Sometimes, maybe often, when we think of a “community artist,” we think of someone who inspires our individual creativity—a visual artist, for example, who helps teens express their feelings in a collage, or a writer who helps elders gather their thoughts into a story or memoir. This is important work, often with lasting effects.
We may not, however, always make the connection between art and large social movements; the idea of a collage or story changing the world might seem far-fetched. My work with the New Mexico-based nonprofit Littleglobe is devoted to transformational social change through creative collaboration.
Right now, we are immersed in a community development project in the International District of Albuquerque (ID), the most culturally diverse district in the state of New Mexico, and one of the most challenged. I’d like to tell you how this project came about and, in doing so, shift our perception of “community art” with a small “c” and “a” to Art with a community, capital “A.”
In 2011, New Mexico Sen. Tim Keller came to Littleglobe (along with the Story of Place Institute) to invite us to consider a project in his legislative district. He told us that economic and other development initiatives were being hampered by a lack of coordination of efforts, the need for more social cohesion and the absence of a strong community identity. He felt that empowering residents themselves to define who they are as a community—to “tell their story” —was key.
Sen. Keller had learned about our work in other communities and attended a Lifesongs performance (a Littleglobe project with elders in hospice and nursing homes). He asked, “Would you be interested in working with residents in the ID?” We said, “Well, let’s see if residents want to work with us.” We then spent the next couple of years meeting as many individuals and representatives of organizations in the ID as we could manage.
When it was clear that residents were excited about the prospect of a large-scale arts engagement project, we started planning and fundraising. Last fall, we were lucky enough to receive a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) Our Town program. With this in hand, we were ready to launch.
Here, I’ll focus on the first foundational phase of the “Stories of Route 66: The International District” project—arts collaboration between a Littleglobe artist team and more than 100 members of the community. This work will culminate in a weekend festival of events, ID LIVE!, in late July.
Last fall, through a competitive process, we chose a team of professional artists—a filmmaker, painter, installation artist, writer and two theatre actors, directors and playwrights. Two are residents of the ID. The team was trained in the Littleglobe collaborative process, community facilitation, and the artists were immersed in learning everything they could about the people and place of the ID. They were also trained in an artistic process specifically designed for working with a community of people who don’t always speak the same language. Here’s why.
The ID is a four-square-mile neighborhood bordered by Lomas and Gibson and San Mateo and Wyoming boulevards. There are approximately 47 languages spoken in the district. Its population is approximately 51 percent Hispanic/Latino, 18 percent Native American, 8 percent African or African-American, 5 percent Asian, and also includes a significant population of immigrants and refugees, most recently from Iraq, Afghanistan and Congo. In this way, the district is incredibly rich.
At the same time, the ID is facing critical challenges: a high infant mortality rate, real poverty, unacceptable levels of unemployment and homelessness and a lack of political influence, in part because many residents cannot or do not vote. The area was once called “the war zone,” a term residents don’t like us to use. Parts of the ID suffer from urban blight.
On Jan. 12, 2014 we began seven months of sustained arts engagement. Every single Sunday, from that day through the end of July, the artist team has been working with a large group of community members, making small and larger works of art. To date, we have worked with 136 residents, ages 5 to 70, who speak eight languages. A significant number of our young participants have been in the country less than three years and come from Afghanistan and Iraq.
The circle is one of our central metaphors and at the core of our practice; each Sunday we begin with an opening circle, and we always end in one. The circle democratizes any community process and discourages dominance by the few. The circle also encourages listening and witnessing. We engage in many exercises that move around the circle, meaning that we have to wait, listen and watch. Between these opening and closing circles, we create together via carefully designed activities that encourage individual and group creativity, cooperation and teamwork and, well, joy.
At the end of each session, we feed everyone and give each person—even the children—an envelope of cash. In this way we compensate everyone for working as a collaborative artist.
Over the last six months we have seen what we see in every large-scale Littleglobe project: over time, people who don’t usually share the same space and, in this case, not even the same language, form significant bonds. Creating together, working together, eating together, week after week, month after month, in an atmosphere of creativity, shared risk, problem solving, and laughter, grows a strong connective tissue between us—a social fabric.
At the same time, significant individual and group capacity have been generated, especially in the last weeks now, as we approach the ID LIVE! weekend and the premiere of several co-created works of art. You can imagine what it might take for a large group of people of all ages, backgrounds, skills and talents to envision, design and then create and build major works. These works express the dreams and imaginings of a community collective, mined from months of shared work. On July 26-27, this large community ensemble will animate three spaces in the ID (two empty lots and one amphitheater) with large works of art, film and performance.
After the weekend festival, our job will be to channel this energy and capacity into a range of community-development initiatives led by community members themselves. We do this by facilitating relationships, meetings and partnerships with individuals and organizations who can assist the leaders and teams that have emerged.
Art—Community—Long-Term Collaboration—Real Community Change. This is how it works.
Valerie Martínez is project co-director of Stories of Route 66: International District and artistic director of the Littleglobe/ID Community Ensemble. She is a poet, educator, activist and collaborative artist.
The Story of Place Institute
As a lead partner in the Stories of Route 66: The International District Project, Story of Place Institute has been collecting historical and contemporary data on cultural and ecological aspects of the International District (ID) via historical documents, map analysis, field research, and in-depth interviews. This work has been done in partnership with UNM’s Resource Center for Raza Planning. The information gathered to date has served to provide meaningful insights into key community issues and assets, as well as to better understand the make-up of this distinct sector of Albuquerque.
Story of Place Institute is currently working to synthesize this data and develop an interpretive narrative that helps connect residents to the rich history of the place where they live and/or work, while at the same time serving as a “story” frame for helping to inform the design of an International District “Story Plaza.” The next phase of this work will involve presenting findings to the ID community and facilitating dialogue with residents and community stakeholders that invite further community storytelling.
“I’m very proud that our residents found the connections and creativity to designate a special place for their celebrations and interactions. The plaza for “Stories of Route 66 in the International District,” which highlights our heritage and pride for our beautiful city, will be a stunning example for all Albuquerque residents, as well as visitors.”
~Albuquerque Mayor Richard J. Berry