How do you create the right arts and culture opportunities for an under-reached community? This question spurred the creation of Culture Blocks, a program of the Arts & Science Council (ASC). Ultimately, addressing the needs for a diverse area using the arts requires, no pun intended, creative solutions.
The Arts & Science Council is a non-profit organization and the designated office of cultural resources for Charlotte-Mecklenburg county and the 6 surrounding suburban towns. ASC provides “advocacy, cultural education programs, cultural planning, fundraising, grant making, public art and workshops and trainings for the cultural community.”
Despite finding success in in their mission throughout much of the county, the organization realized not everyone in Charlotte-Mecklenburg was being reached. Bernie Petit, Communications Manager for ASC, explains that in early 2015 the organization found that the majority of people in large geographic locations were not engaging in or with the broader cultural community. From this discovery, Culture Blocks was born. Culture Blocks currently serves five ‘blocks’ or communities: North, Northwest, West, Southwest, East with hopes to reach a sixth this year, Mallard Creek located near UNC Charlotte.
Although it may be easiest to just put on free arts and culture programming in these areas, failure to properly engage with the needs of the people can create resistance. Tiera Swanson, Program Director for the Arts & Science Council’s Culture Blocks, says to find success for both the organization and community you need cooperation and inventive problem solving. While listening might be a vital first step, it goes beyond that.
“Anyone can listen, not many are willing to listen without preconceived notions. With Culture Blocks, this is not charity. This is not from us to them. The work is shared in every way. By bringing these programs into [their] area, we are not saying there isn’t a richness of culture already happening. We want to introduce ourselves as partners.”
Culture Blocks is built upon leveraging existing ties and resources in the community to address unique interests in each area. This is especially apparent in the process in which ASC implements programs. Culture Blocks begin with a partnership with a Charlotte Mecklenburg Library or a Mecklenburg County Park and Recreation community center. Through initial meetings with these existing infrastructures and dinners with community leaders, ASC can identify areas in which cultural experiences can be supplemented. They then work to add to or create new programming.
In East Charlotte, Culture Blocks worked with a local library to create a family event focused around Mexican and Aztec storytelling and music, a vital aspect of the heritage of that community. One community member was thrilled with this event, “This is like what we see on PBS, but it’s live and in person. I loved sharing this opportunity with my children.” Because of ASC, parents were able to share their cultural heritage in a fun, educational and creative way.
In some cases the needs of communities can go beyond the scope of ASC. The organization then tries to find ways to address these concerns through the arts.
The West Charlotte Block is a federally designated food desert. Their community voiced concern of needs for a grocery store in their area. This may seem like an impossible task for an office of cultural resources, but, as Swanson explains, that was an opportunity to try and recognize some of those needs through their arts programming. ASC made it a main objective to weave nutritional snacks into their youth focused arts programming in that area. While it did not solve the larger problem, it addressed the concern by providing additional access to fresh fruits and nutritional snacks for teens engaging in arts programming.
For Swanson the process of community building through arts is rarely linear. “You have to listen, engage and ask questions to understand what is really needed.” ASC’s success is found in starting simple. “Identify one or at most two parts of the community that your organization would like to engage with. And then work together with that community to develop a unique model to add value and meaning to their lives.”
The arts give an opportunity to build communities by bringing individuals together. Lakewood, a community in Northwest Charlotte had such a need. The community asked for a simple banner to be used for community events. Rather than having one printed, ASC worked with community leaders and brought in a visual artist to assist the community create a banner of their own. The end result was a symbol of intertwined puzzle pieces and an experience of coming together to demonstrate “Unity and Community.”
Through Culture Blocks, the Arts & Science Council has found ways to address community building through the arts. Finding creative solutions that can bring people together through shared experiences of artistic expression. “That’s why I love the arts, heritage, science and history, it produces those sweet moments of being connected to people that live around you” Swanson says.
Tiera Swanson is the program director for the Arts & Science Council’s Culture Blocks. Tiera works with residents across Charlotte-Mecklenburg to plan and evaluate cultural programs that add value to their area.
Bernie Petit is communications manager for the Arts & Science Council and supports communications strategies for the organization’s grant-making and public art programs. He is a former reporter for The Gaston Gazette in Gastonia, N.C., and The Charlotte Observer.
Jack Ahern is a Masters of Public Administration student focusing on nonprofit management at NC State University.