A New Twist in Making a Better World

A New Twist in Making a Better World 1

Vong Lee wears two hats at the same time as a Hip Hop artist and community organizer working with an inner city neighborhood in St. Paul.

Here’s a fresh idea to stir some strategic creativity into the important yet sometimes daunting and draining work of making the world a better place— artist organizers. Just like it sounds, an artist organizer unites the imagination and inspiration needed to conjure art with the vision and dedication to social empowerment that characterize successful organizing campaigns.

Artist organizers have been matched with eight community groups in Minnesota thanks to a partnership between the Springboard for the Arts, the Twin Cities office of theLocal Initiative Support Corporation (LISC) and the City of St. Paul through Irrigate (an artist-led initiative in inner city neighborhoods that’s enlisted 600 community artists).

“Artists have ways of working, seeing, engaging, and animating that can be translated to community development to help people envision what they want,” explains LISC’s Erik Takeshita. “This is not just about artists responding to their muse, but about responding to a community and committing to an organization.”

The program, thought to be the first of its kind in the country, started in 2013 with artist organizers joining four organizations working in St. Paul.

  • Frogtown Neighborhood Association, a voice for community action in a racially and economically diverse neighborhood;
  • Project for Pride in Living, a community developer creating affordable housing;
  • Trust for Public Land’s local office, which helps create great common spaces in urban neighborhoods; and
  • St. Paul Public Schools.

Pleased by early results of this experiment, Springboard for the Arts initiated four more artist organizer positions with the Asian Economic Development Association in the St. Paul’s Little Mekong neighborhood; The Cornerstone Group, a developer working in disinvested neighborhoods; and two organizations in rural Fergus Falls, Minnesota.

At first it might seem that inward-looking artists have little in common with outward-looking organizers. But Laura Zabel, executive director of Springboard, notes, “Artists, like organizers, need to be able to see beauty in chaos—that’s a real asset in approaching community development. Many artists want to use their skills to be of service to the places they live in and care about.”

Springboard’s Jun-Li Wang, who has been both an organizer and artist for many years, adds, “This feels like something entirely new. There’s now a critical mass of artists who want to make an impact in the world. ”

Different than artists-in-residence, who typically explore their own individual visions, artist organizers seek to ignite other people’s creativity and use art as a method of community engagement, as well as pursuing their own work.

Vong Lee, artist organizer at the Frogtown Neighborhood Association (FNA), is a poet and hip-hop artist who performs nationally and has recorded four CDs expressing the Hmong-American experience. “As an artist you are usually focused on what you can bring to the table,” he says. “But here, my role is to help everyone come to the table so their voices can be heard.”

Last summer Lee organized a series of festivals in vacant lots that have cropped up across the Frogtown neighborhood since the foreclosure crisis. They featured performers, art shows, produce stands, information tables staffed by local organizations, and break dance lessons for the kids. “We wanted to show that the low points in the neighborhood, where people feel a sense of loss over homes that have been demolished, could become high points,” he explains.

Now he’s staging art happenings at foreclosed homes the neighborhood group is refurbishing to illuminate positive changes in Frogtown. Lee also partnered with other artists to create record beats that neighborhood people can use to make their own hip-hop creations and then record them for free at local recording studios.

A project conceived by Oskar Ly, a singer-songwriter and fashion design artist working with Project for Pride in Living (PPL), opened up a long-abandoned car showroom so that people living nearby could paint it any way they imagined. “This taught me about the impact of the arts as a way to connect people in a community who usually don’t intersect,” she says.

“What a great way to activate the community!” PPL’s Associate Director of Real Estate Development Chris Dettling says about the artist organizer projects. “Oskar was able to do things I couldn’t have done, or even thought of.”