The Huddle: Sustained Community Engagement

February 11, 2016

By: ArtPlace America

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We’re excited to continue our new blog format: The Huddle. As anyone who’s journeyed through our ArtPlace website will see, we have a very diverse group of funded projects that make up the ArtPlace family. But as with many large and dispersed families, it’s often hard to connect with one another.

The Huddle recaps conversations where our ArtPlace funded projects and organizations came together to talk through topics, get advice, and perhaps even gossip a little. After each one we will use these blogs to recap the insights, questions, and provocations from these conversations.

This round featured a conversation with Alfredo Cruz of The Foundation of Louisiana, Mary Maxon of The Red Cloud Indian School, Sebastian Ruth of Community MusicWorks, and Scott Kratz of the 11th Street Bridge Park Project on the question: “How can I foster a more sustained community engagement?”

Establishing an organization as a touchstone for positive change in the community is one thing, but sustaining engagement with that community is another entirely. During our second Huddle conversation, we spoke about how trust-building and finding the right allies can make or break community-based work in the wild.

Alfredo Cruz, Director of Programs at the Foundation for Louisiana, summed things up candidly when he said, "After making the mistake of bringing the wrong partner on board once before, I ask the community." In Alfredo's case, his go-to community allies are the same people he directly serves.

Though the Foundation for Louisiana is broadly focused on rectifying issues of statewide inequity in Louisiana, their ArtPlace funding goes specifically toward preserving the traditional culture of the Mardi Gras Indian community. It makes sense, then, that their primary allies are the Mardi Gras Indians themselves, with whom they've built a relationship of mutual respect.

"[The Indians] were a huge part of the [grant] application process. It was in the middle of Mardi Gras and they still showed up to several meetings to provide input for the application narrative. It was very clear to them from the onset that this would be their grant; that we were a vehicle for making this happen. That really helped to ground our partnership in a high level of trust."

These kinds of relationships have a ripple effect on the broader community. Good reviews from allies trickle down to those who might not be as civically engaged and eventually translate into access.

Mary Maxon, the Director of Red Cloud Indian School's Heritage Center in Pine Ridge, South Dakota, says her organization's legacy as a long-standing community institution has provided benefits she never imagined.

"[Red Cloud Indian School] is a 125-year-old former boarding school on the reservation," she said. "Because the Heritage Center is a part of that, we have an advantage. For 48 years we've been supporting artists, both Native artists across America and local artists through our gift shop program… We really count on that core community of artists – we've had their backs, so now they're helping us step up and get access to communities that I certainly wouldn't otherwise have."

But strong allies don't always lie within arts organizations or even with the people you might directly serve. Sebastian Ruth, Founder and Artistic Director of Community MusicWorks in Providence, RI, found that one of their most valuable partnerships was actually with a multi-service community center.

"In our early days, it was a partnership with one of these city community centers that gave us a real legitimacy in the community," he explained. "That partnership, which lasted many years, really lent us the trust of many people in the black and Latino community in particular because that center was a center for youth, a soup kitchen – it [offered] a lot of social services… It was an incredible kind of hub. The fact that we were embraced by them meant we were embraced by the community in a general way."

Of course, the real trick here is sustaining that community embrace by building allies' trust into a long-term relationship with the broader community. According to Scott Kratz, Director of the 11th Street Bridge Park project in Washington, DC, half the battle is just showing up.

"To date we've had over 600 meetings with members of the community to help us define and shape every single aspect of [our] project… We had over 200 meetings before we did anything," he told the group. "We're out talking to the community three, four, five times a week… Consistency is important – showing up at those meetings even though I wasn't on the agenda, showing up and letting people know who we were and that this project would be different."

Maintaining those open lines of communication turned out to be hugely important for Scott.

The Bridge Project is enormous – its mission is to connect Washington, D.C.'s Capitol Hill and the historic Anacostia neighborhoods by converting the old 11th Street river bridge into the city's first elevated park. With a project of that scale, some feathers are definitely going to get ruffled. But because Scott focused so much on trust-building and consistency, he was prepared.

"I knew we had a huge breakthrough when I got a phone call from a local community member who was really angry. He heard that the Bridge Park was advertising a community cleanup," Scott told us.

"He felt like it wasn't our place to do that. I had no idea what he was talking about – we had nothing to do with it. So I stopped and said 'We're not behind this and I have no idea who is, but let's work together and figure it out.' He knew who to call and he trusted me enough to pick up the phone and establish that conversation. I think that was only possible because he knew who I was."

To keep community support and maintain engagement, our grantees agree that functioning foremost as members of the community, rather than pushing their own specific agendas, is key. Often, they find themselves expanding their purview outside the scope of their programming for the good of the people they serve.

As Scott told us, placemaking projects (especially big ones like the Bridge Project) can have "intended and unintended consequences." To mitigate those consequences, his organization worked to promote stability in those areas which might be affected by their project: work force development, small business enterprise and housing.

"We spent a year working with the community to develop clear recommendations so we can ensure this park will benefit the long-term lives of the citizens who helped shape it," he said. "We announced 19 recommendations a few months ago and now we're actively fundraising – not only to build this park and create programming for it, but to make sure that this can benefit the local community, which is absolutely critical."

Obviously communities are complex and no organization is going to be able to engage with every single person. So what’s the best strategy? According to our grantees, the most direct answer is the right one: to stay engaged with your community, you have to become a part of it.

What are your thoughts on maintaining a sustained community engagement? Is there any advice you’d offer from your own experiences?