100 Voices, Our Collective Story

Gloucester, MA

Contact Name
Stephanie Benenson
Project Dates
Project began in the fall 2017 and is ongoing
Workshop Leader
Creative Communities Exchange (CCX) 2019
Tags
Social action and justice, Placemaking/placekeeping, Event, Downtown preservation/main streets, Cultural Heritage
Harbor Voices’ public art installation in Gloucester, Massachusetts featured centuries of global immigration history. We held storytelling sessions at the offices of public officials, public schools, nonprofit groups, and historical societies to collect over 100 ancestral and recent local immigration stories. The audio collected was condensed into an 8-minute sound collage, featuring languages overlapping into the sound of crashing waves. Short quotations emerged from the waves as the laser installation commenced. The installation immersed exhibition visitors in immigration stories, while the lasers visualized the web of shared experience. Lights from opposite corners of the room would connect and travel through space and time together, exemplifying the similitudes that exist in history.
Project Goals
What were the specific goals of this creative economy project? Describe the community development challenge or opportunity that your project was designed to address:
1. Deepen participants understanding of the immigrant experience
3. Increase empathy and acceptance
4. Strengthen youth confidence their voices can be a vehicle for social change.

The work was designed to address our current political climate where the rhetoric fractures and divides more than it unites and uplifts. Harbor Voices is a living an growing artwork designed to bring people together in a time when discrimination and hatred try to break us apart.
If the goals change over time, please describe how:
The goals have not changed but the notion that this project would live in one place has changed. We have grown since the launch in Gloucester. We are currently also working in Boston, Salem, and additional communities in Massachusetts Bay.
Who was involved in this project and what did they do? (be sure to include the partners from outside of the creative sector and how local voices were included):
Mayor of Gloucester (storyteller, exhibition sponsor/host); Gloucester Public Schools (storytellers, exhibtition visitors via field trips); local nonprofits such as Pathways for Children and the Open Door (storytellers and exhibition visitors); Sandy Bay Historical Society (storytellers and exhibition visitors); Rhode Island School of Design (primary funder); The Middle Street Walk (local festival that offered space and time for our first installation)

How does this project relate to a larger community development strategy?
As a third generation Cape Ann artist, a personal strategy was arts revitalization for the area by offering an opportunity for residents to participate in social practice art. The visual arts in the area focuses heavily on plen air painting and maritime painting; this was an opportunity to create dialogue around contemporary new genre public art that emerges from within the community. Since our first exhibition, I have seen an increase in interest and debate around the importance of public art in the city and I hope the work continues to inspire an increase public art activity. Also, the work was situated in an underutilized public space and offered an opportunity to bring new meaning to a historic space that is typically used for meetings and political debate. Harbor Voices also packages oral history in a compelling format for teen visitors; the majority of our exhibition visitors were under the age of 18.
What projects or places, if any, inspired your approach to this creative economy project?
StoryCorps, Tania Brugera's work, Suzanne Lacy's work, Rick Lowe's Project Rowe Houses, Jenny Holzer's work
Project Specifics
Please list the steps taken to implement the project:
1. Conduct storytelling sessions, being diligent to include commonly underrepresented voices in the community including the public school ELL population.
2. Create an artwork that is driven by the words and sentiments of the storytellers involved.
3. Host free exhibitions celebrating cultural diversity in highly trafficked public spaces.

If the project steps changed over time, please describe how:
Project steps have not changed, regardless of the community or partnering organization.
Obstacles
What were your major obstacles for the completion of the project?
The biggest obstacle was that we had to promise an "unknown" contemporary art piece that was created by participant voices. I soon discovered that community organizers had a difficult time accepting the idea of a "TBD artwork generated from within the community, using community voices." Now that I have proof concept, it is an easier sell to public officials but, in the beginning, it was hard to sell a truly community-generated work that, by nature, could not have specific renderings from day one.
Who or what was instrumental in overcoming these obstacles?
The most instrumental piece was that Rhode Island School of Design offered grant money based on the idea, not the expression of the idea (which was a "TBD public artwork" as described above). After one month of story collection, I began to notice commonalities in the stories and the artwork began to shape itself. Halfway through story collection, I determined that I had to commit to a form (lasers, sound, interior installation) and I began to generate images and renderings of the work. This helped immensely in fundraising and community buy-in.
What top three suggestions would you give to others attempting a similar project?
1. Seek a municipal partner to support your project at the onset of the project.
2. Partner with a local “happening” (festival or celebration) to increase your reach and attendance.
3. Develop a strong relationship with the "gatekeeper" of the space in which you seek to show a public work. Establishing trust with that individual, city, or organization is paramount.
Project Impact
How has this project strategically connected arts and cultural activities to social, economic, and cultural issues in your community? What is different in your community as a result of this project?
We believe that Art, particularly participatory projects, has the ability to bring people together and impact communities. Social collaboration and storytelling strengthen family and community bonds, creating resilience in our youth and increasing connectivity and social activism within diverse populations. By collecting immigration and origin stories, both ancestral and recent, we help connect people to each other offering opportunities for empathy and resource-sharing which can promote social change. Because of our project, volunteerism and funding within the local ELL and nonprofits that support recent immigrant families has increased. I have seen an increase in interest and debate around the importance of public art in the city. Also, the work was situated in an underutilized public space and offered an opportunity to bring new meaning to a historic space that is typically used for meetings and political debate. Harbor Voices also packages oral history in a compelling format for teen visitors; the majority of our exhibition visitors were under the age of 18. After participating in a Harbor Voices workshop, one high schooler wrote an article for his high school newspaper that was titled, "Diversity Breeds Success," wherein he profiled himself and other first generation immigrant teammates on the varsity soccer team. His article praised each one for offering something novel and valuable to the team.
Why do you consider the project successful, as related to your project goals above?
I found that many storytellers that were expressing ancestral stories of immigration knew an extensive amount of local history but had little understanding of the recent waves of immigration to Gloucester. When they realized that the stories they shared about their ancestors had similarities to recent stories, I saw empathy and acceptance on many occasions with people of various ages and ethnicities. One teacher at Gloucester High School said, "When my ELL students, who just arrived to this country, see their stories shared in the context of other stories about immigration and local history, I think they feel part of a larger community and more welcome here." Also, as described above, I believe this work inspired many high schoolers to believe that their voices have value and can be a vehicle for social change. Our Young Artist-in-Residence, Mila, regularly asks questions like, "Is my generation the next voices of change makers and how can we reunite such a fragmented country?"
How did you measure this success or progress?
We measured the number of participant storytellers (of which there were over 100) and the number of exhibition visitors (over 600). The installation was on an eight minute loop. We expected visitors to stay for the eight minutes and we were amazed to find many people lying on the floor and lingering for over 20 minutes. We also measure success in the number of teachers that ask to work with us again. Qualitatively, the testimonials that were posted on social media indicated success as well. One exhibition visitor wrote, "My paternal great grandparents immigrated to Gloucester from the Azores. What a lovely tribute to the past, present, and future people who make Gloucester home.”
Please describe any unexpected impacts:
As described above, I did not expect a student to write an article for the school newspaper about the value of diversity and acceptance immediately after Harbor Voices visited his classroom. I also didn't expect a city councilor to begin asking my advice on a downtown beautification project that he was working on. The most unexpected impact was when other non-profits in other cities asked me to facilitate and create work within their communities. The recent growth of this project indicates that there is a need and demand for public work like this.