(Note: This blog is part of ongoing work on behalf of LISC Phoenix to underscore the importance of comprehensive community development strategies.)
South Phoenix is “ground zero” for a comprehensive community development strategy that makes art and social justice important parts of neighborhood revitalization. What that means in theory and practice depends on how the table is set and who is seated there, according to a panel of community organizers and urban planning experts.
The panelists at the LISC Phoenix-sponsored event generally agreed that reaping broad-based benefits from arts and justice initiatives requires a commitment to collaboration and a willingness among community development professionals and neighbors to do things differently.
Nearly 100 people attended the Feb. 17 event at New City Church that was part of Phoenix Urban Design Week. Lola Levesque, a community organizer with Justice That Works and co-founder of Humanities Behind the Walls; Dago Bailon, co-founder of Trans Queer Pueblo; Lynne McCormack, head of the creative placemaking program at LISC’s national office and Maria Rosario Jackson, an urban planning expert, who is co-assigned to the ASU Herberger Institute for Design and Art and the College of Public Service of Community Solutions, were featured guests at the LISC event, “Creativity & Place: An evening with arts and culture leaders on the importance of arts and justice in creating healthy vibrant cities.” Michael Rohd, founding artistic director at Sojourn Theatre and a professor at ASU Herberger Institute for Design and Art, and Raquel Gutierrez, director for strategic learning and practice at Vitalyst Health Foundation, were moderators.
Gutierrez said the event was an opportunity to understand the role of arts in creating community and to be honest about reasons for community distrust, “particularly in south Phoenix.”
“It’s ground zero,” Gutierrez said. “It is the front lines for what is going to be happening around the light rail being developed and the consequences that can have for residents, both positive and not maybe so positive.”
Arts and justice initiatives in south Phoenix could manifest in dramatic ways largely because the 5.5-mile South Central light-rail extension will transform an underserved corridor. Failure to set the table properly in preparing for change could put neighborhood assets, including the people who live in them, at risk. Again.
“There’s just a general and historical devaluing of community by institutions who have gone to south Phoenix.” Gutierrez said. “How do we build relationships and how do we engage with residents and development in a way that isn’t like it was in the past? That really it’s about lifting up their lives and their historical discourse and legacy in the community.”
Bailon talked of the healing powers of art and the community strength that comes from it.
“We create a place for discovery and a place where people,” Bailon said. “And at the same time that they heal, they become leaders. … Part of what we do is (foster the) understanding that far more than needy we are powerful people. ”
But true community development doesn’t occur without those leaders and others who are embedded in the places that are the focus of attention.
“We can’t do this work without that voice,” Levesque said. “That’s how I think a lot of organizations are misinformed. They’re doing their speaking and researching on behalf of people who are not actually involved.”
“Creating safe spaces is how you set the table properly,” Levesque said. “Once that table is set, (it’s) really allowing people to share their truth, to not feel as though you have any critique of that because you can’t possibly understand or imagine what it must be like to be in that position. Just listening, that’s how you get the table set properly.”
Work needs to be done to clear obstacles to doing things differently, including defining terms. Too often “community development” is understood in neighborhoods to mean “gentrification.” Similarly, costs and benefits of community development, as well as measures of beauty and success defined differently among professionals and residents.
“I think the notion of expert is problematic,” McCormack said of planning professionals. “People who are trained to be planners or trained to be developers of cities or places come at it with a prescribed way of doing things. … Co-design is where we need. The people who live in places where they live are experts on those places, not people who drive in 20 minutes from the suburb to look at a city and do at it as a professional.”
Professionals, however, do hold knowledge about finance structures and planning that help make projects become a reality, McCormack said, adding they are a necessary part of the community development ecosystem.
Jackson said effective community development requires a re-orientation of who and what are at the center of projects.
“When I think of this idea of placemaking, it’s not always a desirable term for good reasons,” Jackson said. “To start with the assumption that there is nothing there is a mortal mistake. When you start with recognition that there are assets in the community, not only inclusive of people but primarily the people in it and that the intention is to build from that, the outcome looks very different. … Planning with the orientation of nurturing is a different enterprise.”
The LISC Phoenix event is one of what is expected to be many attempts to ask the right questions to the right people about how best to prepare for the transformative change that will come with the South Central light-rail extension.
“I hope we get to set the table again,” LISC Phoenix Executive Director Terry Benelli said in closing.