Narrator: This podcast is a project of the Mass Cultural Council. We believe in the power of culture, the arts, humanities and sciences to enrich communities, advance equity, and foster creativity.
Greg Jenkins: Arts and culture aren’t monochromatic, or they’re not tied in a box. It’s very much about an expression and a way of life.
Anita Walker: Hi, I’m Anita Walker at the Mass Cultural Council. Welcome to Creative Minds Out Loud. Our guest today is Greg Jenkins. He is the director of the Somerville Arts Council. Welcome to our program.
Greg Jenkins: Thank you.
Anita Walker: Longstanding friend of the Mass Cultural Council doing amazing things in Somerville, home of, is it more artists per capita than any place on the planet or something like that? Right?
Greg Jenkins: Yeah, well, we have a mayor that likes to tout that. I think we touted it once and, like a lot of things in media, it just carries on. Who knows? We’ve done some census work but we are the densest, most densely populated city in New England in terms of population in square miles.
Anita Walker: The arts is definitely the flavor, the image, the culture of Somerville. I know a lot of people, when they go to Somerville, they’re expecting a creative experience. But what I wanted to talk a little bit today about is something that a lot of communities are thinking about, asking questions about. That is, immigrant populations moving into the community, how do we bring them into the cultural activities, into the cultural centers, put them into positions of both being programmers and audience members?
Greg Jenkins: Right. So Somerville, historically, has been an immigrant community and a community to Boston. So in terms of the work that we’ve done, or even my predecessor, the work that we continue to do, it’s always centered around, because this is an old-world immigrant community, that’s always been a working-class community. So some of the programming, like the Illuminations Tour that we’ve done, I think, for almost 20 years, really highlighted an immigrant, ethnic tradition related to holidays and light displays and specifically even around the Catholic church and imagery. So that we’ve actually done, we’ve expanded it in the sense that we went in and interviewed a lot of these families and understand more about their cultural traditions. So the Tour is not just about the lights, it’s really about the families and the traditions that they have. We typically always choose, maybe, one or two immigrant groups that we decide we’re going to work with each year, maybe one at this point. So the new Nepali community, so we’ll go in and basically get to know either through the business community or through places of worship or just through people that we know in terms of doing field work. One of the things is that I’m actually folklorist, like your colleague, Maggie. So I think the praxis of it, identifying who’s in the community and then the praxis, obviously, of reaching out to that community and forming partnerships. We can go on and on. But the crux of it is that that work is about identifying where some of the energy is in the community, where some of the history and the cultural makeup of the community is.
Anita Walker: So let’s take that apart a little bit, because we do have a lot of communities, whether they’re in our cultural district cohort or communities with local cultural councils, a large council. There’s a desire, there’s an interest, there’s a recognition that this is a good thing that we want to do. But I don’t even know what my first step is. I don’t know how to start. I don’t know how to enter a world that I’m unfamiliar with and I don’t know where it exists in order to build those relationships.
Greg Jenkins: I used to always joke that when I was younger that you can find out a lot of things in a phone book. People don’t really use phone books anymore but Google, obviously, or search engines. Again, that’s one way of just looking at the demographics, census data, to start. If I came into a new community, I would be looking at, personally, high-level metadata to see who’s in your community. From there, places of worship, local businesses, a lot of our work derives out of, literally, going into a Nepali store and starting to talk to business owners, or going into a Brazilian meat market and talking to people. So Somerville, in Union Square, the work that the MCC’s funded for the Adams grant, and all of the work in Union Square, we really highlighted and started to brand Union Square as a cultural food Mecca. It’s because all those businesses and restaurants, and a lot of new immigrant communities are in that area. It’s asset mapping and just seeing that, but then really going out and talking to people one-on-one and finding out what they’re interested in. The Nepali community, it’s spread out. It’s a little underground. It’s not as above ground as a lot of different communities are. It’s really finding a couple of people that have an engagement that you may hit-or-miss. But then say to them, if we were to produce something together, if we would co-produce something or if we could help you to demonstrate to the larger community who you are as a cultural community, who you are as artists, that very phrase or that very praxis starts off a much longer set of field work, a lot of conversations. So I think it’s about that. I think, on the crux of it, it really is about asset mapping, doing field work, I would say field work and folkloristic sense, being open to starting out something small and not necessarily knowing where it may go.
Anita Walker: Give me an example of that.
Greg Jenkins: Well, for the ethnic community, I would think the relationship that we’ve had with the Nepali community, some of the festivals were really small. They may have been a hundred, two hundred people and we just took the risk that that’s fine. I think the interesting thing is that we do things for, like we’ve helped fund through the LCC Program a language program where they’re teaching language to school. That’s very small – from something that’s more broader or larger where it’s a street festival and each year it’s grown. Let me see, another example, it’s not necessarily the immigrant community but it’s a similar type of programming situation, is PorchFest, which is a range of people. But it’s a similar thing in that we started off very small, probably had 40, 50 people come out to an initial meeting. Each year, it’s grown. It’s changed a little bit. We’ve adapted. So we don’t fix things. I’m hesitant to have things fixed, because it doesn’t allow for a new information, new things to flow. I also think that if the goal is about the engagement, how you get there and how you move, it doesn’t need to be as fixed, if that makes any sense. So, again, this is a little bit more of a philosophy than something that’s specific.
Anita Walker: So it sounds like there isn’t really a cookbook, or a recipe. Do this, this, this and then you will have an ethnic festival. It sounds like it’s really, to start with, earning trust for relationship building.
Greg Jenkins: Right, exactly. I think it is about the asset mapping and determining who you think is going to work with you. But it’s definitely about relationship as well. So in terms of something specific, the one thing that we haven’t talked about, too, is a scaffolding approach. So our Nibble program that does work directly with immigrant entrepreneurs, a lot of those immigrant entrepreneurs we’ve found them, so to speak, or we developed relationships with them in a different program, which is interesting. So we also have a program called Intercambio, which is essentially like a language exchange program. Say you want to learn Spanish and you, as a English-dominant person, wanting to learn Spanish. Then somebody who speaks Spanish that really wants to learn English, we bring people together. So we have this program called Intercambio where it’s really around language and cultural exchange. It’s very mellow. From that, we’ve met a number of people that really have a desire to take their cooking and their own food way traditions and want to expand upon it. So I’d say, probably, 60 to 70 percent of the people that we work with in the Nibble program, which is all around food and culture. We do cooking classes, we do pop-ups. We’re teaching them all about catering and cooking. We’re getting ready to build out a kitchen, believe it or not, in the new Bow Market, to have a small restaurant where they’ll have rotating chefs. So all this, to come back to it, is one little thing may have the seeding effect, or a scaffolding effect that we can turn around and work with them, too, on something else. Because, as you know, arts and culture aren’t monochromatic, or they’re not tied in a box. It’s very much about an expression and a way of life. The question is, how does that emanate, or where does it come from or where does it go. We’ve always been good at knowing how to scaffold or learning how to create derivations of other things. So it’s not just similarly like a podcast. You do the recording here and you can use it for this and you can use it for that and if you change it a little bit you can turn around and take a similar content and adapt it and have new content.
Anita Walker: And you don’t know where the connections might lead you?
Greg Jenkins: Exactly. I think that that’s something that we do well. We do a lot of calls. We do a lot of partnerships. So when we first started there was 2.5 FTE and gradually the agency has grown. We have, roughly, 5.5 FTE now. Our budget has gone from $200,000 to almost three quarters of a million dollars. There’s a lot of other things going on.
Anita Walker: You’re going to make some of the other local culture councils a little bit jealous with that story. But you’re really actually demonstrating that there’s value in the work that you’re doing. The community engagement, the vitality that you’re bringing to the community, the city is saying, “We want to put more into this.”
Greg Jenkins: Yeah. I think I give a lot of credit to our current mayor, who’s been there for quite a long time now, 14 years. I came under a different mayor. But the two of us have been together. I think that, on a progressive city that we are, he’s saying we need to do more. Our vibrancy, our DNA is around our diversity and through the arts. Then it’s a matter, too, of saying, “Okay, well, what does that mean? How are we going to support this as a city and a municipality and what are some of the action plans to support that?” So between opening this kitchen, doing more public art work, hiring muralists of color, we just got through with a small mural program. If it works for your community then it works for your community.
Anita Walker: You’re also sending a message by your actions, whether it’s the kitchen and the outreach and the festivals and the language sharing. You’re saying, “We celebrate this. Come here to Somerville and be a part of it.” People are comfortable to get involved.
Greg Jenkins: They are. The nice thing, too, is that I think that the program is accessible, and you opened up this question with this about how are you both producers of arts as well as consumers of arts or culture. I think we’re constantly being conscious of that because we sometimes worry that, on a consumer side, we’re good at the hipster, the cool thing. Those folks can consume things. But then how much are the producers benefiting as well. So that’s, in itself, is a whole other conversation that we could have about issues of space and space for artists and places for artists to have their form, so to speak, and who’s consuming that, and who’s benefiting. Is the consumer benefiting more than the producer?
Anita Walker: Is the producer getting adequate pay to be compensated for all the work?
Greg Jenkins: Those are, as we know, those are always the difficult things to balance.
Anita Walker: Well, Greg, you have always been a leader, really, in both civic engagement and really harnessing the power of culture in Somerville. Clearly, it’s a community project. It’s you, it’s your team, it’s the leadership in your community, and it’s the engagement of everyone else that is translated into Somerville being the great example of what can happen in a community.
Greg Jenkins: Thank you.
Anita Walker: Greg Jenkins, another one of our Creative Minds Out Loud.
Greg Jenkins: Thank you very much.
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