An Artist’s Way of Seeing: Community Engagement in Creative Placemaking

How are artists converting the power and creativity of art into community-led change?

U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack discusses plans for Thunder Valley with Nick Tilsen, executive director of the TVCDC in 2015. Tim Potts, via flickr, CC BY 2.0

There are plenty of popular misconceptions about what an artist is supposed to be. Artists are weirdos, misfits, and social outcasts who thrive on their outsider status. Real artists can’t be bothered with anything as banal as a grant application, let alone community engagement. Anyone who can is not an artist, but a poser, a mainstream sell-out. Not belonging, defying a sense of identity, is the true mark of success.

As with every stereotype, there’s a hint of truth to the notion of the artist as an individualist. But more prevalent in the world of civic engagement are artists who identify strongly with their community, and who feel an urgent need for their output to have a positive and lasting impact. Artistic production can serve as a vehicle for economic empowerment in communities where access to jobs is limited. Artists can reflect the hopes and needs of a community and create opportunities for dialogue and healing. “Artists aren’t ‘the other’. They’re the best of [their communities],” says Michelle Hoffmann, director of education at the Washington Performing Arts. “Artists, particularly neighborhood and community arts makers, absorb what’s going on around them. They think of it differently, they process it.”

That ability to see things differently—to turn emptiness into color and texture, movement into dance, words into poetry—has enormous potential. Creative placemaking projects look beyond the stereotype and identify what the unique vision of artists can contribute to community development initiatives. “Just as we have doctors and accountants, we have artists who contribute to our community,” says Jenny Bilfield, president and CEO at WPA.

More than a splash of color or a welcome bit of entertainment, the artist’s vision is a crucial element in the greater project of growing and nurturing strong communities.

It Doesn’t Cost to Dream

Nick Tilsen had done community mapping before. To the group of concerned Lakota parents in their mid-20s, the technique seemed like the perfect way to start a much-needed conversation about how to ensure a better future for the kids on South Dakota’s impoverished Pine Ridge reservation.

The parents called a meeting of about 50 community members, from elders to little kids, and brought in two blank boards. “What does our community look like?” That was board No. 1. “What do we want our community to look like 20 years from now?” That was board No. 2.

Everyone got to work writing down words and drawing pictures. On the first board, abandoned cars, unemployment, and scenes of violence were interspersed among depictions of sundance trees (used in a traditional Lakota ceremony) and families. On the second board, the sundance trees and families were still there, but among them were images of parks, safe neighborhoods, and schools, a vibrant collage superimposing the best of the past onto a thriving future.

Kids were busy drawing a shiny new YMCA on the second board when Tilsen noticed an elder standing silently to the side. The elder had been there the whole time, arms folded, watching and saying little. But as the kids began to add a swimming pool to their YMCA, the elder finally spoke up. “We can’t do those things. We are poor, and those things cost money.”

The kids stopped their work and looked at the elder. Tilsen registered anger on their faces. Who was this person getting in the way of their dreams? What started as a brainstorming session became an intergenerational push-and-pull between the trauma of the past and the hope for the future. The children busily sketching a new YMCA were challenging the vestiges of a longstanding program of deliberate extermination. Their grandparents and great-grandparents could remember how much had been stolen, how many promises had been broken, and how much their people were owed. Maybe the elder had given up hoping that those debts would ever be repaid. Maybe discouraging the children was a way of protecting them from yet more disappointment. But what struck Tilsen was how boldly the kids clung to their vision.

“It doesn’t cost us a damn penny to dream,” Tilsen remembers thinking as he looked at the kids’ faces. “If we have marginal dreams, we will have marginal results. Our vision has to be as big as the problems we’re faced with.”

A decade after that first gathering, Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation is regenerating an entire community from the ground up, building sustainable dwellings, preparing families for homeownership, implementing models for employee-owned businesses, and providing resources for Lakota youth, including an emergency youth shelter, Lakota language programs, and initiatives to teach kids entrepreneurial skills they can take with them into their adult lives. Creating spaces for local artists and “culture bearers”—defined in a recent report by First People’s Fund as “individuals who pass on the traditions and lifeways of their people”—to thrive is a key part of that vision. “We are Lakota,” says Tilsen, who today is executive director of TVCDC. “We’re in our land, so everything we do, we’ll do through the lens of who we are. Culture, spirituality, art, song . . . When indigenous people do things, they do everything with those elements in there.”

For TVCDC, artistic production is not simply a question of aesthetics. The contribution of artists is a way of ensuring that Lakota principles are reflected in every aspect of the execution of the regenerative community project. Recognizing the importance of that contribution, TVCDC has set up an artist advisory council to inform each phase in the design process, and invested in the creation of a physical space for artists through a $75,000 Our Town grant from the National Endowment of the Arts “to support the design of pow wow grounds, studio spaces, and artist live/work space on Pine Ridge Reservation.”

“The work of these artists build creative capital, enriching life in a way that brings people together through meaningful shared experiences, and illustrates how intrinsic art is to Lakota communities,” writes Kaziah Haviland-Montgomery, Enterprise Rose Architectural fellow at TVCDC. “The artist’s unique ability to synthesize big ideas and create meaningful output will help ensure that the people, culture, and spirituality of the community are represented in the built forms that surround them.”

The use of geometry and color to reflect meaning has been part of Lakota artist Jennifer Irving’s practice since she was in the fourth grade. Her babysitter showed her how to bead earrings, and as she grew older, she took on ever more complicated projects: cuffs, moccasins, capes, her own dance regalia. A childhood hobby grew into a profession, and today, Irving creates beadwork to order. Classes provided by First People’s Fund gave Irving crucial guidance in pricing and marketing strategies. Mentorship nurtured her technique: she learned how to identify the highest quality beads and what materials to use for each kind of project from more experienced beadwork artists. Making work with customers in mind, she takes extreme care choosing just the right color and design. “I became much more intentional about the story I was telling,” Irving explains. “And I also became much more of a perfectionist.”

That same intention is informing the master design plan of the TVCDC regenerative community. More than simply optimizing capacity, the circular arrangement of homes in groups of seven evokes “Lakota teachings of how we live together as tiospaye,” Irving says. “Tiospaye” refers to the extended family, including those who may not necessarily be related by blood. For Irving, these kinds of choices make the difference between having a place to live and having a home. “What is community? Is it really just slam a bunch of houses in there in any way possible?” Irving asks. “Or does it mean more?”

For a community whose identity is so profoundly tied to the land, it has to mean more. And making sure it means more to everyone involved is critical in establishing the kinds of partnerships needed to realize a project of this scale. “The genius of the place lies in the spirit of the place and in the people,” says Tilsen. “It’s our responsibility to maintain that decision-making happens on the ground. Along with that, we also humble ourselves and realize we are not architects, planners, or philanthropists. We know that we need those people to achieve our dream.”

The challenge in building that network is evaluating what each potential partner brings to the table according to the Lakota value system, which emphasizes balance and interconnectedness. TVCDC embodies that system of values in a triple bottom-line “3 Ps” philosophy: prosperity, people, and planet. It’s not enough for a proposed project to bring in economic prosperity; it must also benefit the people in the community and the planet. If a proposed project fails to address any one of the three P’s, then it is immediately off the table, no matter how much revenue is at stake.

“At one time we were negotiating a partnership where this inventor had filed for a patent to use recycled used tires as lightweight fill for the building of roads,” Tilsen recalls. The idea seemed a good match at first: it would stop tires from being burned and disposed of in landfills, it could create jobs, and there was potential for revenue. “On the surface, it was like, great!”

But then came a proposal to use tires to fill land under buildings, too. The tires would end up deeper underground—and dangerously close to the groundwater. This signaled to TVCDC that this partner hadn’t grasped the 3-P concept and that it was time to walk away.

“We left millions of dollars on the table,” says Tilsen. “We bowed out of a relationship that didn’t work because they didn’t share our values.”

The right partnerships have a few things in common. They come with intention and humility, not product. They take their time building trust. And they leave ego at the door. The Northwest and the Bush foundations, both early supporters of TVCDC, are, according to Tilsen, “longtime leaders” in prioritizing the interests of indigenous communities in the Dakotas and Minnesota. The Native American Heritage Foundation helped introduce TVCDC to worker-owned cooperatives around the country that could provide models for generating community wealth. And the collaborative design team working on the master plans for TVCDC’s Regenerative Community, including architecture firm BNIM and Pyatt Studio based in Boulder, Colorado, and longtime partners KLJ Engineers, is, “an example of how architects and engineers and planners should be interacting everywhere,” Tilsen says.

“When people first become a partner with us, because we allow them to dive into their role, we make sure they understand the full vision of what we’re trying to do here,” says Tilsen. “They cannot be a part of this project unless they have bought into the bigger vision. We say that straight up. If you don’t understand the bigger picture, you probably aren’t the right partner because this is layers of complicatedness is what it comes down to.”

That complicatedness is rooted in far more than any single building plan or grant proposal. In the wider world of design and architecture, it’s not unusual to find exactly those kinds of artists that fit the individualist stereotype: ambitious, ego-driven visionaries eager to make their mark on the field. For the TVCDC design team, making a mark means serving as a conduit for realizing Lakota culture in a built environment. The Thunder Valley regenerative plan will be featured at the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Museum in By the People: Designing a Better America this fall as an example of not only innovative eco-friendly design, but of what can happen when collaboration is based on respect, shared values, and cultural consciousness. Building the future with this vision in mind, steps can be made toward repairing the past.

In 2010 the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development awarded TVCDC a $996,100 grant “to build economic competitiveness by connecting housing with good jobs, quality schools and transportation.” This grant would become the first sustainable regional development plan to be adopted by the Oglala Sioux Tribe. In preparation for the grant period, TVCDC put out a call to elected tribal officials, program directors, nonprofit innovators, elders and youth from all over the region to participate in a planning session in the Porcupine District in central Pine Ridge. Eighty people attended, an impressive number for the rural area. Sub-groups were formed to address transportation, housing, arts and culture, youth programs, education, and the economy, and participants got to work sharing their ideas for the community’s future.

After the session, an elder in her 90s came up to Tilsen and took him by the arm: “Tȟakóža [Grandchild], that was the best meeting I ever went to.” She explained that she lived on the reservation her whole life. “No one ever asked me what I want for my future. Nobody ever asked me what I wanted for a job, a home. This was the first time in my life I was in a place where somebody asked me.”

“I realized that there was power here,” says Tilsen. “There’s actually healing happening through this. We have to steward that, too.”

Something Out of Nothing

Healing a community is in itself a form of art. And, as in much of the arts, it’s hard to know how things will look at the outset. The results reflect the integrity of the process as much as, and sometimes more than, they do the original intention.

“I will always be capable of making something out of nothing,” artist Tendani Mpulubusi El declares in the opening of a digital profile produced for the Community Voice Project in 2012. The video captures Mpulubusi El walking alone down a street in his hometown, Washington, D.C. He moves at an even pace, eyes focused directly ahead. Cut to Mpulubusi El hovering over a group of children at a table cluttered with colorful beads. A young girl is showing off a new pair of earrings.

“How did it begin?” he asks himself in voiceover. “Where did mere ‘creativity’ turn into ‘strive for social and economic justice’?”

For a career like Mpulubusi El’s, that beginning could’ve been anywhere. He’s been making art and music since he was in elementary school. He started a band, and when the band needed a look, he painted them T-shirts. When his T-shirts became popular in school, particularly among girls, he learned to sew. By the age of 15, he started his own clothing line. He went from painting fabric to painting murals, and murals introduced him to mosaics. Then came jewelry and mask-making. Then graphic design. Then film.

“Young people need to be energetic. They need to be expressing themselves creatively,” Mpulubusi El noted during an August 2015 segment of the Kojo Nnamdi radio show, where he is a frequent guest. “You’ve got creative energy, but if you can’t express it in a way that’s productive, you express it in a way that’s destructive.”

That destructiveness made itself all too evident that summer. With the highest murder rate in four years, Washington, D.C., saw a baffling spike in violent crime. A total of 119 of the 162 homicides took place in Wards 5, 7, and 8 in southeast D.C. There were a number of theories as to what was to blame: gang activity, synthetic drugs, illegal firearms. But Mpulubusi El recognized there was a lack of resources in the community. There were plenty of solutions, but none that got at the heart of deeply rooted problems like poverty and unemployment. The prospect of a few new jobs offered little to people who didn’t have access to educational opportunities, or to “returning citizens” whose history of incarceration might stand in the way of getting even as far as a job interview.

“When you’re in a community where people haven’t had as much opportunity, there are a lot of structural barriers that would prevent them from reaching that income level,” Mpulubusi El says. His solution is the one that has worked for him since high school: entrepreneurship. “If you can start an enterprise or a business, you’re not going to a job interview. You’re dictating your own future in a different way.”

With creative industries on the rise in the District, Mpulubusi El sees arts not only a means of positive self-expression, but a viable path to economic prosperity. “Media arts, technical production, urban agriculture . . . those industries are things you can get into without being held back by a college degree or prison sentence.”

In 2012, with support from ArtPlace via D.C.’s Office of Planning, Mpulubusi El created Tendani Art Place, one of several “pop-up” arts initiatives that temporarily transformed vacant and underused properties around the city into creative spaces. Originally conceived as a studio for painting and mosaics, Tendani Art Place became an intergenerational “community drop cloth,” a place where locals of all generations could gather to make art. “Children would come in after school, a guy would come in and play the keyboard, people painting, coloring,” he recalls. “It was a real organic space where the community would feel welcome.” The popularity of the studio underscored a scarcity of access to creative outlets and prompted Mpulubusi El to see what more he could do to turn his own goals as an artist into an endeavor that could have greater impact.

The result was the Ward 8 Arts and Culture Council, a nonprofit that uses the arts as a vehicle for economic development and social justice. Among W8ACC’s range of programming—from music festivals to aquaponic technology—is Innovate 8, an initiative aimed at “incubating” new businesses, providing training, technical assistance and resources to eight new projects for a period of eight years. “This community has been suffering from generations and generations of economic disenfranchisement,” Mpulubusi El explains. “Now that there’s investment coming, people are concerned about displacement. In order to not be displaced, you can’t just only keep things affordable. In order for people to live and sustain, they’ve got to start to make more money.”

And investment is on its way. Today, Ward 8 is at the center of growing tensions between longtime residents and developers. Washington DC Economic Partnership envisions a “vibrant neighborhood” including 1,400 new mixed-income units and 55,000-square feet of retail space, a plan residents worry will result in the displacement of some 250 low-income families. In February members of the nonprofit Empower DC disrupted a press conference with Mayor Muriel Bowsers to protest construction of a new $55 million sports arena in the area. They demanded to know how the new arena, slated to open in 2018, would benefit local residents contending with poor schools, lack of employment opportunities, and persistent crime.

It’s exactly the kind of scenario Irfana Jetha Noorani hopes the 11th Street Bridge Park Project will avoid.

“Development often happens to the communities,” says Noorani, who took on the role of development and community outreach officer at the 11th Street Bridge Park Project two years ago. “We’re flipping that on its head. Our work is about highlighting the community and culture that exist there, designing a space that elevates the interests of the people who are there.”

The bridge park is the brainchild of Harriet Tregoning, formerly D.C.’s planning director, who imagined turning a disused bridge spanning the Anacostia River into a park complex, complete with performance spaces and recreational areas. Tregoning enlisted the help of Scott Kratz, then vice president of education at the National Building Museum, to lead the project. Kratz, working in partnership with Washington Performing Arts, spent the first two years of his tenure organizing community meetings and visiting faith-based groups in a process Noorani calls “crowdsourcing”—asking questions about whether Tregoning’s vision resonated with local communities, and whether it was something they could see benefiting them in the long term. Their feedback was then worked into the park’s design plan.

Noorani recalls one such visit Kratz made to the Barry Farm neighborhood. Kratz asked what sort of programming residents would like to see at the site. “One of the gentlemen there said, ‘Our kids don’t have access to the water.’” The comment led to the inclusion of a kayak launch in the final design that people in Ward 8 could use.

WPA, with its 50-year history of bringing art and music into local schools on both sides of the Anacostia River, helped facilitate those early conversations. Educational partners and cultural leaders were consulted for ideas about how Bridge Park programming could highlight the traditions and arts practices already happening in their communities. Bringing such a range of perspectives on board has challenged WPA to prioritize responsiveness over control, a careful balancing act that President and CEO Jenny Bilfield feels is crucial to making sure local artists and the places they call home stand to benefit once ground is broken on the project. “When artists can’t afford to live in an area, then the arts are not visible within a social group. Then people get used to living without [the arts] in their lives,” explains Bilfield. “The jobs for artists that the 11th Street Bridge Park Project is supporting make sure that the artists’ voices and visibility are part of economic discussions, equity discussions.”

When Mpulubusi El got word of plans for the Bridge Park, he was immediately fascinated. “Just architecturally, the nature of the project was crazy interesting to me,” he remembers. “But when we started getting to where this was serious, this couldn’t just be a conversation, we started looking at the social and economic impact.”

Keeping the interests of the community ahead of market forces is an impossible race given how fast property values respond to the promise of desirable new amenities. According to an article in The Washington Post last January, Bridge Park is already being touted as a selling point in local real estate listings. The 11th Street Bridge Park Project is bracing for the economic shifts by creating an equitable development plan intended to address not only housing displacement, but cultural displacement. Noorani admits to feeling that the pressure is on.

“We have a very big sense of urgency about putting tools in place for the community now so that as economic forces start to come into play, we’ve already gotten a head start,” she says. But WPA’s Director of Education Michelle Hoffmann is confident, placing her faith in the long track record in collaborative work that has helped WPA manage changing trends in the city. If anything, the challenges ahead are a valuable opportunity “before there’s an actual structure, to help create deep connections and really think about what the principles are that people want to share with each other.”

Mpulubusi El praises the 11th Street Bridge Park Project for manifesting this intention through festivals and other community engagement events they have brought into the local community. Still, he has the future of W8ACC’s incubator participants in mind. Will the Bridge Park offer their new ventures space to thrive?

“The real test will come when we see how resources are distributed. If the businesses and organizations who have been here making impact before the project began economically benefit from the project, then we’ll know this is something that’s community-based,” he says. “If this becomes an opportunity for outsiders to come in and benefit more than us, then it’s a hard lesson learned about displacement.”

Inner Light, Human Right

At the 2015 ArtPlace Summit, Dennis Scholl, the outgoing vice president of the Knight Foundation, appealed to an audience by asking that they get in touch with policy makers. Go to a town hall meeting, or pay a visit to the mayor. “I know we don’t like to be politically involved,” he admonished, “but go out and take the time because your currency goes up. You will be a bigger stakeholder in your community.”

Letters from former D.C. mayor and Ward 8 Councilman Marion Barry posted on W8ACC’s website suggest that Mpulubusi El had this figured out some time ago. “I believe this unique and feasible approach to addressing the social and economic needs of Ward 8 residents and businesses can be successful because it was created by Ward 8 residents,” the letter reads. “If Innovate 8 is successfully implemented, it will even benefit those beyond the borders of Ward 8.”

The same can be said for TVCDC, whose vision for a self-sustaining, eco-friendly community is forging a model not only for other First Nations, but for rural communities and urban environments all over the country. The artists working on these projects are political as a matter of survival, of necessity. They were involved in creative placemaking—or, as Tilsen more aptly puts it, “creative placekeeping”—long before it became a buzzword. In both cases, fostering the inherent genius of the community’s people is the driving force.

“As a community, we need to make sure we’re doing our part,” Mpulubusi El says. “What are we doing to secure what we demand socially and economically? I put that challenge back to the people.”

His digital profile ends where it begins. The artist is strolling down the sidewalk, only now a smile brightens his face. The answer to the question he posed at the start is a spoken word riff: “Inner light—that’s cool! That’s what’s up! Inner light, shining bright. Human right. All right! All right!”

1 COMMENT

  1. This article has inspired me to share it with others and include it in my new job with Americorps/Vista. I will be working with communities to bring people together to create solutions for their homeless, those without hope, those who need safety and a voice. I like the philosophy of including people, prosperity, planet.

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