Nancy Alcalá, 2016 grantee, founder of Yellow Turtle Art Studio.

Investing in Communities Through Cultural Recognition, Validation, Connection

The City of Santa Ana in Orange County is a primarily Hispanic/Latino population, with a median per capita income of $16,330. Santa Ana has recently become a new and exciting hub for contemporary arts, but this has led to gentrification which presents challenges to the City’s poor and low income, minority, and largely immigrant residents. Center for Cultural Innovation (CCI) is partnering with Santa Ana Building Healthy Communities (SABHC)—specifically, with artist and community worker Ana Siria Urzua, who serves as project lead. CCI is supporting the operational costs for SABHC to develop and support small businesses of local Latino residents, particularly local, migrant-based, Latino cooperativos that both generate income and sustain cultural practices and expressions. These efforts are meant to create and empower infrastructure for Latino business owners to work within the cooperativo model, which is both culturally familiar and strengthens the fabric of their community of long-underserved Latino residents.

Urzua has been a local community organizer since high school, working successfully on voter registration, neighborhood organizing, and policy reform. She believes that cooperativos are a viable, alternative solution for equity and health. As an active folk musician and a lifelong resident of Santa Ana, Ms. Urzua deeply understands the connection between cultural practice and community cohesion in this region: “I started taking music lessons around 14 years old at the Centro Cultural de Mexico. As a young immigrant kid, that felt like such an important part of who I was, and an important expression of identity that I needed to foster. We moved around a lot and it wasn’t until going to the Centro that I felt like I found a community. I ended up working as a community organizer after graduation, and advocating for the homes in this particular section to become an affordable housing project. One of our biggest fights was to make sure that it was done for the lowest levels of AMI [Area Median Income] where it’s most needed. We surveyed the community about needs and found that the main self-identified areas were housing, arts and culture, and historical preservation. The community center was part of the new construction based on our organizing.”

Although the consequences of the partnership were not fully recognized at the start, it seems there are already four major implications of this collaborative effort between CCI and SABHC:

  1. Shining a spotlight on recognizing and strengthening the economies of those who have been underserved by official city policies and politics.
  2. Highlighting the need to recognize a broader spectrum of artistic and cultural practices that have less to do with “fine arts” and more to do with cultural and community expression.
  3. Challenging conventional grantmaking guidelines that rely on competition, on standards of “excellence” and “innovation” that are measured by number of prestigious awards and examples of exceptionalism, and on existing social networks of adjudicators who represent existing systems of support that have failed to distribute resources broadly.
  4. And, challenging conventional grantmaking practices at every step.

In working with SABHC, CCI recognized the opportunity to go outside conventional arts grantmaking practices, which have failed to distribute funding to communities of color; particularly immigrant communities. CCI staff questioned every step of the normal relationship-building process by de-emphasizing what CCI needed, and asking, instead, how CCI could “meet SABHC where they are.” According to Angie Kim, CCI’s President and CEO, some of what CCI learned are the need to:

  • Accept SABHC’s definitions for who is “in” and “out” as project-relevant artists and cultural producers;
  • Embrace that CCI’s investment is in the process not in the outcome;
  • Reject standards of “excellence” and “innovation” to instead focus on giving hope to a community, no matter their “qualifications” or “competitiveness”;
  • Focus on how participants of the program are empowered to feel capable, connected, and validated rather than on indicators of participants’ small business productivity and output; and
  • Accept that the burden of a successful grant and partnership is on the grantmaker (CCI) and not on SABHC.

A few tangible examples of what it has meant to “meet people where they are” came early on, during preliminary discussions about a possible partnership. When CCI approached SABHC about the possibility of working together, CCI learned that all of the written documentation and related ephemera describing the cooperativo projects (i.e., flyers, training materials, meeting notices, etc.) were in Spanish. Although CCI staff have Spanish-language capability, CCI found it was efficient to use Google Translate to generate English-language versions that provided the necessary background information to move the relationship along. Another example of “meeting them where they are” came when confronted by the seemingly simple matter of determining to whom CCI should disburse the grant check. To minimize administrative burden and overhead, CCI gave them the choice of using a fiscal sponsor or cutting the check directly to Urzua, who would need to report it as personal income. Urzua ultimately chose a fiscal sponsor, but it was a learning moment for both partners to consider the options, and empower Urzua with the choice.

The specifics of the CIIN project are still coalescing, but Urzua is committed to grassroots development: “El Centro’s strength is really in their network. It’s about neighbors and volunteers going out and doing the work. We see a continual drive for outside investment and a model of other people developing the City for folks here. But we have so many examples of the converse and how it’s worked really well when you have local people engaged inthe City’s development.”