NOTE: This post is to introduce you to the 32nd episode of François Matarasso’s and my monthly podcast, “A Culture of Possibility.” It will be available starting 15 September 2023. You can find it and all episodes at Stitcher, iTunes, and wherever you get your podcasts, along with miaaw.net’s other podcasts by Owen Kelly, Sophie Hope, and many guests, focusing on cultural democracy and related topics. You can also listen on Soundcloud and find links to accompany the podcasts.
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François and I were delighted to interview Caron Atlas, whose work I’ve admired for more years than I can count. Some of our guests on “A Culture of Possibility” are relative newbies and others have been walking the path of cultural democracy for decades, including Caron. I was Zooming in from my home outside Santa Fe, François from his home in the Burgundy region of France, and Caron from her place across the street from Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. It’s kind of thrilling that dynamic ideas and practices such as community-based cultural development have both staying power and the power to attract newcomers from far and wide. We think this interview will give you a glimpse of why.
Caron began by introducing Naturally Occurring Cultural Districts New York (NOCD-NY for short) which started in 2009, 14 years ago. Caron described the lead-up to its formation during the financial crisis that began in 2008:
“I work in a lot of different sectors. I would go to a meeting in the community development world and they’d say ‘All our sectors in crisis, what are we going to do?’ Then I’d go to an arts meeting, and they’d say ‘We’re all in crisis, we have to keep ourselves alive, what are we going to do?’ These were all very insular conversations, very focused on the professional fields. And it was driving us crazy, those of us who try to think more holistically and try to start by thinking about our communities and their survival. So we convened folks from all these different sectors. There were people working in civic engagement, environmental justice, lots of different sectors, and we sat around a table and said, ‘How, instead of talking about how our sectors survive, do we talk about our communities survive? And how do we come together to do that?’ Because we know that’s the only way it’s going to happen.
“One of the things we talked about was this concept of naturally occurring cultural districts: how do we come up with a positive framework for a very integrated approach to working in community? When we talk about NOCD, it’s the opposite of what a cultural district is an institutional cultural district. Instead of saying ‘There’s nothing in a neighborhood, we have to bring culture to it,’ it’s saying ‘There’s culture throughout the community, there’s knowledge, there’s wisdom, there’s capacity, and how do we support that? How do we help connect the dots between communities, recognizing the strength of neighborhoods, to make citywide change? How can we all come together around some shared values and agendas? So that’s what we came together to do.”
Caron emphasized the patient, steady, inclusive work it takes to build something like NOCD-NY.
“We took a long time to come together. We spent time in each other’s neighborhoods, we identified our shared values, which was key for us staying together. These are things like an asset-based approach; the importance of local leadership and self-determination; the recognition that place matters, but place is complicated, and different people have different relationships to that place; the importance of historic context—things like that. The importance of interdependence, which really was our driving force for coming together. We do all kinds of programming. We’ve done over about the last six years work with public housing communities to strengthen cultural hubs, we do a lot of peer learning exchanges, coming from the value of the wisdom that’s out there. And how do we share that wisdom with each other? We are interested in building our joint capacity to shift policy. There’s so many big institutions that know how to affect policy, and we want to build power at the grassroots to do that.”
François drew out differences in this approach compared to much work that calls itself “placemaking,” drawing on his UK experience. He wondered how the NOCD framework gets traction with those who have power and resources.
“It generally starts with local government or national government,” he said. “One of the problems behind it is that it’s often easier to spend capital than to spend revenue funding, so somebody will find a bit of capital—25 million for some town—and say ‘Okay, we’ll improve the High Street and we’ll commission a sculpture, and we’ll talk to people about what the sculpture should be about.’ But it’s very top down, it’s very outside in, albeit they kind of know they need to talk to people. As Arlene said, we’re completely committed to the the asset-based approach and the values that you described, not just because it’s what we believe in but because through experience, we’ve seen its effectiveness and its reality. So how have you been able to convince partners, and particularly partners with power in York City, that this is a good way to work, as opposed to the top down version?”
“Well, it’s hard,” Caron explained. “We didn’t get any of the big creative placemaking money because of our approach.” She cited Roberto Bedoya, Cultural Affairs Manager of Oakland, California, who’s written a lot about these issues. “He talks about how placemaking is more about real estate rights than human rights, and that needs to be shifted. That is our approach. First of all, we’re not making places. Places exist and people exist in them. We look at place as built on relationships, not buildings. That’s why I think we’re so interested in network approaches rather than institution building. Our approach is just to strengthen those relationships.
“I do feel vis-a-vis the powers that be, something we’re able to do and we’re learning how to leverage further is our role as a grounded intermediary. That’s jargon, right? What it really means is a kind of go-between. We can speak both languages, we work a lot with city agencies, and we’ve learned ways to work with them, but then translate it, redirect the funds to more grassroots approaches that maybe the city agency can’t directly fund themselves. As an example of that, we did a big project. There’s a program here called in the US called Our Town, which is a creative placemaking funding program. It’s for partnerships between city agencies and arts organizations. And we did get one of those grants through the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. We were their partner, but the people who really did the work were the community-based organizations that we worked with. We partnered with the agency, and then we worked with a settlement house, and we worked with a youth violence interrupter group that was on the ground doing the work. It wasn’t a special project for them. This is their ongoing work. But that’s where the real work happened.”
Caron had a lot of interesting things to say about steps that can be taken in today’s context toward an ultimate goal, not the multiplication of intermediaries, but relationships that are built directly with community organizations seen as part of the structure of the city agency.
You will also want to hear her talk about the Citywide Forum to Reimagine New York City, which took place at The Point, a community development corporation in Hunts Point in the South Bronx that is “focused on youth and creativity. They’re known for things like incredible environmental injustices, but also incredible community organizing, and creative community organizing.” NOCD-NY’s “Reimagining New York” project, which started before COVID, generated recommendations, some of which actually happened. The Forum brought together people with common goals who’d been working together during COVID and so not meeting in person. You will find her story fascinating and inspiring.
Arts and Democracy is the other group Caron co-leads with a decentralized team. One of its projects is participatory budgeting, in which community members in City Council districts put forward priorities for part of their district’s budget, which in New York has definitely influenced public spending. Caron was involved on the committee in her own district. She and her partners “felt like there should be art-making as part of this process, because it’s such a creative process, you’re asking people to imagine what they want in their community. Particularly, we also advocated for and won the ability to not just have capital projects, but also program projects, which people were much more captivated by. One of the first program projects was translation devices in the schools that have multiple languages—really concrete, doesn’t cost a lot, makes a huge difference kind of thing. We did these creative workshops with people and their families to actually make depict depictions of their projects, almost like a science fair. We would have a community expo where people would put those up, and then neighbors could come by and talk to people about their projects.”
Tune in to a rich conversation about funding that trusts people, solidarity funds and other mutual efforts during COVID, the complexity of community (and how that reality conflicts with institutional folks’ too-common desire to have one representative that will plug them in), how cultural organizers work with the organic leadership of particular communities, the challenge of sustaining relationships and actions that arise during an emergency after the peak moment is past—and much more. Caron offered a wealth of powerful examples of how groups like NOCD-NY and Arts and Democracy, without sizeable staffs or major funding, can have far-reaching catalytic impact.
“Grace” by Lizz Wright.
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