New Neighbor Arts Entrepreneurship

By Shawn Lent

Today’s world is highly volatile with the highest number of forcibly displaced persons in modern history. Refugees and other migrants who resettle in America are met by new neighborhoods that are often unwelcoming, patronizing, overwhelming, and/or disempowering. During the resettlement process, one human right is often easily overlooked. Article 27 of the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” states, “Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts… / Everyone has the right to the protection of the moral and material interests resulting from any literary or artistic production of which he is the author.” Immigrants and those who support them often lack awareness of opportunities for artistic ventures and connections in the local arts ecosystem.

The March 2019 Alumni TIES seminar “Stronger American Cities: Closing the Skills Gap and Building Entrepreneurial Ecosystems” that I attended in Kansas City, Missouri was the catalyst for a pilot project in Chicago, Illinois. In partnership with fellow exchange alumna, Letitia Zwickert, we designed “New Neighbor Arts Entrepreneurship,” funded through an Alumni TIES small grant from the U.S. Department of State, which aims to empower new migrants through performing arts careers and entrepreneurship. Mary Anne Carter, Chair of the National Endowment for the Arts shared her support of the project, “I was so pleased to hear about the Department of State Alumni TIES pilot program utilizing the arts in Chicago to help new migrants and refugees find a place for themselves in their new neighborhoods.”

“New Neighbor Arts Entrepreneurship” centers on social justice advocate Bryan Stevenson’s theory that positive social change has four elements: proximity, rewriting the narrative, hope, and vulnerability. The project took a distinctive approach by shifting power through a train-the-trainer model. Peer learning is a major feature of the project’s design and implementation. Peter Hoesing of Dakota State University served as the project’s accountability partner and stated, “The project leads [Shawn Lent and Letitia Zwickert] assembled a supremely capable task force of diverse voices to inform this effort. Together, they recruited an equally skilled cohort of artists to introduce enterprising new neighbors in Chicago to valuable entrepreneurship skills. The resulting program was bold, experimental, linguistically and culturally inclusive, and in lock step with the core guiding principles that have always informed U.S. exchange programming.”

Rather than hand crafts, this program focuses on capacities in dance, music, theater, and new media which contributes to peacebuilding by encouraging proximity and expression. In the performing arts, individuals take up space, share physical and digital spaces in the neighborhood, and take the stage to be seen and applauded by their neighbors. The Lead Artists selected for the Chicago pilot project were:

Héctor Alvarez (Spain) — actor and director

Silvita Diaz Brown (Mexico) — choreographer, dancer, acro-yogi, and yoga instructor

Maximiliano Illanes Campetella (Argentina) — opera singer

Chih Hsien Lin (Taiwan) — dancer, movement philosopher/therapist

Almanya Narula (Thailand) — actor, fight choreographer, writer and arts leader

Mirza Shams (Egypt) — music producer, composer, pianist and singer

Sami Ismat (Syria) — performance maker, director and teaching artist

The lead artists at their “Lead Artist Training” at Upward Global. Left to Right: Mirza Shams, Héctor Alvarez, Sami Ismat, Silvita Diaz Brown, Wisdom Baty (training facilitator), and Maximiliano Illanes Campetella.

The seven lead artists trained as facilitators for an introductory workshop in order to expand their awareness and understanding of arts careers and entrepreneurial capacities. Together with the lead artists, we created a flexible workshop structure geared toward artists from migrant communities that accounts for a facilitator’s strengths and art form, workshop context, and the needs and wants of participants. To promote accessibility and inclusivity, workshop materials were printed in English, Spanish, Arabic, and Mandarin. The lead artists also modified the workshop for adults with cognitive disabilities or language barriers, seniors, teenagers, agency staff, and other participants at five host organizations: Instituto Cervantes, Asian Human Services, Instituto del Progreso Latino, Victory Gardens Theater, and RefugeeOne. An online database of arts organizations, arts contacts, and entrepreneurship resources was also created as a follow-up reference for all involved.

Workshop participants at Victory Gardens Theater.
Lead artist Chih Hsien Lin leads an activity with workshop participants at Asian Human Services.
Lead artists Silvita Diaz Brown and Mirza Shams with workshop participants at Instituto del Progreso Latino.

The goal of the workshop for all participating artists was to assist them in gaining a better knowledge of themselves as artists, successfully defining and communicating their artistry, and building their self-confidence and entrepreneurial mindset. Ultimately, the workshop helped participants think more clearly about their next steps in business while encouraging stronger relationships among migrant artists.

Currently, we are in the process of surveying staff at several immigrant advocate groups, mutual aid societies, and refugee resettlement agencies regarding their interest in future activities such as arts job fair, an immigrant artists newsletter, apprenticeship programs in the arts, and an immigrant artists showcase performance. Additionally, we will be reaching out to organizations who might be in a position to launch a version of the project through separate funding and are also brainstorming ways to strengthen the informal artist-to-artist networks that are the lifeblood of this work.

New Neighbor Arts Entrepreneurship is funded through an Alumni TIES small grant from the U.S. Department of State.

Alumni Thematic International Exchange Seminars (Alumni TIES) are regionally focused seminars for alumni of U.S. government-sponsored exchange programs.

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