A Sense of Place

Charlotte, VT

Contact Name
Lydia Clemmons
Project Dates
January 1 2018 - June 15 2020
Workshop Leader
Creative Communities Exchange (CCX) 2019
Tags
Social action and justice, Placemaking/placekeeping, Cultural Heritage
A Sense of Place is a creative placemaking project funded by ArtPlace America and led by the Clemmons Family Farm, one of the rare African-American-owned historic farms in Vermont and one of just 0.4% such farms in the nation. The project offers African-American/African Diaspora visual, performing, culinary, literary and spoken word arts programs in small group settings in a deeply meaningful place. Vermont is tied with Maine as the least diverse state in the nation: 94.5% of the population is white and just 1.2% of the population is Black/African American. In response to an increase in hate crimes in Vermont, the A Sense of Place programs are designed to reduce social isolation among Black artists, heal white fragility, and foster multicultural learning, dialogue and social well-being.
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:
Goal: Improve mental health, physical health and social well-being in the six towns that comprise the community, through African diaspora arts and culture programming.

The project’s four sub-goals are:

Sub-Goal #1:
Improve mental health in the community by:

(a) reducing social isolation among newcomers to the community who are people of color, especially African Americans and African immigrants;
(b) providing affirmation and promoting healthy self-esteem for African Americans/Africans through positive and empowering representations of the African diaspora of art, culture and people; and
(c) addressing and healing “White fragility” linked to White residents’ feelings of guilt, anxiety or fear as they witness changes in the community’s racial, religious and ethnic diversity and become more aware of white privilege, implicit bias and institutional racism;

Sub-Goal #2:
Improve physical health in the community by:

(a) providing opportunities for residents to engage individually and together in indoor and outdoor physical exercise, and healthy eating practices.

Sub-Goal #3:
Improve social-well being in the community by:

(a) creating positive connections between community residents across differences in race, ethnicity and religion; and
(b) expanding the professional networks and income-generating opportunities for artists of African descent in Vermont through engagements at the Clemmons Family Farm.

Sub-Goal #4:
Increase impact through the synergies between mental health, physical health and social well-being by:

(a) fostering emotional attachment among community residents of all colors to the Farm as a “safe haven” and an inspiring place where they will experience a loving, multicultural community,
(b) grounding the health benefits of engaging in arts and culture in a sense of place.
If the goals change over time, please describe how:
Fostering social justice was not initially an explicit project goal of the A Sense of Place project. Social justice has, however, always been an implicit part of the Clemmons Family Farm's overall mission to preserve a rare African-American owned farm in the face of rapidly diminishing African-American owned land assets and to focus on the promotion of African-American and African Diaspora art, culture, history people and history in a state that is majority White. Social justice issues are becoming more explicit as the Farm expands and deepens its collaboration with Black artists in Vermont and its work to bring people together as a loving and supportive community across differences of race, culture and national origin. The need to provide a safe and inspiring space for community healing around racism is increasingly emerging as an important goal for the A Sense of Place project. For very different reasons, White and Black residents are stressed, angry and overwhelmed with the current climate of hate crimes, racial discrimination and race-related violence in our state and nation. The arts and culture programs offer an avenue to foster healing and a healthier community. The role of arts, culture and a meaningful place owned by African Americans in Vermont, a predominantly White state, is becoming more vital than ever.
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):
During the first year of project implementation, a wide array of organizations and individuals have been involved in the project implementation. The Clemmons Family Farm implements the A Sense of Place project in close collaboration with Champlain College, who provides technical support in the project’s media and communications component. In 2018, the A Sense of Place project partnered with nearly 40 collaborating artists of African descent. A 3-day creative placemaking event, including a design charette for one of the Farm’s historic barns, was led by Ms. Zena Howard. Ms. Howard is a distinguished FAIA-Architect who is one of the team of architects who led the design and building of the Smithsonian National Museum of African-American History and Culture in Washington, DC. INSPIRIT a dance company, an African American-led Vermont non-government organization, co-led the creative placemaking design charette with Ms. Howard. Over the three days, more than 100 American/African Diaspora artists and White American artists, Vermont architects, barn preservation experts, local government officials, African-American/African Diaspora girls from middle schools, academicians, a number of Vermont’s arts and culture leaders, and other residents of the local community came to the Farm to learn about the plans for the project and to brainstorm on the redesign and future use of one of the historic barns on the Clemmons Family Farm as an African-American/African Diaspora visual and performing arts community venue. Other partners from outside of the usual creative sector who engaged in the creative placemaking event include the Vermont Chapter of the American Association of Architects, the Vermont Historic Preservation Division of the Vermont Agency of Commerce and Community Development, and the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board. In other project activities, our partners from outside of the creative sector include the Vermont Humanities Council, who co-funds the Farm’s annual humanities speakers' series. The 2018 series featured young spoken word artists of African descent who are residents in the surrounding community. Also in 2018, the Charlotte Library partnered with the Clemmons Family Farm and Champlain College to develop an exhibit and visitor engagement booth at the Leahy ECHO Center in Burlington in honor of Martin Luther King Day. Local grade schools, college and universities participated through their community service days to provide in-kind support to the project in a variety of ways- from helping to film and photograph some of our events, to sharing news on social media, to helping inventory and pack some of the African crafts on the Farm, to helping conduct our visitor survey. Charlotte community members volunteer to give tours of the historic buildings and the art on exhibit, and to greet people who come to the Farm for the weekend arts and culture events. In the agriculture sector, the project also intensified its dialogue with the Vermont Department of Agriculture, the USDA, and the Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity (CVOEO) in 2018 to plan ways to engage "New Americans" (residents of African origin who have recently immigrated to the US and Vermont) in our agriculture and culinary arts programs. Through the USDA, the Clemmons Family Farm received a grant to build a hoop house in 2019. We are planning for this to become a new creative placemaking venue for our community to learn about African American/African Diaspora foods, beverages and spices along with the many cultures, peoples and histories of these foods. Growing horticultural crops used in African-American and African Diaspora cuisine will be a vibrant addition to our culinary arts program and will build a strong link with the agriculture sector. The project has also engaged in dialogue with the Vermont Agency of Agriculture to explore an initiative to cultivate "teff"- an indigenous Ethiopian grain that is nutrient-rich and gluten free. It is best known as a grain ground into flour to make "injera"- the spongy flat Ethiopian traditional bread. Teff flour can also be made into the more commonly-known bread, rolls, and other flour-based products on the US American market. Small plots of teff were planted on the farm in 2017 with very good results. In the coming years, the project aims to partner with the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, the USDA and Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity (CVOEO) to provide opportunities to farmers of Ethiopian and other African origins to cultivate teff and integrate its use into farm-to-table culinary events at the Farm. We are also in dialogue, as mentioned elsewhere, with the Vermont Agency of Transportation and private sector transportation companies to see if we can come up with a sustainable way to help more artists, farmers and visitors who do not have their own means of transportation to reach the farm.
How does this project relate to a larger community development strategy?
The 2016 Chittenden County Environment, Community,Opportunity and Sustainability (ECOS) Plan includes a discussion of public health research that provides evidence that people who don’t feel connected to their community have a greater risk of depression, illness andaddiction. The Plan notes that in Chittenden County, where the overall population is 91% White, People of Color, especially those who are newcomers to the community, are vulnerable to social isolation. Within the socio-demographic context of a predominantly White community with a low but gradually increasing level of racial and cultural diversity, White residents and People of Color can face different challenges tied to their mental health, physical health and social well-being. The A Sense of Place project leverages the position of the Clemmons Family Farm as one of the few African American-owned farms in the state (it is also one of just 0.4% of such farms in the entire country) and its tradition of offering opportunities for community residents to experience African diaspora arts and culture on the Farm, to address some of these challenges. It is critical to note that the A Sense of Place project does much more than simply offer entertainment or "events". Every program is part of an intentional strategy to develop a loving and supportive multi-cultural community by addressing areas of mental health and social well-being that are closely linked to race, culture, identity, empathy, dialogue and relationships. The events are designed to initiate new or deeper relationships between people that represent just the beginning of an experience and that will continue to develop after they leave the Farm.

The World Health Organization defines health as “a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity”. The "A Sense of Place" project relates to the Chittenden County Economic Development plan in that it seeks to improve community health in all three components (i.e. physical, mental and social well-being) through its African-American/African Diaspora arts and culture programs.
What projects or places, if any, inspired your approach to this creative economy project?
Shelburne Farms, located about 10 miles away, is an inspiring model for this project in that it was once a private-owned farm that transitioned into an educational center and a public space for recreation and culture. However, the inspiration for this project really came not from a project or a place but rather from two specific time periods in history: 1960's and 1970's Vermont, when the Clemmons family- African-American newcomers in an almost entirely-White rural community- found ways to connect and build loving relationships with their local community through informal arts and culture events held on the Farm- the family also connected through farming and cooking together- sharing African-American and African Diaspora cuisine with local residents- many of whom had never met a single person of African descent before coming to know the Clemmons family. Back in the 1960's and 1970's- before cable television and digital phone technology, residents used to enjoy socializing in each other's homes, walking together, spending informal time together- more than they do today. Through the project, we are striving to help residents return to these community-building practices. The second historic time period that has inspired this project is the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920's: a time of discovery and exuberance for Black artists who created a rich, immensely creative and profound movement of music, writing, theater, and dance-- a movement that was closely connected to the Black Pride movement, civil rights activism and the social justice movement. It was a time of an explosion of creative and intellectual productivity in the Black community that fostered hope, excitement and economic empowerment for African-Americans and Africans on the African continent. Importantly, the Harlem Renaissance had profound and positive changes in White society and in the collaborations between Black and White artists and intellectuals. The Harlem Renaissance (as we know you know) grew out of the poll taxes beginning in the late 1800s, Jim Crow laws and the oppressive discrimination of the South that prompted the Great Migration to the urban areas in the North and Midwest that began in the 1920s. The current socio-political climate in the US, with the increase in hate crimes, the racial profiling and violence by police, the attacks on the right to vote, and so on are reminiscent of these times. We are inspired that out of the oppressive social context of the 1800s-1920s the Harlem Renaissance emerged as the creative and intellectual response of Black people, creating new economic opportunities and a far more culturally enriching and just society. The A Sense of Place project strives to foster the creativity, learning and multicultural community-building as a way to respond to and overcome social injustice.
Project Specifics
Please list the steps taken to implement the project:
1. Issue press releases and social media announcements to let our community know the news that the A Sense of Place project received a very important grant from ArtPlace America.
2. Plan and implement project start-up meetings (small one-on-ones and also a kick-off meeting with key partners)
3. Conduct community outreach through social media, newsletters, courtesy calls, and invitations to attend presentations about the project and to keep the community aware of the activities on the Farm
4. Development of a survey to record feedback and assess visitor's experiences with the Farm's programs
5. Focus on "quick wins" in Year 1, which are essentially to expand on existing arts and culture programs implemented before the ArtPlace America grant
6. Engage a renowned architect to co-lead a convening of artists, architects, and arts and culture leaders over a 2-day event to bring people together and add to the brainstorming on creative placemaking and the preservation of one of the historic building on the farm.
7. Implement outreach to identify and work with collaborating artists of African descent through word-of-mouth, social and professional networks
8. Design and implement a Call for Artists Proposals for grants funded by the A Sense of Place project to support African American and African diaspora arts and culture community engagements
9. Design and establish the Vermont African Diaspora Artists registry for artists to enter their creative profiles
10. Continuous learning through networking in Vermont and the nation to dialogue with other arts and culture organizations working to improve health and well-being;
11. Keep an eye out for new opportunities to collaborate, by sending and responding to requests to explore partnership and collaboration, and also continuously seek partnership and collaboration
12. Compile survey data, analyze and publish survey findings
13. Prepare the project’s first Annual Highlights Report
14. Plan for Year 2, using survey findings and one-on-one and larger meetings with partners and community members
If the project steps changed over time, please describe how:
Given the demographics of our community and the state of Vermont, identifying African-American/African diaspora artists can be a challenge. To speed up the process of identifying and building relationships with these artists, we initiated a Call for Artist Proposals. This was not part of our original project work plan and budget but it turned out to be a fantastic change in our project steps and overall strategy. This was the major change in our project work plan.
Obstacles
What were your major obstacles for the completion of the project?
1. Transportation to the project's main location: the Farm is in a small rural town that is not close or easily accessible to people in other towns who do not have their own transportation. Vermont's intrastate public transportation is not well-developed: there are no buses that reach the Farm, and taxis are quite expensive. This is probably the greatest obstacle we are facing.

2. Social injustice and stress related to daily racism and implicit bias: while everyone, regardless of race and national origin, is experiencing stress related to the unleashing of race-related hate, Black artists in Vermont, many of whom are struggling financially, are especially vulnerable to this stress. Racism and discrimination in Vermont overshadow African American/African diaspora artists’ ability to create, to meet, to share their art, and to engage with the Farm as much as they and we would like. For example, recent studies have shown significant racial disparities in traffic stops by police in Vermont (Seguino and Brooks, 2017 and 2018), and Vermont ranks #4 of the 50 United States in racial disparities in the incarceration rates of black and white residents: only New Jersey, Iowa and Minnesota have greater racial disparities in incarceration (The Sentencing Project.org)
Who or what was instrumental in overcoming these obstacles?
The Clemmons Family Farm and our collaboarating artists and organizations are still seeking ways to overcome the transportation obstacle. We are lucky that the A Sense of Place project grant has some funds to help with transportation costs, and so we have used these funds to help some of our collaborating artists to reach the farm for their community engagements. We would like to have a more sustainable solution, however, as we do not want to rely primarily on grants to help our collaborating artists and visitors to reach the Farm. We are in dialogue with the Vermont Agency of Transportation, the Vermont Agency of Agriculture and with private sector transportation vendors to see what systems we may be able to put in place to offer subsidized transportation. We are also looking at ways to catalyze a ride-sharing system in which people with cars help those without to reach the Farm for the arts and culture programs.

While the work of the Clemmons Family Farm remains squarely in arts and culture programming, an important part of our strategic partnerships moving forward will include increasing our dialogue and collaboration with organizations who specialize in social justice and advocacy work, such as the Vermont NAACP chapters and the Black Lives Matter movement. The Clemmons Family Farm is already an allied member of the Peace and Justice Center, a state-wide non-profit that specializes in social justice advocacy work. We are expanding our alliances with other arts and culture organizations in Vermont. Recently, we worked with other arts and culture organizations to issue a press release against the rise of hate crimes in Vermont and to circulate a pledge to do more to advance social justice and a loving and supportive multicultural community in Vermont. Within the span of a week, more than 85 arts and culture organizations signed the pledge. In 2019 we will also explore collaborations with mental health organizations and professionals who have the expertise we lack in supporting artists and other community members who come to engage with the project's arts and culture programs.
What top three suggestions would you give to others attempting a similar project?
1. Try a call for artist proposals- even if for small grants- to expand your network of artists of color.
2. Always have a "Plan B" for the implementation strategy and be open for innovation
3. Plan for "quick wins": small but solid activities that are relatively easy to do and that can keep the momentum going in Year 1 while you build the team and plan for more robust activities in subsequent years.
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?
Our African-American/African Diaspora arts and culture programs are connecting people across differences of race, culture and national origin- we are building a more multicultural community in a majority White state. We are also helping all people learn more about African-American heritage through arts and culture programs. In this first year, the main difference we are observing in our community- based on the survey findings- is increased awareness about African-American people, history, art and culture, and- specific to our mental health and social well-being indicators- a feeling of hope and very positive feelings about new connections made among people of different backgrounds (race, culture, national origin). Hope, inspiration, optimism, joy, pride are some of the key words we are seeing in the survey feedback: important feelings in a time when the nation and state are overwhelmed with negative, stressful news of hate crimes, bias, discrimination and injustice aimed towards Black people, Muslims and immigrants. More anecdotally (we have not yet obtained the hard data), some of the artists who come to the farm to engage with the community are finding new professional opportunities and social networks through the visibility and new relationships initiated through the arts and culture programs. A number of artists have received invitations for paid opportunities after they have been showcased on the Farm. This is exciting, because this addresses one of our goals of increasing social cohesion and reducing social isolation- especially among people of African descent who are newcomers to Vermont. This is also exciting because it increases the participation of Vermont artists of African descent in Vermont’s creative economy. We would like to update our survey to capture the data and really assess how collaboration with the Farm is helping Black artists to improve their economic situation through new professional opportunities emerging from their collaboration with the Farm. We foresee an exciting and interesting new collaborations between the arts and culture sector, the social justice sector, the mental health sector and the agriculture sector to overcome obstacles created by racism and discrimination and to promote community healing and well-being in Vermont.
Why do you consider the project successful, as related to your project goals above?
Our survey results are showing strongly positive feedback on questions that are tied to our indicators of mental health and social well-being. For example, 61% of our visitors reported connecting with someone that is of a race or ethnicity different from their own during their visit to the Farm; 62% of our African-American/African visitors agreed with the statement "I connected with another Black/African-American person outside of my family"; 98% said they felt inspired because of their visit to the Farm, and 89% reported they intend to learn more about African-American or African history, art or culture; 87% of all visitors were White (remembering that the Farm’s immediate geographic community is 97.4% White).
How did you measure this success or progress?
This is a 2 1/2 year project, and we are just completing Year 1. To measure success and progress, we use a set of specific indicators to assess our performance based on our goals to improve mental health, physical health, and social well-being of our community through our arts and culture programs. Most of the measurement is carried out by a structured written survey that is administered after each event. We also collect qualitative information by way of feedback on events through our website and through letters and emails that visitors send us spontaneously. We are currently seeking funding and partnerships to develop a more robust approach to monitor the outcomes of the project’s creative placemaking and arts and culture programs on the health and well-being of our community. We note that an important part of an expanded approach will be to ensure that the findings from our monitoring are shared with our community and other implementers so that lessons learned can benefit other creative placemaking and arts and culture projects throughout the state of Vermont.
Please describe any unexpected impacts:
One of the creative detours we made from our original work plan was to use some of the project funds to provide grants to artists through a call for proposals. The focus of the competitive application process was specific to our core content of African-American and African diaspora visual, performing, culinary, literary and traditional arts. We included a criteria that required artists to be based in one of the six towns that form our geographic "community" but also put in a bit of flexibility to allow artists from outside of those six towns to apply as long as they did so with an artist from within the six towns. To our amazement, we had many inquiries from artists in other states- New York, Massachussets, and even an artist from California who was heading to Vermont on foot- as part of his community art project (building community by walking through a community, spending time with people and sharing his photography and storytelling as he went along). This response gave us a new idea for our approach- to foster ways to bring in more artists and expertise from outside of the community by creating opportunities for collaboration with artists within our community. The request for proposals also fostered some efforts by White artists who do not specialize in African-American or African diaspora arts and culture to seek out those who do and to see if there would be a way to collaborate. We did expect a bit of that, but were pleasantly surprised that the design of the RFP had the unexpected impact of motivating people to build new relationships across race, culture and geography.