This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Lorene Cary said she was surprised, even speechless, when Mayor Nutter called and asked her to become a member of the School Reform Commission.
"I thought hard about it," she said in a telephone interview shortly after Mayor Nutter announced her appointment. But ultimately, she said yes.
It’s not often, Cary said, that a person is "asked to stand and deliver service in one of the things that matters most" to her.
Art Sanctuary "uses the power of Black art to transform individuals, unite groups of people, and enrich, and draw inspiration from, the inner city," according to Cary’s website. Its North Stars program is an education component that works with 12-to-18 year-olds both in schools and in afterschool programs.
"North Stars focuses on North Philly young people, working with them and using the arts as a way to support their empowerment," said Rochelle Nichols Solomon, an education advocate and longtime friend of Cary’s. The programming engages them with "their own creativity to help them understand what’s happening with them personally and with their communities."
Cary, of course, laments that arts programs in schools have often fallen victim to budget cuts. But she was reluctant to lay out any priorities as an SRC member before even being officially sworn in.
"It’s been very, very clear to me that arts allow you to help children both feel and think at the same time, which definitely lets them be a lot smarter," she said. "There already has been in the last few years a lot of effort to get more arts in the classroom, and I’m part of that chorus in that movement. I certainly believe that should happen and of course advocate for it."
At the same time, though, she said, "I have to become part of a team and find out how to be most effective as a team member rather than just say I have my own ideas."
Nichols Solomon, who met Cary when both were involved in the historic, activist Church of the Advocate in North Philadelphia, said that Cary "is a visionary who gets that leadership is something that’s distributed. And she’s an activist who also has some real sense of accountability and commitment."
Her two daughters, one who is grown and another who is a senior in high school, have attended a combination of public and independent schools, depending on "what each child needed at the time and where we were."
Her own time at the St. Paul’s School in Concord, N.H. was the subject of her first book, the memoir Black Ice.
She lives in East Falls with her husband, Rev. Robert C. Smith, rector of the Memorial Church of the Good Shepherd.
Her appointment is certainly an out-of-the-box move by Nutter, who is trying along with Gov. Corbett to rebuild the credibility of the SRC, which is coming off a disastrous few months marked by a huge budget gap and a controversy over a charter contract for Martin Luther King High School. Two commissioners, Robert Archie and Johnny Irizarry, resigned. Cary’s appointment is to fill an 18-month unexpired term.
"For me what is truly outstanding is that she has an incredible passion for the well-being of children; she cares very personally about parents and she’s very much focused on supporting teachers," Nutter said in a statement.
Cary expects to be sworn in this week. She will join recent mayoral appointee Wendell Pritchett, who is currently serving as interim chair, Joseph Dworetzky and Denise McGregor Armbrister on the SRC. Pedro Ramos will become the fifth member and chair of the SRC once he is confirmed by the state Senate. In addition to being executive director of Art Sanctuary, Cary teaches creative writing at the University of Pennsylvania.
Her novel, The Price of a Child, was the first One Book, One Philadelphia selection in 2003.
"I’m going to come in and do the best that I can. I’m going to learn and give this absolutely as much attention and effort and time and spirit as I can possibly muster," Cary said. "It pains me when a city is in trouble, and hope I can be of use."