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From the Desk of the CEO: Building Communities

May 25, 2017 by California Humanities

Marquee Slideshow

Race and Place in the Bay Area Panel, Oakland Book Festival, Donte Clark – Creative Coordinator, RYSE Center; Amir Soltani Filmmaker and Author; Tamara Alvarado - Executive Director, School of Arts & Culture at Mexican Heritage Plaza; Pendarvis Harshaw - Senior Communications Associate, Policy Link. 

"Embrace the people who are already there when you get someplace."

- Donte Clark, educator, activist, poet, emcee

We’ve been talking a lot these days about why the humanities matter, of their value in bringing people and history and ideas and cultures together so that we understand each other better. There is an ultimate goal here - one of building communities - that can be anything from a physical neighborhood to a group of people gathered together on a sunny afternoon in Oakland, talking about how communities evolve.

A recent report published by PolicyLink, entitled “Creating Change through the Arts, Culture, and Equitable Development: A Policy and Practical Primer” outlines the importance of arts and culture for “building community, supporting development, nurturing health and well-being, and contributing to economic opportunity.” It provides a very practical, policy-based approach to community-building through multiple sectors: housing, transportation, infrastructure, education, technology, and more. I was drawn to the report because of the many examples of public humanities in action throughout: public dialogues, educational activities, cultural expression, community history.

On May 21, California Humanities presented a panel of local community leaders at the annual Oakland Book Festival. “Race and Place in the Bay Area” showcased two California Humanities- funded documentary films to begin a conversation about the importance of the humanities in discussing race and societal divisions in our cities. Dogtown Redemption, co-directed and produced by Amir Soltani, explores questions of race, class and space in Oakland through the story of West Oakland's shopping cart recyclers and the need to create rather than eliminate economic opportunities for the East Bay's disadvantaged communities. Romeo is Bleeding tells the story of a youth-led production of Romeo and Juliet set on the streets of Richmond, a place scarred by violence and hopelessness for its young people. At the center of the film is Donte Clark, Creative Coordinator at RYSE Center in Richmond.

The conversation between panelists and audience members leaned towards a shared concern about how communities can hold on to their stories and welcome newcomers, and the inherent challenges in both. A common solution emerged:  know and respect the history of a community, and have a vision of what community members can create together.  According to Pendarvis Harshaw, Senior Communications Associate at PolicyLink, “…it’s not just about the people having a vision, but the people being in the vision of those in power—and for that to happen, stories must be told, people must be understood, the people must be seen, heard, felt.” Amir concurs: “Knowledge is not divorced from community: it flows through our history, art, and traditions, and it is the force that binds the generations.” Tamara Alvarado, Executive Director, School of Arts & Culture at Mexican Heritage Plaza in San Jose, is a proponent of local history walks as a way to keep her “community's stories and organizing legacy alive, and they also help us remember those things that have been physically lost through our oral traditions.

Building communities, in the end, is about those values at the heart of the humanities: appreciating history and context, telling stories, listening to different perspectives, encouraging creativity and curiosity, developing a shared vision - and finding ways to link them to the common good. We are all a part of communities: what can we do to make them stronger?

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