Creative Visions of Food and Community: The Story of the Dallas Community Innovation Lab (Part 1)

What role can artists and arts agencies play in addressing the persistent challenges facing communities today—challenges relating to race, class, poverty, and power that are so deeply rooted in our history and society? For the past three years, EmcArts, a nonprofit service organization with a history of working at the intersection of the arts and organizational change, has been working in partnership with a few communities around the country to explore the Community Innovation Lab model as a new way of undertaking truly complex challenges by bridging the power of art with the muscles of “adaptive change.” This article is a brief reflection—intended for a general audience, artists and community practitioners alike—on one of these experiences. 


In the past five years, Dallas has been cited as the third fastest growing city and number one home to new millionaires. Yet Dallas is a tale of two cities: in the previous 10 years, the city’s fastest growing segment was the poor; and the city’s child poverty rate in 2016 was the highest among cities larger than 1 million people. Nearly two-thirds of the city fell at least 20% below the poverty level in 2015, with up to two-thirds of families falling below poverty in very large swathes of the southern part of the city.1 In this area, residents face over half an hour’s drive—and considerably longer by bus—to find a full-scale supermarket with fresh produce and discount pricing. Consequently, health disparities and diet-related health problems abound in this regionAs local organizers worked with EmcArts to identify a specific complex challenge to focus on in the Community Innovation Lab, they honed in on this issue of “food deserts” and the unacceptable persistence of issues around access to healthy, affordable food.

Adaptive Change redirects reliance on historic, technical “expertise” to emphasize stories and lived experience—to try what’s not yet been tried, and to build the capacity to navigate the unpredictable.

Community Innovation Labs gather diverse actors to unpack persistent, intransigent problems through experimentation, artistic practice, and working adaptively.

City Halls are awash in planstechnical, professional responses suitable for common problems solvable by known best practices. Such approaches are less effective, however, in addressing long-standing, historic and intractable challenges, complex and interdependent, like food security, with its roots in not only health and nutrition but commoditization, poverty, culture, mass marketing, education, criminal justice, housing, transportation, etc. Built on the foundation of adaptive change, EmcArts’ Community Innovation Lab model emphasizes the importance of confronting such complexity not by relying on prior best practice and expert advice, but by ensuring the inclusion of those actually impacted by the problem, considering the full web of systems involved and our own positionality vis-a-vis the issue, and probing an array of multiple new ways forward, with the hope that some will gain traction and find leverage towards broader system change. Furthermore, the Lab model involves working with local artists to craft an experimental process in a way that mirrors the artistic processembracing new ideas and uncertainty, making divergent and uncommon connectionsexploring both external forces and individual agency, and letting go of conventional linear planning in favor of working experimentally (or, in the words of poet Antonio Machado, often used by community organizers, “making the road by walking”). This approach appealed to the local conveners in Dallas and, with the aid of significant national funding as well as local support, the partnership was formed. 

The Dallas Lab’s Core Question: Through this Lab, how can we work collectively to ensure access to healthy food and nourishment for and with all the citizens of Dallas, using arts, creativity and food itself as catalysts?


The protracted nature of the Lab—occurring over a year and a half—is intended to avoid the all-too-common “quick fix” approach, and to enable participants to “slow down to see the system” and enable gestation of the experiences, reflections and relationships developed. The goal over this period is not to enable a complete overhaul of local structural inequalities, but rather to make a shift in the way the community approaches the issues, as well as to lay foundational groundwork and plant important seeds. The Lab offers the opportunity for a “deep dive,” a dedicated time for a diverse set of new collaborators to step away from daily demands and explore new perspectives on long-term, deeply rooted problemsEqually important, however, the Lab experience provides the opportunity for the flexing and strengthening of adaptive muscles (the new ways of approaching complex and divergent issues and peoples) that are required—either by individuals, organizations or communities—to navigate persistent, overwhelming challenges and remain resilient.

How did the Dallas Community Innovation Lab work? After a few months of planning and research with EmcArts, the five convening institutions—a large multi-service non-profit, a university research center, two local arts entities, and a family foundation2invited 40 participants to be the Lab Team for four two-day workshops over six months, followed by another six months of exploratory prototyping work that invited in a broader group of participants and was seeded by small grants. The Lab Team represented residents, an array of nonprofits (small community gardens, faith-based groups, and larger well-resourced organizations), small businesses, artists, food service staff of the Dallas school system, and some advocacy professionals. The workshops involved various forms of art and ritual—story sharing, drawing, theater, collage, movementas well as other creative/experiential activities. Participants were introduced to helpful core concepts related to complexity and adaptive change, as well as deliberately disruptive techniques such as “lateral thinking,” which help in breaking out of narrow, conventional constraints and digging down below the surface of easy first reactionsThe workshops were further enhanced by music breaksnourishing lunches provided by local, ethnically-diverse vendors, and interaction with local “influencers” whose insight, support and leverage would assist the subsequent prototyping work.

Given the stated regional and social divisions in Dallas, one of the most striking elements of the Lab was the bonding that occurred. Race, culture, class, education level, neighborhood, or line of work—none of these “identifiers” appeared to be barriers, and in fact deep ties were made across many of these. Through the artistry and facilitated techniques of the workshops, and further enhanced by “Learning Journeys” and “Small Experiments with Radical Intent,” new networks were woven quickly in the process. Furthermore, early emphasis was given to identifying and challenging participants’ ingrained assumptions—a vital starting point in the adaptive change process. Local evaluator Liz Navarro reported much positive feedback on this aspect of the program, with participants noting that they found it not only interesting and eye-opening, but even in some cases life-changing. Similarly, participants often appreciated the opportunity to step into experimentation—another core adaptive capacity vital to the Lab. 


Key to enabling the adaptive response capacities was the artistic practice integrated into the workshops. The very popular “Silent Theater Food Marketplace,” for example, involved artist facilitator Jeff Colangelo guiding participants through an exploration of the choices families have to make and the physical and psychological stress entailed in attempting to provide for oneself in a food system centered around commoditization and scarcity. Similarly, fellow artist facilitator Constance White led the group through a visual and embodied reimagination of the concept of a garden and the varied “growth” opportunities a community may envision. Iv Amenti, the third member of the artist facilitation team, brought to the workshops various rituals of movement, planting, and other means of helping the group make primordial connections with food, culture, and well-being. One of the conveners, Janeil Engelstad of Make Art with Purpose, applied her arts background to help conceive of a tea ceremony as a means of equalizing relationships between funders and community members.  

The Role of Artists and the Arts in the Lab:

* Provide entry points for learning, capturing attention and speaking to emotions

* Provide needed disruption—enabling shared discomfort and ‘stretch’

* Create a space where everyone can create and everyone can interpret

The array of artistic practices throughout the workshops pushed barriers and limitations. As local project manager Marla Teyolia wrote in her final report, “The arts and artistic practices created a safe, equitable container within which individuals who had limited exposure to these practices were able to find common ground, work collaboratively, reflect, and give life to a vision of a deeply nourished community.” Metaphors were created through which participants could explore both the discomfort and learning opportunities provided by ambiguity. With permission to play, to experiment and to journey, participants were able to clear the old canvas to make room for new possibilities. Some participants even shared that the notion of utilizing the arts in such a way was aiding them in their day-to-day work outside the Lab.  

Photo by Brian Maschino.

Understandably, participants found it challenging to relinquish the assumptions and judgments solidified by their prior ways of operating, and their “best practices” garnered over the years. However, the disruptive quality of the facilitation techniques and artistic practices aided the process of opening new possibilities. Indeed, the idea of listening to and honoring abuelas (grandmothers) in the community, which emerged as a central theme in the Lab, arose not from people’s analysis of the issue but from an early ritual. Local process facilitator Kamilah Collins had asked participants to bring in a food-related item that was special to their culture and to describe its meaning. The moving discussion that ensued included an affirmation of the role of elders, not only in maintaining cultural and culinary knowledge, but in maintaining a space for families—particularly younger generations alienated from “old ways” and cultural roots—to understand the broader context of food, nutrition, family, and community well-being. More generally, the openness enabled by the artistry and the facilitation techniques fostered the embrace of new ideas and the willingness to work experimentally—to jump in without extensive planning and plotting anticipated outcomes.  

 Stay tuned for Part 2 of this article, coming soon to ArtsFwd. You can also check out photo essays from the Community Innovation Lab here. 


  1. Statistics from Forbes magazine 2013 and report from Capgemini and RBC Wealth Management as quoted by the Hunt Institute.
  2. Ignite Arts Dallas, Big Thought, the Embrey Family Foundation, the Hunt Institute at SMU (Southern Methodist University), and Make Art with Purpose.
Mitty’s twenty-five year public service career enriches EmcArts’ Community Innovation Labs, which address pressing community issues through the arts. Mitty is a graduate of Yale University and holds an MS in Community Economic Development from New Hampshire College. His work with EmcArts also involves working as a facilitator in the New Pathways Program.