Oversight: Art and Culture as a Catalyst for Political and Social Change

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Wednesday, May 4, 2016 – City Council Hearing

Testimony of Earth Celebrations

Before the New York City Council

Felicia Young, Founder/Executive Director, Earth Celebrations.

Earth Celebrations is a non-profit organization founded in 1991 on the Lower East Side of New York CIty engaging communities to effect ecological and social change through the arts.

I am Felicia Young, a social action artist and the Founder/Executive Director of Earth Celebrations, a non-profit organization I developed in 1991 based on the Lower East Side New York City to engage communities to effect ecological and social change through the arts.  For the past 25 years I have applied creative strategies and the inspirational power of the arts to build broad-based coalitions to impact ecological issues of waste management, recycling, community garden preservation, species and habitat conservation, river and water restoration, and climate change.

I established Earth Celebrations with a vision to provide a public forum engaging artists to work outside the traditional parameters of the commercial art world, and collaborate with diverse and marginalized communities to address and impact change on crucial environmental and social issues.  Without a roadmap for this work or a developed field of practice to join, I set out from my position within the art world working at the Alternative Museum, a social and political art museum in New York, to explore possibilities where art was integrated into community life and through a creative process of engagement bring about change on critical issues a community confronted.  I utilized the theatrical-pageant public art form that integrated sculpture, painting, music, dance, theater, poetry, ceremony and performance, along with civic engagement and activism.  This method provided an effective means for mobilizing creative community action and building broad-based coalitions to achieve common goals.

An example of a community-engaged cultural organizing project that was highly successfully was the Procession to Save Our Gardens that I cultivated for 15 years with my local community on the Lower East Side, which had layered and expanding impact, mobilizing a local and then citywide grassroots effort that led to the preservation of hundreds of community gardens on the Lower East Side and throughout New York City.  I initiated the community-engaged art project in 1991 to bring attention to the magnificent network of gardens that existed in my neighborhood that were under the looming threat of destruction by development plans and also to propose the idea of their permanent preservation.

Many of gardens had at this point in time had existed for 25 years, created by local residents in the 1970’s and 80’s, who got together in small groups and volunteered their time and effort to improve their neighborhoods that were riddled with rubble-strewn vacant lots that had become dens of crimes and drugs.  They cleared the garbage and planted trees, flowers, and vegetable gardens.  There were over 50 community gardens throughout the Lower East Side and the bulldozing of Adam Purple’s Garden of Eden down the street from me back in 1986 had signaled the potential plight all the gardens might eventually face. The gardens were created as spontaneous act of urban improvisation.  Local residents transformed their neglected neighborhood into a better environment for their community.  They had become the hubs of positive community life providing open space and nature within the otherwise harsh urban environment, an irreplaceable asset to the overall community that had not been valued in quantifiable terms to the city administration.

I proposed to the gardeners creating a large-scale art project with a day-long 8 hour procession visiting over 40 gardens on the Lower East Side.  Gardeners, local artists, residents and children in the neighborhood could create visual art and performances to present at each garden celebrating and telling their story of achievement, struggle and the effort to permanently preserve the gardens.

After the first year the Procession to Save Our Gardens developed into an annual project because community enthusiasm and will to do it again was there and it served the greater interests of the community.  The project grew year after year into a 9-month long community building and creative production process with over 40 participating gardens and over 50 local organizations, schools, community centers, 500 local artists, and several thousand participants.

Beyond acting out this creative vision, theatrical performance and ceremony publically in the streets and the gardens, we were in reality building the support and grassroots effort through the project by  shaping the narrative of this drama, not in the world of art or theater, but in a daily reality and context of a most critical city issue.

The project revealed the potential of these creative strategies for building and mobilizing a broad-based network, bringing together many local organizations, community centers, schools, and variety of individuals and disparate groups who did not often work together, for the common goal of preserving the gardens that benefited many peoples’ lives in the neighborhood.  This approach through visual art, mobile sculptures, performance, dance, music, song, poetry, and ceremony engaged and built an effort that enabled the community to collectively express itself creatively and connect people to feel on an emotional level the importance of the gardens.  It provided an inspirational point of entry for diverse engagement of people and groups who would not normally participate in political actions and civic processes.  It took the edge off fears, embedding the high stake goals within the immediate experience of creativity and imaginative play.  It generated excitement with the potential of transforming what we can imagine into a tangible experience.  The project actively demonstrated and built an alternative mode of action that was joyous, collaborative and creative. Beyond the goal of preserving the gardens, the process was a message and the process was a goal.

As the threat to the gardens escalated we were able build upon the activated community network established through this large-scale community art project, initiating the Lower East Side Garden Preservation Coalition in 1994 and then a citywide coalition bringing together gardeners from Harlem, Bronx, Upper West Side, Brooklyn with the Lower East Side.  The activation of the coalition working through more traditional grassroots organizing methods and simultaneously with the ongoing community-engaged art project created a very powerful combination, each method significantly enhancing the achievements that alone may not have been reached.  We had catalyzed an effective and creative effort building bridges from our low-income marginalized neighborhood to people and institutions in positions of power, gathering increasing support from elected officials, philanthropists, lawyers, and celebrities.  These efforts led to Mayor Bloomberg upon taking office transferring hundreds of gardens from slated status to be destroyed by development plans to the Parks Department, temporarily protecting them.

Despite these massive achievements and their lasting impact on The City of New York, this work was only minimally funded by small grants through Lower Manhattan Cultural Council and New York State Council on the Arts’ Manhattan Community Arts Fund and the Fund For Creative Communities and Department of Cultural Affairs Public Service Award, and small grants for community organizing.  This was largely a massive volunteer effort by thousands of people within the community creating culture and reclaiming the arts to impact and bring about social, political, and ecological change.  Community-engaged arts bringing about significant positive impact should be strongly supported at the grassroots and community level.