For a woman who raps and handles a mic in front of late-night crowds, a few indifferent bureaucrats are no big deal. Tomasia Kastner, activist, educator and hip-hop performer, knows a thing or two about winning over a tough audience.
The energetic Kastner, 28, runs Elevated Urban Arts and Education, a hip-hop poetry and arts workshop at the Robert F. Wagner School of Art and Technology in Queens. With Elevated, kids at the alternative high school rhyme, write, dance, design and make videos as a way to deal with some of their daily realities, from crime and poverty to the universal hassles of growing up.
None of that could happen without Kastner's backstage wrangling for funding, placating teachers who get paid late, and struggling for enough cash to buy music and computer equipment. "It takes a special kind of person and a special kind of artist to deal with a New York City public school district," says Toni Blackman, a fellow performer who teaches writing at Elevated. "Tomasia does not mind a little perspiration."
Kastner says she decided to dedicate her life to activism after an eye-opening trip to Ghana while an anthropology student at SUNY Binghamton. Seeing the desperate poverty and racism in Ghana made her think more critically about what was happening back at home. But, she adds, the seeds for her work really started to germinate while growing up as the child of an Italian and black mother and a Dutch-German father in a white Rockland County suburb. "I feel issues of racism very personally, such that I can't really be comfortable unless I'm working to resolve them," she says.
Today, when not in the classroom, Kastner works with W.E.R.I.S.E.--Women Empowered Through Revolutionary Ideas Supporting Enterprise--the nonprofit women's artists collective she co-founded to give independent female artists the means to raise money and a place to perform. In her limited off-hours, she has been able to get out her own messages about gender and racial equality, rapping and DJing under the name infiniTEE.
Next, Kastner plans to expand Elevated to other schools. Her work enables her to reach kids who normally feel alienated by regular school subjects, she says: "I wanted to have a more proactive approach. I wanted to create something rather than react and tear something down."