Photo Essay: Seeing Local Systems 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 first Providence workshop on Seeing the System. Read more about our Labs here.

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.

The first Community Innovation Lab workshop Seeing Local Systems in progress in Providence, RI

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.


Being a fairly recent transplant to Providence, I am drawn to all the different communities in this city and how they all come together. As an instructor at AS220 Youth, I teach photography to students from many of these communities. When the opportunity presented itself for my organization to document the Community Innovation Lab I jumped at the opportunity. In my time in Providence I have engaged with various community members trying to understand this city which is constantly changing–and the general consensus is that it is largely for the better. However, understanding the social and historical components to this city is very important in my attempt to ingratiate myself further in this city. To participate and document these meetings seemed, to me, invaluable to that process. Additionally, the Community Innovation Lab seemed to provide us with the opportunity to improve our relationship with the South Side of Providence and its residents. With AS220 Youth member Dilan Alvarado coming along for the sessions, we wanted to be receptive to everything the Lab brought to the table and–photographically–capture the individuals that comprised these first two meetings and the moments that brought those individuals together.

 At this moment of so much change in Providence, it was a unique opportunity to create a visual narrative of these meetings. All of the participants in this meeting made it clear that they did not want to leave any neighborhood or community members behind in all this city-wide progress. I very much enjoyed my time during the Community Innovation Labs. I met community leaders, colorful individuals and appreciated the stories, moments, and anecdotes that provided me with a better perspective and working knowledge on community relations and the neighborhood as a whole. I look forward to working more with members of that community to see the much-needed improvements come to life in the Trinity Square neighborhood. –Jose Navarro-Robles



Dilan Alvarado, an AS220 Youth Photographer, accompanied his instructor Jose Navarro-Robles to document the first Community Innovation Lab workshop in Providence. A Guatemalan native, he migrated to the United States with his family at the age of 6. Since entering secondary education, he has focused on graphic design and communication followed by his passion for photography. Since then he has been involved with institutions such as RISD Museum, AS220/AS220 Youth, Insight Photography, Rhode Island Preservation Society and more.






Our Learning Journey allowed us to walk alongside police officers around Trinity Square and engage neighborhood residents. Learning Journeys are a way of experiencing the local system through the lens of different stakeholders. This journey allowed us to have a constructive and open dialogue about the history of the neighborhood, its current status from business owners’ perspective, and how they see the future of this neighborhood coming together.


After our Learning Journeys, the facilitators had the group write down their biggest take-away from their experiences and write it down on a long banner for everyone to see and read.


During the first day of our Community Innovation Lab workshop, participants began to get to to know one another and shared several congenial moments among them. The group was comprised of long-time residents, community leaders, government officials and other representatives of the city.


In the first few hours of the Lab, those who participated introduced themselves through bringing personal objects and sharing with the group the significance of their object. The objects and stories began to highlight individual voices and reasons for participating in this Lab.


Local resident Imani “Nonnie” Manson sharing the significance of her personal object to the group.


After the initial introductions and sharing of personal objects, facilitators began engaging the participants in a series of exercises. The aim was to unite the group while beginning to raise the various topics of conversation about the Trinity Square area and the overall direction of the Community Innovation Lab.


As an example, the facilitators began an exercise that simultaneously played with spacial relationships as well as the perception of the neighborhood from the outside looking in. This long exposure shows the movement of the various participants during this activity.


The Community Innovation Lab also implemented multimedia presentations for the participants. This particular image was taken while facilitator Karina Mangu-Ward spoke about “Systems Thinking” and raised questions about the group’s initial preconceptions. Through conversations, the group examined their collective thought processes and rallied around the Trinity Square project.


Artistic Director of AS220, Shey Rivera, and a local business owner talking about the Trinity Square area.


A group shot of our Learning Journey around Trinity Square. The police officer was describing the surrounding neighborhoods and the different groups of people located within the Trinity Square area.


A light hearted moment about everyday life in and around Trinity Square shared by local residents, police officers, and the group that went on this particular Learning Journey.


President of the Laotian Community Center, Silaphone Nhongvongsouthy, taking notes alongside Officer Remolina during the Trinity Square Learning Journey.


After his Learning Journey, Wayne Champion writing down his most salient take-away from his Learning Journey.


Dee Dee Brown stopping to read and reflect upon the individual observations, insights, and take-aways from everyone’s Learning Journey.


Lady Watermelon, also known as Ramona Bass-Kolobe, in a candid moment during an activity in which different groups had to imagine and create interpretative performances for the group and facilitators. Each group had to be creative in performing their ideas because they were not allowed to speak during the skits.


Each group had their own bit of fun while designing their performance. This group in particular were all smiles and came together at the end of their performance as a tight circle. This image personifies the Community Innovation Lab’s intention of uniting different communities for a better Trinity Square.



DARE representative Fred talking to the group and introducing them to the organization, its history, and their involvement in and around the community.


Community Innovation Lab participants coming together to write their individual and shared experiences on their Learning Journeys. This image is a great example of the invaluable community members and leaders coming together to face the challenges of improving the Trinity Square area.

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.