Immigrant and Refugee Artists in the Bay Area

A Special Arts Intensive for Grantmakers

Sherwood Chen

Immigrant and refugee communities historically have played key roles in the Bay Area's growth and rich diversity. As California enters the twenty-first century, demographic figures reflect significant increases in immigrant pop-ulations. Amongst these communities are myriad performance ensembles, in-dividual artists, teachers, and participatory arts events that strengthen comm-unity ties, reinforce a vibrant cultural heritage, and enrich the lives of Bay Area residents.

In April 2005, a day-long convening addressed how philanthropy can be more responsive to these communities. The meeting was hosted by the JPMorgan Chase Foundation and devel-oped in partnership with the Arts Loan Fund of Northern California Grant-makers, the William & Flora Hewlett Foundation, the James Irvine Foundation, Walter & Elise Haas Fund, Marin Community Foundation, Alliance of California Traditional Arts, the Fund for Folk Culture, and the San Francisco Foundation.

Attended by over seventy grantmakers in the arts, grantmakers working with immigrant and refugee communities, individual artists, and community leaders, the arts-intensive day highlighted ways that artistic and cultural practices serve to define and contribute to an increasingly important sector of the Bay Area population. Attendees learned about relevant demographics, policy, and research, in addition to personal stories about the transformational power of art. Artist presentations were interwoven with panels and open discussions focusing on trends and innovative examples of community engagement and grantmaking practices.

Margaret Southerland from the JPMorgan Chase Foundation welcomed everyone and Moy Eng from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation eloquently framed the day's program through personal stories of the powerful role arts played for her as a child of immigrant parents.

A research and policy panel was moderated by Grantmakers Concerned with Immigrants and Refugees Executive Director Daranee Petsod. Karthick Ramakrishnan from Public Policy Institute of California shared demographic information underscoring the growing presence of first and second generation immigrants regionally and statewide. Richard Hobbs and Teresa Castellanos from the County of Santa Clara Office of Human Relations discussed the Immigrant Action Network's work in developing community education and awareness about immigrants, education services for immigrant communities, and efforts to empower low-income immigrants.

Model programs of engagement and presentation were then discussed, moderated by Jim Flavell of the Marin Community Foundation. Maria Su, executive director of the Vietnamese Youth Development Center, reflected on strategies to involve immigrant youth in life skills training, delinquency prevention, and peer-to-peer engagement through arts and media programs. She also spoke of the incorporation of the arts into a broader spectrum of academic and extracurricular youth resources.

Barbara Litt, director of the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco's Kritzer/Ross Kritzer/Ross Émigré Program, emphasized her program's role fostering connections for Russian-speaking émigrés to American and Jewish life while creating educational, social, linguistic, and cultural ties. The breadth of Radio Bilingue's programming in Mixteco, Spanish, and English was described by its executive director, Hugo Morales, who also discussed the cultural complexities, topics, and musical genres reflected in a Latino community radio network. Abeer Rafidi, executive director of San Francisco's Arab Cultural Center, spoke on the Center's longstanding role in promoting Arab culture while serving as a leading resource for health referals, immigration assistance, and ESL classes.

All speakers reaffirmed that culture is essential to one's sense of well being. Emergent themes included how art and culture can develop a sense of identity in discovering or reaffirming roots, and its particular ability to bridge cultures for newcomers to this country. Additionally, examples were shared in which cultural and artistic practice served to connect individuals to immigrant communities and cultural traditions other than their own.

One of the primary purposes for this gathering was to understand how grantmakers can better serve immigrant and refugee artists. What became clear was that many artists from these comm-unities do not necessarily organize their activities in arts organizations per se. Rather, they work within faith-based congregations or legal, human, and social service agencies. Further, artists and art practices from these communities are often under-recognized, and thus undervalued, by philanthropy. To be responsive and effective here, arts funding needs to break out of its silo and become more flexible.

A panel of grantmakers, moderated by John Orders (Irvine Foundation), featur-ed Betsy Peterson (Fund for Folk Culture), Amy Kitchener (Alliance for California Traditional Arts), and Frances Phillips (Walter and Elise Haas Fund and Creative Work Fund). The panel reiterated the need for flexibility and reflected strategies and challenges in reaching out to immigrant communities, while emphasizing the importance of funding arts practice and individual artists within the region's cultural ecosystem.

Demonstrating the value of supporting the artists, throughout the day spotlighted artists offered personal perspectives and presentations of their work and its multiple contexts. Cambodian classical dancer Charya Burt performed and explicated the language of dance. Eugene Rodriguez, co-founder of Los Cenzontles, screened excerpts from his and Ricardo Braojos' Pasajero, which documented a transnational project that connected Mexican-American youth to the roots of mariachi music in Jalisco, Mexico. Cartoneria artist Ruben Guzman shared his work and its personal, mythological, political and religious sources. Ping Ann Addo, from the California College of the Arts' Center for Art and Public Life, offered a presentation on Tongan tapa clothmaking and its relevance in community-building and preservation.

John Killacky (San Francisco Foundation) offered closing reflections on the day and facilitated a discussion on how to sustain the conversation. Attendees offered their own experiences and expertise and asserted the need for funders to reconsider ways in which responsive and effective arts grantmaking can occur outside of arts-specific contexts.

The gathering culminated with Oakland-based percussionist and choreographer Zakarya Diouf drumming syncopated rhythms while his wife and artistic partner Naomi Diouf offered words and danced about planting seeds in the earth, framed by a twenty-story high view of a sunlit San Francisco cityscape behind her, provoking a starkly contrasted scene. What does it mean to be replanted, repositioned? What does it take to sprout and take root?

Sherwood Chen is arts and culture program fellow at the San Francisco Foundation.