One Year Later: Groundswell

For the team at Groundswell, this past year has been about translating the skills they’ve learned from creating community murals at single locations since they were founded in 1996 to a multi-year, multi-location project.

When we spoke last September, the team was anticipating challenges in branding the multi-phase mural project and getting buy-in from a community in South Bronx they had never worked with before for such a big project.

In the past year, they’ve discovered that the multi-phase nature of the project is more asset then obstacle. They’ve been able to leverage the long term nature of the project to develop deeper relationships with community residents, forge partnerships with local organizations, and engage in community organizing, something they’ve never done before.

The Innovation

Together with community organizations in the South Bronx, Groundswell is organizing residents to have a direct say in street safety and environmental issues through their project StreetWise Hunts Point. The project will create a series of six murals on a corridor that leads to a greenway. Neighborhood residents will identify issues important to them and the murals, according to Groundswell Founder and Executive Director Amy Sananman “provide a physical vision that inspires people.”

The project is a collaboration between the Department of Transportation and Groundswell, with input from the Majora Carter Group. “This project is not just about safety, it’s about justice. We deliberately chose a neighborhood that has been left out of decision making,” DOT Community Coordinator Michelle Kaucic explained in their audio postcard. The project brings neighborhood residents and the DOT together to identify improvements that can be made to increase street safety and environmental awareness in the neighborhood. Sananmen emphasized, “We want community to feel empowered, entitled, have skills to come together and make changes in their community and make beautiful pieces of lasting art.”

Progress to Date

In the first year, Groundswell focused on building strong relationships with existing nonprofits and educational institutions in Hunts Point. With so many different organizations and individuals invested in the project and the Hunts Point neighborhood, the team at Groundswell recognized the importance of taking time to inform the Hunts Point community about the project and build buy-in. They have also has completed two murals, one highlighting Hunts Point heroes and the other about current issues in the community.

Key Learning

The major lessons they have learned so far are:

  • A new model requires new strategies: This project is anchoring a larger effort at Groundswell to develop a new model for collaboration with community partners. In the past, Groundswell has always worked with community partners that carry a share of the overall project cost and are already embedded in the neighborhood where the mural will be done. This project is the first time Groundswell has begun a project with funding in hand and no community partner.  As a result, they had to spend time upfront to establish relationship.  They tackled this major logistical hurdle by reaching out to hundreds of schools, community groups and nonprofits to ensure that neighborhood residents knew about the project and how to get involved.
  • It’s important to keep the project focused: Working with different groups can lead to mission-creep as each brings their own interests to the table. Groundswell has worked to keep the conversations and the murals focused around transportation and safety issues. Sananman constantly reminds herself and her team that the project is cumulative and is “snowballing,” slowly building support and increasing impact over the course of creating six murals.  Outside partners like Groundswell must be willing to let community members drive the big ideas, while bringing focus and an overarching vision to enable the project to achieve a lasting impact. Groundswell knows that innovative work with community partners is a balancing act that requires sensitivity and awareness of community needs.

Biggest Challenge

In implementing the first phases of the project Groundswell has also worked to overcome a major logistical challenge: securing physical space along the Hunts Point access corridor for the murals. Unlike other projects, where a group approaches Groundswell with a specific site in mind, this project started with an idea and funding. As a result, the first mural, celebrating community heroes from the neighborhood, was painted on panels because a permanent wall had yet to be found.

To face challenges and keep the project on track Sananman explained, “You still need to have the persistence and stick-to-it-ness to accomplish the project, despite the powerful partners and powerful funders. The thing that was true when we were just starting as an organization is true now: do what you say you are going to do, watch the details, and be a clear communicator.”

For the second mural they were able to secure a location before work began.

Next Steps

This winter Groundswell will convene the community partners and individuals who have worked on this project to identify and prioritize the neighborhood issues that the DOT can address right away and long-term. Stepping into an active community-organizing role is a new step for Groundswell as an organization. Sananman explained, “We’ve usually left the next step to our partner.  This time Groundswell is at the center of the organizing and action piece and we are choreographing all of these projects to build towards that.”

Interview conducted by Karina Mangu-Ward.  Post written by Eleanor Whitney with Karina Mangu-Ward.  

Eleanor Whitney is a writer, educator, arts administrator and musician raised in Maine and living in Brooklyn, New York. Currently, she is the Program Officer for External Affairs and Fiscal Sponsorship at the New York Foundation for the Arts. Karina Mangu-Ward is the Director of Innovation at EmcArts.