sanford will have made a little more than $9,000. That’s because of VISTA’s requirement to work below the poverty line.
“You have to make a budget. You have to look at your expenses,” the Tupelo native said. “My dad always tells me, ‘It’s not the money coming it, it’s where it’s going.’”
She’s also had the support of her husband, who helped make her work possible.
“He’s been great,” Sanford said. “VISTA service is 24-7. They tell you when you sign up that you’re not going to work 9 to 5.”
Sanford knits, quilts and sews, though that’s been put on hold for the past year so she could focus on strengthening Lafayette County’s creative community.
“So many of our artists are struggling. Only a limited handful make the big time,” she said. “It’s hard out there for most artists.”
Gov. Phil Bryant has declared this the year of the creative economy, and Sanford and YAC take that seriously.
“We like to say, ‘Artists are really good at arting, but not necessarily good at business,’” Sanford said.
The ARTomaton was designed to teach business practices like budgeting. Located at The Powerhouse on University Boulevard, it’s a vending machine that sells small pieces of original paintings, woodwork and more.
“We told all the artists that since it will be sold for $5, don’t spend $800 on supplies,” Sanford said.
Oxford artist Frank Estrada painted some pieces with the words “Hotty Toddy.” They might seem like sure bets in the home of the Ole Miss Rebels, but they haven’t been his biggest sellers.
“Believe it or not, he sells more of his roosters,” Sanford said. “People love them.”
Estrada, 24, won’t be quitting his day job. The ARTomaton hasn’t directly resulted in sales of his larger work, but it is helping get the word out.
“It’s good to have exposure at The Powerhouse because there are a lot of events that go on there, so a lot of people come see the art,” Estrada said.
Sanford has set up workshops about long-range planning, applying for grants and art shows, and advertising on websites, as well as applying watermarks so work on websites isn’t stolen.
“She does all the technical stuff because I’m clueless about all that,” Bedsworth said.
When Lafayette Middle School cut its art program, Sanford and YAC stepped in to hire Bedsworth to teach a once-a-week art club for kids who love art. The school provides the space and the materials.
“These are kids whose parents might not be able to afford art classes,” Bedsworth said. “A lot of these kids come from homes where it is out of the question to pay for extracurriculars like this.”
Sanford also started Howdy Neighbor, a pen pal program for Lafayette County residents. It uses letter writing to encourage storytelling, handwriting and literacy.
Her VISTA term ends May 23, and one of her last big projects was to find her replacement.
That new person won’t be alone. Sanford will be around to help because she’ll transition into a part-time job at the arts council.
“Hopefully, I’ll be able to see all these programs become self-sustaining,” Sanford said. “All the kinks will be worked out. All the contacts made. People will know they exit, and people will use them.”
No matter what happens with the programs, the War on Poverty will continue, but the end of Sanford’s VISTA year provides an opportunity to savor a small victory or two.
“I know this,” Bedsworth said, “She’s impacted the arts in Oxford – definitely.”