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As educators, artists, and non-profit leaders we are so often asked to prove our usefulness to grant funders, donors, and administrators, but the Collective Imagination for Spatial Justice (CISJ) cohort was unique in that it asked nothing of us except to be present with each other and with the needs of our communities, and to take time to reflect on the question: “What does public art that fosters positive social change look, sound, and feel like in your community?” We got the opportunity to connect with artists from across the state who are interested in reimagining the ways that public art can be used to support place-keeping efforts and felt trusted and honored beyond our identities as makers or doers.
When we applied for NEFA’s CISJ grant, we weren’t entirely sure what we were signing up for, in part, because the grant functions so differently from most grant funded opportunities. NEFA offers grantees the opportunity to reflect on their experience out loud instead of requiring a written report and encourages grantees to remain open to the authentic, intentional creation that emerges organically out of a deeply collaborative, process-oriented approach to public art rather than mandating that grantees claim a fixed end-goal at the start of the grant cycle.
In many ways, cohort meetings were designed much like the Outdoor Classroom at Our Sisters' School, where Tobey and I first met. The Outdoor Classroom features a collection of moveable, multipurpose objects designed by students and teachers based on the best practices for facilitating connection, collaboration, and exploration without one fixed purpose. The cohort experience offered all of the ingredients we needed to explore what it might mean to reimagine public space and art’s role in it without tethering us to predetermined outcomes or a singular approach. It offered embodied practices like zine making, workshops like resource mapping, and advisors and presenters like the Design Studio for Social Intervention who modeled the ways in which they have been reimagining public art in their own communities.
These practices inspired us to name the calendar invite for our CISJ team meetings Holding Space as a reminder of our desire to hold each other accountable to a process-oriented approach where we could begin to unlearn our ingrained allegiance to productivity. We began each gathering with an embodied practice, grounding exercise, or check-in like reading Octavia Raheem’s poem, “A Prayer for Liminal Space.”
In this grant, as in life, it was what frightened and confounded us, that ultimately proved transformative. The open-ended nature of the grant allowed us to release productive expectations and embrace creativity, collaboration, and intentional creation, and, in doing so, brought home the realization that pausing, questioning, adapting, and collaborating are all critical elements of a place-based, social justice oriented creative practice.
Lying on the floor of the Allen C. Haskell Public Gardens’ Visitors Center, letting Octavia Raheem’s yoga nidra wash over us during a CISJ team meeting, a thought occurred to me: this time together was a precious thing and one worth sharing with the rest of our community. If we know that art with social impact must arise from the hands and minds of the people rooted in a community, then the first step in creating spatial justice is to offer our community opportunities like the one NEFA offered us – time and space to imagine what could be collectively. And just like that, uncoincidentally in a moment of utter release, we realized what we wanted to do with the grant NEFA had awarded us: create a restival.
On Sunday August 27 from 3:00-6:00 PM at the Allen C. Haskell Public Gardens that restival will become a reality. We are collaborating with Maia Livramento, 3rd Eye Youth Empowerment Team Leader/Program Director for Kids Open Art Program, to create this restival. Attendees will get the opportunity to participate in a variety of workshops led by local instructors including restorative yoga, sound healing, reiki, and affirmation and intention setting. Participants will get to hear from local singers and speakers about why and how they rest, engage in self-guided rest stations like painting, napping, and reading, explore questions about who is afforded the opportunity to rest and what we must do to extend that opportunity to all people, and even sample iced tea made from herbs and flowers grown at Haskell Garden, all for free as a way to give back to our community!
We see our restival as an opportunity to foster practices of communal rest for residents of greater New Bedford, with a specific emphasis on lifting up those people who don't typically see themselves represented in the rest industry. Rest has been commodified through a self-care economy that negates the political nature of rest and the role we all must play in supporting each other's right to it. While we laud some people for practicing self-care, we have created hostile architecture, right-to-work laws, and crimes like vagrancy and loitering that criminalize poor and working-class people's attempts to carve out space for rest in their own lives.
Our one hope is that this restival will be a joyful start to better understanding and advocating for rest that is accessible to all so that all people can be part of imagining our future together. Although the restival is the most cohesive way the CISJ grant has manifested in our collective artistic practice, of equal importance are the ways in which this experience has affected how we move within the organizations we work for and lead. So often, the traditional grant cycle rewards novelty over reworking what already exists with new intentionality. This experience has taught us that we don’t have to stretch ourselves thin creating new programming within our own organizations. We can create a more sustained impact by collaborating with existing community partners to rework programming.
Below three of our team members share their perspective on how they were impacted by the CISJ grant experience:
Tobey: As I create and refine curriculum with my students at Our Sisters' School, in what will be my 30th year of teaching, this grant has intensified my commitment to ensuring that the projects I ask my students to engage with originate from them and have authentic impact in their communities. Over the 23-24 school year, my students will be working alongside professional architects and landscapers, providing advice, designs, and insight into what public gathering spaces should look like in our city. They will be collaborating with working artists – like cartoonist Cara Bean, who uses illustration as a tool to honor our social and emotional skills and needs – to co-run events in the community. Eventually, they hope to publish a photographic study of the doorways in New Bedford and their connection to the humans who use them as an extension of DATMA’s exploration of New Bedford’s role as a place of shelter for so many.
Iva: As an artist, educator and consultant, being able to gather with like-minded humans as part of this grant reminded me that we are not alone in our belief that imagination and public art have the power to heal humanity. It brought home the importance of gathering together to truly see and honor each other's gifts and experiences, something that I aim to do through the creation and facilitation of Soul Calling Retreats for organizations and individuals. Soul Calling Retreats provide meaningful, culturally rooted and liberated spaces for individuals to explore their creativity and themselves, reminding participants that creativity knows no boundaries, and in the realms of imagination and art, individuals can find profound healing and self-discovery. In alignment with our commitment to social justice Soul Calling Retreats reserves half of the slots for Black and indigenous people of color and offer on-site childcare to ensure our retreats are accessible to those who do not have other spaces where they can rest, rejuvenate, and realign.
Emma: As the Associate Director of Education and Community at the Zeiterion Performing Arts Center – a presenting house that will be without its home for the next year and a half as we embark on an ambitious renovation and restoration project – I have been drawing on my CISJ journey to shift the ways in which we think about this satellite year, alchemizing this challenge into an opportunity to extend out into and amplify the creatives in other neighborhoods in our city. Our Education and Community Department will be piloting a mobile version of our Creative Classroom which will bring performing artists to new neighborhoods in New Bedford, including the New Bedford Housing Authority, where we will be offering free and low-cost workshop series in a variety of performing art forms. The intention of the Mobile Creative Classroom is to meet people where they’re at, listen intently to what it is they want to explore/express as well as the creative traditions they bring with them, and address barriers of transportation to and a sense of belonging in a downtown district that has historically received investment to the detriment of other neighborhoods in the city so that we can better serve our community.
None of this would be possible without a commitment to the principles of collective imagination which call on us to relish in the pause so that we may better question the status quo, adapt to the evolving needs of our communities and collaborate to make transformational change.
We welcome you to join us on our collective imagination journey, to pause, rest together, and reimagine what is possible, at the restival on Sunday August 27th from 3:00-6:00 PM at the Allen C. Haskell Public Gardens in New Bedford, MA.
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