Creating Digital Connections Across American Cities

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May 25, 2020
by Louise Hallman
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Creating Digital Connections Across American Cities

Young Cultural Innovators from across Baltimore, Detroit, Memphis and New Orleans “meet up” despite lockdown as regional program moves online

“Let’s arrive together!” declared Amina Dickerson as she opened the first-ever online Young Cultural Innovators (YCI) Regional Hub program and over 40 creative changemakers and community leaders from across four YCI city hubs across the US – Baltimore, Detroit, Memphis and New Orleans – all joined a Zoom call at the same time. 

While the duration and location of the program Creating Connections Across American Cities” might have not been as planned – for a few hours online instead of over a weekend at the Maryland Institute College of Art, Le Mondo arts venue and Waller Gallery in Baltimore, Md., USA – the same YCI energy could be found and connections were certainly strengthened, even in the trying times of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Calling in from their respective lockdowns, the Young Cultural Innovators, participants of the YCI Forum from the past six years, were encouraged by Dickerson, many-time YCI Forum facilitator to “Get comfortable, close your eyes, take deep breaths. Inhale the intentions for the day, and exhale all the stuff you want to get rid of.” With a land acknowledgement led by Ojibwe and Chicano rapper, Sacramento Knoxx, preferred pronouns declared and a visible joy at being brought back together, the inclusive space typical of the Young Cultural Innovators Forum was achieved – even on Zoom. This positivity was reflected by many in their “one word” given to start the day, with responses including “energy”, “cozy,” “grateful,” “calm,” “open,” and “happy.” 

But not all was positive. Many YCIs confessed to feeling “stuck,” “scattered,” “unfocused” and “unsure.” As large urban areas with sizeable populations of people of color, many of the communities that the Salzburg Global Young Cultural Innovators of Baltimore, Detroit, Memphis and New Orleans represent and serve have been hit especially hard by the virus. 

With communal and exhibition spaces shut down and events and community outreach cancelled due to social distancing measures, many of the YCIs are grappling with how best to serve their communities in these times of COVID-19. 

Some have been addressing immediate basic needs such as providing food and shelter for vulnerable groups, either through direct volunteering or by mobilizing other groups. Much of this mobilization and information sharing happens online (as with many things these days), but this raises further challenges of how to serve vulnerable portions of communities, such as the homeless and the elderly, who are not online. Some YCIs have been using “snail mail” and flyers in efforts to counter this problem.

Others are leading fundraising and promotional efforts to help other artists. “Fundraising is on everyone’s minds right now,” admitted a YCI from Detroit. While various grants and loans are being made available both from federal and municipal governments as well as foundations and private philanthropists, artists, musicians and other creative producers with irregular incomes particularly struggle to prove exact loss of income, making accessing such funds difficult. 

As much activity – including the arts, through such activities as online film festivals, arts-led discussions, and classes – moves online, there’s a fear that “digital redlining” is happening, with the exclusion common in cities in the physical space being replicated online, excluding marginalized people and communities even further from the arts. “Arts and culture is necessary to bridge communities; digital isn’t as inclusive as we think,” said a YCI from New Orleans. 

Many of the cities represented have already dealt with significant shared trauma, such as New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina. With many people turning to the arts – either as a sector or individuals – to provide distraction and comfort amid the crisis, many artists feel a pressure to support their communities at a time when they themselves are struggling. “There’s a feeling of needing to overcompensate with online activity to stay relevant,” worried another New Orleans YCI. Addressing one’s own mental health through “radical acts of self-care and self-love” is much needed, suggested a YCI from Baltimore, to help ensure the arts can bounce-back post-COVID-19 and notburnout in the meantime. 

What Comes Next?

After sharing their respective cities’ struggles, thoughts turned to the future. Questions of how to reopen post-lockdown abound across sectors, and this is no different in the arts. Through breakout group conversations covering topics including the role of the arts in healing collective trauma, sustainable connections between the cultural sector and public policy, and rethinking business models for cultural initiatives, the YCIs considered the future for their respective organizations, work, and cities. 

Some concerns are immediate: “Will there be enough PPE (personal protective equipment) in order to reopen cultural spaces?” Others are more long-term: “How can we build back better?” Given the “squandered opportunities” post-9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, there was a shared desire among the YCIs to not miss this potential for a once-in-a-generation shift in how communities interact with each other and the arts. 

To build back better post-COVID-19, the arts sector needs capacity building, with some YCIs looking to how they can shift their grant-funded non-profit organizations to more self-sustaining social enterprises. 

A mind-shift on the value of the arts is also needed. Many artists, photographers and writers are “being asked to give and give and give” at the moment with little to no remuneration, unlike other disasters where they might receive hazard pay, lamented a YCI from Detroit. How can we collectively shift the mentalities of not only those who rely on and support the sector but also those within it to better value the work being done and the community service being rendered?

This was “No time for despair,” said Dickerson in closing. “It is going to be the creative spirits who will define what a new normal is going to be.”

Galvanized by their renewed connections across their cities, the YCIs committed themselves to making this program “a beginning, not an end” with proposals for future programming and regular monthly meetings. One upside of lockdown: the power of digital convening is clear.  

This virtual regional meeting of the YCI Hubs in Baltimore, Detroit, Memphis and New Orleans was generously supported by The Kresge Foundation