June 30, 2016

STRANGER: JR “Nexus” Russ
LOCATION: Highline RxR, 2010 Crystal Drive, Arlington, Virginia
THEME: Interviewing a youth advocate and artist

JR Russ’ friends in the Burning Man arts festival community known him as “Nexus.”

Why, he doesn’t quite know. The reasons for the nicknames festival-goers (or “burners”) get are sometimes never fully explained. But it was a prescient nickname because these days he finds his life at a nexus between his love for the arts and his day job in youth advocacy, as he hopes to encourage young people in Washington, DC, to use the arts as a way to learn.

A lifelong resident of the District, he’s a busy man. When we met for dinner in late June he was deep into rehearsal for Synetic Theater’s performance of “Twelfth Night.” The theater company puts on Shakespeare plays told almost entirely through dance, and as I’d see after our meal, the lengthy, animated rehearsals mean JR works up a sweat within seconds.

He was balancing the rehearsals while laboring on projects for the DC Capital Fringe theater festival and all while performing his day job as the communications and development manager at the DC Alliance of Youth Advocates. I was amazed he had time to meet me.

But JR reached out to me. His email’s opening gambit was enough to pique my interest: “I went to a fairly elite and privileged all boys school in DC, part of why I’m stoked to be working at a youth advocacy organization to give all DC youth the kind of opportunity to thrive that I had, growing up, when I’m not doing the artsy stuff,” he wrote.

I wanted to learn more about his dual interests in youth work and the arts, and so we agreed to meet for an evening meal at the Highline RxR in the Crystal City neighborhood of Arlington, VA — not too far from the Synetic Theater and its rehearsal studio/dance floor.

Press reports say the Highline is meant to evoke the New York City High Line — where an abandoned elevated freight rail line was fashioned into an open, green space with food, arts performance and more. Nice idea, though I’m not sure an indoor space can capture the feeling of walking the High Line, no matter how much fake graffiti is on the wall.

It’s a huge open second-floor restaurant with a bar lining one wall and a throng of happy-looking workers enjoying the end of the office day. Floor-to-ceiling windows mean the place is awash with natural light, and there’s a spacious balcony that would have been great if it hadn’t been so humid outside. Instead, we decided to take our seats indoors.

Until, that is, we met an incredibly disagreeable woman who protested that she had reserved the two seats we tried to take (nobody sat in them the entire time we were there). But this interaction offered an early example of JR’s friendly personality as he just shrugged his shoulders, flashed his warm smile, and then took the initiative to find us two spots hidden by the bar.

After browsing the menus and placing our orders, JR said he was looking forward to rehearsal that night for his role as part of the ensemble for “Twelfth Night,” which runs through August 7. Looking at the time, he said, “We’ll have just enough time to get to the theater for rehearsal.”

I was just impressed that he was getting ready to dance on a full stomach. He laughed, smiled again nodded. “It’s a very physical production, definitely,” he said of the show. “There’s a very big dance number at the beginning, a giant dance number at end. There’s a lot of lifting, the dances are inspired by Lindy hop. I’m going to be sweating a lot.”

He’s worked with Synetic Theater before but several years ago, and is now trying to get back into the swing of things after spending a while focusing on other work.

JR was born in the District to a black dad from Florida and a mother from the Philippines. He beamed as he told the story of how the couple met in a cafeteria. His mother dropped some change, his eventual father picked it up for her, “they dated for 10 years, then had me,” he said.

He grew up in Southwest DC, close to the current location of Arena Stage that often receives rave reviews for its productions, everything from plays about shoplifters to a two-person production about the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. JR said he’s aware he had a privileged upbringing, attending two private schools in the city — something other kids in his quadrant of the city didn’t get.

After high school it was on to George Washington University for a year-and-a-half while he tried to figure out what degree to get. He was out dancing at a club one night when one of his friends told him about some dance classes. JR was interested and signed up. After taking a few classes, he was hooked and transferred to the University of Maryland (UMD) where he got his masters in dance.

He lived with his parents while at UMD so was able to finish college in 2006 with no debt — again, saying he realizes how unique and lucky he was to be in that position. He’d always loved the arts so he took on some work as a stage hand to get some experience of a career in the theater. “I had friends who went to New York to work in theater and were living four people to a tiny apartment, I didn’t want that,” he said. “I wanted to stay in DC. I just told myself whatever job I did, it didn’t have to be on stage, just as long as I could be involved in the arts I would learn and grow.”

While developing his experience learning about all aspects of the theater, JR also discovered an affordable housing apartment complex for artists, and moved out the family home.

He was still building up his experience, trying to figure out what to do with his career. He would have jobs lined up for six months at a time, and was happy going with the flow. But then working on one production he was inspired to learn more about the fundamentals of the arts, and found out about American University’s course in arts management. He signed up for school again, learning a wide range of topics including arts fundraising, board governance and more — potentially dry topics, but ones that JR says have been invaluable for his work in the arts since graduating in 2010. “I wasn’t sure if I would like, but once you learn it, you appreciate having that perspective,” JR said. “You see what makes arts organizations work well, and what could work better.”

After graduating, JR took a job in September 2010 with Class Act Arts, now known as Artivate. The organizations provides interactive arts experiences to promote learning through workshops and other events. JR was an arts outreach assistant with them for at least two years. But he said while it was good, interesting work he hit a wall in terms of any promotions.

So he moved on to several other positions, and at times was unemployed. “I think I learned to trust my guy and wait it out for a good job,” he said. Some of the time he spent working with artists, a way to always stay involved in that field. He laughed when he recalled one summer when he was almost broke, living off credit, and still decided to attend Burning Man. “It had been on my bucket list and I should have waited till I had a job, but I still made it happen.”

That’s where he was giving the burner name Nexus, after he’d talked with someone at the festival about his goal of bringing communities together through the arts.

Once back in DC he took on various positions including two years at the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities, putting his graduate school training in arts management to good use for the city’s agency that doles out grants for arts project. While at the Commission, he was a grants manager for slightly more than a year, then worked as the online marketing manager.

Eventually he settled on a position last October as communications and development manager for the DC Alliance of Youth Advocates. Its website says it was “formed to ensure that all children and youth in the District of Columbia have access to high-quality and affordable developmental opportunities. We accomplish this mission by crafting policy recommendations, providing structured advocacy opportunities for our members and allies, networking and empowering youth.”

“It’s interesting because it’s my first job that is not working in the arts,” JR said. “I had to wrap my head around it, especially as a person of color who went to privileged schools and now working for many youth who don’t have the opportunities. A friend recommended that I check out the position, and I just really had a good feeling about it,” he added.

His everyday tasks include working on youth advocacy budget hearings, getting member organizations to work with the organizations, and more. The organization promotes a wide range of youth education events, and JR is keen to use the arts to educate, with events like slam poetry contests for children. It’s a way to bring the nexus between arts and youth advocacy.

It’s obvious from the pride with which JR talks about his latest day job that he’s fallen in love with promoting better education for the city’s less fortunate youth. He told me about one of only a few people of color at his high school, and yet balancing that with the fact that his self-confessed privileged upbringing means he had opportunities other people of color did not. “I can help make people more aware of the need for diversity simply by being present in board meetings and other conversations. It automatically changes the conversation,” he said.

Our talk then shifted to the food, which arrived with some time to spare for JR’s rehearsal.

JR had the Highline Burger of lettuce, tomato, caramelized onion, marinated portabella and cheddar. A heavy dish, but he said he’d have no problems dancing after eating it.

I devoured the caprese sandwich of mozzarella, tomato, basil and proscuitto on a baguette. Not the most thrilling option in the world, but still enjoyable. Tasty bread (not sure if it was made in-house) and fresh ingredients made for a good meal.

Eating with one eye on the clock, I asked JR how arts have changed in DC.

“I think the city’s always been good for arts because we have a lot of arts funding, similar to some states, but in a much smaller area,” he said. “And I think DC has a unique intersection of the local, national, regional and international, bringing a lot more diverse arts experience here.”

Arts holds such a major appeal for JR because “it gives me a way to connect with people,” he said. “I like the shared community, the shared value. His goal through his work, including Fringe shows that he develops, is “creating art for people that might not see theater.”

Time was up, and off we went to the Synetic Theater rehearsal studio.

I met a couple of JR’s friendly cast members, and then took a seat while their director put the ensemble through its paces. The music was very 1920s (I can still hear the Charleston ringing in my ears) and the dancing overwhelming. People were being thrown up and down, left and right, but all with military precision. JR’s dance classes at UMD were clearly paying off.

His earlier comment about working up a sweat was also prescient. When he got a brief break from rehearsal he came over, panting, to chat a little more.

After catching his breath, JR told me about his future arts goals.

“I’d like to start my own arts company eventually,” he said. But for now he’s happy to take things one day a time, enjoying the balance between his passion for arts and his professional interest in youth advocacy. It might have been an accidental nexus, but it works for JR.

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