Postcard Spotlight: Leveraging Artistic Projects for Community Well-Being

We’ve been blown away by the positive response to our Audio Postcards about the 2011 Rockefeller Foundation Cultural Innovation Fund grantees. Thanks to all who have watched and shared. We hope they are sparking conversation and inspiring you to think differently about what’s possible in your own work.

This week, we’re spotlighting four projects for their use of highly personalized engagement strategies to reach a common goal: supporting and affirming creative expression in cultural communities throughout New York City.  The highlighted projects are:

Though these organizations serve diverse communities, from S. Williamsburg in Brooklyn to Hunts Point in the Bronx, diaspora communities across the five boroughs, and latino filmmakers, what we see as a commonality is the high-touch, peer-to-peer engagement techniques they are using to empower New York communities that might otherwise be left out of the cultural conversation.

Across the four projects we see these strategies:

  • harnessing the human need for creative expression
  • developing programming through exploration, inquiry, and peer-to-peer connection
  • inviting community members to become co-creators in cultural experiences
  • leveraging artistic projects for community well-being

El Puente

For El Puente, their challenge was to protect and support the vibrant cultural legacy of South Williamsburg’s indigenous latino community in the face of rapid gentrification.  Their strategy: a door-to-door campaign. With questionnaires in hand, El Puente staffers and volunteers talk one-on-one with community residents, inviting them to co-create in a new cultural vision for S. Williamsburg (locally known as Los Sures).

Frances Lucerna, Executive Director, El Puente reflects:

“Our grandest ambition would be to have created a model for the country. If we could create a real way, a process, for community to come together and drive the way that development happens in an equitable and just way, then I think we will have really accomplished something.”

Watch the Audio Postcard:

Casita Maria & Dancing in the Streets

For Casita Maria and Dancing in the Streets, their challenge was to reclaim the rich cultural legacy of the South Bronx, credited as the birth place of Hip-Hop and Latin-American music, buried by decades of neighborhood development.  Their strategy: neighborhood walks with longtime residents (and informal historians) of the South Bronx to uncover a new legacy that is all their own.  Dancing in the Streets will respond to what they uncover with two new site specifics works.

Aviva Davidson, Executive Director, Dancing in the Streets

“We’re going in with an idea and we have a project outline and we have goals… but it’s a process of inquiry. So we’re not going to come and say we’re going to put on a show and it might fail because they hate it.  We’re going go in and saying we’re going to create a show in response to what we find out.  It’s a process of inquiry and if it’s a process of inquiry you can’t fail.”

Watch the Audio Postcard:

Chimpanzee Productions

For Chimpanzee Productions, their challenge was to create a movement in the diaspora community to save family photographs and the stories that go with them.  Their strategy: a series of events called Digital Diaspora Roadshows where people are invited to share their family photographs and record their stories into a searchable online archive.  By engaging one-on-one and in small groups with communities that are left out of traditional histories, the project aims to create a new kind of history that is equally representative of all.

Thomas Allen Harris, Founder Chimpanzee Production, says:

“It’s really about how we see ourselves.  That is, for me, the most important thing because that has to do with self esteem. The person who can interview your grandfather or your grandma is not someone outside.  It’s actually you.”

Watch the Audio Postcard:

National Association of Latino Independent Producers

For NALIP, their challenge was to respond to documentary and narrative creators on their first and second features who needed guidance and support on their path to release their projects.  Their strategy: an individualized mentoring program that matches an experienced team of editors, story analysts, and social media specialists with filmmakers to help them navigate the complicated industry.

Kathryn Galan, Executive Director, NALIP says:

“My hopes are that they all finish their films, and receive broadcasts and distribution, and win Emmy’s, and go to great festivals, and receive funding for their next films, and are recognized for the talent and the capacity that they have as artists and media makers in our landscape.”

Watch the Audio Postcard:

What we find across these projects is a common desire to challenge assumptions about engaging with communities outside the traditional cultural audiences. El Puente is pushing back against the assumption that gentrification is inevitable by harnessing the power of local artists to empower S. Williamsburg’s latino residents.  Casita Maria and Dancing in the Streets are questioning the assumption that “if you make it, they will come” by co-creating a heritage trail with community residents.  Chimpanzee Productions is challenging the assumption that history is the story told by people in power by enabling the diaspora community to write their own narrative.  NALIP is working to create a new assumption that in order to gain access to the same funding and distribution as non-latino filmmaker, latino filmmakers need structured mentorship.

Kudos to each organization for your innovative approaches.  We look forward to seeing how your projects develop.

Karina Mangu-Ward is the former Director of Strategic Initiatives at EmcArts.