Sonoran Desert Retreat Center & Residencies

International Sonoran Desert Alliance (ISDA)

Funding Received: 2013
Ajo, AZ
Funding Period: 1 year and 5 months
October 14, 2013

Peace Begins with a Smile; photo by Jewel Clearwater

Update and Reflection
As ISDA prepares to host our 10th annual International Day of Peace celebration in Ajo, AZ on September 20-21, it is a good time to think about community.

Ajo is at the intersection of three nations. Our community is complex, crossing cultural, political, and national borders. In this context, we keep finding that art and creative placemaking are magical. Doing creative work together dissolves barriers. It makes bonding easy, and helps people connect across generations, cultures, and national borders.

The photo we are submitting with this reflection tells a bit of our complex regional story. The mural, drawn by an artist, bears the message “Peace begins with a smile.” It was painted cheerfully by a rag-tag group of kids disregarding the design, and installed in our plaza by the Explorers, a Border Patrol youth group. One of the youth who painted the mural echoes the message with his smile; another wore a pro-guns/hunting t-shirt.

We are forging community in a region the national press calls “a war zone.” Our parade one Friday evening in mid-September included kids from Ajo, Sonoyta, Mexico, and from the Tohono O’odham Nation. Teachers, artists, Veterans of Foreign Wars, and Border Patrol agents, a high school band from Mexico, dignitaries from the Tohono O’odham Nation, were part of the event, along with 1,000 cranes sent to Ajo 10 years ago by a peace delegation from Japan.

The glue to our endeavors is music, dancing, cultural crafts, regional foods, and the good spirit everyone brings to this event. The real story here is community: building strong community across borders through arts and culture.

Recent Wins
Thanks to a recent grant from the National Performance Network (NPN), this month ISDA members were able to visit the Wing Luke Museum in Seattle and The Longhouse in Olympia with a side visit to the Squaxin Island Tribe's cultural center.

The Wing is the touchstone for authentic community engagement. Museum staff and community advisors have evolved a simple process of involving the community in proposing exhibit concepts, in deciding the purpose of exhibits, their main themes, the important objects or artifacts highlighted, and the artists engaged. Whether the exhibit is about history, or contemporary art, or a mix of the two, “community curators” at The Wing listen and respond. They ask questions and listen. The exhibits are necessarily very personal to the community. Their authenticity draws thousands of visitors to each exhibit.

The museum building is an historic rooming house, meaningful to many area families and family associations. Memories are preserved for the community by the museum.  In Olympia, The Longhouse is a beautiful new structure decorated with traditional symbols, created by longstanding belief in the importance of the community's building and persistence in making it happen. The Squaxin Island tribe provided longstanding support in raising community funds to build The Longhouse. Their own cultural center exhibits tell a story of survival and success against the odds of horrific discrimination and hostility.

Authentic community is the source of its own transformation.