Photo Essay: A Lab Concludes, But the Work Goes On…

On December 6th, the conveners and participants in the Dallas Community Innovation Lab gathered together to celebrate the conclusion of the Lab, and to share the exciting work that they’ve been engaged in through the Lab process.

The Lab in Dallas, which began in 2016, brought together participants from a wide swathe of the community to look at the 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?

Following four workshops guided by EmcArts and local facilitators, lab members formed three “Ensembles” to develop prototyping activities aimed at gaining traction for real system change related to this core question. The Ensembles each worked to include the following five key capacities for navigating complexity and enabling transformative change:

  • Slowing down to see the system and discover leverage points
  • Weaving networks of trust across boundaries
  • Making generative use of sustained uncertainty
  • Letting go of linear planning in favor of experimentation and discovery
  • Integrating the unique practices of artists into the work of the Lab

The Abuela’s Table Ensemble took an intergenerational approach to community-based initiatives that celebrate cultural traditions, food and healthy lifestyles. They conducted multiple pop-up events which put teams of grandmas, millennials and young people together to bring artistic practices out to the community and engage in conversations around food memory, food deserts and food oases.

Community members play the “Poetry Ball” game, where they toss around a ball with words on it, then use the words they see when they catch the ball to write a poem together.  Photo by Brian Maschino
Coming together to make a “zine” that focused on food and food memories.  Photo by Darryl Ratcliffe
Kids and adults use sugar to sculpt their visions of a healthy, thriving society, while also learning about healthy food choices.  Photo by James Coreas

Extreme Food Desert Makeover examined the role of a locally-owned and operated grocery store and how it could feed the life of the neighborhood. While the group initially focused on how to attract a chain grocery store, the use of artistic practices shifted them toward looking at food retail options designed (and even cooperatively owned!) by the community.

Ensemble members dream big, envisioning their ideal grocery shopping experience.  Photo by Mitty Owens
Thinking outside the (grocery store) box: Using a mandala made of edible flowers to help imagine a healthy, community-centered food ecosystem.  Photo by Mitty Owens
What does your ideal grocery store look like? Participants use legos to try out different possibilities.  Photo by Mitty Owens

(Re)Imagine the Neighborhood worked with local residents to “co-”power a new neighborhood vision, using food and the arts as the engine of change. They held a “tent revival” community gathering featuring a shared meal, interpretive dance, spoken word poetry, and powerful conversation around the forces that shape food choices.

Community members attend a feast with a multi-cultural menu, poetry, and interpretive dance.  Photo by Candace Thompson
In the tent, attendees also use “blockitecture” to reimagine new possibilities for their neighborhood.  Photo by Candace Thompson

At the final convening on December 6th, members of each Ensemble presented their ongoing work back to the full group, along with guests from the community. They also shared and developed plans to carry their work forward beyond the formal conclusion of the Lab.  All photographs by Kim Leeson

Clyde Valentín of Ingnite/Arts Dallas, one of the Lab’s conveners, welcomes attendees to the final gathering.
Workshop and Ensemble participants reflect together on their experience in the Lab.
Artist Facilitator Constance White, Zenia Ventura, and EmcArts Facilitator Mitty Owens play with the “blockitecture” model.
Susie Marshall, Candace Thompson (Ensemble Coordinator for (Re)Imagine the Neighborhood), Clyde Valentín, Project Coordinator Marla Teyolia, and Clarice Criss discuss plans for next steps.
Anga Sanders (Ensemble Coordinator for Extreme Food Desert Makeover) explains her Ensemble’s process.
Yolanda Alameda (Ensemble Coordinator for Abuela’s Table) celebrates with Artist Facilitator Constance White.

Community Innovation Lab | Dallas formed the second round of EmcArts’ Community Innovation Labs program, which addresses tough social challenges in local communities by deeply integrating adaptive response approaches and artistic practice into rigorously designed and facilitated change processes. The local convening organizations were Big Thought, the Embrey Family Foundation, Ignite/Arts Dallas, the Hunt Institute for Engineering and Humanity at SMU, and Make Art with Purpose. Generous program support was provided by the Kresge Foundation.

The third round of the Community Innovation Labs, currently taking place in Indianapolis, Indiana, seeks to uncover and advance strategies toward creating more inclusive and sustainable economies for those who are too frequently pushed aside by traditional systems, with a particular focus on youth aging out of foster care and returning citizens (those returning from prison).

You can also see photo essays from previous Labs in Winston-Salem and the Providence Lab, or read our blog series documenting our Lab journey from conception and design through piloting.

Ben Sachs-Hamilton is the External Relations Coordinator at EmcArts.