Emerson alumni Melissa Teng, MA ’18, Melody Hsu, ’19, MA ’21; and Steve Walter, ’11, and current Creative Writing MFA student Porsha Olayiwola, are part of two teams that were recently awarded grants from the New England Foundation for the Arts (NEFA) to support projects focusing on the futures of public spaces and public culture as a way to foster community in Massachusetts.
NEFA’s Collective Imagination for Spatial Justice (CISJ) grants came in response to COVID-19 and the effects of systemic racism on underserved and underrepresented communities in the state. The grants encourage artists and creators to, “imagine and create public art that fosters more just, vibrant, and welcoming public spaces,” according to the NEFA website.
Teng, Hsu, and Walter are working with certified peer specialist and coordinator for statewide outreach, George Halfkenny, and artist Sabrina Dorsainvil on a project titled “See You in the Future,” which focuses on narratives surrounding homelessness in Boston’s Melnea Cass/Mass Avenue neighborhood. The title stems from the idea that to care for someone is the act of seeing – and wanting to see – them in the future; it is fostering a relationship and building up community that will alleviate hardship.
The project uses storytelling as an act of communal caretaking, seeing stories as a way to humanize those experiencing homelessness and reshape the narrative so they are seen as neighbors rather than ‘others.’ The exact form the project takes will arise from the team’s work with the community, but it is planned to run until September 2022.
“It’s an amazing privilege to work with this team — where everyone brings so much history and heart to this project — to be supported by funders who really want to learn with us, and to create public art for a city we love,” Teng says.
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The team works closely with the Engagement Center, a low-threshold (meaning residents do not need to be drug- or alcohol-free to participate) harm reduction day center at Mass. and Cass, as well as other community caretakers, to explore the personal stories and histories of people experiencing homelessness at Mass. And Cass. Their goal is to simultaneously build up community while breaking down structural inequities that perpetuate misconceptions about homelessness and systemic racism. They see this project as a platform for collaboration and growth.
“I believe art brings people together and co-creation is key to encouraging imagination for our collective future. I’m excited to see where this interdisciplinary project will take us,” Hsu said.
On a separate team, current MFA student and Boston Poet Laureate Porsha Olayiwola is working with performance artist and School of the Museum of Fine Arts professor Danielle Abrams, public art curator and cultural partnership connector Jen Mergel, and team leader Anita Morson-Matra of the Roxbury Cultural Council.
Titled “Baldwin in the Park,” the goal of the project is to re-imagine author James Baldwin’s 1957 statement: “The place in which I fit will not exist until I make it.” The team plans to interview Greater Boston artists and thought leaders to collect diverse perspectives on Baldwin’s quotation, hoping to expose the search for identity within an increasingly diverse society. They hope to promote cultural equity and explore the bounds of identity.