Among the people the NMCF invited to work with its grantees and partner organization was Lily Yeh, founder of the nonprofit Barefoot Artists, Inc., in Philadelphia. This 70-something petite Chinese-American woman has received accolades from the Ford Foundation and many others for her ability to work a kind of transformative magic on distressed communities through the restorative power of grassroots, collectively built, large-scale community art and culture projects of overwhelming beauty. Yeh has organized youth programs, schools, gardens, parks, plazas and sanctuaries in any number of places—from Rwanda to the Palestinian Territory to inner-cities in the United States—places that in many ways resemble parts of New Mexico in their brokenness.
Aside from her boldness of vision and highly developed artistic skills and sensibilities, a key to Yeh’s success has been her fearlessness in executing these projects and her deep love for people, especially children. Yeh also has the ability seemingly to create something out of nothing, or very little. Invariably, this results in the coalescence of highly dynamic and effective relationships and partnerships, a hallmark of the very essence of intercultural collaborative leadership.
During her weeklong stay in New Mexico, Yeh implemented a two-day mural-painting project with adjudicated youth, in partnership with La Plazita Institute in the South Valley of Albuquerque. La Plazita’s founders believe that the reclamation of traditional cultural practices and understandings are vital to the healing of broken youth. With the precision of a surgeon, Yeh was able to cut through the resistance of many of the youths’ jaded facades. To achieve this, she used her irrepressible sense of joy and enthusiasm, together with a sincere desire to see the youth bloom like flowers before her eyes, which they did. Yeh subtly bored an energetic hole right to the core of their beings and therein ignited a fire of passion for living in the world.
Perhaps Yeh’s most lasting legacy in New Mexico is the formation of a deeply committed coalition comprised of those who attended her workshop entitled “Community Building through Creative Envisioning and Action” at the Gutiérrez-Hubbell House in the South Valley.
Beginning with her very first gesture, which was to lead a simultaneous dance/meditation, to her final one of joining and soldering tightly the strengths and resources of everyone present (read intercultural collaborative leadership), this transformative workshop using artistic creation effectively launched a movement in New Mexico that is still alive, well and growing. The movement is now being led by some of the same partner organizations, grantees and individuals who participated in the workshop. They are moving forward on community-driven arts and cultural projects that will incorporate Yeh’s inspiration. Through this initiative, youth of New Mexico will experience a renewed sense of their power and will be the ones to rekindle hope in every area of their lives as well as in their communities.
Alejandro López and Renee Villarreal, director of Programs and Community Outreach at NMCF, helped organize Lily Yeh’s working visit to New Mexico at the end of April in 2013.