A few lessons from New Orleans

Over the last week I have had the opportunity to visit, volunteer, and interact with four different community arts organizations: YA/YA, Young Audiences of Louisiana, Ashe Cultural Arts Center, and the Crossroads Project for Art, Learning and Community.  These are only a fraction of the projects that I have encountered in New Orleans! Over the next week I will be publishing spotlights on each of the organizations that I have visited, but for now please visit my Directory of Organizations page to learn more about any of the organizations that I mention.

Through my observations and the conversations with practitioners and participants at these organizations, I have begun to think about a couple key points in practicing community-based arts.  Some of them are things that seem fairly obvious (and in fact are things I have thought about before) while others surprised me – but it is helpful to put them down in one place and consider them together. Here is a summary of some of the things I have been learning:

  1. You ALWAYS need to have a community voice in every step of the process, whether the community you are working with is a neighborhood, a town, or a group of youth. This enables that community to have a sense of ownership over the project, making them more invested and willing to do what is necessary to see the project through.
  2. Every organization struggles with getting people to realize the impact of the arts, of culture – and thus of finding community support for their work.  Just as art (and music, and theatre) is always the first subject to get cut from school budgets, so is it in the community.  People just have a hard time wrapping their head around the idea that the arts can effect things like safety, the economy, and general productivity (among many other things!) in a community.
  3. Along the same struggle as the above thought is the idea that many people have in which they relegate the creation of art to a select few whom they call “artists.” In fact, everyone has the capacity to create – the Bible says that God created man in His image, did it not? If God is the ultimate Creator, then should it not follow that all mankind has the capacity to create? Art is derived from the intersection of creativity and culture. Creativity is a muscle. It needs to be exercised to prevent it from atrophying, but with regular exercise it can be wielded into a strong and powerful tool!
  4. As an Americorps member working at City Year for two years, I learned the importance of visibility in the community: it attracts funding, and makes you an easily recognizable force that people know they can trust. In the last few days however, I have added to that understanding. Not only does being a visible presence in the community help you with funding and recognition – it also helps you to keep a finger on the pulse of the community.  This enables your work to be constantly informed by and generated from the issues that are truly important to the community you are working with.  Without this important connection, any work that is done will simply lose relevance.

This is a constant learning process!  I have a million things running through my head right now, and will make a serious effort to keep updating the blog over the next week before it all slips away.  Highlights of what’s to come: impressions of New Orleans as a city, spotlights on individual organizations, 50th anniversary of the Freedom Riders and participating in Sistahs Making a Change – a health-focused program offered by the Ashe Cultural Arts Center!  Stay tuned!


2 thoughts on “A few lessons from New Orleans

  1. Hey! Paula Donnelly just turned me on to your blog and mentioned that you were in New Orleans. I work for a youth-driven organization called Kids Rethink New Orleans Schools that you might be interested in visiting while you are here. Our website is http://www.therethinkers.com. We’re having a big news conference on Thursday that you might want to check out. If you’d like more info you can email me at rachel@therethinkers.org

    Rachel Lee
    New Orleans

  2. Hi Rachel – Thanks for your comment! Unfortunately, I actually left New Orleans last Thursday and am currently in Austin, TX and making plans to move westward! I took a quick look at your website, and your program sounds awesome. You are doing some really incredible, important work in New Orleans. I’m sorry I missed you guys while I was in town, but perhaps there will be another time in the future 🙂 Take care!


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