Creative Visions of Food and Community: The Story of the Dallas Community Innovation Lab (Part 2)

Formation of the “Extreme Food Desert Makeover” ensemble team  Credit: Kim Leeson


In the second phase of the Lab, three “ensembles” were formed to carry out prototypes that would test the various hypotheses that were developed through the small experiments carried out during the initial workshop phase. Each ensemble was supported by a grant of $5,000 provided by EmcArts, plus a stipend raised by the local Lab Conveners for an ensemble coordinator.

Abuela’s Table

This prototype emerged from an experiment that explored placing community elders in local government meetings to address food security issues, which merged with another experiment that brought a pop-up “movable feast” of food, ritual and culture to various community locations. Both experiments explored effecting change not through conventional education and advocacy tools but by “changing hearts and minds” about food and culture — based on the core adaptive change principle of appealing to more than just the rational intellect. As stated by the ensemble’s coordinator, Yolanda Alameda, “Food knowledge and memory lies with the elders of the community… [Our] original focus was to place our elders/grandmothers at the center of the discussion; to connect people back to the roots of food, community and family. In this way, we could begin to expand the dialogue to include access to healthy and whole foods and enliven the community to make changes in food choices, but also to advocate for community change.”

Kids and adults use sugar to sculpt their visions of a healthy, thriving society, while also learning about healthy food choices  Credit: James Coreas

As part of its research, the group visited two local restaurants that place grandmas at the center of their work in order to share culture, tradition and food. Also notable about this group’s work was its deep integration of the arts to engage a diverse, intergenerational group in various locales within the community (an elementary school, health fair, church, etc). Inspired by the work of Brazilian artist Vik Muniz, participant and artist Jin-Ya Huang designed the “Sugar Project,” using this ubiquitous natural resource along with craft materials to help people of all ages imagine a progression from food desert to oasis, then to farm, to market, and to table. Though playful, the activity raised deep feelings about people’s personal relationship with food, as well as the broader challenges that shape our local food system.

(Re)Imagine the Neighborhood

This ensemble began as an experiment exploring whether a focus on healthy eating — anchored by the dynamic vegan restaurateur Tisha Crear of “Recipe Oak Cliff” — could be a catalyst for neighborhood unity and transformation. The group considered a focus on community revitalization, but ultimately returned its gaze to the more direct issue of food and nutrition. Team meetings included word association activities and a visioning exercise that conjured up notions of community gardens and discussion about the need for strengthened unity between African-American and Latino neighbors.

Artist Facilitator Constance White leads the group through making clay pots, symbolizing the molding of ideas that transform from one substance to another  Credit: Kim Leeson

With the push of team lead and local activist Candace Thompson, ideas began to blossom, the first being a food fair complete with live music to attract residents. Under the tutelage of artist facilitator Constance White, this developed into the richer notion of a Revival Tent Food Fair — complete with a big white tent — that would not only create an intriguing spectacle for all neighbors and special invitees (elected officials, nonprofit leaders, etc.) but also draw upon the cultural and spiritual traditions of the Black and Latino communities. Chef Tisha cooked and introduced many diverse vegan dishes, many of which were first-tries for most of the 50 people attending. The crowd had the joy of experiencing a gospel choir, a praise dance group, and spoken word poetry. Gifts were provided of produce boxes from local growers. Additional elements included Revival Feast fans that (when you weren’t cooling yourself) enticed you to scan tips on healthy eating; playful confessional “sin cards” making light of the community’s eating habits (e.g., “How do you like your eggs? … In my cake”); and pledge cards for participants to commit to changing one thing about their diet.

Extreme Food Desert Makeover

Stemming from a lateral-thinking exercise in the workshops, the “reality show” theme of the ensemble name was instrumental in opening up new possibilities. Lab member and community matriarch Anga Sanders had entered the Lab with a long-held dream of securing a big-box supermarket for her Oak Cliff section of South Dallas, and indeed, the team’s initial work was focused less on the Lab’s adaptive change theme than on conventional technical planning, with calls for expert surveys, etc. The tide shifted, however, after a “small experiment with radical intent” involving a road trip to visit a store with a unique mission and design in nearby Waco. From this exciting experience emerged not only the notion of a community-owned supermarket but an openness to try different approaches for engaging people and working creatively through concepts to enrich and change the nature of the discussions.

Using a mandala made of edible flowers to help imagine a healthy, community-centered food ecosystem  Credit: Mitty Owens

The team actively sought the help of one of the arts facilitators and opened itself to new ideas. A community gardener donated edible flowers for a gathering of the group, which were used to make mandalas that heightened the sense of ritual and personal commitment for moving forward. The group shifted its focus to assess the feelings, wishes and stories of the community, and came to better understand the complex web of interdependent systems involved by exploring connections to environmental, community, and legislative policies. Reflecting back on the experience, one of the Conveners noted how the group “suspended the linearity and embraced the art.” Facilitator Kamilah Collins observed the particularly compelling relevance of this for under-resourced communities, observing that “…the artistic space leads us to ask, What do we have? What is abundant?


As with all pioneering ventures, the Lab’s excitement and its process of facilitating emergence was accompanied by some challenges, captured in these highlights:

  • Breaking the chains of linearity: Though confronted with challenges of a clearly complex nature, for which little precedent existed, the “autopilot” lured many back to technical responses. Developing adaptive “muscles” required repeated exercise, to avoid the reversion to linearity and a rush for the right answer, rather than digging deeper and striving to enrich our understanding from differing viewpoints.
  • Finding meaning in art: Though the integration of artistic practice was strongly appreciated, many participants expressed frustration with making a clear link between art and the core themes of the Lab. While the nature of art is typically not direct, being more oriented towards stimulating questions than offering answers, the EmcArts team took this point to heart in designing future community-based work by, for example, allowing more time to debrief and process artistic exercises.
  • Embracing art as process: Once the time came for prototyping work, some participants struggled to see how art and creativity could play any role other than serving as a final output. Here too, EmcArts learned to make time in future programs for collective artistic exploration to unlock the “ideation” process.
  • Finding leverage and traction: How does short-term experimentation influence broader systems change? This question, on the minds of many participants, could not be easily answered; yet glimmers of hope appeared as new relationships were formed and new doors were opened. Perhaps most importantly, many participants felt excitement about carrying their work and insights forward, and Lab Conveners saw value in continuing to support this work.
  • Missing some important voices: Despite the group’s impressive mix, noticeably absent were  representatives of elected officials, major faith institutions, and the corporate community, who were challenging to engage in an intensive, protracted process that promised “emergence” yet no specific outcomes.
  • Balancing emergence with structure: This work requires flexibility and breathing room for reflection and emergent growth, yet tight coordination was also required to manage an 18-month process with multi-day workshops, 40 participants, multiple presenting partners and an array of concepts and activities to present. Striking that careful balance was a constant tension, as all facilitators know well.

 For EmcArts, insights and learnings abounded. As with each round of the Community Innovation Lab model, debriefs occurred regularly with the Lab Conveners and internally among the EmcArts team, with considerable adjustments made both during and between rounds of the Lab.


Susie Marshall, Candace Thompson, Clyde Valentín, Marla Teyolia, and Clarice Criss discuss plans for next steps  Credit: Kim Leeson

What lasting impact did the Dallas Lab have? Honestly, it is not yet clear. Our evaluator’s final report noted strong energy and affirmation from many participants for continuing the Lab’s work, though following a pretty intense 18 months of dedicated time and energy, the group needed a bit of a break at the formal termination of the Lab timeline. The Conveners are talking about next steps, however, and some of the ensemble members have outlined plans for ramping up, formalizing and sustaining their efforts. That is certainly the case for the creative grocery story exploration, which received great coverage on local television.

In addition to follow-up activity, it was gratifying to hear from participants that approaches from the Lab were influencing their day-to-day actions as they returned to their community groups, small businesses, larger nonprofit structures, or city agencies. The final evaluation noted, “Some participants voiced that they are beginning to understand the value of building arts-based practices into addressing food security; they find it to be innovating, helpful, and interesting, and are using the strategies they learn at the workshops in their personal lives and careers.” Other comments pointed to people revisiting their starting values and beliefs, experiencing shifts in thinking, and not rushing to the kind of conventional, quick fixes which leave deeper problems unsolved.

At the very end of the formal Lab experience, Keith Vinson showed some of the other participants around the Mooreland YMCA that he helps direct. Keith had been a diligent and focused member of the Lab, and in his own quiet way had been sorting through this “art thing” and working out the connections between the Lab’s adaptive capacities and his organization’s work strengthening family and community well-being. With a new-found openness and excitement about experimentation, and aided by some new creative community engagement approaches taught by Constance White, Keith’s team and the local seniors program had revamped the design of their outdoor area. Standing there before us on the tour was a uniquely designed space — part playground, part picnic area, and part sustainable food garden. In what would otherwise be seen as a conventional play area, there was now the opportunity to foster among kids and families a new pathway towards creating food security and health. It is small changes like this that are the living legacy of the Community Innovation Lab.

Candace Thompson and Martha Rodriguez honor the progress made in the Lab  Credit: Kim Leeson


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.