Community Projects: People Places Connections
Sponsored by Intermedia Arts and Midtown Greenway Coalition with Powderhorn Phillips Cultural Wellness Center and the Minneapolis YWCA-Midtown
I was one of five artists who worked for three years under the umbrella of People Places Connections, a program of interactive art activities in neighborhoods along the Midtown Greenway (a transportation and recreation corridor that is being constructed across South Minneapolis). The goal of our work was to increase cross-cultural collaboration around community development issues in a part of the city that has been experiencing dramatic demographic changes, primarily due to a recent rise in immigration.
The artist team members, Ta-coumba Aiken, Douglas Ewart, Marilyn Lindstrom, Victor Yepez, and myself, share a rich history engaging communities through sculpture, music, mosaic, mural painting, dance, video and writing. (The sum of our collective years of experience would span over a century.) We used our skills to create an arts-based civic dialogue through workshops, performances, installations, conversation and play.
In addition to our collaborative endeavors, the team artists individually conducted community art projects. This visual map is a graphic illustration of the components of my individual project, Urban Web.
The sections outlined on the visual map are:
Support -- the people and organizations who helped me design, implement, and evaluate Urban Web
Initially, I began Urban Web by creating a project design team comprised of Midtown Greenway Coalition staff, neighborhood organizers and activists, and local leadership from the Twin Cities dance community. Together we formulated the project design, which consisted of community movement workshops and a site-specific performance/video piece about a location on the Greenway whose future was in flux. The design team members were:
- Akhmiri Sekr-Ra, Arts and Culture Organizer for
- Powderhorn Park Neighborhood Association
- Deb Rogers, Director of Voices of Phillips
- Sharon Ramirez, Evaluator for People Places Connections
- Tim Springer, Director of Midtown Greenway Coalition
- June Wilson, CEO of Dance Today.
Community Movement Workshops - a series of movement-based conversations held at the Powderhorn-Phillips Cultural Wellness Center and the Minneapolis Midtown YWCA
At Saturday afternoon workshops I led participants through movement exercises that addressed a complex web of community issues (hence the project title, Urban Web):
- How does your cultural identity impact your neighborhood relationships?
- What will development along the Midtown Greenway mean for the people who are living and working along the Greenway now? How do we think proactively about the risks of gentrification?
- Where do you feel safe? Where, besides private homes, do you hang out? Where don't you hang out?
- What changes would you make in your neighborhood? What would you keep?
- What gifts do you contribute to your community?
By introducing movement into the dialogue, we were able to engage large and challenging civic issues at an accessible level. For example, to address the first question above, "How does your cultural identity impact your neighborhood relationships?" I made up an exercise in which I asked participants to:
1) Make a movement/gesture that reflects your own cultural heritage.
2) Make a movement/gesture that embodies how you might greet a neighbor on your street.
3) Combine the two gestures together into a third gesture and observe how your cultural heritage gesture influences your neighborhood greeting gesture. Notice what meaning this has for you.
4) Teach the three gestures to someone else in the room, and discuss their meaning.
5) Share the gestures and the essence of your discussion with everyone in the room.
This exercise was a concrete, deeply personal, yet non-threatening way of introducing a conversation about how our cultural legacies influence the ways we live in our neighborhoods.
Documentation -- ways I share the story
Two key civic issues related to the Midtown Greenway which shaped the focus for Urban Web
- The design team identified the future of the Cepro Grain Elevator site on the Midtown Greenway as a key location for our attention. For months I attended county meetings concerning the unused grain elevators. Douglas Ewart (composer/sculptor) and I were granted access inside the elevators to create a sound and movement video piece with videographer James Byrne, and a team of musicians and dancers. The dancers came directly from the community workshops, or had other relationships with my workshop host sites. The videotape was presented as the backdrop for a live performance at the annual meeting of the Midtown Greenway Coalition, an event attended by Minneapolis city council members, Hennepin County officials, activists, organizers and community supporters of the Greenway. The performance was designed not only to inspire people to think creatively about future applications of the grain elevator site, but also to dream about the implications of the Greenway for the future of the city, and how to involve a broader base of individuals in determining where our city is headed.
- The Zoning Overlay District: at public feedback meetings, I presented a performance piece designed to illustrate proposed zoning changes to the Midtown Greenway. My intention behind these performances was to translate the obtuse regulatory jargon into a simple, playful format so that the subject would be more accessible. I am not particularly passionate about zoning, but I am passionate about making our political process more inclusive and engaging. The benefit of embedding movement and performance into the heart of political meetings was articulated by one person in attendance:
"Often at meetings like this people are not listening in a deep way; people take short cuts and just get ready to pitch their own agendas. With Wendy's work, we can't jump to the assumption we understand what other people mean the way we do with words alone...(The Zoning Overlay District performance) took people about five hops ahead of where the conversation would have been if we were sitting in the muck and mire of just talking."
To see a video excerpt documented from one of the performances, click on http://www.midtowngreenway.org/movies/zoning.html.
People Places Connections was an Animating Democracy Initiative Lab Project (ADI), a national initiative to strengthen the role of the arts in civic engagement, sponsored by Americans for the Arts and the Ford Foundation. Through ADI, I participated in national convening events which brought artists, dialogue specialists, and others together to address the role of art in social change.
These events were an opportunity for me to share the work of People Places Connections in the context of a vast and spirited conversation about the role of art in civic engagement. For the National Exchange on Art and Civic Dialogue in Flint, Michigan, I presented an excerpt of the Cepro grain elevator video/performance with performers Sandy Agustin from Minneapolis; Dora Arreola from Tijuana, Mexico; and Reggie Cabico and Treva Offut from New York.
For more about ADI, visit www.AmericansForTheArts.org/AnimatingDemocracy or the Community Arts Network website at www.communityarts.net.
People Places Connections was funded by the McKnight Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Ford Foundation through ADI/Americans for the Arts.