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Using art to create leadership

Twin Ports 2013 CCLI Fellows gather for a group shot inside the Duluth Art Institute’s Lincoln Building. (Photo by Jeff Peabody, courtesy of Intermedia Arts)1 / 2
Sarah Curtiss playing a drum. (Forum File Photo)2 / 2

Dana Mattice

For the Budgeteer

Can art be used to build stronger neighborhoods and empower young people? How about to fight to end violence against Native women and children? Can it even play a role in bringing Duluth and Superior closer together?

That’s what a group of 25 local people have committed to doing, through an effort called the Creative Community Leadership Institute. Participants are referred to as fellowship recipients.

Formed by the Intermedia Arts group in Minneapolis as part of an ongoing effort to connect artists and activists across the region, the first program took place more than a decade ago in the Twin Cities and has since brought outcomes such as artists working in the City of Minneapolis’ Department of Community Planning and Economic Development.

Local community leaders heard about the program and asked Bill Payne, dean of the School of Fine Arts at the University of Minnesota Duluth, to write a grant to bring it here — and Intermedia Arts delivered it to this region at a cost valued at $100,000. The UMD School of Fine Arts also contributed funds as a partner, allowing the workshops to be free to participants.

The Twin Ports 2013 Fellows include artists, arts administrators, teachers, poets, writers, publishers and musicians among their ranks, as well as those in the public service sector and community activists. Some of these include advocates Sarah Curtiss and Tina Olson of Mending the Sacred Hoop, a group working with domestic violence and Native women; Julia Cheng, Tax Site Program Coordinator for Community Action Duluth; and Lt. Leigh Wright, the West Area Commander assigned to the patrol division for the Duluth Police Department.

Payne said he thinks the Duluth-Superior region was selected in part because of Twin Ports Arts Align, a group of artists who have already been meeting to build a stronger arts community.

The Twin Ports Fellows spent some 120 hours in and out of session, training with the Creative Community Leadership Institute’s founding faculty: William Cleveland, Wendy Morris, and Erik Takeshita.

The trio frequently traveled to the Twin Ports throughout the fall to instruct participants in innovative ways to apply the arts to make progress on issues they care about.

Morris said that this is a time when we need imagination, creativity and culture to solve seemingly intractable issues, and that this is achieved through supporting changemakers by connecting them to each other and helping them advance their intentions about where they want to be in service. She stressed that the Twin Ports group is composed of a dynamic core of capable leaders who are already deeply involved in the community, and that the program supports them to take their work to the next level both individually and collectively.

Participants attended four two-day retreats at local sites where community development occurs: Gimaajii, the American Indian Center; the Trade and Commerce Marketplace building, which houses the Superior Council for the Arts, artist studios and Red Mug Coffee; the Duluth Art Institute’s studio space in the former Lincoln branch library; and The Underground theater in The Depot.

Within the workshop sessions, the fellows saw formal slide presentations, participated in improvisational games, and examined case studies of local and national arts-based community development efforts. They also participated in movement exercises, dialogue and written reflections, and broke into subgroups, or “Labs,” to envision projects.

Anne Dugan applied to the program to develop deeper connections both in the art world and with those who benefit from the arts, and she feels that she has more “human capital” going forward.

Dugan — who is the curator at the Duluth Art Institute, the founder and co-director of the Free Range Film Festival, and who co-owns and operates Food Farm — saw direct results from the program by connecting with Jodi Slick, founder and CEO of the Duluth nonprofit Ecolibrium3.

Both women have been involved in work in the Lincoln Park neighborhood; through meeting, they were able to fast-track a grant application with an artist for a potential public art project there.

Lt. Leigh Wright was the first police officer to ever apply to the program in its 12-year, according to the Creative Community Leadership Institute.

“Am I in the right place?” she said she remembers asking herself. She was attracted to the Institute because she likes to partner with the community to solve problems, and she said that while some of her cohorts had negative perceptions about the police, she worked hard to break down barriers and find common ground.

While Wright and her police co-workers joked that would be making clay pots, Wright found the experience to be productive, and she plans to share with her Police Activity League colleagues an idea that came up in her lab group for an arts-based youth project, in which Lincoln Park youth share their stories through video.

Sarah Curtiss also said she appreciated the exposure to people from different walks of life who share a similar vision for what is possible in the community.

Curtiss was interested in the Institute because of the work she does with Mending the Sacred Hoop, where she uses music to communicate with Native American domestic violence survivors. A traditional singer and hand drummer with Oshkii Giizhik Singers, she has used her drumming group to show support to women who have been victims of trafficking. Curtiss said that “music is healing, especially when working with people who have had trauma. It is sometimes less scary to talk about … issues through music.”

Although Curtiss has lived in the community for many years and was already using music as a way to work with domestic violence survivors, she said that these connections to other creative people could lead to future collaborations.

While the workshop sessions came to a close in November, the Fellows continue to assemble independently. They met most recently Dec. 16

at the Glensheen Historic Estate to converse with economist Ann Markusen, a professor emeritus of the Humphrey School of Public Affairs and an expert in creative place-making. They plan to convene every two to three months.

Efforts will also be made to keep locals connected to their regional counterparts.

Twin Ports participants are now part of a network of 150 creative leaders. CCLI Fellows are based in Duluth, Superior, Minneapolis, and St. Paul, as well as Fargo-Moorhead.

“We were so moved by the richness of the work in the Twin Ports,” Morris said. “It’s been an incredible honor to be learning with the Fellows, and alongside them, and I look forward to continuing learning with them. It’s only a few hours to the Twin Cities.”

Dana Mattice is a freelance writer living in Duluth.