Woonsocket, RI

Contact Name
Rebekah Speck
Project Dates
On going since 2011
Tags
Workforce Development
Many deindustrialized New England mill towns have long histories of segregation along cultural, racial and economic lines. Historical narratives are constructed of the stories of immigrant groups coming to work in the mills and overcoming discrimination and hardship to make a better life. As each group "made it," along came the next group to suffer the same indignities for a better life. For many cities, new groups are still coming but the days of "making it" are long gone. As we create a new future with art, design and architecture at the core of what is most precious in our cities, how can we overcome long entrenched obstacles to inclusion, now made more complex by globalization and changing attitudes to immigration? Perhaps the power of art really is the only answer!
Project Goals
What were the project goals?
Small City, Big Art project partners breathe
new life into our small historic industrial city through big imaginative
events, pop-ups, physical fabric enhancements and public art that surprise
residents and visitors, inspire and invite creativity and build momentum for
continued inventiveness in community revitalization. Our highest goal is to
enliven and revitalize the City through the development of a creative sector,
support artistic excellence and the growth of public appreciation of the arts
as a means to realize the city's full potential. We know art is a valuable
economic engine and community builder. High performance partnerships and
public appreciation fuel the engine; public engagement that harnesses the
talents and energies of local youth and indigenous artist voices, and program
processes that create opportunities for disenfranchised populations lay the
tracks.

Supportive tasks and objectives to this goal encourage more artists to live
and work in the City; transform the Main Street/Arts District from an area
with many vacant storefronts into a thriving hub of activity; install new
public art that will meet the highest standard of artistic excellence while
engaging the public; and build a base for public appreciation. The delivery
of these tasks revitalizes public space and revives City street aesthetics by
implementing streetscape design from our nearly completed Main Street
Livability Plan. Other goals are to engage and leverage the work already
occurring in the City’s existing art organizations and connect artists and
the general public through the BCSA activities and public art installations.
The collecting and assessing artists’ needs and desires (obtained from
surveys, focus groups and interviews of artist) will be made available to
other communities who may wish to encourage artists to live and work in their
community.

SCBA processes and products restore a sense of optimism and pride in place by
applying the expertise of arts pioneers, non-profit organizations, businesses
and city agencies to solicit meaningful public input into the place making
process among populations traditionally remote from economic and arts
engagement. RiverzEdge and the City work in partnership with NeighborWorks
BRV to build upon a successful national community revitalization pilot
program called Our Neighborhoods embarked upon by Woonsocket in 2009, to
creatively employ the ideas, energy and talents local residents directly in
the design process. Due to the linkages of this project to existing visioning
and planning processes and the unique engagement of mobile and transient
populations and disenfranchised urban youth in the process, this project
could serve as a national model of how historically significant spaces can be
re-imagined by underrepresented voices and re-purposed to better meet the
needs of the community. Encouraging more artists to live and work in the
City, transforming the Main Street/Arts District from an area with many
vacant storefronts into a thriving hub of activity, and installing new public
art that meets the highest standard of artistic excellence while engaging the
public and building a base for public appreciation can create a platform for
improving access and resource application for the widest spectrum of
residents if adherence to inclusion goals is met.
Have they changed over time?
While diverse and authentic public engagement
was and continues to be an originating goal in this process, implementation
with existing resources has made it difficult to maintain the high
performance engagement standards of partners with the depth and scope
necessary to overcome entrenched divides. The SCBA program design
necessitates specific deliverables and it is all too easy for the actions
that most ensure diverse participation to drop in priority when there are so
many moving parts in converging planning and implementation processes. This
workshop will explore both our successes and these challenges, putting forth
potential solutions and engages workshop attendees in sharing their
observations, concerns, experiences and ideas as well.
Who are the project partners and stakeholders?
Primary partners include the City of
Woonsocket’s Planning and Economic Development Departments and RiverzEdge
Arts, a nationally award winning youth development organization and social
enterprise, working in conjunction with NeighborWorks Blackstone River
Valley, a nationally award winning non-profit that hired a one-year Main
Street Manager tasked with creating an inventory of available commercial
properties due to be completed in early 2013, the recently formed Woonsocket
Arts Guild, Woonsocket Main Street Riverfront Initiative, YWCA and other Main
Street Livability Planning Steering Committee members, St. James Baptist
Church, Woonsocket Police Department and other MLK Memorial Sculpture
partners, Chafee Blackstone Valley Heritage Cooridor, Museum of Work &
Culture, etc.
Project Specifics
How was the project implemented? What were the steps taken?
SCBA is morphing out of our Woonsocket
Creative Placemaking Project funded by an NEA Our Town grant in conjunction
with Main St. Livability Planning through a HUD grant, market research funded
by RI LISC, bike path planning and implementation in conjunction with the
Heritage Corridor and RI DOT and finally culminating out of a Wayfinding
Master Plan that was completed in 2010 by the Main Street Riverfront
Initiative. There are many moving parts and sometimes it is difficult to tell
where one plan/process starts and the other ends. Recent successes include
erecting a new MLK memorial sculpture off Main Street last January at the
transition juncture between the poor neighborhoods in Woonsocket and the
wealthier neighborhoods that begin over the town line. A truly diverse team
completed the project and over 150 people attended the opening and lunch
after at St. James Baptist Church. Over 80 people attended a Main Street
focused visioning event that was held at RiverzEdge in October, the city is
currently rebranding, getting ready to launch a new logo (currently being
designed by RiverzEdge youth!) and then a new website. This year's Holiday
Stroll was put forth as an arts driven event with multiple new pop up
galleries, and it saw a surge in attendance about 3 times more than in
previous years. A core group of about 50 people, who might be called the low
hanging fruit, is now deeply involved with efforts to improve Main St.
through a variety of lenses, and the arts community regularly convenes
through the Arts Guild a self formed outgrowth of Our Town planning and
implementation processes. 400 to 500 people can be called upon to volunteer
and thousands show up to events. RiverzEdge and Neighborworks consistently
engage diverse youth and families, but more needs to be done. This workshop
will share what we consider to be best practices whether they are universally
adopted, and create a forum for group exploration of how we can all
collectively do better.
Have they been refined over time?
Project implementation is guided by grant
deliverables, but our approaches to inclusion are continuously refined. What
often gets left out of grant narratives is the authentic relationship
building through on going projects, collaboration and service that project
outcomes are predicated on. Per the obstacles described below, our cadre of
contemporary arts partners who have been working together on multiple
initiatives are up against very challenging opposition to progressive change
characterized by inclusion and leveling the playing field of opportunity. At
the same time, our success is dependent on working with the largest cross
section of the stakeholders so we have to maintain good working relationships
with all sectorsto keep moving forward. RiverzEdge and NeighborWorks have
robust embedded relationships throughout the spectrum of low income
communities and create diversity as we enter into any endeavor. RiverzEdge,
as the main community arts resource, has successfully bridged divides that
are harder to bridge in other sectors. Many of our partners, who share our
values, have successfully enlisted our help to broaden their reach. The
Chafee Heritage Corridor and NPS brought many more people of color into their
headquarters/education center through their support of this project
http://www.accessanddenialproject.org/ than in any other event in 2012 and
their commitment to inclusion is consistent.
Obstacles
What were your major obstacles?
Obstacles to success include long entrenched
notions of identity, a history of socially acceptable racism, clash between
the old guard and the new in the city and in the arts community, a tendency
to settle for less than optimal results, and a lack of dispersed skill sets
in achieving artistic excellence. Powerful forces of change are at play in
this city for reasons that have nothing to do with our Small City Big Art
project. They stem from shifts in cultural norms toward statewide
transparency and rooting out corruption, from having outside scrutiny through
a budget commission saving the city from receivership, from new leadership in
the police force, education department, city administration. Our small teams
of arts pioneers has been remarkably successful at creating widespread
respect and appreciation for our vision for the city and the role that art
plays in improved outcomes, hard won through the suggestions we will be
putting forward below.
Who or what was instrumental in overcoming these obstacles?
Concentric circles of partners that build
outward from a group of 4 women who have built strong trusting relationships.
We call ourselves Urban Women Warriors. We are all planning, art and design
junkies, and totally committed to a beautiful, healthy and more equitable
future.
What top three suggestions would you give to others attempting a similar project?
Inclusion and diversity cannot be an add on.
Rather, projects should be viewed as vehicles to leverage improved social and
economic results to move a community forward.

Play nicely with EVERYONE, even if you categorically disagree with what they
put forth and how they put it forth. There is always a pathway to a positive
statement. (This will be demonstrated and role played in the workshop.)

Be the leaders that lead the leaders: Never back down on what you believe in,
and model the leadership you want to see!
Project Impact
How has this project contributed to creative community building?
In addition to the successes already listed above, since the project was conceived to align with goals identified through multiple planning processes it enjoys widespread support from sectors that were previously contentious with each other and characterized by a negative view of the future. Years of groundwork, visioning, relationship building and tenacity through success and failure, paved the way for SCBA to produce dramatic results in terms of participation and a shared notion of the path forward as having creative economy building as a central feature in new zoning, planning, reuse, etc. That is bigger than the big art!
Why do you consider the project successful, as related to your project goals above?
The biggest most visible successes of all the convergent planning processes have been rooted in the creative sector. New avenues for collaboration across diverse sectors have been created. Lead partners ensure that low income and marginalized cultural and ethnic groups are centralized in project design.
Were there unexpected impacts?
The most unexpected one is how respected our leadership teams have become when where we started could be characterized by knocking on closed doors that saw no reason to be open. Time is now truly on our side as more and more voices rise and more and more people are convinced through performance and results that creative economy building is the best path forward.