At the Table…and Being Heard

Posted by Michael L. Chambers on September 8, 2016

In the fall of 2015, members of the 11th Street Bridge Park project and Washington Performing Arts invited me to participate in an Arts Task Force.

The task force was created to seek input from community leaders to drive and determine programs that will make the biggest impact in neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River (Wards 7 and 8). It consists of individuals who represent the constituency east of the river, as well as the larger D.C. arts community, and will provide direction about how the community can inform and inspire cultural programming.

At our first meeting last October, Bridge Park leaders spoke, shared design renderings, and announced that the park would be open by 2019. The excitement ushered in grand and inspiring ideas around what could happen in the park—a beach, hammock grove, and a mobile performance space were just a few of the imaginative ideas from task force members. In response, one member of the task force, artist and activist Tendani Mpulubusi El said, “Ward 8 residents really need jobs. How will this project provide employment?”

Tendani’s question tempered the exhilaration, giving pause to the possibilities and grounding the committee in the reality of the challenges Ward 8 residents face daily. While employment was outside of the direct scope of the Arts Task Force, it was a necessary jolt to be reminded of this reality. Tendani was one of the few people at the table with a dual perspective when it came to this project; that of an artist and a resident, and that perspective challenged not only the committee members, but also the Bridge Park staff. As a result, we thought about it for some time and an interesting concept emerged:

Focus programming on East of the River (EOTR) artists exclusively. The concept, however, raised additional questions, such as, “how do we define EOTR artists? Does it mean someone living in the city, or someone who works and serves East of the River communities?" Though the committee never came to consensus, it’s an issue that requires an answer and I hope EOTR residents will weigh in as they are the ones most affected by the programming. I believe that the Arts Task Force should develop a comprehensive engagement strategy that brings additional residents to the table who can help to answer some of the questions that arose during those first meetings.

A New Idea and New Challenges

In subsequent committee meetings, the idea to host a film series styled after Screen on the Green programming (which is presented across the city) was prioritized. To ensure Ward 8 buy-in, we enlisted the help of a working group made up of residents and cultural leaders in the community. The goal was to put together a series that would resonate with the Ward 8 community and attract residents across the river from Ward 6, exciting both about the arts and humanities programming to come. The working group was tasked with brainstorming ideas about films to show, timelines, and sourcing sites for screenings. 

One of the first lessons we learned was that the costs of conducting outdoor screenings exceeded available grant funding. In examining other models across the city, we learned that costs were reduced by securing partnerships and sponsorships, but due to our timing, it would have been difficult to develop those types of relationships quickly. Therefore, the film series had to be executed with limited resources.

Then, several working group members explained that other Screen on the Greens were happening in Ward 8. This type of competition was actually welcome, because it meant that Ward 8 residents had a plethora of new options for summer activities; still, our film series had to differentiate itself from the others. The working group did this by selecting films that were tied to a music theme and were relatively older than the films being featured at other screenings.

Another challenge was balancing the interests of our three organizations: Bridge Park, Washington Performing Arts, and the Arts Task Force. The selected films were music themed in order to tie them to Washington Performing Arts’ existing programming, but each organization had to ensure that where possible, we’d respond to Tendani’s comment by engaging Ward 8 businesses and local organizations. At each screening we ensured that our host sites were local cultural organizations and we incorporated Ward 8 businesses, like local catering companies, to provide food. At the final screening, Mekahi Turner, a young person from the Blacks in Wax theatrical program in Ward 8, portrayed Kobe Bryant before a screening of the film, He Got Game.

As founder of a company that endeavors to engage both the public and private sector in critical discovery, I think it is important to invite the arts community, but also equally important to bring to the table additional voices, such as residents, who may not define themselves as artists but are aware of community interests and needs. In my role as a task force member I ask, "how do organizations like Bridge Park and Washington Performing Arts address longstanding community challenges and engage more community voices at the table?"

Luckily, with the park not opening until 2019, there is still time for us to get the mix at the table right. The project has undoubtedly been successful at engaging the community in areas like selecting the park’s design team and shaping an in-depth Equitable Development Plan. The task force will look to those efforts as we seek to further engage and strengthen our relationship with the community--by asking residents to work with us to shape the future of the cultural programming that is to come. Through this strategic engagement we will hopefully find more ways to address some of the workforce challenges that came up in these first conversations, and we look forward to sharing our success with readers.

(Photo credit: Parker Knight via flickr, CC BY 2.0)

About the author more »

Michael L. Chambers, II, is the Principal and Founder of Humanities in Public (HIP), a company that endeavors to engage both the public and private sector in critical discovery. HIP is rooted in the core values of historical understanding, recognition of the human condition, and the role of cultural influences on the individual experience as well as that of society. HIP works to expand modern thought through the practice of using humanities outside of traditional academia. Since receiving a Bachelor’s degree in African American Studies from the University of Alabama at Birmingham, he has gained over nine years of experience developing and producing humanities programming in Alabama and the Washington DC area. To date, he has worked with the DC Public Library, two State Humanities Councils, and the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and Museum. Through the development of HIP he has furthered the use of humanities in non-traditional spheres; using it to highlight social determinants of health, inform community discussions on civic issues, and foster a deeper understanding of place and community through the use of film, music, and in-depth panel discussions. In addition, Chambers has used his skills to convene DC thought leaders and citizens on issues ranging from rapid gentrification and its effects on the community to youth centered programming across the city. Chambers takes a specific and multifaceted approach to his work which has led to professional relationships with Forward Solutions, The Interactivity Foundation, 11th Street Bridge Park & Washington Performing Arts. Chambers is honored to serve his community as a member of Washington, D.C.’s commission on African American Affairs and co-chairs its criminal justice committee.

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COMMENTS

Pamela Bridgeforth
13 Sep 16, 9:40 am

This post is an important window on the challenges and opportunities of bringing together arts organizations, artists and community developers together to focus on developing shared visions for a neighborhood.  It would be interesting to see how the Arts Task force will continue to re-align its vision to target those economic opportunities the community clearly needs by pushing its various partners out of their comfort zones.  One could imagine Washington Arts hiring Ward performers for its mainstage programming, or sourcing its production and facilities needs with local residents.  One could also imagine a local CDFI powering up the task force’s planning by issuing a combination of grants, small business development technical support and loans to see the planned park could be a true engine for economic empowerment by specifically designing Ward-led small business development.  Fingers crossed that the folks involved can collectively get to where they need to go, but they all have to be prepared to stretch in new territory if they really want to get there.

Irfana Jetha Noorani
4 Nov 16, 2:42 pm

Pamela,

Thank you for your insightful comments about our work and how the Arts Task Force will continue to evolve. This is consistently a big discussion point for our staff right now—what is the best way to keep artists, residents and cultural leaders engaged in our process to help drive programming?

And you are spot on with small business investments. See our Equitable Development Plan here: http://bridgepark.org/community-impact—that includes recommendations around small business growth, workforce development and affordable housing. We are working on implementation of small biz recommendations and will have more to report in 2017. We are also working with a local CDFI, LISC DC, who has made a $50MM investment in “Elevating Equity” in our impact area, see here—http://www.liscdc.org/elevatingequity.

Thanks for your thoughts and feedback.

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