Cultural Kitchens: Nurturing organic creative expression

by Maria Rosario Jackson (bio), senior research associate, Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center, Urban Institute

In recent conferences that have dealt with the topic of equity like this year’s Grantmakers in the Arts Conference and the PolicyLink Equity Summit in Detroit, I confirmed that in my many years of research on arts and culture in communities I have become convinced of at least two things. First, that all people have the capacity to be creative and the need for aesthetic expression. And second, that strategies to improve quality of life and opportunity in low-income and marginalized communities are inherently incomplete without provisions for people’s cultural and artistic realization. When I think about why as an urban planner concerned primarily with low and moderate income communities of color, I have chosen to focus on arts and culture, I often reflect on the fact that, historically, in strategies to subjugate or colonize communities, one of the first things that is taken away is freedom of creative expression and the practice of organic art forms. If removal of organic creative expression and art is crucial to keep people down, then isn’t provision of opportunities for organic creative expression and art crucial to lifting people up? The answer is yes.

But what does cultural and artistic realization in low-income and marginalized communities require? What are the artistic and cultural qualities and amenities that a community must have if it is to be a viable place to live and thrive? These are crucial questions that must be answered in any efforts to incorporate arts and culture into equitable development strategies. They are questions that community residents, leaders, policymakers, urban planners and funders alike must address seriously.

In my opinion, a key quality of a community that offers its residents opportunity for socio-economic advancement is the awareness among community residents and leaders that creativity and the capacity for the creation of art are assets that people in communities already possess. Recognition that these assets are building blocks for activity that can lead to individual and collective uplift is important too. The active presence of artists and tradition bearers—musicians, dancers and other performing artists, visual and media artists, writers, poets, storytellers, culinary artists, dedicated crafts people and others—who can inspire imagination, passion and excellence is also a key element. These leaders help people take responsibility for their own creativity and critical reflection and they also help cultivate the community’s creative pulse. Implicit in that is also the presence of supports for artists and tradition bearers who play this important role. The integration of arts and culture, especially the arts and culture of the community in question, into other policy areas and dimensions of community life is another critical feature. We must ask and address, are there art programs in schools? Do schools employ teaching artists? Do health programs consider arts and cultural participation as essential to wellness? Are aesthetic factors a significant aspect of physical development and efforts to change the built environment?

Another extremely crucial element is the presence of what I like to call “cultural kitchens”—spaces and organizations that allow for cultural self-determination. These are places where members of geographic communities or communities of interest gather to be generative—to use their imagination, to make and experience art that nourishes, provokes and inspires. They are places where creative expressions of community history, concerns, accomplishments and aspirations are possible and encouraged. These are places that foster both tradition and innovation and they are places where people hash out who they are, what they care about and how they want to be understood in the broader context of society. They take many forms. They can be art centers, community based organizations, ethnic specific cultural organizations, mutual aid societies and, sometimes, churches and even commercial entities. What they have in common is that they are beacons for collective creative activity. They are places where artists and tradition bearers share their talents and encourage others to do so as well. They are the mechanisms that help communities both mend severed roots and sew new seeds. And they are places that have impact far beyond what happens inside of them. They help make authentic diversity and democracy possible and they are crucial to a more equitable and just society.