Skip to Main Content

Rhodes Trust 120th Anniversary Reunion

Rhodes120 Logo Horizontal White RGB Blue
How the arts help us confront the world's greatest crises
Tuesday 03 January, 2023

How the arts help us confront the world's greatest crises

by Tope Folarin

Tope Folarin is an award-winning author and Executive Director of the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington DC. See topefolarin.com for information about Tope’s writing. This is an edited transcript of a conversation with Tope as part of our series of conversations with Rhodes Scholar alumni.

What are you working on at the moment?

I’m Executive Director at the Institute for Policy Studies, a progressive think-tank based in Washington DC. We cover a range of issues including economic inequality, the environment, trade and mining and various foreign policy issues. I’m also writing my second novel and working as hard as I can on that. I teach fiction at Georgetown University – I love having conversations with serious creative writers at the undergraduate level and help them shape their work. And I sit on a bunch of boards so that’s also invigorating. I’m a parent to two kids, a five-year-old and a two-year-old, and I’m married to a very busy woman. So, life is very full! 

The fiction and the policy studies, there’s presumably not a lot of cross-over between those.

When I was at Oxford, for the first time in quite some time, I had time to think about my life. My undergraduate life was so busy, I was doing some many things, so many clubs, I was worried about grades, I was travelling domestically and abroad. At Oxford I could pause, think about my life, think about what I wanted to do in the future. There’s this point that comes, I think for most Rhodes Scholars, where you confront the fact that the rest of your life won’t be hanging out on the river at Magdalen drinking nice beverages. At some point. you’ve got to make something of your life. 

When that moment arrived for me, I was deeply interested in public policy and didn’t want to let that go, but I was also beginning to recognise that art was incredibly important to me. Art had been important to me my entire life, but I’d shelved that because I thought it was distracting me from my academic life, that it would distract me from achieving my academic goals. And one of the great things about being at Oxford was that I recognised it was possible to have this really rich creative life as well and that wouldn’t at all detract from the things I was doing in other spaces. I decided I was going to try my best and excel in the policy world, but also do my best to become a great artist, I would spend my life pursuing both goals. 

I’m pleased that I’ve been able to carve a life for myself that includes a policy and politics focus, but also art as well. For me that’s incredibly important.

It's been suggested that, in the past, the Rhodes Scholarship and Oxford undervalued the arts – did you find that?

When I was at Oxford, if you were in the humanities like I was (I came in as political science major), there were a few tracks that you were meant to follow – you could go to law school, which I considered, you could go to a consulting firm, or perhaps you could pursue an academic career. There wasn’t a sense that the arts was a viable pathway. Why would you get a Rhodes Scholarship and then start from scratch somewhere else, or go into a field where the Rhodes credential doesn’t necessarily get you in the door?  

I mean, it makes sense. You get a Rhodes Scholarship, you go to a McKinsey interview, they know what it is, they respect that. Same with law school, same with the academic route. If you’re trying to publish a short story and you say you’re a Rhodes Scholar, nobody cares. Or you try and get a film made, or try and get a play up on stage. 

Once I decided, I’m going to do this, I’m going to give this a shot, I sought out artists who were Rhodes Scholars, like Kris Kristofferson – I remember reading about his life at Oxford. Terence Malick, who makes incredible films, I came to his work through another route, I didn’t know he was a Rhodes Scholar. John Edgar Wideman, who for me is an incredibly important writer, and I think he was the second black Rhodes Scholar after Alain Locke. Alain Locke, himself, who in many ways was the father of the Harlem Renaissance and really deeply ensconced in various arts movements of the early 20th Century. So I had to build a personal pantheon of Rhodes Scholar artists who had been successful before I had the courage to step on that path myself.

I think the arts are even more important now than they ever have been. They enable us to draw connections between ostensibly disparate topics, at a moment when people the world over need to learn how to work together to confront the challenges that are facing us, the multiple crises that are bearing down on us, the environmental crisis, the economic crisis, the crises in our democracies. The arts are not a back page thing for me, they are front and centre and teach us how relate to one another as human beings. 

Having made the decision to pursue both goals, did your career trajectory work out as you expected?

I think so. I hope the younger version of me would be happy with where I am now, keeping in mind I still have ambitions, and I’m still pushing ahead. I would say that when you get to Oxford and you enter Rhodes House and become part of the community, there’s a sense that this is the first rung on the ladder, and if I continue to work hard and make the right connections, it’s all upwards from here. I’ll keep moving forward. And I know, because I’ve read a bunch of bios of those who’ve walked these halls before me, where I could end up. That said, the arts don’t necessarily work like that, especially when you’re starting.

I remember reading about this great poet, Monica Youn—she’s a Rhodes Scholar as well— she went to law school and at a certain point decided she wanted to dedicate her life to poetry. She talked about her process of establishing herself in a new space, and for me, that happened when I left Oxford. I started working at Google when I left Oxford and after a year and a half at Google I heard a voice inside that said, “you have to start writing, you have to do it now”. 

So I left Google and I came to the US in 2008, thinking I would work on my poems – at that point I was completely besotted with poetry. I thought I’d work on my poems for six months, get a couple published, then get another job. Then the financial crisis happened, so I didn’t work for a year and a half. I was completely dejected, despondent, I was deeply unhappy, especially because so many of my peers seemed to be advancing. I actually retreated from social media at that point in my life because any time I went on Facebook I’d see my friends gallivanting around the world, announcing they’d been made a partner somewhere, announcing their graduation from Yale or Harvard Law School. And I was poor, I was trying to write poems, nobody was publishing these poems, the future didn’t look very bright at that point. 

But looking back, it was by far the most important point of my professional life, because it was a crisis and I tried to think about it as an opportunity, and I spent a lot of time just working on craft. I decided to spend four hours a day writing, four hours a day going to the museums here in DC and taking in as much art as I can, a couple of hours watching a film—I decided to dedicate myself to living as an artist. And I can say confidently if I didn’t do that for a year and a half, then I wouldn’t be successful now. 

So I think that if you’re interested in making it as an artist, you have to separate yourself from the notion that it’s a straight ladder up; there will be various points that you have to step sideways and do other things.

What advice would you have for those applying for the Scholarship now?

If you’re in place when you can apply for a Rhodes Scholarship, you’ve done well in your undergraduate life, you have proven yourself to your peers and your professors, and you have your entire life in front of you. Now is the moment for thinking outside the box, because of everything that we’re facing, the choices we make now will determine the lives that our grandchildren and great grandchildren are able to live. We hold the power the ensure that they’re able to live healthy and sustainable lives. So now is the time to be courageous, now is not the time to say, “I’m going to do the conventional thing”, now’s the time to say, “what can I do to ensure that humanity is able to surmount these challenges that we’re facing?”