Then, Now and What Next: This Writer’s Road to Art in Community

By Magda Martinez

The socially engaged artist brings with them a creative mind trained to see possibilities and options, to see a “Something” before it exists. They bring this mindset to their work in addition to their commitment to the betterment of a community, and this way of thinking is an invaluable resource. I am an artist who prioritizes the ability of a community to reflect on its realities, and its power to transform these circumstances. This is the impact I want to have on groups both in my own artistic practice and in my work as an arts administrator.

THEN. I grew up on the Lower East Side of New York City, the daughter of immigrant parents, part of a family of creative people who never thought of themselves as artists. One of my aunts danced bomba, another recited poetry into a tape recorder (simply to replay it for herself), another baked and cooked every day, and my Abuela sewed everything by hand and cultivated an amazing garden on a tenement windowsill. As women and as newly arrived people in economic hardship they still believed that they could create the world they wanted.

Our Lower East Side tenement apartment was always full of books, art, music, and food, and my family found power in each of these. They constantly altered their environments and pursued their interests, and by doing so made me believe I could do the same. It was the ’70s, and the Lower East Side, like most of New York City, was on fire,but these women and their stories were instilled in me. They told stories—good, bad, funny and sad—about our family, friends, neighbors, and Puerto Rican history. So in time I too became a teller and collector of stories. These stories fortify me and are with me today. They provide me with a rich internal community that moves with me through the world. They ground me and they were the well I drew from when I felt alone while navigating predominately white schools during high school and college.

After I graduated from college, I joined the Peace Corps and lived and worked in Jamaica for two years with a local youth group. We cultivated half an acre and sold the vegetables we grew to fund the group’s activities. I lived in the same community, and started a library for the youth group members with donated books in my small house. I played games with the young people after school when we were not in the garden. I saw their parents every day as they left for work and as they came home. I became a member of the community. I became part of the rhythm of community life. I had been working with the youth group for about seven months when three of the young people’s mothers approached me and asked if I could teach them to read. And because I was young and afraid to say no, I said yes. On the first night seven women arrived. We introduced ourselves to one another and just talked. Before they left they told me they would like to start our work by learning to spell their names. The next week we sat out on the porch with a bare yellow bulb and a homemade blackboard. I asked whose name we should start with and one of the women volunteered. I began to write out her first name but she stopped me. She said, “You’re spelling it wrong.” I was confused. “The first letter,” she said, “the first letter it is wrong.” How could it be wrong and how did she know it was wrong? “It is too big.” Too big, what did she mean? “Only important people have the big letter for their name.” I was twenty-two, speechless and full of emotions I had no names for. Quietly I said, “Everyone’s first name and last name begins with a capital letter. Everybody’s.” We were all silent as the knot slowly faded from my throat and the tears faded from her eyes and mine.

We continued to meet and they guided me through what they wanted to learn. Months later they would ask me to speak to the family that we all worked for, whose land we all lived on, whose houses we all lived in. The women wanted me to ask this family to run power and water lines to their homes. This was a development I had not expected. At once I thought of Paulo Freire and his work to increase literacy in Brazil and I began to understand the collective power in gathering people.

My time with the women in Jamaica offered us an opportunity to create a sense of belonging and connection. It followed a framework that included the creation of a narrative by a community, the expression of hopes and desires and needs over time, and the development of relationships that build trust and a sense of belonging—in essence transforming a collection of individuals into a community. My time with the women in Jamaica set the foundation for the way I strive to work as a writer, teacher, teaching artist and presently as an arts administrator. To use writing and the arts as a way to build fellowship—allowing members of a community to identify and share the strengths in their stories, to find their voices, and then unite them to move forward.

NOW. I currently serve as the Director of Programs at Fleisher Art Memorial, a community art school in South Philadelphia. Founded by Samuel Fleisher in 1898, our school is guided by the belief that art is one of society’s greatest assets and equalizers. There I lead a team of talented staff who generate exhibitions and programs for adults and young people. I have also led our community engagement efforts for the last seven years, and most importantly have been able to continue the work of including art as a tool for building and giving voice to the narratives of communities.

The process of building community and the power of a question, learned long ago in Jamaica, now feature heavily in my work at Fleisher. For the past two years we have been rethinking what we presently call our exhibitions program. The exhibitions program at Fleisher is a relatively traditional one; we have shows that feature the work of our faculty, adult students and our young people, as well as a juried exhibition of contemporary artists. Prompted by requests from our community partners for space to have exhibits of their own (and the support to create them), we began to think about what possibilities existed if we pushed beyond the conventions of traditional exhibits altogether. What would it look like if this arm of the institution—essentially a collection of resources defined as space, time, money and staff—were shaped by our neighbors?

Our answer? BYOP (Bring Your Own Project), a two-year initiative in which Fleisher collaborates with two partner community organizations, Women Organized against Rape (WOAR) and VietLead, to design its goals and processes. Both partner organizations are non-arts-based nonprofits that, along with Fleisher, form the program’s leadership triad. The triad is joined by an advisory group of artists and a group of thought leaders in the field of socially engaged arts. All of us together are exploring key questions such as: How can we develop indigenous leadership in communities? How can we include the arts in a real and meaningful way in the life of a community? How do we ensure that community members are always represented as the tellers of their group’s story? This is not easy work.

We must also wrestle with the question of whose voice will be primary in telling the participating communities’ stories. Often funders ask organizations or artist practitioners to be the public face of projects like these, to report and evaluate this work. We don’t know yet what that looks like for BYOP, but we do know it is essential that the community’s voice is always preserved. As a leadership triad we are in unfamiliar territory. We are working to create a space for learning that is simultaneously allowing leadership to develop at each institution and a vision of shared power to emerge. Fortunately, we have the benefit of time to reflect and to shape this process together with clear intentions.

Socially engaged practices require time to build relationships, which means they also require funders committed to supporting a process of transformation over time. The issues that socially engaged practitioners are asked to address with communities are often serious and have deep historical roots and the right artistic intervention at the appropriate time must be sought. This work can exist on a continuum where sometimes the intervention is the catalyst and sometimes it amplifies and moves an existing process towards a new stage of development in a community. Financial support over time allows for emerging leaders in a community to find their voices, their hopes, to tell their stories; it also enables socially engaged artists to become members of the community.

Time is an essential element here. We must maximize it in order to build trust, to cite our challenges and strengths, to find our voices together, to become a community, and fundamentally to be human together. I believe at its core this work is about our humanity.

WHAT NEXT. The act of making music, traditional art, dance, theater, poetry, and any other art form brings us back to our truest selves as individuals and as members of a community. It grounds us and allows us the space to ask critical questions, find our voice and imagine a new reality. Once that spark is (re)discovered and (re)ignited we move forward, and find new ways of being in the world. And even if we fail, we “fail forward,” as writer and cultural activist Roberto Bedoya would say. This is the birth or rebirth of hope. My belief in hope grounds me when I am challenged or despair that nothing will ever change. I recently discovered the concept of radical hope as defined by philosopher Jonathan Lear, who writes:

What makes this hope radical is that it is directed toward a future goodness that transcends the current ability to understand what it is. Radical hope anticipates a good for which those who have the hope as yet lack the appropriate concepts with which to understand it.

So let’s rally around that hope to negotiate the murky territory of how individuals and institutions create socially engaged art that can inspire new leadership and create new visions of our communities. It may be a future we don’t yet fully understand, but it is no less real or good.

About the Author

Magda Martinez is an award-winning writer, vocalist, educator and performer whose belief in the power of the arts began in her youth. Presently she is the Director of Programs at the Fleisher Art Memorial, where she designed and implemented its nationally recognized audience engagement initiative. Martinez is also a member of Las Gallas, a Philadelphia based artist collective which has toured nationally and internationally.