It’s no secret that the pandemic has hit some communities harder than others. Disasters – whether environmental, social or public health related – often have such effects, exposing inequalities in who can protect themselves from the effects and who can easily recover afterwards. We tend to applaud the resilience-prone communities for their foresight in planning ahead, but in reality, making those plans requires resources that many communities don’t have.
The preceding stories describe how a cultural organization is trying to address this inequality. In Springfield, Massachusetts, the Trust Transfer Project (TTP) is bearing fruit during a public health emergency. The project’s response and recovery efforts help build communities’ resilience to future disasters, and in the process show that the greatest resource the city has has always been there — its people. This story highlights how taking a creative, grassroots approach to community engagement and outreach enables cultural organizations to have a direct social impact in the communities they serve.
In 2021, local health organizations reached out to Springfield Cultural Partners and the Community Music School of Springfield (CMSS) for help with a public health campaign for communities of color in Springfield.
From the outset, the staff at both organizations knew what they wanted to do—hiring and compensating local BIPOC artists to support public health messaging. Vanessa Ford, a speech teacher at CMSS, serves as project manager for the Trust Transfer Project (TTP), which was seen as a strategic choice for a number of reasons.
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On the one hand, she says, “TTP recognizes that local artists will be able to express positive public health messages that engage and inspire community residents.” She also sees the project as an opportunity to engage with emerging artists, rather than an organization of the past. “In the previous strategy of the old system, we would only select established artists to create projects. We are working to involve emerging artists in developing strategies to improve outcomes of public health crises such as COVID-19, mental health and food injustice,” she says.
Artists need only abide by one simple rule when creating their work: Information must not reflect public health misinformation and disinformation. The goal of their work is to inspire hope and reduce the spread of COVID. TTP staff closely follow CDC guidance to provide health information guidance when needed. In the beginning, they emphasized the importance of hand washing and physical distancing. But as the pandemic unfolded, they recognized that boosting vaccine confidence would best protect vulnerable segments of the population. But to do so, Vanessa sees the need to address deeper historical issues.
Knowing that some in the community do not trust the country’s public health organizations and are wary of their efforts to mitigate the virus, she believes it is necessary to distinguish the TTP from these organizations because “an art and culture that speaks locally about how people feel. Organizations.” She explained, “We realized that because of the fear in the community of color about past historical projects and experiments, we would be hesitant to do so,” she explained. “As we thought about how to connect with the community, we knew we had to be very Be careful. There is serious mistrust. Community engagement must be pure and oriented towards hope and healing.”
To build this trust, TTP tries to involve as many community members as possible in the project. Vanessa picked up the phone and started making hundreds of calls to local organizations and businesses. From wine cellars, grocery stores, barbershops, salons to mosques, churches, senior centers and banks, everyone got a call. In separate personal and community Zoom calls (one of which was attended by nearly 50 community members), Vanessa provided details on what TTP is and ended the call by asking to be part of a citywide initiative.
The project employs what Vanessa calls an “intentionally unconventional” approach to collaboration. Each participating business or organization is paired with an artist who is responsible for communicating with them, supporting the production of the work, and helping to share the work with the community when it is complete. This even applies to funding: these organizations all receive a stipend from the TTP, which they then use to pay for the artist’s work. (Stipends are funded through grants and initiatives, including Immunization community, the award is given to museums, libraries, and cultural and tribal organizations that use their roles as trusted community partners to increase vaccine confidence in their communities. )
“Our partner organizations are critical to the success of this community-based program,” Vanessa said. “They are a support system within the artist’s circle. They are our communication partners and trusted local connections.” She believes that fostering these connections in the community is key to the project’s impact. “We are building new, trusting, cross-sectoral relationships across the community to bridge the gap,” she explained. “These solid partnerships that have been formed can be mobilized to support future public health messaging. Through these efforts, healing comes to the community, including the artist.”
After artists submit their work, TTP prints it on a poster and distributes it to partner organizations. After-school activities, daycare and senior centers, the Main Street subway station, and on the walls of laundromats, liquor stores, local supermarkets and restaurants are posters. “Before you know it, our posters are all over the community,” Vanessa said, “messages of hope and healing, ‘you’re not alone,’ ‘I’m glad to meet you,’ messages that people build trust” are spreading .
Community members started asking for posters they wanted to see on the wall. For example, many in the local Latino and Native American communities have requested the work of Gabriela Seplevda, Turtle Island Daughter, which depicts a young woman with long, loose braids, wearing a simple orange T-shirt and a face mask made from a textile pattern. Traditional local churches like suspending handshakes during the pandemic have often called for Mari Chavez’s work, we will hold hands again. “The Church Wants This [piece] Spreading hope for the future in their foyer,” Vanessa explained, “If we come together and do the right thing and go to a better place, we will hold hands again. ” When TTP staff learned which images were the most popular, they turned them into postcards and stickers and distributed them for free at community events.
As Vanessa and TTP focus on the future, they continue to focus on the current needs of the community. “We found our niche because the CDC and Immunization community Initiative helps us find purpose,” Vanessa said. “There may be changes, pivots and shifts, but our goal is to have a healthy community in the long term. “
TTP is now looking at how its local artists are influencing mental health awareness, especially among young people. “We want to make sure that young people have a path to follow and access to the resources they need to survive the pandemic, to make room for all the issues they’re dealing with… come out of the pandemic with a sense of belonging and purpose,” Varney said. Sarah said. “We don’t want them to forget where they are and their plans before that.”
By watching the project unfold, Vanessa learned that the key to creating a healthier, more resilient community is to focus on those parts that are “underused, under-engaged, and undervalued,” as she sees local emerging in Springfield as the artist does. “We directly improve the lives of artists by enhancing their value, investing in their untapped abilities, and building new ways to help them turn their talents into sustainable economic development opportunities,” she said.
TTP’s work is not limited to the visual arts, but also includes poets, musicians, street artists and school-aged children. For Vanessa, one of the most memorable moments of the project was a conversation with a mother whose two sons wrote poetry. The mother cried when she heard what they had written in spoken language, telling Vanessa that she thought her family was doing a good job dealing with the pandemic, until she heard the words of her younger son:
I am farther and farther away from mankind,
Six feet from my closest friend.
Anyone can be contagious,
Everyone is a threat.
my school used to be a haven
For laughing smiles and faces.
Already switched online.
Everyone is sad about turning off the camera,
and cold hugs.
“Their honesty brought the conversation into their home, allowing the mother to understand the next move,” Vanessa said. “Now she’s engaging her children in conversations about family health and their own ability to want and get vaccines. [Before this] It never even occurred to her that a conversation was necessary. “