EmcArts Community Innovation Labs Cross-sector Creative Thinking to Tackle Neighborhood Challenges

Artist Facilitator Val Tutson leads Lab members in an activity. Photograph by Silaphone Nhongvongsouthy.

Providence was one of two cities selected to participate in EmcArts’ Community Innovation Lab pilot program. With funding from the Kresge Foundation, members of Providence’s cross-sector lab have been meeting since last September to discover: “How can we together develop and test creative approaches to improving community safety and cultural life in Trinity Square?”

CIL Members tour Trinity Square. Photo by Silaphone Nhongvongsouthy

Addressing this core question are the following primary initiatives, each supported by a $10,000 grant:

Beauty in the Backstreets: This community media project has evolved from a workshop for beginning media makers to a focused production workshop. A team of artists will produce a pilot webisode of “The Backstreets,” a narrative created to celebrate Providence’s inner-city neighborhoods and to introduce the people who live there. These artists are creating a Renaissance against all odds.  The vision for Beauty in the Backstreets, the second component of the project, involves using storytelling and film as tools for advocacy. These tools will support a community media program that will provide facilities and resources to cultivate marginalized artists in the inner city. The Backstreets’ message counters mainstream media’s stereotypical depiction of inner city Providence and its residents. Its unified voice is being curated and produced primarily by artists who were born and/or presently live in the neighborhoods surrounding Trinity Square. Three of The Backstreets subjects/characters will perform in a live multimedia exhibition of Beauty in the Backstreets, which is being curated to introduce, entertain, and cultivate the audience for The Backstreets. There will be projected video clips from The Backstreets incorporated into the live performance.

Violet’s Village Learning Center: Over 7 weeks, this team will prototype a program that adopts an African diasporic lens to engage young people, their parents, and community members to gain perspective on how people have overcome obstacles and gained power through connection with each other. Beginning on February 13th, this free after-school program was deep in recruitment with about half its inaugural class full. Youth learn African history and create engaging projects rooted in Afro-Diasporic culture; build communication, art, and writing skills that affirm self-worth; and visit local museum exhibits and cultural sites important to the African Diaspora. “A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.” – Marcus Garvey.

Human Services Collaboration: Trinity Square is home to numerous and the largest agencies in the state that provide services to the homeless, poor and low income families of color. Efforts to provide employment, transportation, housing or locate services and shelters in other parts of the state have been met with staunch resistance, which has ultimately led to an over concentration of these services in Trinity Square and people in crisis, from all over the state, seeking services in this neighborhood. We plan to produce a video that explores the impact this has had on the community at large, the struggles that these agencies face in trying to serve this population with limited funds and resources, and the quality and effectiveness of the services that they are able to offer.  We will accomplish this through interviews and facilitated conversation with a wide cross-section of stakeholders including: services providers, clients, community organizations, home-owners and residents.

In Providence, Seed Grants totaling $10,000 support the following efforts:

  • Oral History of Southside Providence: The grant supports the capture of oral histories from residents of Providence’s Southside and the creation of an exhibit at the Southside Cultural Center.
  • Documentaries about Homeless Residents: The grant supports the creation of short documentaries and custom soundtracks telling the story of three local homeless residents of Trinity Square.
  • Rhode Island Black Storytellers – Next Phase:  The grant supports an exciting new phase of growth and experimentation for this emerging organization, which has been successfully meeting with a small group of storytellers for over a year.
  • Performance Celebrating Local Black Artists: The grant supports the creation and performance of a new piece inspired by the traditions of the African Diaspora.
  • Madam’s Backyard Bash: The grant supports an event for youth and adults to celebrate the history of the Harlem Renaissance in Trinity Square.
  • One Gun Gone: This grant supports a public exhibition of the work created by youth artists working with artist Scott Lapham on the One Gun Gone project.

Silaphone Nhongvongsouthy, director of the Laotian Community Center and CIL seed grantee, welcomes guests to her pop-up exhibition at the Southside Cultural Center. Photo by Alfonso Acevedo


Storytelling with new and old friends at Community Flavors, hosted by RIBS. Photo by Doug Cuddeback/Steer Media