Reclaiming Our Space

New Bedford Creative’s Reflections on Collective Imagination for Spatial Justice 

(top l-r: Peter Lonelle Walker, Lynea Gilreath, Jasmyn Baird; bottom l-r: David Guadalupe Jr., Laurelle Berryman, Darnel Staley) Uncropped image, below.

New Bedford Creative’s Collective Imagination for Spatial Justice project was groundbreaking and integral to the social, economic, and cultural development in New Bedford, Massachusetts. We wanted to honor the unique heritage and cultures that make up the fabric of New Bedford. We hoped to imagine how our public spaces could contribute to a more just future for all residents.

As the Senior Creative Fellow for New Bedford Creative, it was my responsibility to coordinate a series of community conversations around spatial justice. It was important to me that these conversations wouldn't just start and end here -- my intention was for New Bedford Creative to create a space for its community partners to feel seen and heard, and to lead this opportunity with honor, respect and integrity.

The format of our journey included three conversations with the same set of questions and different groups of BIPOC artists, educators, activists, and entrepreneurs in March 2021. They spoke candidly about their personal and professional experiences and how it has shaped who they are and their communities today.

As a woman of color hearing their stories, I could relate. With over six hours of conversation and thirty pages of notes, there were five common themes that arose. The most prominent one being a need for inclusion and a demand for respect of BIPOC history. As a BIPOC community, we’re not asking for a seat at the table, we want to reclaim the table that is rightfully ours. Our spaces should reflect who we are. We want ownership of what has been stolen and erased from us. We deserve to be here and to be represented in our spaces.

Here are some of the rich ideas, thoughts and themes that were shared: 

  1. These “community conversations” could be perceived as just conversations or performative, without actionable items or takeaways coming from the conversation. Artist, poet, actress, educator and activist, Iva Brito of Indigenous Business Collaborative: “So often we share our stories, we share our ideas, we share all of this richness that we have, and then people compartmentalize it, tweak it, highlight what’s important to them, and it gets produced into something different than what we said....if I’m going to place my heart, value and ideas, why? and where is this going?”
  2. There needs to be more outreach to BIPOC, AAPI, and LatinX communities for career opportunities, grants and other sustainable funding/income. Fitzcarmel LaMarre, artist, collaborator, community mentor: “I would like to hear more talk about the sustainability of programming, so we don’t have to stay on the teat of grants.... there needs to be some kind of financial resource that’s there and more available. In these communities, if we went to the places these folks meet, churches, community centers, and brought resources there, they’ll flourish and thrive on their own.”
  3. By decentering whiteness, there should be actual representation of diversity to those making funding decisions -- not as a token at the table, but of those making decisions of what, who, and how to fund projects. Illustrator, painter, sculptor and educator, David Guadalupe, Jr.: “To reimagine the system, it would mean that you would need to bring other people to the table. Those people, their opinions, their concerns, their points, what they deem important -- they have to be recognized, appreciated, and understood as part of the narrative, and not like “Oh, you’re adding to this story,” or “We’re including you.” We were already included, we were already a part of this, and we were just left out of the conversation. So, it’s like a complete re-envisioning of the system.”
  4. There should be more involvement of community members in the creative placemaking process so the art installed can truly reflect the community it’s in, and not create harm. Artist, activist, organizer, youth non-profit program manager, and founder of La Soul Renaissance, Erik Andrade: “I do not believe in nor do I support creative placemaking. I believe it is a harmful strategy of urban renewal that assumes places do not exist and uses arts and cultural programs to ‘art-wash,’ ‘place take,’ and ‘place erase’ historically oppressed and marginalized communities. As such, it is crucial that those most impacted lead all public projects with a community centric process that is democratic in design and implementation. It is also vitally important that New Bedford Creative shift priorities towards remedying the harm Creative Placemaking has had on the city's most vulnerable community members.”
  5. There needs to be more education about the history of BIPOC communities within New Bedford’s history in New Bedford schools, whether that be in curriculum or programs. Historian, author, educator, and President of New Bedford Historical Society, Lee Blake: “The Historical Society comes at these projects as an educational tool and of course what we do is we work with artists. We are essentially saving black historical spaces. We saved the Nathan and Polly Johnson House, slated for demolition. People knew that Frederick Douglass lived in New Bedford, they just didn’t know necessarily where, even though in his books, he put the address. So, our next project is Abolition Row Park, which is a huge vacant lot that was full of garbage, but right across the street from one of the most important houses in New Bedford...and what we’re doing is really saving a whole component of New Bedford’s history that nobody spent any time looking at.”
A man, witha a beard and wearing a beannie, poses with a young girl. They're next to signs that read "save the water," "Native Lives Matter," "Black Lives Matter," "Make art not war."
Erik Andrade with daughter Ayah DeBarros Andrade at Cape Verdean Veterans Memorial Hall | photo by Elín Haraldsdottir

For others to embark upon this collective imagination journey, my advice would be to keep an open mind and be okay with not having all the answers or not knowing the next steps. It was easier for us to move the conversation along because we knew this was an introductory conversation and reminded ourselves that this is merely the beginning of a journey. We shouldn’t think that we can solve or cure social injustices, racial inequities and inequalities overnight. Throughout this process we partnered with the YWCA of Southeastern Massachusetts, whose mission is to eliminate racism and empower women. The staff was extremely supportive and helpful in facilitating these conversations.

"Of all the organizations mobilizing to even the playing field of racial equity, New Bedford Creative stepped up and asked the community at large via the Collective Imagination for Spatial Justice conversations about the issues we navigate every day. They paid us for our time as well as organized our community in a way we could be honest about the white supremacy [that] entrepreneurs of color (EOC) face. From the lack of information being equally distributed, to city event permits, to original programming needing a non-profit for grant funding. It was GREAT to feel heard for a change. Hopefully, more equitable change and support are soon to come! Thanks to New Bedford Creative, the wheels are starting to turn.” - Fitzcarmel LaMarre, a creative educational developer and director, a homeschool workshop educator, portrait artist, graphic designer and a former public school art teacher.

On the side of a building, a mural where a young Black girl holds a ship. A taller person, in yellow, holds her shoulder while she looks back.
David Guadalupe Jr. painting his Cape Verdean mural at Bisca Tournament Club | courtesy of the artist

Artist Rhonda M. Fazio shared, “New Bedford, and the beautiful transience of people from places all over the world that make their home here, is a representation of America and all who reside within her as a nation. Why then, would this ‘Gateway City’ displace the community by gentrifying without safeguarding its citizens? For the first time in history, we have an opportunity to be the beacon of light for justice...after 400 years of economic inequity among people that live here…New Bedford could lead the way by example to become a place to live and thrive in. Equally and on common ground. We can hold the community together without closing “the gate” to another gentrified urban city by not losing its authentic character and people. It takes a concerting conversation to bring people to the table, some for the first time, for communication to remain steady and consistent - for a just future for all of New Bedford’s residents.”

Collective Imagination: Spatial Justice has given New Bedford Creative the space to begin these conversations and this journey towards rebuilding trust and accountability. Our goal from these conversations was to listen and learn from one another. With that in mind, as an organization we find that it is our responsibility to include the community in order to serve our community. We set out for the conversations to be just that - conversations. We took our professional lenses off for a moment and came together as a community expressing our experiences.

Personally, growing up in New Bedford, I didn't feel that it was a place for BIPOC creatives to thrive. I rarely saw people who look like me in creative spaces, nor did I feel my environment reflected who I was. I went on to college, moved to New York and thought I would never look back. I returned to New Bedford after graduating and met with Lee Blake, President of the New Bedford Historical Society and also a community member who participated in these conversations. She spoke to me about the importance of cultivating a community of young professionals of color in New Bedford and connected me with Margo Saulnier, who is the creative strategist of New Bedford and my supervisor.

Working with Margo has opened my eyes to the growth and development of New Bedford’s creative community - there were so many opportunities and richness in this area that I have never known. As I was getting acclimated to my role as the Senior Creative Fellow with New Bedford Creative, I realized that I was in a position to further shape this city towards an equitable future. After facilitating these conversations, I realized in order to move this city to a more just future -- it's going to take more than just myself. It’s going to take a lot more listening and learning, but most importantly, it's going to take a community of voices. I am grateful for NEFA granting this opportunity for our city, this is just the beginning for New Bedford to become a place for BIPOC communities to live in, thrive in and equally stand on common ground.

A zoom screenshoot: six folks smile and pose.
(top l-r: Peter Lonelle Walker, Lynea Gilreath, Jasmyn Baird; bottom l-r: David Guadalupe Jr., Laurelle Berryman, Darnel Staley)

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