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The Chester Made initiative is a tangible demonstration of how democracy can be animated by imaginative humanities programming--by people creatively engaged in history, storytelling, and dialogue about issues affecting their community. The initiative reached a culminating moment on July 22, 2015, when the Chester Made Ensemble made a presentation to Chester City Council in the form of an original play and a cultural asset map. The presentation attracted press attention, including an evocative radio and web report by WHYY's Newsworks team, which also appeared on the Keystone Crossroads site and inspired a Nonprofit Quarterly feature. "Instead of just creating a two-dimensional map based on research and surveys, we used storytelling and theater as a way to capture the data to go on the map," ensemble member Lamarr Todd said to begin the presentation. "In this way, we were able to use community voices and experiences as the heart of the map. Stories are data with soul,” added his colleague Don Newton. In February 2015 eight story-gathering sessions, facilitated by the Chester Made Ensemble, were held throughout Chester. More than 350 residents participated, sharing 140 stories about the creative and cultural life of their community. During the sessions, the Chester Made Ensemble brought residents’ stories to life through gift-backs, spontaneous acts of improvised theater. Residents also had the opportunity to situate their stories in a physical context, by placing colorful sticky notes on a poster-sized map of the Chester Cultural Corridor. In July 2015 Widener University students analyzed the stories and, together with the Chester City Planning Department, The Artist Warehouse, and the Pennsylvania Humanities Council, created an online ESRI cultural asset map, marking places of significance across the city. The map is both a visual celebration of creative life and a visioning tool. To paraphrase Don Newton, it is data with a soul. The process of cultural mapping is never done. There will--and should--always be new information and assets to add. The work to date on the Chester cultural asset map, however, has established a solid foundation. Project Partners Chester Made project partners include the City of Chester, Widener University, Pennsylvania Humanities Council, Chester Arts Alive, Just Act (formerly Gas & Electric Arts), The Artist Warehouse, and Americans for the Arts. Funding Major support of the Chester Cultural Corridor has been provided by The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, with additional support from PECO and the National Endowment for the Humanities.
How do we kindle a sense of wonder? For me, the memory is vivid—how very excited my daughter was when she found the ship manifest online. It contained the name of her great grandfather who had emigrated from Greece in 1910. “Would you believe they changed the spelling of his name?” she told me, breathlessly. Such moments as this instill a sense of joy and wonder about the past and how it connects to here and now. The challenge is to create those moments for as many people as we can. At the Pennsylvania Humanities Council, that’s what we’re trying to do. One way is by building a partnership with the Pennsylvania library community for out-of-school called Teen Reading Lounge. Participants use popular teen books and fun arts experiences to foster creative discovery outside the classroom and deep learning for teens, who actively create the program with librarians and educators. It’s all based on the concept of “connected learning,” which brings a young person’s interests, extracurricular activities, experiences, and passions into the mix. Our humanities partners – from grassroots arts and cultural organizations to universities, museums, history societies, and art galleries – are wrestling with how to make their work meaningful for the public. In that regard, we see the Pennsylvania Humanities Council learning from a community of practitioners who are providing people from all walks of life the tools to learn, engage with oneanother, and build a better future. Teen Reading Lounge is one example of the participatory programming that is essential to our future.. The collection Letting Go? Shared Historical Authority in a User-Generated World brings together leading innovators in public humanities to talk about visitor-generated experiences – how they can transform our cultural spaces, empower people to tell truths not previously told, and compel cultural organizations to co-create and change our content in an ongoing conversation with our communities. “[All] people have a narrative role to play in the exploration of human experience,” writes contributor Kathleen McLean. Undoubtedly, such a position creates tension not only for experts and artists but also those audiences used to the lectures and didacticism of the past. But we will do better, as McLean suggests, to consider our participants not as “novices” but as “’scholars’ in the best sense of the word – people who engage in study and learning for the love of it.” Together, we need to share in the inquiry, change as new ideas and voices surface, and build communities of on-going learning. We need to be open for something magical to happen to foster once again the wonder and curiosity that is at the heart of learning and the humanities. Where do you find the magic of the humanities?
The Pennsylvania Humanities Council was proud to present the dynamic opening speaker for the Pittsburgh Humanities Festival: Azar Nafisi, Iranian-American bestselling author of Reading Lolita in Tehran. Following a special introduction by Dr. William “Bro” Adams, chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, Nafisi treated a rapt audience to a discussion on the topic "Humanities & the Future of Democracies.” Drawing on her experiences both in Iran and in the United States, Nafisi explored themes including the power of great works of art as a force against tyranny and the lasting relevance of the humanities. “The humanities are essential to us in a very pragmatic sense,” she explained. “They remind us of our shared human struggle, and allow us to deeply appreciate the voices and the hearts of others who are different from us, who exist in times and places we can only imagine. Democracy depends on that imagination.” The March 26 event drew an audience diverse in age and background—a group clearly engaged by Nafisi’s warmth and enthusiasm. An extended session of questions and answers followed the talk. “It would be hard to imagine a more fitting speaker for this event celebrating the humanities,” said PHC staff member Candace Clarke. “Azar Nafisi’s message is our message—that the humanities have a profound, real-world impact and can transform people’s lives.” Ten years ago, Nafisi electrified readers with her memoir Reading Lolita in Tehran, a multi-million-copy bestseller that made a passionate case for the vital role of imagination—and great English and American novels in particular—in preserving the soul and combating the noxious ideology of a totalitarian society. In her new book, The Republic of Imagination, she turns her attention back to the democratic society that gave birth to these great novels and makes a passionate a case for the vital role of fiction in society today. Among key ideas in her Pittsburgh address, Nafisi emphasized the connection between individual imagination and shared liberty. “I believe that no freedom—political, economic or social—can be realized without the freedom of imagination and thought,” she said. “It is this basic and most human form of freedom that both promises and safeguards all those other freedoms.”
At some point, creating a new cultural corridor in Chester, Pennsylvania, will likely take some construction work, or at least ambitious renovations. However, the first step in this process of revitalization is not to frame buildings, but a narrative—a story of the arts and culture and their place in the life of this city. It’s this evolving story that will guide the progress to come. With leadership from the Pennsylvania Humanities Council, the City of Chester, Widener University, Chester Arts Alive!, Just Act!(formerly Gas & Electric Arts), The Artist Warehouse, and Animating Democracy, collaborators of many kinds are working to write this story—or actually to transcribe it. The authors are the people of Chester themselves. In 2015, through a process called story-gathering, the ten-member Chester Made Ensemble met with Chester residents, asking careful questions, and listening to what their fellow community members had to say. Some of their stories capture highlight moments: A woman tells of visiting a club where James Brown performed live to a thrilled audience. Decades later, her memory remains vivid of a once-thriving music scene. Others describe an ongoing involvement in creation and expression: A young woman grows up singing Gospel music in her church choir, hearing concerts in the park, and performing plays in school. She remembers the arts as a life-saving force—a weapon against sadness in times of family trouble. Residents shared their stories in groups called story circles or through story interviews, led by members of the Chester Made Ensemble, who have been trained as facilitators. Participants—from school kids to senior citizens—gathered in a church or library, at the Boys and Girls Club, or at City Hall. A session might have involved 30 people, five circles of six, or a series of one-on-one exchanges. The facilitator led with a question, for example, “Tell us about a significant experience of arts, culture, and creativity in your life.” Then, in turn, each member of the circle had the chance to speak. Lisa Jo Epstein, Executive Director of Just Act!, is a theater innovator, director, and educator who helped plan the project and was responsible for training Ensemble members along with Don Newton, a local resident and member of Chester Arts Alive! Epstein explains two key features of this story-based approach. “The stories were timed at two minutes,” she says. “Each person had the same amount of time, so all their stories would be given equal weight and value. Epstein points out how unusual it is to have the chance to share a story of personal importance, with a rapt audience, and without others interjecting. “We wanted to be sure that every person was heard and all stories honored,” she says. A highlight of the sessions were the “gift-backs” when members of the Chester Made Ensemble took a story they heard and brought it spontaneously to life in an act of instant, improvised theater. Newton notes the power of residents’ stories. “People remember a time that was, describe their city today, and express their hopes for the future. The idea that their views and values will help shape the city’s plans is extremely important.” Sometimes the stories residents shared capture uplifting moments: A child is dropped at a summer day camp. She’s unhappy, not fitting in. She wanders away, through the park into the museum nearby and experiences an epiphany. Encountering the art on the walls, her eyes and mind open. She feels she can breathe freely. Many of the stories are tinged with loss: After the demolition of Deshong Mansion, a magnificent local landmark, a city worker helps carry away slabs of marble, wrought iron, and old flower pots. She feels a moving sense of “touching history,” contact with pieces of her city’s physical past that stood before her grandparents’ time. The goal of the story-gathering was to gain an understanding of the power and value of the arts and culture in the lives of the people of Chester, to give voice to their aspirations, and to lay the foundation for future plans. “As the city makes plans for future arts initiatives, the stories of Chester’s residents need to be central in the process, not an afterthought,” says Epstein. Newton, a life-long resident of Chester, agrees: “Community participation is key. The people of Chester know their voices are being heard, and for too long, they did not feel that way.” “Story-gathering is a powerful tool in community engagement and revitalization,” says PHC executive director Laurie Zierer. “In fact, we’re only beginning to see its full potential.” She adds that through a recent partnership with the Orton Family Foundation, PHC will be offering training sessions to community leaders across Pennsylvania in a highly effective story-based community engagement model developed by Orton called Community Heart and Soul. “This is a wonderful chance to spread this approach to many more Pennsylvania towns and cities,” she notes. In Chester, several weeks of story-gathering revealed a remarkable variety of experiences and perspectives. A striking number, though, share a common thread: a note of aspiration, a desire for a renewed richness of arts and culture: In their youth, a twin brother and sister take music classes at Frederick Douglass Junior High School. He goes on to study at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia and to tour the world as an opera singer. She stays in Chester and sees her city change. She ends her story by describing a fierce desire for greater possibilities to open to the young people in her community today. Project Partners Chester Made project partners include the City of Chester, Widener University, Pennsylvania Humanities Council, Chester Arts Alive, Just Act (formerly Gas & Electric Arts), The Artist Warehouse, and Animating Democracy. Funding Major support of the Chester Cultural Corridor has been provided by The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, with additional support from PECO and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Related Content About Chester Made