Photo Essay: Looking for Leverage in the Providence Community Innovation Lab

The Community Innovation Labs program addresses tough social challenges in local communities by deeply integrating artists, artistic experiences and cultural organizations into rigorously designed and facilitated change processes. In our two pilot sites of Winston-Salem, NC and Providence, RI, we commissioned local photographers with ties to the community to produce original art in the form of photo essays. We intentionally commissioned local artists in order to bring greater visibility to their work and to create space in the collaborative Lab process for them to grow and share their own artistic practice. This photo essay by Dilan Alvarado, youth photographer and Jose Navarro-Robles, photography instructor at AS220 Youth in Providence documents the second Providence workshop on Looking for Leverage. Read more about our Labs here.

Dilan Alvarado


Jose Navarro-Robles











This past fall, AS220 Youth’s photography program was hired by EmcArts to document the Providence Community Innovation Labs. For 4 days, the AS220 photo crew attended community sessions and worked to capture the natural progression of conversation, emotion and collaboration between everyone involved in the labs. Dilan Alvarado and Jose Navarro-Robles were the AS220 photographers and producers of this second photo essay. You can see their writing, reflections and photos from their first essay on “Seeing the System” here.

AS220 Youth’s photography program offers photographic training and professional apprenticeships to under served youth in the state of Rhode Island. By photographing their own experience, these students give voice to their own lives as only they can. The images are rare glimpses into lives rarely seen. I​n the AS220 program, y​oung people learn both digital and 35mm photography. With this foundation, youth then bring cameras home with instructions to take pictures of their day to day lives. Read more about AS220 Youth here.


The Providence Community Innovation Lab reconvened in December, and as an early morning activity the group joined together in a song and dance to get some good, productive communal energy.


Karina Mangu-Ward, one of the facilitators, engaging a group on how to think about one of the “Wicked Questions”– pushing  community members to think differently about paradoxical questions at the heart of their core challenge.


Wesley Days, Process Facilitator and Sussy Santana both participating in another group during the same “Wicked Question” exercise.


After discussing the “Wicked Questions,” individual groups were charged with coming up with an interpretive act–without words–to highlight their biggest takeaways from the challenging questions and show them to the rest of the group.


Because each group had a different question, and their own different perspective on the matter, the groups all had their own unique take on how to silently act out the results of their conversation with the rest of the group.


Within the framework of each group’s questions, the small groups were asked to talk about which things were already being addressed and done well in the community and what things need and should have improvement. Engaging youth better and more actively was a common sentiment shared across the groups.


Reviewing her list, AS220’s Shey Rivera chosen as her group’s representative in this activity.


Lab participants, Delia and Dee Dee, working together as community leaders and residents in the course of both sessions. Bringing together people from so many different backgrounds really gave the Community Innovation Lab a well-rounded perspective.


For our learning journey, we visited many different youth-based non-profits throughout Providence. Jesus (first on the left) organized the journey and arranged for the group to ride in his organization’s bus (the Environmental Justice League of Rhode Island) that had been retrofitted to run solely on vegetable oil.



Representatives of each organization we stopped at during the day got on the bus with us for a few minutes to talk about what their organization does, who they work with, and answer any questions the group had for them.


At our next stop, Vanessa from Providence Youth Student Movement (PrYSM for short) engaged the Innovation Lab members about her organization.


Our next stop on this learning journey was CityArts in the South Side of Providence based out of Highlander Charter School.


Jesus, Nonnie, and the rest of the group approaching Director of Programs Emily Ustach at New Urban Arts located on Westminster Street in Providence.


After New Urban Arts, we walked down to meet with a representative from the Providence Student Union also on Westminster Street.


After the Learning Journey, the group assembled to take a candid shot in front of the bus!


Silaphone Nhongvongsouthy, President of the Laotian Community, was all smiles as the group discussed all that happened during the individual learning journeys.


Ramona, also known as Lady Watermelon, in a great moment during the Lab, sharing a song she wrote for the group about the changes she hoped would come to her community, her neighborhood and her city.


After Ramona shared her song with the group, Dee Dee Brown also volunteered to share something. The poster board she is holding is from the last time she had been in the South Side Community Center some 5+ years prior. Dee Dee, and the other members of the group, are enthusiastic and hopeful about the changes that could, and hopefully will, come to their neighborhood and community. The entire Community Innovation Lab left very excited with the potential changes that can come of a group of individuals from different backgrounds coming together for the greater good of neighborhoods.

See our photo essay series from our Winston-Salem Community Innovation pilot lab here, and read our blog series documenting our Lab journey from conception and design through piloting.

Nayantara Sen is the former Communications Manager at EmcArts.