September 24, 2020

Community Development: The Importance of Asking “Why Not?” 

Black lives matter sign and mural

Banner Image: “Raised Fists, Clean Hands!” © 2020 by Keshia DeLeon. Special thanks to ArtPlace, Barr Foundation, and the fellowship host organizations for supporting the artist Rose Fellowships

Much has been written about the essential role that art, culture, and creativity play in the lives of individuals and societies, and how important it is for the community development field to embrace the integration of artists, cultural workers, and creative practices into the standard ways of being in our field.

Practicing at this intersection, however, is not simple - for artists or community developers. Three Enterprise Rose Fellows and their host organizations are exploring what this looks like in three distinct contexts. In this interview, these artist fellows share their thoughts on what they are learning, what’s challenging and what’s possible - from understanding the housing delivery system to the dynamic tension between experience and aesthetics to what it could look like to scale cultural healing in society.

Olivia Jimenez is a theater artist and Rose Fellow with Foundation Communities in Austin, Texas.

Yuko Okabe is an illustrator and Rose Fellow with North Shore CDC.

Carol Zou is a cultural worker and Rose Fellow with Little Tokyo Center in Los Angeles.

To hear more from these three artists, check out their panel on creative community development.

Nella Young: What has surprised you about the community development field?

Carol Zou: I have been surprised by the complexity of financing in the community development field. As an artist working in solidarity with communities who are often at the brink of displacement, it’s vital to me that we understand the financial infrastructures in place around real estate so that we can own our own land and have autonomous control over our homes and our community institutions. However, all the different tax credits and legal requirements of affordable housing make it incredibly inaccessible for a layperson, not to mention a historically oppressed community, to access knowledge and financing in order to have this type of self-determination.

As an artist, I see my role as a translator who utilizes creative strategies to translate complex information for a wider community audience, and that has been an incredibly challenging task in the sphere of community development. I suppose I’m not surprised, but I am disappointed that the model of affordable housing we have through community development is our most prevalent model of affordable housing in the United States. I am curious about cooperatives, community land trusts, and other ways that we can open up community self-determination over real estate investments in neighborhoods.

Yuko Okabe: The community development field has a lot more moving parts than I originally thought. At my organization, we have youth, real estate, small business, community outreach, art, and design programs which after talking with other fellows, seems like the average amount of departments compared to larger organizations. I also see how the dynamic between community development organizations and the communities they serve varies. Some organizations have fair representation of residents on board and on staff and have true power in decision making. On the other end of the spectrum, some organizations have low or no community representation where executives end up acting on a high level, [removed from local nuances] and more genuine, community-centered practices get lost.

Olivia Jimenez: I echo Carol and Yuko’s sentiments about how complex everything is behind-the-scenes. I am finding this especially true at a larger organization that is spread all over the city rather than anchored in a particular neighborhood. One of the things that has surprised and challenged me most is how “siloed” everything is. Most of my training and work has been dependent on clear communication, collaboration, and reflection -- these are difficult to practice when every department and property seems to function in its own little bubble. In some cases, this even leads to feelings of competition rather than collaboration, even though everyone is working towards the same stated goal! From my perspective, we are missing some crucial opportunities to learn, work, celebrate and grow with coworkers, clients, and community partners.

Nella: As an artist employed full time on staff at a community development organization, in what ways have you adapted your practice?

Yuko: In my organization, I know that staff's previous experiences with artists are as people who come and go, leaving a physical product behind as their legacy. So when I ask questions and advocate for changes or inclusion of new processes or ideas instead of a “physical thing”, this makes people’s gears turn. With non-artists, I always get asked a lot about what I like to make rather than why and how I like to make art. I’m also fighting against the perceptions people have of me coming from a for-profit company and a typically for-profit trade in commercial illustration. As an artist in community development, I’m advocating for co-creation in my creative endeavors and listening to staff and community members who want a seat at the table.

In my previous practice as an artist/illustrator, I had a combination of working with a team and in isolation. As someone previously employed in a tech start-up, teamwork was valued as something that promotes efficiency and accountability. Teamwork also played out through listening to families and children who used our product. As someone who has also been self-employed full-time and on a freelance basis, I’ve also been accustomed to working alone and creating ideas out of my own head.

I’ve adapted my practice by giving up this idea of aestheticism - the requirement for illustrators to produce beautiful results and throw it into a crowd of adoring viewers - which honestly becomes psychologically taxing as you end up relying on these “fans” for your own clout in an elitist art world. Instead, I focus more on meaningful processes that encourage community wellness and help to build systems where communities and their representatives have more power.

Carol: I think it’s more about how I have asked the staff to adapt to me! A lot of people at my organization are incredibly creative, but do not usually think of their work as creative or do not have the opportunity to exercise creativity as part of their job role. I think there has been a perception on staff (and in general society) that the artist just hangs out in their own corner and does their own thing, and I have had to make an intentional effort to foster relationships and form collaborations so that the artistic projects that I pursue are not separate from, but rather aligned with and supportive of the work of other staff members at the organization. I think the greatest strength of an artist is to ask questions and to ask “Why not?”, which can be absolutely frustrating to people who are set in their routines. But I am hopeful that asking questions about institutional routines and norms that we take for granted, actually opens up opportunities for more creative problem solving and empathetic human relation.

Olivia: Carol and Yuko’s experiences definitely resonate for me as well. So much has been about the how rather than the what of my work, which has encouraged me to think about my artistic practice in broader, more inclusive terms. Rather than thinking of myself as a theater-maker-who-sometimes-dabbles-in-other-things, I’ve shifted to thinking of myself as a Storyteller, which gives me space to experiment with different processes, media, etc. in service of telling the story-- the why of the work, if you will. Keeping focus on the story that we’re telling (or living!) together allows us to ask more questions, invite more perspectives, and incorporate more creative solutions into the work.

Nella: What processes, practices, tools, methods etc. have you been using in your role as a Rose Fellow? What’s working, shifting, not working, new, different?

Carol: I have been thinking about adrienne maree brown’s phrase a lot, “moving at the speed of trust.” Moving at the speed of trust is actually really difficult and new for me because I am used to getting excited by a million new ideas and then burning out quickly from trying to do all of them! Moving at the speed of trust reminds me that I need to take the time to build relationships and listen to people for the actual needs and possibilities to emerge within a collaborative project. Moving at the speed of trust is also about trusting myself, and trusting the process even when there are days where I feel like I don’t have anything to show for my efforts. I think this is hard for artists because we are so used to “showing”, and not so much used to investing in some of these less visible processes of relationship building. Remembering to move at the speed of trust has also helped me be kinder to myself about how I’m experiencing the pandemic, as I do have off days, and to be kind to my colleagues and peers who might also be experiencing similar upheavals.

Olivia: So much active listening! Carol’s thoughts on “moving at the speed of trust” resonate really deeply for me. As a theater-maker, I am well aware that work done “behind the scenes”  or in rehearsal is crucial to the show and often the process has more impact than the product. Spending time with people - residents, staff, community members- and listening to their stories has given me a much firmer foundation on which to build projects and ongoing relationships. Many of my projects were sidelined by COVID-19, but because of the personal relationships I’d formed by showing up and listening, I was able to successfully collaborate on two quick pivots-- our pandemic PSA posters and intergenerational pen pal projects.

Yuko: I recently took online workshops with Creative Reaction Lab where one course “How Design Thinking Protects White Supremacy” talks about this often exploited need for designers/artists to constantly produce work and show a product. Tuning into these types of educational webinars and discussions have been valuable tools for my learning and active practice in community-engaged art and design projects.

Thanks to my fellow fellows and Enterprise’s team, I came across many of these kinds of initiatives and works from public figures such as Creative Reaction Lab, Design as Protest, MAPC’s Whose Public? Planning and Placemaking for Welcoming Public Spaces webinars, Sasha Costanza-Chock, Poor People’s Campaign, Blade of Grass, Common Field, ACD, and many, many more. Expanding my knowledge and keeping up to date has helped me develop projects and offer insights more thoughtfully, especially on ethical solutions that require people to spend more time developing something more genuine… or nothing at all!

Admittedly, I often become self-aware of the balance between building trusting relationships and appearing too “prescriptive” or not genuine. Not the most academic source, but I recently came across an Instagram post where someone compared an “Active Listening Guide” to a “sociopath’s handbook” because more and more people need to be taught how to empathize, listen, and be approachable in conversations. I see the value in reiterating the importance of holding pleasant conversations, though I also want to be wary of becoming too stiff from adhering to a certain tool or step-by-step guide.

Nella: What questions do you have for your fellow fellows, or what have you already learned from them?

Olivia: I have already learned so much from my fellow fellows (artists and architects alike) about practical, sustainable community engagement, organizing, and activism. I am curious about the perspective of our architectural fellows on where they see the future of our work. Many of the questions I struggle with are around how to proceed ethically with this work. Doing community-engaged work in my hometown is so different than if I were relocating to a new city/state/country. As someone who loves to travel and immerse myself in other environments and cultures, I wonder about how culture will shift as we increasingly connect online and what “community-engagement” will mean in a post-COVID society,

Yuko: I always have many questions and am often embarrassed to ask them - there is so much I’ve learned during this fellowship and many things I still feel I need to catch up on in the community development, design, and housing world. Each fellow comes with such a wide array of experiences and methods and it’s been inspiring/humbling to talk with them openly about their triumphs, struggles, and hopes for the future of their work and the future of “this work” in community development. I’m always excited to listen and learn from their work and research into the various links/videos/books/gifs that they share!

Generally, I think the most important lessons I’ve learned from the fellows involve nuance and patience. Seeing how other fellows navigate difficult conversations and their ability to maneuver through often bureaucratic systems has taught me how to break down these often insurmountable situations into manageable chunks.

Carol: One curiosity I have is how would we like to scale our work in society? By that I mean, would we like to see one fully funded, long term artist position in every CDC in the country? Would we like to see one fully funded, long term artist position in every civil society institution such as transportation, parks, healthcare? Would we like universal healthcare and universal basic income so that we can flit around between projects and trust that whatever we do makes the world better, even if what we do is make weird videos on Tik Tok (my preferred option!)?

Something I talk about a lot with my fellow artist fellows is the economic precarity we feel compared to the architecture fellows, because despite the financial support of the fellowship, as artists we are looking at a life of gig income and freelancing. I truly wonder what a viable economic role for us in society looks like, as I believe that we have so much to offer when it comes to stitching together the social, cultural, and emotional fabric of society.

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