1 Cultural Development in Underrepresented Communities: Using an Empowerment and Citizen Participation Approach
Jacqueline Samuel, Ph.D.
This case story illustrates the significance of using the arts in community development work which not only speaks to aesthetics but to how we can heal communities and promote well-being.
The Big Picture
In the late ’60s, Chicago Black Theater companies began to grow during a time called the Blacks Arts Movement. There were several Black women, all iconic by today’s standards that led the charge. First, there was the mother of Black Theater, Val Gray Ward. Val gave us Kuumba Theatre where I became a member in the early ’80s. Val was the mother of Black Theater and mentored many. Abena Joan Brown former social worker, dancer, founded Ebony Talent Agency later becoming eta Creative Arts Foundation Theater. Then came Jackie Taylor founder of the Black Ensemble Theater (BET) Company whose mission was and still is today, to eradicate racism. All of these women participated in the Black Arts Movement including Illinois Poet Laureate Gwendolyn Brooks, and Margaret Taylor–Burroughs founder of the South Side Community Art Center (home of Black visual arts) and founder of the Du Sable Museum of African American Art. These Black Women were trailblazers and pre-community psychologists in their own right. If you were a performing, visual, or musical artist in Chicago between the 60’s-2005, at some point you were touched by their grace and wisdom. The Black Arts Movement gave Black people a sense of community, pride, and voice by creating a space to tell our stories through the arts and cultural experiences. It was a holistic approach, led by several daring Black women with intentionality to use the arts as a tool for liberation.
This experience motivated my work as a performing artist, curator of multidisciplinary arts, in addition to being an art consultant. By 2004, I was working in three different communities: Albany Park (north side of the city), Humboldt Park (northwest side of the city), and South Chicago (the far south side of the city), all very culturally rich and diverse communities yet struggling in their own way to sustain their arts communities. This is where I learned that I had to know the history of each community. What I found was:
In 2007, I returned to South Chicago in a new role. I became the intermediary with an arts background and the responsibility to support the implementation of a Quality of Life Plan (QLP) written by the residents and stakeholders of South Chicago. The QLP consisted of projects and program strategies that responded to social conditions that were a concern of the community. South Chicago identified economic development, safety, education, environment, food access, health, housing, youth development, and the arts as their strategic focus.
The challenge was to integrate the arts into community development practices. This meant bringing city government, residents, and other stakeholders to the table with the arts community. This project was complex because arts and cultural exchanges had never been used strategically in this fashion in Chicago. While working and navigating with a small team, a funder, an artist, and a scribe, I knew that we were too small to meet the masses and we would have to rely on a snowball effect in order for this concept to work. In each community, we were met by some form of skepticism. I learned that we had to wait to be invited into the community. When we allowed the time for relationship building we were eventually invited into each community. We engaged in cultural exchanges, tours, educational and reflective conversations as we broke bread in order to find our commonalities and deepen our relationships. Blending arts/culture and bricks/mortar is not an easy task when both groups do not have experience in working together. They both see their worlds in very different ways. However, the QLP provided the template for action and my past experience gave me the core knowledge I needed to engage both groups. What I did not realize was that I had more to learn.
Cultural Development and Prompting Creative Responses
In the beginning of this work, my colleagues and I spent many hours in meetings discussing issues, reflecting on history, looking at data, mapping where issues occurred, and discussing root causes, but we were not getting anywhere. These discussions were important and useful in understanding the issues but they never seemed to change anything. It felt like we were stuck on information but didn’t know what to do with it and how to move forward. Of course, we worked on collective behavioral and policy changes but it seemed more complicated when it came to social conditions deeply rooted in the community’s culture, such as violence, mental health and the needs of Black women, who historically have been underrepresented. Of course, there were some wins in deescalating gang violence but domestic violence and its impact on women of color in the community was much more complex. Domestic violence seemed to be a silent ill of society and difficult to detect and prevent from happening without witness support.
Mental health is similar, especially in communities of color where it is rarely addressed because of stigma. However, when we looked at issues impacting the community through the lens of art and culture there always seemed to be a stronger level of engagement from the residents. So we asked the question, how can we better engage the community to prompt quality responses that promote social change?The answer we were looking for was discovered after attending a conference on the facilitation of community meetings. I was introduced to the Art of Hosting (AoH). AoH is the practice of using different methodologies of discourse with groups of any size based on the context of the gathering. It is supported by principles that help maximize collective intelligence while being inclusive of diversity in addition to minimizing and transforming conflict. When utilizing AoH, the result is collective clarity, wiser actions, and sustainable workable solutions to the most complex problems. The approach ensures that stakeholders buy into the process because their participation in the design of the process is by definition transparent. This led me to change how I hosted the community as a community psychologist (Art of Hosting). To foster solutions, we followed the same processes as before. Together we would educate ourselves about the issue.
I hosted café style conversations where we would break up into small groups and respond to questions related to the social condition. We took the time to reflect and this method helped to give voice to all that participated. We were becoming active listeners. In addition, it increased our collective efficacy. By being in a circle, it erased the hierarchy and reduced conflicts and high expectations. We invited everyone that wanted to have a seat at the table: residents, elected officials, business owners, youth, law enforcement, faith-based leaders, and artists. We were no longer limited by our titles. Using a cultural development lens gave the artists a context of how the social condition impacted the community; everyone became more transparent about their feelings and they let go of their personal agendas. These community conversations changed my trajectory and experience of community psychology. Using AoH allowed me to bring my humility and willingness to experience what communities have to offer. We learned and healed together. It was restorative and engaging and broke barriers and unleashed our truths. Now we were ready for change by using AoH to inform our use of the arts for Healing Centered engagement. The term Healing Centered expands how we think about responses to trauma and offers a more holistic approach to fostering well-being (Ginwright, 2018). By using this approach, participants can use the arts as a tool to collectively address their trauma and restore their well-being.
Arts and Healing Centered Engagement Promoting the Well-being Among Black Women
After one of our AoH café sessions, I recall several Black women expressing feelings of a lack of belonging in the community. They talked about feeling like outcasts because the housing complex where they lived was riddled with violence and trouble, and they felt that it reflected poorly on them and their families. I knew at that point I needed to connect them to something that would make them feel valued. The idea was to reduce and ease the impact of historical trauma by creating space through a healing-centered experience that encourages collective voice, the celebration of shared identity, and build a sense of community through belonging.
Historically, Black women have always taken on the weight of the family unit by taking on the challenges of caregivers. Without having any trusted support systems, Black women often forgo self-care. When self-care is ignored, so is your overall health. Lack of self-care increases stress and leads to chronic health diseases that impair Black women’s well-being. Therefore, participating in shared cultural engagement can play a significant role in defining good health and supporting ones’ well-being, resilience, and healing. Experiences such as family connections, expressions through spirituality or music, reliance on community networks, and the church can be great sources of strength and support (Nami, 2020). Integrating the arts is a way of achieving these goals to wellness. I thought about putting on a play, but as much as I love theater, I knew that it would take way too long with the planning, auditions, rehearsals, staging, and finding the right play and location. It would take a considerable amount of time and cost to pull it off, but I wanted them to be a part of something. We needed a quick win; something just as powerful but more spontaneous, celebratory, and memorable. I felt it would be better to do another aspect of theater. I was thinking of a “spectacle”. Something that would happen one time only and the process would unite us all through the effort of participating in it.
Responding to the Needs of Black Women
I believe the voices of Black women are powerful assets when used collectively. This assumption is supported by the MeToo, GirlTrek, and Black Lives Matter movements. Even politicians recognize Black women’s power during the most recent election. The challenge is to center their voices universally. Black women today demonstrate that the road to their well-being is traveled by holding space and holistically sharing their hidden stories. These stories define the commonality and range of their lived experiences. When Black women gather in supportive settings, it creates a safe space away from the atrocities of abuse and assaults against their mental and physical health and stability. It occurs in meaningful ways. Some might revert back to ancient and traditional behaviors of their ancestors, such as hosting circles, Bible study, or something of a spiritual nature. They also use their creativity through cooking, art-making, writing, music, and performance. They form groups such as book clubs, sororities, or auxiliaries. They also retain their childhood girlfriends by extending their relationships through social settings such as dinners or travel. The impact of COVID-19 has also increased gatherings through social media, for example, virtual panel discussions or talks, in addition to live internet events. Whichever way that Black women come together it provides them with a moment to collectively cleanse themselves of their griefs and sorrows, in addition to celebrating their shared identity and experiences.
The core needs for Black women is suggested foster relief from Racial Battle Fatigue (RBF) to improve mental health. Racial Battle Fatigue or RBF comes from the impact of experiencing daily battles of attempts to deflect racism, stereotypes, and discrimination and the necessity to always be on guard or wary of the next attack they may face. Coupled with caregiving, work, and maintaining the household adds layers to this toxic stress. The result can be suppressed immunity and an increase of sickness that causes multiple illnesses from tension headaches to elevated blood pressure, among other factors (Goodwin, 2018). The challenge is that these gateway maladies left untreated over time can eventually lead to chronic illnesses. Although healthcare professionals have recognized how COVID-19 has added another layer to health disparities, particularly within communities of color, it is yet to be seen what actions will be taken to promote health equity. In the meantime, community-based healing-centered engagement can be an accentual component to inspiring collective self-care experiences. So now the stage was set. We hoped to improve the way the community communicates and implemented the QLP strategies. We needed to address the feeling of exclusion from the community for Black women that participated in our gatherings. Now our goal was to find the right event.
When Black Women Gather: Gele’ Day
When Black women struggle with acceptance of their body image it is also a result of RBF. Black women are judged by the color of their skin, the size of their lips and hips, and often by the way they wear their hair. The irony is that it is acceptable for others to artificially create these features through tanning lotions, Botox, and fashion statements such as the bustle of the 19th century or the modern-day buttocks injections. However, for Black women, even how they wear their hair can potentially interfere with them keeping their job. The beauty of the Black woman has always been in question. Over the last decade, there has been more of a concerted effort to acknowledge the beauty of Black women in commercials. Actress Pilar Audain was featured in a Dove/Walmart commercial where Pilar walks down the street singing a song adorned in this beautiful head-wrap. Thus, was born Pilar’s “Wrap Your beYOUty Movement”:
One day after I was hosting a community meeting about trauma-informed care, Pilar shared with me about the desire to host an event in the parks called Gele’ Day. It was a day to celebrate the beauty of Black women. When Pilar explained the event I was immediately sold. I had the resources to produce the project and Pilar knew the perfect location, a lakeside park on the south side of Chicago. Pilar shared how Gele’ Day had been done before on a smaller scale. All that was needed was to identify a location for women of color to gather and we would meet in the park and symbolically celebrate womanhood through activities and providing beautiful fabrics to wrap around each other’s heads. The adornment was called a Gele’. According to Pilar, Gele’ Day is another way of saying that you are “atoning your spirit”. However, there’s another custom out of Africa which is called the mass dancers. The mass dancers come out to honor a secret society, the mother spirit of the universe. Taking on this idea, Pilar created Gele’ Day for Black women in Chicago.
Black women vendors are featured at these events and sell their wares while other Black women provide performances, meditations, testimonials, prayer, and African dance exercises. Men are also welcome but mostly serve in a supportive role. At the end of the day, the women gather and rhythmically walk to the beach led by the elders and continue walking into the lake to cleanse themselves of all of life’s challenges. Gele’ Day sounded so beautiful I immediately agreed to support the next event. The event was held in Jackson Park on the south side of Chicago, and Pilar used the support of the women of her church to help set everything up for that day. I arrived early as an organizer and participant, to claim my spot and I brought my 91-year-old mother with me. We arrived, found our spot on the grass, registered, and immediately got in line to get our heads wrapped.
The fabrics were beautiful and free of charge. There were women that were wrapping the heads of other women in the most nurturing way. Another special moment was the acknowledgment of our elders. My mom was 1 of 3 in their 90’s and it made it a very special day for her. Women would come to my mom and kneel beside her and ask to shake her hand or for a hug. They praised her longevity and asked for her youthful secrets. At one point I think I was getting a bit jealous because I wanted the attention from my mom. It was very humbling. Later a sea of Black and Brown women filled the park while Pilar opened the day in prayer. They explained the meaning of Gele’ Day and summoned a group of men to lead us in meditation as they played their Tibetan bowls during the most perfect summer day. There were performances by children, face painters, poets, musicians, and singers. We were also led in a group African dance exercise. We laughed, talked, shared our life experiences.
Near the end of the day, we rhythmically lined up by age as Pilar is never short of giving back her time, guidance, and healing efforts to those that give and support her. There is an unspoken reciprocity noted between Pilar and her followers which I will call “the Village approach”. Some call it, “paying it forward”. we began to walk to the water. Since my mother was the elder in the group, my mom stood at the front of the line with Pilar. My mom looked at me and said, “Do I get in the water too?” I said, “Yes you do” with a smile wondering if they would actually do it. I didn’t think my mom would do it but they marched right in that water. People in the park would stop me and ask who we were and what were we doing as they watched us in awe. I felt like a queen. There was such beauty in the collective cleanse. When my mother and I walked backed to the car I could not help but kneel to clean the sand off her feet. I hope my mom felt as special as I did by being together on Gele’ Day.
Outcomes and Impact
“Gele’ Day” represented healing-centered experiences through spectacle by preserving culture in the way of sharing untold stories, promoting collective pride, acknowledging ones’ ancestors, and influencing citizen participation in an open and safe space. The spectacle being both visual and performance-based, also successfully demonstrates that by utilizing the arts as a healing-centered tool, women can feel collectively empowered, cherished, and valued. As much as there is singing and laughter there is also an emotional release that is symbolically enacted by the rhythmic walk to the beachfront and actually manifests based on the reactions that you see and hear. There was inquiry of amazement from onlookers, demonstrations of love, respect and affection among the participants, and the collective response through engagement of the mindfulness activities. The experience was an overall movement, a metaphoric dance, and a holistic healing experience. As intended, it is an experience that one will remember for a lifetime.
A most powerful aspect of the “Wrap Your beYOUty Movement” is Pilar’s skills and ability to use citizen participation to reach so many women without standard forms of marketing. Every year there is a noticeable increase in attendance to these events, resulting from a snowball effect–from word-of-mouth. There are no subscriptions, no brochures, no flyers, no posters, and no ads in periodicals. The communication style of the Wrap Your beYOUty Movement can easily be equated to a modern example of the traditional use of the beat of the African Drum to communicate to the Village. Gele’ day represents Empowerment and Citizen Participation in its purest form. This can also be compared to the Black Arts Movement where space was also intentionally created to support and sustain the aesthetic voices of the Black Arts Community.
Community Engagement and Citizen Participation
It is important to identify the best approach in facilitation that works for you. I prefer the Art of Hosting (AoH) because it not only gives the participant a voice, it also offers different options of facilitation based on the needs of the community. When there are sensitive matters that need addressing such as listening to the victims of violence, we used methods that encouraged storytelling and active listening. When there were community disagreements (and there will be disagreements) there are methods for having courageous conversations that will help get the group back on track. Always keep an open mind to new methods, that is how I discovered AoH. As much as I feel comfortable working with community groups, I feel my lesson learned through this event is that you have to decide what methods of engagement work best for you in order to achieve the outcomes you desire.
Collaborative Ways of Investing in Underrepresented Communities
There were two positions held in my life that influenced my work as a community psychologist, It was always a joy exploring a character in a play but it was temporary. However, exploring, connecting, and engaging with diverse populations and cultures in a community setting was more fulfilling.that of an arts consultant specializing in theater, and that of a community development intermediary for a neighborhood in Chicago. As much as I enjoyed performing, I enjoyed working with people in communities even more. The combination of the two careers built my foundation and prepared me for community psychology. As a community psychologist, the arts provide a platform for collaboration while promoting social change and working at different ecological levels to address social conditions through a creative lens. My work covers many domains but the focus of this work is using arts and culture as tools to support underrepresented voices, specifically Black women to improve social conditions. I have been fortunate to observe best practices through my travels and engaging with creative people that have impacted the world.
A Community Psychologist’s Role in Disinvested Communities
It cannot be assumed that as a community psychologist one must take the lead, teach, or have power over the community. Although the role of a community psychologist can be subtle, it is imperative to be foremost an active listener and observer as this will guide your actions. Other best practices proposed are:
- Building your knowledge about the community that you are working with.
- Allowing yourself to be invited in and knowing the community’s history before you enter.
- Building your networking skills and leveraging resources but never offering anything that you cannot deliver.
- Finding the commonalities to connect and build relationships with the people you plan to engage with.
- Be willing to adapt to the unexpected and watching for any influence that creates barriers for others.
- Reflecting on your work, reflecting with others, while making the effort to center and raise all voices.
- Bringing humility and willingness to experience what the community has to offer you. This helps to form relationships where lessons are learned, trust is restored, and engagement is sustained; and
- Acting with intentionality to promote social change.
Community Engagement and Citizen Participation
When working with the community, planning is important but I also believe in planning while having smaller events in order to build relationships in the community. Educate the community on the issue that you are addressing so that you are on the same page when you begin to address the issue. Research the multiple ways that you can host a meeting and determine what suits your leadership style. However, make sure your style of facilitation is open to everyone. If they live in the community they have every right to participate if they so choose, prepare to address conflicts, respect the time of others, and make sure meetings are engaging enough where people will want to come back for more.
Working with communities and diverse populations can be stressful, but an equitable representation of the community must be a part of the process. Identify the artists that live in and serve the community. Use their talents. Besides producing their work, I have hired artists to do graphic note-taking in meetings and have found it to be more detailed than writing notes (figures below). There is something about images that stimulates memory. Honor their talents by paying them. Their time is money. Make sure you are working with artists that enjoy working with the community. There are some great artists that prefer to create on their own. This type of artist might be more suitable for showcasing by creating themed pop-up galleries, performances in the park or public art. Artists that enjoy working with the community make great organizers. Engage them in every aspect of community planning and implementation. I have had stakeholders tell me that there are no artists in the area. I always laugh at that because artists are everywhere. If you can offer the use of free or shared space, believe me, they will appear out of nowhere. Just remember to do a contract or memo of understanding so that there are no surprises at the end of the day and everyone is on the same page.
Graphic notes from our community meeting
My Work Relative to Community Psychology Practice
Through this case study, we have looked at underserved communities where Black women have felt undervalued and the communities discussed have been underrepresented. We looked at empowerment and citizen participation from a community psychology perspective to better understand how it was achieved in this case study. The empowerment theory comes to mind in this case story.
While there are many definitions out there for empowerment, I favor some of the tenets of empowerment that have been defined by the Cornell Empowerment Group (1989), such as intentionality, ongoing process, and mutual respect. For instance, intentionality is extremely important because it is the foundation of empowerment that gives the community psychologist their purpose. Intentionality is the reason behind the passion that fuels the action. In the Black Arts Movement, the iconic Black Women that led the charge to make space for Black artists recognized their absence in society, and then determined to create space for them. Their mentorship and coalition building was the driving force for sustainability. Many Black actors have trailblazed alone, but having a vision and recognizing that your needs are in common with others becomes the catalyst to mobilizing others for the cause. So when you are working with a community and you recognize that the group is at a stalemate, you use your influence to expose the group to new ideas and challenge their thinking. In South Chicago, we recognized that the arts were a great tool but it was AoH that unleased their voice and their truths.
The Wrap Your beYOUty Movement recognizes the beauty and value of Black women, so Gele’ Day used its influence to help Black women see their beauty. The Wrap Your beYOUty Movement becomes a mirror to show and reflect the power of Black women. It also opens up space for others to see the Beauty of a Black Women. Remember how people inquired about the Black women walking to the lakefront. This means that the Black women’s presence was no longer invisible. They were shown respect through acknowledgment. The care and nurturing, the ongoing process of wrapping the beauty of each woman commands mutual respect by being invited into the community of Black Women. When you enter, you enter with humility and a willingness to experience what the community has to offer. This reminds the community psychologist of ones’ own vulnerability and we must treat everyone with care and compassion. This Empowerment Framework model is shown below:
|Empowerment||Black Women in the Black Arts Movement||The Role of Community Psychology Building Communities Through the Arts||Wrap Your beYouty Movement for Black Women|
|Intentionality||To create opportunities and recognize the talent and contributors of Black Artists||To use the arts as a tool for healing, empowerment, and citizen participation||Holistic healing, atonement, and collective empowerment of Black Women|
|Ongoing Process||The development of Black institutions dedicated to the uplifting of Black Culture||Program support and the reclamation of art as a community development tool||Annual tradition and celebration of Gele Day and She Through Me to promote collective pride|
|Mutual Respect||Engagement and mentoring of Black Artists||Inviting into the community and entering with humility and willingness to experience what the community has to offer||The reciprocity of sharing and celebration of each other’s talents|
Citizen participation is another aspect of Empowerment where knowing how to engage others over time requires skill. There is Critical Awareness that informs the purpose of the collective action. It is the social barriers that ignite the need for action. The Black Arts Movement recognizes the need to acknowledge the creative contributions of Black Artist. The Community Psychologist sees the inequities and disinvestment that challenges the quality of life of underrepresent communities. The Wrap Your beYOUty Movement recognizes the need to bring attention to the value of Black Women. Once the awareness is achieved then we must reflect on how we arrived to this this issue and what did we learn. This is where the skills of Community Psychology are needed. Organizing and the ability to mobilize others to bring awareness requires skills, relationship building, leveraging resources, and trust. Once this is achieved the commitment of others will follow. In South Chicago it was AoH that brought us to the level of commitment. This is where engagement becomes strong. In the Black Arts Movement, 3 Black Women are now the founders of theater companies. Gwendolyn Brooks breaks barriers and become the first Black Women Poet Laureate of the state of Illinois, and Margaret Burroughs opens a museum on city property that showcases Black excellence. South Chicago has a plan with a vision and mission to implement. Wrap Your beYOUty Movement starts with one day and becomes an annual event. Once all of this is steps are achieved then long lasting relational connections are made which leads to sustainability. The Citizen Participation Table is shown below.
|Citizen Participation||Black Women in the Black Arts Movement||The Role of Community Psychology Building Communities Through the Arts||Wrap Your beYouty Movement for Black Women|
|Critical Awareness||Recognizing the significance of Black talent and cultural||Attention to resources: finding space and disinvestment||Recognizing the significance of Black women in society|
|Participatory Skills||Mobilizing and building relationships with Black artist and audiences||Mobilizing and building relationships with community artists, residents, and stakeholders||Mobilizing and building relationships with Black women|
|Participatory Values and Commitment||Respect and honoring Black pride||Collectively respecting the writing and implementation of strategic plans (Arts and Quality of Life Plans)||Respect and honoring pride of Black women|
|Relational Connections||Mentoring actors and support of the artistic community||Hosting of the community in circle to share wants and needs; Active listening||Sharing of talent and resources to support celebration|
I am hoping that by reading through this case story you are inspired to begin to think about ways you can use arts and culture in community psychology work or other work seeking to foster resilience and build community—leaning into advancing social and racial justice. I continue to do this work using my lived experiences and education as a community psychologist and educator. Here is a website with more on Gwendolyn Brooks: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/gwendolyn-brooks
From Theory to Practice Reflections and Questions
- Share with your classmates or others the ways in which the information in this chapter challenged or expanded your thinking about how the arts and culture can be used to build community.
- Provide and discuss examples of how gaining an understanding of an underrepresented community will affect your ongoing work.
- What questions does this chapter raise for you related to community psychology, community practice work, or other related fields of study?
Art of Hosting (2021). http://www.artofhosting.org/
Cornell Empowerment Group. (1989). Empowerment and family support. Networking Bulletin, 1(1)2.
Ginwright, S. (2018). The future of healing: Shifting from trauma informed care to healing centered engagement. https://ginwright.medium.com/the-future-of-healing-shifting-from-trauma-informed-care-to-healing-centered-engagement-634f557ce69c
Goodwin, M. (2018). Racial battle fatigue: What is it and what are the symptoms? https://medium.com/racial-battle-fatigue/racial-battle- fatigue-what-is-it-and-what-are-the-symptoms-84f79f49ee1e
NAMI (2020). Black/African American. https://www.nami.org/Your-Journey/Identity-and-Cultural-Dimensions/Black-African-American