May 22, 2020

muraLAB: Connecting While We Can't Gather

by: Norah Langweiler

We may be on the other side of the curve (for now) but the impact of COVID-19 will be lasting. On Wednesday, May 20, Mural Arts’ innovative program, muraLAB, gathered a panel of experts to discuss the role of artists in re-envisioning how communities can claim a sense of place and identity without gathering in the same space. Watch the full conversation.

Connecting in Space, not Place 

Connecting with the people and places around us is essential to our mental health and physical well-being. The pandemic (henceforth referred to as ‘it-who-must-not-be-named’) has thrown quite a wrench in the usual activities most people engage in – lunch with friends, family dinners with the grandparents, play dates at the park. It’s also hampered our cultural institutions, preventing people from gathering at community centers like Mural Arts’ storefronts or churches and recreation centers. This disconnection can create a sense of unmooring, or being lost at sea, especially amid the larger disruption and anxiety when that normalcy can be most essential.

Roberto Bedoya, Cultural Affairs Manager for the City of Oakland in California, discussed the concept of ‘belonging’ as central to creating a sense of culture and home. “We need to create a North Star for our community so we know how to move forward – belonging is that North Star. How to operationalize that is the hard work,” Bedoya said. “I take a broad embrace of culture relating to how people move through communities and society and how they make social relationships.”

Lived practices, or as Bedoya put it, “how you walk down the street” is part of that culture – the small daily interactions and rituals developed over time within a city create the culture. In many cities like Oakland and Philadelphia, where diversity reigns, the smashing together of different cultures and experiences creates something totally new.

Pamela Bridgeforth, the director of programs for the Philadelphia Association of Community Development Corporations, noted that for some organizations and communities, partnering with the arts to develop cultural touchstones within communities just happens naturally. “Others need to be encouraged towards that,” she said. Pamela oversees the Community Development Leadership Institute, which provides training and technical assistance for nonprofits working to advance equitable neighborhood revitalization. “A lot of my work has been about helping those groups identify pathways to creating a sense of belonging in neighborhoods. And even if you are not thinking of revitalization, you can be thinking of stabilization.”

Magda Martinez, Chief Operating Officer for Mural Arts and moderator for this week’s episode of muraLAB summed it up, “It seems like belonging and how it gets defined based on the context we find ourselves in, like the pandemic, is going to be a central theme moving forward.”

Space Pad designed by Sam Spetner

Creative Placemaking 

Using the arts to create a sense of place and identity is not a new concept. Its intentional use by governments and organizations is still not par for the course in most areas, despite historical precedent to do so. Pamela referenced the need for thorough documentation of the process to show that this is a commonly-tread path and to ensure that others, small organizations or grassroots efforts, have a map to reference when they are planning their own path. “We can show folks that there are ways to do this work that make sense and are not jumping over the moon, but just thinking more deeply and documenting that process.”

Artist Shira Walinsky discussed the start of Mural Arts Southeast by Southeast hubspace, a physical space intentionally designed to address the needs of the refugees from Burma and Bhutan being settled there. “We started a space in South Philly and came up with the idea of an exchange. Culture, language, food, traditions, art forms – but there are great needs on the other side,” Shira said. “We had ESL classes, citizenship classes, adjustment, opportunities for storytelling, weaving demonstrations, exhibits, photography shows, dance and performance, and to look at art as the living experience that people bring with them and that it’s a real treasure in our city.”

Spaces like this can be central to developing or reclaiming an identity for transplants to a new city and for locals who need to feel at home where they live. Without the ability to gather together, community networks have shifted.

“The natural fallout from the pandemic is that a lot of the structures that we may have relied on in terms of big institutions or pockets of money, the traditional resources that would support this work, don’t exist anymore,” Pamela said. “But that doesn’t get rid of the fact that the work still needs to happen. Artists and community groups are figuring out how to make this work on their own. The idea of a traditional organization is being rethought out of necessity.”

“It seems like now is not the time for the traditional institutional model, but more about building grassroots efforts, so that it is focused on the individuals – the people on the ground and honoring the network they already have,” said Magda. “And using any networks you already have as an artist, or government entity, or arts organization.”

This type of rethinking is highlighted as institutional attempts to address this crisis fall flat. As schools move their classes online, handing out technology so every student has a computer to work from, they may overlook the fact that around 50% of students in Philadelphia do not have access to the internet. It is indicative of the disconnection between our central institutions and the communities they serve. Inequality within systems that has always existed is now rising to the surface. The institutions that have served those communities and, at times, upheld those inequalities, need to brainstorm with those they serve to develop new ways of working.

“I like the idea of a nationwide arts voice that says we are bridgebuilders, we are soul, we are heart, and we are important in helping rebuild the spirit and hope for what’s next,” Shira said of the need for artists in the process of redeveloping networks and community spaces.

Space Pad design by Adam Crawford

Fail, Then Document It 

“I would say let’s fail forward. We don’t know what the hell we’re going to do – we’re going to respond. Don’t expect that the artist is going to have the magic bullet – they may make a project that will build a better sense of unity or cohesion, but I don’t want to put the pressure on the artists community to be savior – please, there is enough savior crap out there,” Roberto enthused. “The idea of artist and thought partners and radical hope and radical imagination, these are calls I’m hearing that are coming to the cultural community. Oakland was the first city that closed down streets for people to walk in them – and suddenly you have artists thinking about using streets as public spaces. So we are in this moment of taking chances we have to see what is going to sit.”

“The biggest piece of work that artists or organizations need to work on is empathy. We tend to discount that,” Pamela said. “That will mean giving up a bit of your power and money and attitude about yourself to get this shit done. We need to be mindful and empathetic about creating accessible and meaningful resources that can go a long way to helping people where they are and getting them where they need to be.”

“So many artists are already working at the intersection of community wellness,” she continued. “It’s the kind of thing we know in the back of our heads but none of us really have the language to articulate it. Our community development membership is doing brilliant work that is about the health and wellness of their communities and nobody knows about it except for their communities – so it’s hard to get a document that shows the impact to connect them to the resources they need to continue doing it. We talk about the importance of storytelling but we are terrible at telling the story of our work and documenting it. We need to work with people who are good at documenting the work – I think it’s going to be really important moving forward for people who are engaging in that work.”

Space is the Place 

The shifting paradigms of how we distribute power and resources at this time also requires a shifting of expectations. Supporting artists and experimental projects while they fail or don’t quite hit the mark is foundational to creating a culture where production and positive growth are not the central markers for success. Rather, a focus on forging new connections and deepening existing networks through the process of creation can become a new market for success. Artists and creatives do this in their work daily.

“We have an Environmental Justice program and one of the ways they have reached out is through community leaders – they have phone trees to help get in touch with everyone in the community. They are leaning into these networks. It’s all slower than gathering in one space, but that’s ok, because we are able to connect people,” Magda said of the Mural Arts response to creating new ways of connecting.

“One of the shifts I’m seeing is that people are reflecting deeper about ‘space’ and not ‘place.’ What happens when performing arts have to go outside to the park because of the limits social distancing puts on theaters?” Roberto asked. “How do we make space and a place? Central to that is imagination.”

“People are going to make stuff up as they go along – I think you’ll see whole neighborhoods taken over. You’ll see performance groups doing Shakespeare in communities that would never see that. But now they have no place else to go,” Pamela responded. “They are going to keep us all buoyed.”

Last updated: May 22, 2020

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