Public Art Spotlight: Jeena Chang

Jeena Chang | photo by Mel Taing

I had the privilege of sitting down with this year’s Newell Flather Leadership in Public Art Awardee for Unsung Leadership in the field, Jeena Chang. Jeena Chang is the Director of Community Programs & Design at Asian Community Development Corporation (ACDC). She leads ACDC’s “ANCHOR” placekeeping strategy, which uses arts and culture to shape policy, planning, and development, with the goal of community self-determination. Join me in celebrating Jeena by listening to her story on who inspires her leadership and what she has learned building community connection and healing possibilities through public art making.

New England Foundation for the Arts · Public Art Spotlight: Jeena Chang

Kamaria Carrington (KC): Hi, I am so thrilled to be here with the 2023 Newell Flather Awardee for Unsung Leadership in the field of Public Art, Jeena Chang. Jeena Chang is the Director of Community Programs and Design at Asian Community Development Corporation [ACDC]. And, what else do you want us to know about you, Jeena, as a person, not just a resume, and what has shaped your understanding of what public art is and what it can be, especially as a place-keeping strategy?

Jeena Chang (JC): Well, first of all, I'm so excited to be here with you, Kamaria, and just so in awe and thankful for this award and affirmation. Going to your question, I think two things really shaped me. The first is really growing up as a child of immigrants. We moved around a lot growing up and I watched my mom work, both my parents, but especially my mom worked really hard—12, 14-hour days—and she didn't really have the space and the luxury of making friends. And I think about that a lot, about how lonely that experience is, raising kids, being in a new country, working as an entrepreneur.

And so when I think about the way I wish our public spaces were, I think about how we are designing for relationships and so that people like my mom can be in a space and it's designed in a way that people can make friends and make connections and feel known and cared for. And to feel invited, away from a really individualistic experience in America, into the collective and have a safety net of a collective. And so I think that really shapes, I think a lot about my mom and my grandma when thinking about who I'm hoping these spaces could be for. I wish that she had that actually, growing up.

And I think the second big experience for me was as a youth worker, I started at ACDC actually as AmeriCorps, and I had no idea-

KC: Oh, wow!

JC: Yeah, I started in AmeriCorps and it was a one-year commitment and it just worked out beautifully where I was loving what I was doing and the org was able to hire a full-time youth worker after, and it just aligned in that way. And my role evolved at the organization starting at youth work and then organizing young people and thinking about how, actually I wish these things that we do with our young people, we could do with our adults, like when I think about my mom when I was growing up. And then that's where we transferred all the things we do with the young people into adults, because I think we learn a lot and the best from when we work with young people.

Three Asian kids blow bubbles and sit on a red circular public art installation.
Residence Lab _Oasis_ (ft. Sampan by Ponnapa Prakkamakul, Warren Wong, and Henry Ko) | photo by Tarik Bartel

So, I think that identity as a youth worker has really shaped me because it's humbling and it's fun and joyful. And there are times when, in my first year, I had a young person come up to me after a workshop and be like, "Can you not do it like that? That was boring," in a more generous way, but just straight up. And- 

KC: Yeah [laughing]! 

JC: It's just like, you need that. We need that feedback, that honest, the honesty and relationships to grow, the safety also, the young people really cared for me and I really cared for them. And they would also just remind me of, I'm a full person. In that year in AmeriCorps, I was working part-time at a bubble tea shop and babysitting, and it was just trying to make it all work financially. And I still joke about this with them, I don't let them off the hook. They're grown now, and one of them is actually my coworker. 

KC: Oh my God. That's so sweet. 

JC: But I remember one time, yeah, it's so crazy. But one time after a long evening, I was walking with two of my youth and they were like, "Jeena, are you dating?" I think- 

KC: Excuse me? 

JC: I was like, "What?" They're like, "I think you should go out on some dates. You're in the office late." And they were just really being like, "Go get a life." I mean they didn't say that in that way, but in a way that they were caring for me and just reminding me to have balance when I was in a stage in my life where I felt like, "Oh, I've got to do more," or, "I've got to not let people down." And I felt like there was so much to do. 

KC: Yeah. 

JC: And yeah, I think that experience in youth work of just being challenged, just being in relationships where there's mutual care and respect, just being reminded, "Hey, there are ways that I got to keep growing," but it's also not a performance-based growth. It's like, "Hey, let's do more for each other and with each other." And so those years I really carry with me now. 

KC: That's incredible. And also, I think contributes to the next question of, how would you describe your leadership style today? And how have you seen your leadership style evolve over time? And you can bring in examples from your work if you want.

JC: Yeah. I think I would describe it as a work in progress. Yeah. Aren't we all? But I would really describe my leadership style as one that's growing. Hopeful. Yeah. I really believe we're all capable of growing and capable of transformation, but we don't really transform just because we learned new things, just because the info's out there, we do it because there are transformative relationships that we're in, I feel. And so when I think about leadership, I think about ways to set up a culture that allows for transformative relationships or ways to have someone feel cared for and coached into something.

Outside, in a park, three woman poke around an opened box with produce inside it.
Chinatown Story Cart (Crystal Bi _ Lily Xie) | photo by Mel Taing

And also, I had a really great conversation with someone from the Food Project, and he was reminding me, let's push against this idea of the hero, the superstar.  And yeah, as much as this award is celebrating a person, like me right now, it is actually because the impact and the potential for transformation, all of that is because there's a collective and there's a system of relationships working together, a system of people and groups working together. Yeah.

KC: And can you name some of those folks who've shaped and inspired you? Those circles that you're in?

JC: Well, I think about child me first, people who really shaped me and how I want to be as a human, and those people are my grandma. She immigrated to America when she was 56 and she did small business. And I would ask her, "Hey, what kind of characteristics do you think are important for me in looking for a partner?" This is before I found my partner. And she was like, "Oh, they don't even have to be smart." I was like, "Really," which is more countercultural I think, especially for an immigrant Asian elder sometimes. And she was like, "Yeah, that's not even important. Back in my day when people were smart, it was important because it was good for the community. They did things for other people. And these days when you're smart, you just look out for yourself, so what good is smarts?" And I think, yeah, I'm just like, "grandma, these nuggets!" She's always saying things like that that I'm like, "Yeah, you're so right." And it's grounding me a lot in who I want to be.

An elderly Asian woman and a young Asian woman pose together. The elderly woman wears a fuzzy sweater and the young woman wears a tan scarf. They're outside by some shrubs at sunset.
Jeena Chang's grandmother Deok Im Lee and Jeena Chang | photo by Beloved Bliss

So I think first and foremost, my grandma who thinks about what value and how is she helping someone and being hardworking, but not just for your own success, but thinking about who you're investing into. And she's also super faith-filled, and she always talks about how God has healed her and given her space for joy and all these things when her circumstances didn't allow. And I think about the kind of leader I want to be, and it's tiring and there are really tough, challenging conversations, setbacks. And I think about wanting to be grounded enough where people's experience with me is still joyful, and they wouldn't describe me as just a tough person or a hardened person or a tired person, sometimes, but hopefully not the dominating.

And then other leaders, I really want to shout out my boss, Angie [Liou]. I think, especially in real estate development, you don't get to see a lot of women of color. You really don't. And to see her really take up space in those conversations, it's really empowering. And then also to experience it where she takes up minimal space in our relationship and in the org where she really is so attuned to being generous. I think a lot about how I'm grateful for that and I'm looking for that.

KC: Yeah, it sounds like you've had the opportunity to be in relationship with folks over long periods of time, since you've been at ACDC for several years that are oriented around generosity and oriented around collective and maybe even collective good.

JC: Yeah.

KC: And that sounds really nourishing. O h, this makes so much sense, actually. And also, just to lift up as a community organizer, specifically why public art and creative placemaking? Why are those things important to you and the work that you do at ACDC?

JC: Yeah, that is such a big question.

KC: Yep. Yeah. 

JC: Okay. Well, I'll break it down a couple ways. I think one way is, why is public art important for ACDC as a community developer? When we talk about development and land and spatial justice, there's power in permanence. There's power in stability. And long time ago when we were first really trying to articulate our place-keeping strategy, someone asked, "Well, if you're going to do public art, and especially if it's temporary public art, where's the teeth in it?" 

And I really had to sit with it.  And the way that I can best describe it in terms of impacting permanent spatial justice, development, land use, community design in that way, I think of it as art and culture is the soft power. Art and culture builds soft power in the neighborhood that we can leverage into hard power. And hard power looks like site control, hard power looks like economic investment. It can look like political power. We need the soft power because that is what is proactive. We get to shape and imagine what could be in our neighborhood. You're not responding to a development proposal, you're not responding to the city's plan, you're not saying what you don't want. You get to proactively, we get to proactively say what we do want, what we do imagine even without the resources yet. And it's really like you're putting it out there in the art and saying, "This is a not yet permanent, but will be." And we've articulated it and we've shown the potential of it and we've shown the desire for it, the demand for it through this public art. And so, I think in that way, public art is so critical for this process of development. 

At night, a young Asian girl looks at a projection, while sitting on a jungle gym.
Films at The Gate (led by ACDC Youth) | photo by Steven Sulewski

And I think another reason why it's so important is in terms of the emotional labor. Development in Chinatown, for context, takes seven to 10 years. It is long. And you're asking people who needed something years ago to really be waiting another five years, another decade, and that's painful. It's really discouraging. And public art allows us to build trust and it allows us to change hearts about a space. So, one example is there was this abandoned lot that was privately owned, and the owner has been sitting on this lot for 20 something years. And they do that a lot of times in Chinatown because they'll pay the taxes on it because they know that when they can sell it or when they develop it eventually, they're going to make a lot of money off of Chinatown land. And so, it becomes this hazard and really uninvested misused space in the neighborhood that's not providing anything for the neighborhood.

There was this one lot a lot of people called the piss lot because people would literally use it as a public urinal and it reeked. And our young people were the ones who said, "This is a space I want to grow food in."

KC: Wow. Okay.

JC: Yeah. They had $100 budget and they were like, "We can start a community garden on this land that we do not own." And I was sitting there a little stressed, but this is exactly why we need young people, because when we talk about radical imagination, they are pushing it. And so, they hatched this idea first. And when we asked other folks, like the adults, there are a lot of adults who play chess or cards right next to the space. So, we would go to them and we'd ask, "Hey, what do you want to see in this space? The young people want to see a garden." One grandma in particular said, "Don't waste your time. People talk about doing something on that land all the time and nothing ever happens. That's a waste of time."

And I think it's a learned, that's a learned attitude of being disappointed. And what's really healing about public art is that it's responsive. You actually are taking your idea, you're taking the residents' ideas seriously and their vision seriously, and you're making something of it, and you're building trust and you're showing your ideas, your words, your dreams have power in this neighborhood. They do amount to things, and then we're changing hearts about the potential of the space. It's not a piss lot. It's actually a garden.

KC: Yeah. I'm assuming it was transformed into a garden.

JC: Yeah. Well, okay, so that's the other thing. That's the up and down of this work where we showed the potential and through the public art and through our collaborations at the Pao Art Center artists, residents, our young people, we were able to actually win half a million dollars from the city, and that's the example of soft power for hard power.

KC: Yes.

JC: It was temporary. We didn't own anything. We won half a million dollars in this really competitive application to try to buy some of that land. It doesn't even, that money doesn't get you the whole plot, it gives you a third of the land because it's so expensive in Chinatown.

KC: Wow.

JC: And then this was the setback. We were in deep negotiations with the landlord, and during the pandemic, he pulled out and ended up selling it to a friend for the same money, same price that we were offering. And it was just really discouraging. But then working with youth and working with artists is like, there's a lot of resilience and there's a lot of, "We still believe and we can adapt and we are resilient." And so, we relocated everything with the help of the Greenway Conservancy. We relocated everything to another green space. And so, when we talk about leadership styles or talk about lessons learned or why public art is so important, it's like we have to not get jaded. We have to-

KC: Yes. Yes.

JC: We can be flexible and we can demand more, we can dream more, we can face these challenges.

KC: I’m wondering if, do you want to share more with us about how ANCHOR was developed?

JC: Yeah. I’m going to zoom back for this one, or zoom out I mean. There are so many neighborhoods like Boston Chinatown where they were created out of necessity for survival, different immigrant pockets. You’ve got [Jamaica Plain], even in Boston, you got Eastie, you got JP, we have so many neighborhoods that are safe spaces for groups of folks. But even nationally, Boston Chinatown, there are Chinatowns across America for the same reason. There was physical violence, there was violent policies that made it so that Chinese bachelors had to get together and create Chinatowns for their survival.

And when we look at Chinatowns now across America, they’re disappearing unfortunately because they’re by downtowns. And now we’re in the era of America where downtowns are booming and Chinatowns that were downtown where nobody wanted to be, that we’ve seen as blighted and dangerous, are now the place everybody wants to be.

A group of Asian women pose in front of the ACDC sign. Some wear facemasks.
Residence Lab Cohort | photo by Amanda Huang

ANCHOR came from looking at this narrative that really is also part of reality of disappearing Chinatowns and saying, “How do we flip this narrative? How do we not just say, “We want to just survive and remain?” But we actually think we can have the audacity to say, in Boston’s Chinatown, “We’re going to grow and we’re going to expand?” What kinds of programs, what kind of projects, what relationships and collaborations would we do if we believed in more? And that’s where ANCHOR came from, wanting something that would help guide us through this ‘more.’ And it also, it honored the 2010 Master Plan. So Chinatown has this really community-driven master plan and this master plan, years ago, it was beautiful. And the sites were like, “We want senior housing. We want a library. We want this community center.” And it articulated these four areas, they called them Anchor Areas to anchor residents and businesses.

We also realize that there were beautiful dreams that didn’t come to fruit. And so we need a plan to give us a toolkit that will actually roll out this big plan so that our plans and dreams don’t sit on a shelf like a lot of these plans do, but that we can actually execute this and operationalize this.

And so ANCHOR strategy focuses along the edges of Chinatown where we see the border and the edges of Chinatown eroding, like a seashore, it erodes the most, the quickest. And so it’s really trying to stabilize the edges of Chinatown and then push the cultural footprint so that we could also push the physical footprint of Chinatown. And we want to center work, like residents most at risk of displacement in it, and so it articulates four or five core goals that we have across all of our projects.

KC: Wow. What are those goals, if you want to share?

JC: So, Anchor is an acronym. A stands for activate. We want to activate spaces. N is needs, our projects should address neighborhood needs that have been articulated by the community. C is a community process. Residents and different stakeholders have to be involved in the dreaming, the fabrication, the execution, activation in some of these stages, if not all the stages. H and O stand for our long-term goals, H is housing and O is open space. So, all of these short-term activations really have to work their way up and push the needle on our long-term goals for affordable housing or open space and environmental justice. And then R is resident-centered, and really specifying residents who are most at risk of displacement.

KC: Yeah, that’s also a very beautiful acronym.  How do you stay grounded in your vision as someone who gathers stakeholders across organizations, residents, like municipal entities?

JC: So before we had the ANCHOR strategy articulated, I was struggling with this more. We would have people reach out to us for collaborations. And maybe you’ve experienced this on projects too, but we were working together and I think from the initial conversation, we’re like, “Okay, it’s going to work. We’re syncing.” And then somewhere in it we’re like, “I don’t know if values align.” It sounded good on paper and everybody was saying unquote the “right things,” but in practice really something was not clicking. And that’s-

KC: Absolutely. I’m just nodding vigorously over here for folks listening.

JC: Yeah. And really, I mean when we talk about hard work or tiring work, for me, that is what burns out my energy the quickest, when it feels like misaligned relationships or partners. And so we were realizing that we were like, “Okay, ANCHOR is our goal. ANCHOR is our strategy. ANCHOR is also our orientation/screening. We all have different goals and we all can bring our thinking into this large, we can lean on each other’s skillsets, but let me articulate through ANCHOR what our goal is, what our strategy’s going to be, what our priorities are, who our priority is, and can you get on board with this?

Yes, people have different interests and agendas, but we find common ground first on naming what our priorities and what our boundaries are or a guiding principle for our practice is coalition building. how do we define coalition building in its most expansive form? The reality of organizing in Chinatown is Asian Americans, according to the last census or two censuses ago, Asian Americans are less than half of the demographic in Chinatown.

And so, the populations are shifting. And there is a necessity of building a multiracial, multilingual coalition that also still centers those most at risk of displacement. And that’s not just a racial, that’s not just the Chinese folks, because there are Chinese folks in Chinatown who are not at risk of displacement. It’s more a class-based thing. And so, when we talk about inviting people, multiple stakeholders, we have institutions, we have city partners, we have colleges. How do we invite all these folks and build a really expansive coalition and name that the vision that we want to center the most or the needs that we want to prioritize the most are those who are most at risk of displacement in residence, and that’s mostly class-based, as well as small businesses.

KC: I’m wondering if you could share what public art, collaborations, what are some of the things that really uplifts this ANCHOR strategy for you?

JC: Oh man, there’re a lot. [inaudible]. What is beautiful about the public art dreaming and making process is that it gives space for you to be vulnerable. It gives space for you to disagree, but to see each other’s humanity. You’re not seeing someone as just a for or against the development. And there's a real threat in it. That's why it's so polarized, people feel a real threat in what's being proposed. But we're doing something where it's not just around a development. You get to say what your hopes are for your block.

A yellow hexigonal swing set has three swings all facing each other. Folks sit on it.
Hudson St Stoop (Storytell Sway by Gianna Stewart) | photo by Mel Taing

So, one example is we had a storytelling session around this public art piece on Hudson Street Stoop. And this was with artist Gianna Stewart. And in one of the visioning sessions, we had a Latinx resident and a lot of Chinese aunties, and we had an interpreter, and one of the questions was, do you feel you belong in Chinatown? Is Chinatown home for you? And people shared all the different reasons why they need Chinatown or Chinatown is home and where they feel the most known or understood, a lot of the aunties were sharing. And then one of the residents, she was newer, the Latinx resident, and she said, "Honestly, I don't really feel like Chinatown is home for me, but I also feel like I'm okay with that. I grew up in JP and I know how important a neighborhood like that is for people to get their groceries or to feel understood in language and I don't want people to feel like I'm taking away their home because I know what that feels like," with how gentrified JP got. And she just shared honest, really vulnerable conversation or her thoughts. And we had a language interpretation and one of the Chinese aunties reached out and was like, "You belong here too. This is your home too." And I just thought to myself, these are the relationships and these are the conversations we need that we don't have enough of. We don't have enough of the cross-racial, cross-multilingual exchanges that are honest about really the pain points of living in Boston and living in Chinatown. And if we didn't have space to invite stories through art, that wouldn't come up in that way, in a way that that person could be held and there could be an exchange. And I feel like that's part of why the whole expansive coalition building, that art is, I really believe art making and telling stories and healing through it is the way that we would move forward beyond all of this learned trauma, learned baggage, learned hitting against folks.

And then I think another thing that I'm really proud of or that fills me is the relationships. Recently an artist texted me and it was at a get together and she said that, "Oh my goodness, a resident just introduced me as a longtime friend." And I loved that for her. I love that for her. And I also loved that for what that meant in our neighborhood, because that means that it's not an art-based project that's transactional. It's relational and you finish your project, but then you keep the relationship and you get to expand the resources in the neighborhood. And it's good news for the neighborhood, that means our capacity's growing, our creative capacity is growing, our organizing capacity is growing. And then you just know another person in your life who cares for you.

KC: What lessons in leadership do you want to pass on to the next generation of leaders?

JC: A really big part of me feels like I'm still the next gen. I'm constantly learning from other folks, but at least from the work that I've done in Chinatown or that we've done together in Chinatown, I think the first lesson is just carrying joy with you. Yeah, I think that's really hard to do, especially in times like these where it's like we're just confronted all the time with lack of safety and with violence, targeted violence and xenophobia and anti-Blackness and classism. And there are so many things that really just remind you on a day-to-day that you don't belong, or that you're not enough or that you're not safe.

And I think it's kind of offensive sometimes really to say, "Hey, I really want to lean into my joy or I really want to have my joy." And you don't need to always have that. The grief is normal and the anger is normal and all these things, but I feel like because it's such a marathon of change and it feels so slow in a lot of ways, and all of that takes emotional labor, like the patience and the hope takes emotional labor. I think having the hope, having the joy, having the softness is so important because that is my experience of me, I have to live in my skin and my who I am. And yes, there is generational baggage to work through in a neighborhood. Yes, there are real hurts, there are real points of loss and contention and fights, internal fights fought in the neighborhood. And that was really because the way the system is designed, having to fight for resources or everybody having the same vision, but having differences, not agreeing on how to get to that vision.  A big part of it is the generational hurt and the the generational healing needed and honest conversation needed in the neighborhood. And the beautiful thing about the art is it invites and it brings a breath of fresh air into collaborations where you can build trust again and repair it in really small ways.

And I do think, as a neighborhood, we're a lot more organized and a lot more collective. But in the messiness, it's like, you keep it behind. We don't air it all out all the time, but there is messiness and the art helps us work to heal, not just the land and our relationship to the land, but heal our relationships to each other on an interpersonal and on an organizational level.

KC: This is the last question though, I promise. What do you want to be known for? And we can archive this in time, this doesn't have to be forever, but just in this moment right now.

JC: In this moment. The first is spaciousness. We said that a lot and I feel like in the work, it's easier to see how to build spaciousness in a project or in visioning or with art and with residents. But I think, to be honest, on a really personal level, I don't feel like I have a lot of spaciousness in my life. And I think that is something I want to be known for that. I want folks to not feel rushed with me and I want to not rush myself. And everything we do is always in fractals, in our community, in our collective, in the individual and the personal and the intimate, and I really want to be known for spaciousness in the work, the imagination and the spaciousness, the generosity in a collective. But then also, and the spaciousness with me as a person and with myself.

On the side of a city building, a mural of a dragon and soup.
Where We Belong (Ponnapa Prakkamakul) | photo by Katy Rogers

The other thing I really want to be known for I have a young two-year-old and I've had to really lean into the reparenting. And I think this really came up in youth work first, we always talked about, in youth work, what do we need to do to reparent ourselves and how can we lean into a collective of youth workers so that we're holding space for our youth and we're not harming them? Because there are things that you might be triggered by, I might be triggered by, and I need to manage that so that I'm holding space in a way that's generous.

And I'm confronted with that a lot now also as a parent and it really makes me think about my own family line and family baggage and needing to break cycles. And I think about how that carries out into when that individual work is done and as that work is done, I show up in the neighborhood better in the collective better, and we get to break cycles as a neighborhood. So, I don't know, healing, cycle breaking, super ambitious and a work in progress, but I really want to be known for that. Yeah.

KC: Thank you, Jeena.

JC: Thanks Kamaria. Thanks for giving me the space to reflect.

KC: You're welcome. 

On the side of a brick building, a mural of an Asian man and child blowing bubbles that have images inside of them.
Tied Together By A Thousand Threads (Shaina Lu _ Yvonne Ng) | photo by The Chinatown Project

Upcoming ACDC Events/Celebrations

ACDC’s Heart of the Community Dim Sum Breakfast | Friday, June 9, 2023

The annual Dim Sum Breakfast convenes ACDC’s partners and elected officials to celebrate local heroes committed to serving the community. This event generates funding to fuel ACDC’s community programs and its lasting and transformative impacts.

Hudson St Stoop: Dancing Dragon Opening | Saturday, August 19, 2023 

Hudson St Stoop is a rotating art exhibit to transform a contested green space into a community stoop for gathering, belonging, and joy. Join ACDC & Hudson St residents in celebrating the second installation of the Hudson St Stoop: Dancing Dragon, created by artists Parke MacDowell and Katherine Chin. (Follow ACDC’s instagram @asiancdc for more updates)

ACDC Films at the Gate Festival | Friday, August 25 - Sunday, Aug 27, 2023

Join ACDC and the Chinatown community for our 17th annual Films at the Gate Festival! As always, the festival is FREE and open to community members of all ages and backgrounds. Our festival program proudly highlights the stories and work of Asian immigrant and Asian American filmmakers and artists, and features live martial arts demonstrations, musical and dance performances, and family-friendly activities.

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