Urban Gateways received $50K in support from Metlife to develop its Arts Wired Communities (AWC) Initiative in the following Chicago neighborhoods: Pilsen, Woodlawn, Washington Park, South Chicago, Back of the Yards, Englewood, and Auburn Gresham. Specifically, local artists, cultural workers and community members will receive the training and opportunities necessary to engage fully in the planning and implementation of community development initiatives.
In early 2009, Urban Gateways (UG) adopted a new strategic plan which identified the development of community-based partnerships as a means of building the public will required to ensure high quality arts learning for all young people. UG’s success is directly reliant on its ability to earn and maintain the respect and trust of key community partner agencies, and to prepare locally-based artists to participate in and contribute to their communities’ overall improvement efforts, eventually establishing schools and community agencies as “arts-wired” cultural hubs and community learning centers.
The primary strategy for bringing the arts and education aspects of each community’s improvement plans to life has been UG’s full participation in the identification, design and implementation of neighborhood-based initiatives that address prioritized community issues. While this initially takes place as a result of UG staff and artists participating in ongoing neighborhood-based planning sessions at the invitation of the local community leaders, UG immediately fosters partnerships with neighborhood artists who must also assume a seat at the planning table. What frequently follows is the delivery of deeply-infused and customized arts-education programming, and the establishment of a cadre of locally-based artists who can ensure that arts learning remains embedded in holistic efforts at community change. Since artists have not customarily assumed this community-oriented responsibility, UG provides ongoing professional development.
The most significant investment in Chicago’s community development activities over the past 10 years has been the $47 million dedicated to the New Communities Program (NCP), a project of the Local Initiative Support Corporation (LISC). As part of a larger national venture, 16 communities in Chicago received healthy infusions of capital in order to undertake asset-based planning processes that resulted in the publishing of each community’s Quality of Life Plan (QLP).
These plans represent a collaborative effort by neighborhood residents to identify and prioritize their community’s assets and needs. When UG recognized that each QLP held the arts and education up as essential components of its community’s overall health, yet had no means of realizing these aspirations, it reached out to many of the 14 lead agencies for the 16 LISC NCP regions. By engaging in efforts to operationalize the arts and education goals of each plan, UG could both contribute to a community’s progress and, at the same time, ensure access to high quality arts learning programs for young people, their parents and civic leadership.
In many cases, this meant building infrastructure, or neighborhood-based “cultural capital,” and capacity for local arts and education assets, including local artists. It is critical that schools in these neighborhoods have the support of greater community development efforts, and that local community-based artists are prepared to lead this charge, if equitable arts learning is to be sustained in each community. UG established its AWC Initiative as an attempt to contribute to the growth of each neighborhood’s cultural capital, and to tap into the deep well of artistic talent each of these communities possessed. Only when it is the expectation of community leadership that all improvement or development efforts include participation on the part of local artists if these plans are to be truly representative and successful, will cultural equity and access be achieved.