Reposted from: Imagining America: Artist and Scholars in Public Life
Posted on March 5, 2012 by Jeremy Lane
By Micah Salkind, Doctoral Student in American Studies, Brown University, Catherine Michna, PhD, Instructor, University of Massachusetts, Boston, and Ruth Janisch Lake, Assistant Director, Civic Engagement Center, Macalester College
IA’s Art, Culture, and Community Development Collaboratory spent Martin Luther King, Jr. Day weekend in New Orleans working on the first phase of our participatory action research. We documented and interviewed participants from several IA member institutions’ civic engagement programs and cultural partnerships in that city. We began at Xavier University, where longtime professor (and IA board member) Ron Bechet explained how the Xavier Art Department’s longstanding cultural partnerships with artists and community organizers shape his institution, affect his collaborators, and contribute to cultural life in the city.
Bechet introduced us to Big Chief Darryl Montana of the Yellow Pocahontas Mardi Gras Indians, who has been working with the Community Arts Program at Xavier since 1997, developing Mardi Gras Indian Arts (MGIA) education and youth programming for middle-school children. According to Montana, the longstanding partnership between Mardi Gras Indian practitioners and Visual Arts Professors Bechet and MaPó Kinnord-Payton has helped to facilitate a growing recognition of Mardi Gras Indian art and performance as the “heartbeat” of New Orleans’ cultural landscape.
In 2007, the three created an intensive hands-on cultural immersion and training program for middle school age children from Xavier’s Gert Town neighborhood and greater New Orleans. Each summer since 1997, youth have learned how Mardi Gras Indian traditions developed while acquiring costume-making skills. Beginning this year, the program will take place year-round since Xavier has expanded its support for MGIA into a continuous component of its community arts curriculum.
For Montana and the Yellow Pocahontas tribe, MGIA is a platform to develop organizing and pedagogical strategies around intellectual property issues that affect their artist communities and city. Cultivating long-term engagement through MGIA is part of Xavier’s complementary commitment to educating its own students and Gert Town youth, about ways that elites, throughout the city’s history, have profited in unethical ways from black working class culture. The MGIA program is itself an ethical practice that models ways of acknowledging and supporting black cultural production by supporting the communities that cultivate and share it.
Reflecting on the role of the MGIA and similar programs at Xavier, Bechet noted the importance of university/community cultural partnerships to New Orleans’s recovery from Hurricane Katrina: “You can see it one individual at a time.” For example, when Xavier contributed financially so Darryl Montana could come home and rebuild his house, “he had an ability to help the next generation … individuals [like him] have taken on the responsibility of passing on the values of this place and what’s important about it to them.” We saw an example of such locally-grounded, collective-minded values first hand when we visited Xavier’s newest partner, Jenga Mwendo, founder of the Backyard Gardener’s Network (BGN). BGN’s “Guerrilla Gardeners” project in the Lower Ninth Ward not only directly works to address the problem of “food deserts” in African American neighborhoods, but also facilitates discussions between community members, city leaders, and student volunteers about the role that gardening plays in community building and neighborhood revitalization in the post-Katrina city.
On Saturday, led by University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Associate Professor and Interim Associate Vice Chancellor Cheryl Ajirotutu, we participated in UMW’s annual reception for their New Orleanian community partners at the U.S. Mint Museum. We met UWM students and administrators and had the chance to interview a wide range of UWM’s local partners, who have been collaborating on the University’s winter term course in New Orleans since 2005. We also enjoyed zydeco piano playing by UWM partner, Bruce “Sunpie” Barnes.
Later in the weekend, we joined Barnes and UWM, Xavier, and Macalester groups at the Vietnamese Initiatives in Economic Training (VIET) Center in New Orleans East where we participated in VIET’s annual Martin Luther King Day of Service. There we met Cyndi Nguyen, VIET’s Executive Director, and saw and heard about VIET’s thriving community health and cultural/economic development programs for youth and elders. Both the Macalester College students enrolled in the New Orleans and the Performance of Urban Renewal course and the UMW students working towards degrees in social work, as well as those who are taking Professor Ajirotutu’s cultural history course in New Orleans, prepared for their service at VIET by viewing and discussing the film “A Village Called Versailles,” a documentary on the inter-generational, faith-based community organizing of New Olreans’ Vietnamese community, which was not only affected by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, but also by a new government-imposed toxic landfill.
The group from Macalester College included 12 first year Bonner Community Scholars enrolled in a course titled, “New Orleans and the Performance of Urban Renewal,” which was co-taught by Ruth Janisch Lake (collaboratory member) and Molly Olsen. This intensive J-term (January interim) course assumed a human-centered, arts-based urban studies perspective on the continued efforts of New Orleans to restructure and redefine itself in the 21st century amidst various ecological, economic and political challenges. The course provided students with the essential critical, historical, and cultural framework through which to interpret various site visits and civic engagement projects with local artists, activists, and scholars in New Orleans. This was the seventh Macalester group that Civic Engagement Center staff member Ruth Janisch Lake has brought to New Orleans since January 2006.
Our team members interviewed several Macalester Bonner Community Scholars about their program’s practices of community-based learning and civic engagement. During their seven days in the city, the Macalester group connected with a Community Arts class with Ron Bechet and also learned more about New Orleans historical and ethnic geography with Tulane University Professor Richard Campanella. They visited Backstreet Cultural Museum in Tremé and this year participated in a second line parade with the Undefeated Divas in Central City. They also meet with a range of non-profit organizations and community leaders as they discussed issues of race and class in the city’s uneven recovery from Hurricane Katrina. As one Bonner student noted:
The course definitely expanded my awareness and deepened my knowledge about the communities performing urban renewal in New Orleans. I loved the way the week was laid out and thought it was conducive to experiential, meaningful learning. We started the week off with a fascinating tour with Tulane Professor Rich Campanella and really appreciated the information he shared with us about NOLA’s ethnic and physical geography. Participating in the second-line parade gave me a powerful sense of the importance of having cultural traditions to return to when tragedies strike. Visiting Robert Green in the Ninth Ward was another influential experience, hearing about the ways in which he has advocated for and helped to rebuild his community post-Katrina. I also appreciated getting to visit the Vietnamese community in New Orleans East, and seeing how incredibly organized and resilient this largely youth-led community was in working towards positive change. Finally, I valued interacting with families whose homes we installed CFL light bulbs in through Project Green.
To round out our weekend of research and conversation, IA team members visited the Ashé Cultural Arts Center in Central City to participate in a night of singing celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday and to meet with students and faculty at Ashé’s new alternative college program—Ashé College Unbound (ACU). College Unbound began in Providence, RI, where IA Page Program Director Adam Bush worked with Big Picture Learning, a non-profit focused on developing internship-based curricula, and Roger Williams University’s School of Continuing Studies to create a student-centered bachelors degree program. In its first year, ACU has enrolled eleven students, primarily adult learners and longstanding community leaders, with a wide range of work experience and cultural development skills under their belts. The ACU student body works collaboratively with the organization’s advisory board and academic and community arts mentors towards a degree while matriculating in, and helping to create, semester-long workshops on housing, economics, culture, and education policy.
This spring, our collaboratory will produce a short video that will explore how these and other university projects have, in fact, become part of New Orleans’ cultural history by not only addressing historical inequity, but also by helping to create a new paradigm of the struggle for justice in the city. We also plan to create a white paper outlining some of the promising practices we see enacted in university/community cultural partnerships. Foregrounding how students have become more engaged, civic actors, as a result of their participation in these projects, we will also listen for different and surprising effects of their participation. We hope that the archival materials we create will be useful as scholars around the globe try to make sense of post-Katrina New Orleans.
New Orleans is an amazing first case study, which we hope to complement with work in other cities and with other institutions affiliated with our working group. Current members hail from Holyoke, Baltimore, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Providence, Syracuse, and Milwaukee. This is just the beginning!
Photo credits: 1) University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Xavier University, and Macalester University students and the AC&CD collaboratory team at VIET’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service, by Ruth Janisch Lake; 2) Jenga Mwengo, Backyard Gardener’s Network; 3) Ron Bechet, Micah Salkind, and Catherine Michna at the University of Wisconsin Madison’s Thank You reception for their local partners, by Ruth Janisch Lake; 4) Macalester College Bonner Community Scholars learning more about the environmental and human geography of NOLA at the Irish Channel stop on the city tour with Professor Rich Campanella; and 5) Dr. Cheryl Ajirotutu with AC&CD videographers, Hubie Vigreux and Alejandra Tovar, by Ruth Janisch Lake