November 16, 2018

"In the Neighborhood"

In any community we are part of we crave opportunities to be heard. That we have input in decisions that affect our lives and our community is at the heart of our sense of belonging and ownership in everything from our neighborhoods to our society. Over the past year here at AAACF, we have been exploring new ways to incorporate “community voice” into our work by engaging people in our community directly, in addition to how we already engage fellow institutions. A natural fit for this exploration is our work in the arts and culture space as our experiences have shown us that, as noted above, arts and culture forms the “connective tissue” that makes our community thrive.

What did we do?

From November 2017 to January 2018, AAACF engaged in a pilot community voice initiative focused on arts & culture experiences in Washtenaw County. Called “In the Neighborhood,” the goal of the initiative was to capture the pulse and shared understandings of the art and cultural landscape of Washtenaw through a process combining art creation with community dialogue. We intentionally engaged with Washtenaw County residents and communities outside of AAACF’s traditional networks. These “Neighborhoods” could be a geographic place but in many cases represent a shared identity or vocation, or some combination thereof. We are all part of many “Neighborhoods” within our community – the physical neighborhood where we live, but also figurative “neighborhoods” comprised of others with whom we share common interests, identities, spiritual beliefs, and cultural contexts.

Artwork by Yen Azzaro

Who was involved?

AAACF partnered with Decky Alexander from Eastern Michigan University’s ENGAGE to design and conduct six community conversations and art-making gatherings in different “Neighborhoods” to explore the following questions: 1) What are Washtenaw County’s artistic identities? 2) What art needs to be experienced? Discovered? Supported? 3) Where does art live in our community? Who needs to be heard?

With Decky acting as lead facilitator for the initiative, 1-2 “Community Navigators” were identified for each Neighborhood. The Navigators were community members who were already natural leaders in their respective Neighborhoods and leveraged their networks to bring diverse, passionate voices to the conversations. For each conversation, there were also 1-2 artists present to provide an artistic response to the conversation as a way to demonstrate and affirm the value of arts and creativity in our learning journey. In total, 103 people across the County were engaged in these conversations.

The “Neighborhoods” engaged in this project were: “Artists as Community” at Hathaway’s Hideaway, hosted by Omari Rush and Nick Tobier “Downtown and Depot Town” at Hyperion Coffee, hosted by Yen Azzaro with artists Elize Jekabson and Marisa Dluge “Sugarbrook Ypsilanti” at Grace Fellowship Church, hosted by Pastor William Powell and Lady Geraldine Power (Lady P), with Artist Jermaine Dickerson “Suburban Washtenaw: Saline, Dexter, and Chelsea” at the Fifth Corner, hosted by Jack Bidlack and artist Callie Mckee “Entrepreneurs and tech professionals” at Duo Security, hosted by Dug Song with artist Yen Azzaro “Ypsi Artists, Young Professionals, and CultureMakers” at Landline Creative Labs, Hosted by Bekah Wallace and Jenny Jones with Artist Hannah Burr

Photo by Nick Azzaro

What did we learn?

The conversations unearthed a variety of themes and visions, captured in graphic recordings by Yen Azzaro. Going into these conversations, we weren’t sure whether we would see alignment across the different reflections and visions shared by participants. While participants spoke eloquently about deeply personal and particular experiences in our county (captured beautifully in the illustration below), there was a common thread across all conversations of craving arts and culture offerings that take place outside traditional spaces and venues and that speak to a wider variety of experiences within our county. As a result, the AAACF Board of Trustees amended its Cultural Economic Development strategy (supporting the local economy by investing in arts and culture nonprofit in Washtenaw County) to include two new priorities: 1) Activate the artistic and cultural identity of all people in Washtenaw County and 2) Ensure a fundamental level of access to arts and culture for everyone.

Where Are We Now?

Following the addition of these two priorities, in November 2018, AAACF announced a new grant program in partnership with CultureSource, “In Our Neighborhood.” Additional details can be found here. In the design of the program, keeping the organizing principle of the “neighborhood,” with its expansive definition, was important to us in preserving the spirit of what we learned from our In the Neighborhood participants. Applicants are invited to present their vision for their own “neighborhood” and engagement of the neighbors therein. We’re looking forward to sharing with you the results in the coming months, and while this represents one of many first steps in our journey to “get to the people,” we’re excited to see what this approach lifts up and makes possible for the artistic, creative, and cultural experiences for all Washtenaw County residents.