August 11, 2020

How Community, Healing and Art Can Lead Us Into the Future

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Woman teaching students

Pictured: Chandra Christmas-Rouse facilitates a design charrette at the Undesign the Redline Youth Summit in Nov 2019.

How Community, Healing and Art Can Lead Us Into the Future: A Conversation With Chandra Christmas-Rouse

“What if...our neighborhoods gave us everything we need to realize our collective visions?”

Chandra Christmas-Rouse is a social justice advocate, visual artist, environmental sustainability expert, urban planner, daughter, drummer….among many other things. As a program officer with Enterprise Community Partners in Chicago, she is an active partner to local community development organizations, bringing resources and technical support to help advance community-based priorities, as well as contributing to our National Initiatives focused on cultural resilience and healing.

Prior to working at Enterprise, she studied urban planning at Harvard University, where her thesis project explored “Race, Space and the Poetics of Planning.” In her role at Enterprise, as well as in her creative practice, Chandra continues to weave the questions of who makes space for whom. Chandra has been selected as a RaD Lab + Outside the Walls Fellow with a cohort of artists in Chicago focused on the intersection of art and social justice, which will support the arts-based work that she is dedicated to that is so complementary to her role at Enterprise. 

Our conversation surfaced many important lessons, especially for those of us working in community development, to take to heart. Three of those are: 

  • There is great momentum to be found by simply orienting conversations about the future around strengths and values rather than problems.
  • There are people - in particular Black women - who are amazingly effective at creating spaces that are essential to community well-being. And those individuals and spaces remain mostly unseen and invalidated by planners and other professionals.
  • Art and artists in collaboration with community members can create space for storytelling, imagination, and possibility. 

Nella Young, Enterprise senior program director, National Initiatives: Tell me more about your fellowship.

Chandra Christmas-Rouse: The Fellowship is called the RaD Lab+Outside the Walls Fellowship - RaD stands for research and development. Outside the Walls refers to the fact that it supports community based artmaking - that it doesn't exist within a traditional art gallery. It’s a 2-year fellowship with a range of support for our process, growth and network building [at the intersection of art and social justice]. It is an opportunity to both pursue a project in my neighborhood and be part of a peer group of artists who I really admire. 

NY: You have funding for researching, developing and testing an idea that addresses a social justice issue pertinent to your neighborhood community.  What project did you propose? What are you imagining? 

CCR: As a planner, my racial justice issue is disinvestment, which I am framing as the systemic neglect and removal of resources from Black neighborhoods. So, an entry point for this conversation would be to play scenes of disinvestment in reverse - to make a space to talk about how strange and violent the process of disinvestment is and to have generative conversation that empowers people to intervene. 

The first part of it is to humanize what is a series of very personal moments - of evictions, of goodbyes, of community meetings that quickly changed locations or times, so [that residents missed participating in them] - to really say that this is a storyline. And if we play it in reverse, we might be able to have different conversations about it. In addition to highlighting the ways in which we can talk about this investment, I want to hold space for residents to be able to collectively imagine a new spatial future for their community.

The project is centered in Bronzeville, which is where I live, and expands beyond Bronzeville to encompass the neighboring communities. More broadly, it explores how we understand a “South-sider” identity and being able to transverse neighborhood boundaries around the South Side to think about this collective identity while also acknowledging the unique histories that exist within each of them. 

NY: You talk about dialogue and story and your work is also very visual - what does it look like?

CCR: My creative practice centers around multimedia cartography and storytelling.  People remember places that no longer exist, but that operate in their memory.  How do you visualize that through a series of personal collections of videos of that space and then weave them together?

That can looks like scenes - being able to have interactive texts that animate spaces both past and present and future...And that can also look like actual maps that folks build collectively through autobiographical accounts - like being able to remember someone's route to school when they were young and have that be a form of mapping that tells a story. 

My personal goal is to [have the artwork] reflect back the very best of my community, and that can exist in lots of different forms. So I will use my practice to guide what that will look like in terms of collecting footage for a video collage. But I think ultimately how it comes together will be informed by what community is interested in.

Students chalk a sidewalk

Pictured: Participating in Imagine Chicago 2020, an art and action day around imagining alternatives to public safety in her neighborhood in July 2020.

NY: It sounds like the process is also about creating space and being in relationship with people. Tell me more about that.

CCR: The core question to my project is “What if, when we dream, our neighborhoods gave us everything we need to realize our collective visions?” 

I think a lot of what that engagement looks like is dialogue and dreaming, and being able to collectively process and [be heard]. It's about learning in public, and being able to heal out loud. It’s about processes that we tend to think of as very individualized experiences and making them this collective space.

That looks like using the gathering spaces that already exist in a community. It looks like using mediums and formats for engagement that folks already are using and being able to amplify those. For example, I live on a boulevard, and it's this incredible resource - having this greenway that runs through my community. Over the long weekend, there were a lot of cookouts that happened along the greenway - so [I’m thinking about] what it means to reimagine that green space to be able to hold all of the activities and conversations and ideas that come out of those gatherings and events. What does it mean to design greenways around cookouts, versus people using greenways to have cookouts. That's one example...where you can have the built environment responding to the values and ways of being that residents are already experiencing and reconfiguring every day.

NY: How do you think about a community-based project in the context of the pandemic and the need for social distancing?

CCR: Having just done the report on Community Engagement during COVID, I’m thinking about what public engagement during COVID looks like for this RaDLab + Beyond the Walls project. How can we open up different ways of convening?  

I am really interested in phone banks as a way to collect stories particularly for communities that are further on the margins and what that means to have potentially elderly folks or disabled folks be able to engage more meaningfully in a protected way.  Another example of possibility I see is how parking lots in my neighborhood are being used in all kinds of ways. At any given point, I can walk past a cardio kickboxing class or a classroom where someone is teaching kids and using the building’s wifi, or older men are hanging out - they bring all of their cars in a circle  and are able to be in community with each other. 

There are these incredible remixes of space in this moment that I'm really excited to document and learn about so that spaces can also be responsive to continued - and exacerbated - needs. There are all these very discriminatory practices that are now being responded to in innovative new ways out of a means of survival. [So I want to see the evolution] from a place of surviving to thriving.

NY: What has your artistic practice looked like? How does the scale and the support of this project build on your past work - or stretch you?

CCR: In my thesis project...I was interviewing Black women creative practitioners and being able to take different pieces of their work to create video collages…that reflected the legibility of their practices....And all of them creating material, conceptual and imaginative maps of Chicago. I want those strategies to be able to inform urban planning and development processes in the city. 

Being able to amplify the work of those who have such an intimate relationship with space and planning in ways that I didn't see in the classroom. Often, [from the perspective of planning curriculum] Blackness and urban spaces were in tension with each other. It was always the city displacing and discarding Black life. And so this previous project allowed me to talk about how that insight and knowledge allows for other ways of imagining the future of cities. I interviewed and archived their particular practices and what we can learn from them, in order to inform a future that works for all people in a city. It’s about dismantling exclusive practices and creating a platform to amplify other practices that have always existed and will continue.

NY: You're not necessarily insisting on a real separation between being an artist and being a planner -- where does your artistic identity come from?

CCR: My artistic practice is very much rooted in how I understood my decision to go to design school. From a pedagogical standpoint, I found that often policy schools started the conversation with “how the world is” and gave you tools based on the status quo to begin to create a new world or a new policy or a new strategy. For me, design school reversed that process and started with “what the world can be” and then worked backwards from that. 

So, if I wanted to propose an anti-racist city, I would start with my vision of what that looks like through different mediums, to be able to showcase that and to make people feel that experience. That's through the rhetoric and the visuals and weaving them together into a narrative so that you know it's a world that is possible for all of us. 

It’s less about analyzing disparities and more about being able to weave together the assets of a community and begin to tell different stories about it and also bring along the traditions, the cultures, the values that help us fundamentally believe that it is possible.

Undesign the Redline exhibit

Pictured: Chandra working with youth summit participants to translate lessons from the Undesign the Redline exhibit into local strategies in Chicago.

NY: Where do you get your sense of possibility?

CCR: I gained a lot through my activism and my community. So much of that work was about designing systems and organizing people - from campaigns at school to organizing protests to being a part of different organizations like Operation Understanding DC - that specifically focused on ending anti-Black racism and anti-Semitism. I have been reflecting on how we must create new possibilities in order for us to dismantle systems and build new ones. My art has been informed by those activism spaces because it was a call to action, a collective dreaming and direct action in new ways.

And in terms of an embodied practice, drumming has been my very first medium - being able to really improvise with my djembe and be part of that tradition that has been passed down for generations. The rhythm of drumming extends to how I problem solve, how I think about alternative futures. The first activist I saw improvising and building was my mom. Learning about her work with the Black Panther Party and the Congressional Black Caucus. I think all of that showed me what's possible when you fight for a world that doesn't exist yet.

NY: What is your sense of possibility for the world of community development, specifically, in terms of how we become contributors to making anti-racist cities?

CCR: Part of it is about proximity to the spaces that we work with and advocate for. Often as a community development intermediary, we focus on what’s missing in a community. So, we try to dismantle racism because we want to address the problem. This means that the solution is to be “anti” that dominant thinking. With my project and being community-based, it's about “how do we continue to build on our values, traditions and cultures?” That conversation is based in abundance instead of scarcity and in assets instead of deficits. It is much more about pro-liberation, pro-joy, pro-healing. All of the practices that allow communities, my community, to be our very best. 

I'm trying to create new axes for us to talk about the ways that communities got to where they are, and where they can go in the future. And that includes [carrying forward] the traditions and cultures that have persisted throughout.

I envision having a spatial imaginary that exists in the affirmative, that validates and amplifies the very essence of Black neighborhoods in all of their diversity and genius.

NY: So much of the work you're talking about as an artist and planner is about a sense of possibility, a sense of inherent strength and creating new worlds, and I wonder, in what ways has artistic practice for you been a source of personal strength or healing?

CCR:  It's really about exploration without fear. It's where I've been able to...strengthen my voice. I think there are certain concepts that can only be translated in art form and certain feelings that can only be expressed in art. That really anchors my values and enables me to lead with conviction.

NY: Thank you! I’m so grateful to be able to work alongside you, to learn about your fellowship as it unfolds, and to see it influence our work at Enterprise. 

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