The Griot Museum of Black History and Culture in St. Louis, MO brings Black history to the light from the shadows, but remains a hidden gem itself. Through codesigning a crowdfunding campaign, The Griots’ fans crafted the public story for a new addition to the museum they love, increasing visibility, funding and a new audience.
This first feedback session was a small group of people very familiar with The Griot. We selected these participants because they know the museum well and we thought a first round workshop would be a productive way to ensure that our new twists on the Griot story is true to A.) what people love about The Griot and B.) accurate. We had two attendees join us, and though video chat, and though our group was small, the conversation was incredibly rich and we could have even used more time. The intimate nature of the workshop allowed us to review each section of the proposed crowdfunding campaign page in detail.
Our agenda took us through each section of the early draft campaign page where we inquired from our experts to share elements they would add, take away, or definitely keep. We also gathered their immediate reactions to language and photo as well as minute details such as specific tweaks in language. The group setting allowed for our participants to react to each other and build off of one another. Through our screen share video chat, we were all able to view the same elements at the same time, which allowed for a very focused conversation.
This session was incredibly helpful. Key takeaways included:
Because our point person for the project is the sole employee of the museum, her inner circle (including those at the workshop and others) truly are the experts of the museum. They have been key to gaining insight into The Griot and it’s context, as well as refining our campaign
A request for language to not appear imploring or to highlight deficiency, but rather to orient our fundraising campaign around ‘opportunity’ and positive language
The inner circle is eager to connect us to other resources and supporters
The message of the campaign can be further focused
There is a need to balance the story as its always been told with a new way of telling the story to a new audience
There is a need to balance meticulous accuracy and audience-specific linguistic appeals in the campaign. This is always the fine dance of marketing, and an important balance for us to strike in this project
We should embrace the justice platform of the institution through the crowdfunding campaign
We will ensure that in our next workshop we are testing these changes with a group who is unfamiliar with The Griot, to ensure that this story resonates with folks outside of The Griot’s inner circle. We are also considering testing two different messages to see what is resonating more with people unfamiliar with the museum. We are also adjusting out language to be more opportunity-oriented, as well as language that centers around the justice-based ethos of the museum and its inner circle.
My initial learning goals included:
- Uniting administrative and creative practices — thinking about all assets of the project as creative. I think this helps stretch the boundaries of possibility through each element of the process. This has been a challenge, because communication with our partner has been sporadic based on limited capacity of the museum director. As a result, there has been much time dedicated to basic scheduling and administrative tasks that really haven’t felt creative. Perhaps my initial learning goal was a pipe dream and what I learned is that you can’t always unite the admin and the creative.
- Better insight on how to leverage technology & media in my practice. What might be helpful at this point is spending some time refining the muscle of how identity creative solutions to challenges & opportunities. I’m imagining almost a mock situation in class where we have to come up with creative solutions together for different orgs challenges, or maybe we do a rapid brainstorm for each of the other students’ projects. I feel like I’m still accessing my comfort zone of possible solutions for to address The Griot’s needs, rather than accessing new bodies of knowledge in terms of an ever more expansive and refined ability to help partners address problems in effective, sustainable and refreshing ways.
- Have better command of the north star within my practice (I called it my ‘nucleus’, which would be why I do the work, and to what end do I think it matters). One challenge of co-design is to have a strong sense of your contributions and expertise, but also be a deep listener and collaborator with your partner. Preferencing the voice of our partner over our own sometimes makes it hard to have our own voice. For example, right now we are having an interesting situation where one of our interviewees has said something somewhat contradictory to our central partner’s insight — how are we as an outside partner supposed to navigate and critically examine this? What guiding principals do we use — our own, our partner organization’s, our individual partner’s?
Other Lingering Questions
I’m still wondering what the best tactics are to be able to address the needs of a co-design partner when you do not possess the skills needed to address their challenge. If, for example, Lois chooses to work with 3D printing, should Aki & I master 3D printing and work with her, should we bring in a new partner who is more knowledgable, or should we try to find a different tactic that addresses the need? My gut says the first, that we collectively learn to use the tools that the work is calling for. But this still remains a question! Especially with the limited time of the class it is hard to accomplish mastery of a new skill and then also apply to a real life partner where there are real stakes.
It may be helpful for me to practice in class some of the methods we have discussed, like listening method, before trying them with partners. This will give a better sense of familiarity with some of the new tactics involved in co-design that will allow us to present these methods to our partner with a deeper understand of how to enact them and what mutual benefit we will gain from engaging with them.
Moving Beyond the Edges
The Griot Museum of Black History is a wax museum depicting black history, located in the north side of St. Louis city. opened in February 1997. When the museum opened it was the second African-American was museum in the country. The Griot’s mission is to collect, preserve, and share the stories, culture, and history of Black people – particularly those with a regional connection to American history. The museum is located in a lower-income, majority black neighborhood in the deeply segregated city of St. Louis.
The museum is run by the founder and CEO, Lois Conley. Conley is a St. Louis native and has lived in the region her whole life. She recalls her family being resettled due to imminent domain “urban renewal” efforts in the 1950s. Lois and her family were moved out of her birth neighborhood of Mill Creek Valley, a prominent African American community. The history of Mill Creek Valley is not well known, yet deeply affected many black families in the region. Lois cites this as an important foundational experience that revealed to her the important of preserving and sharing black history and culture. In this sense, her work with the museum is also deeply personal.
Design Justice Principles
The primary design justice principles that will guide our process are:
- We see the role of the designer as a facilitator rather than an expert.
- We work towards sustainable, community-led and -controlled outcomes.
- Before seeking new design solutions, we look for what is already working at the community level. We honor and uplift traditional, indigenous, and local knowledge and practices.
Thus far the research methods we have employed include computer research about the history of the museum, its past and present programs, news articles, stories concerning the neighborhood in which The Griot is housed. However, our main source of research has been interviews with Lois Conley. For these informational interviews, we have practiced activity analysis, flow analysis as a means to better understand processes she typically undertakes. This is because Lois is the sole employee of the museum, and because we discerned that processes would be central to fundraising, audience development and strategizing around new developments, all central issues we needed to learn more about. We also wanted to learn what Lois has already tried and what are areas of further opportunity.
Our findings can be summarized into a few categories.
Fundraising is an ongoing challenge - Due to limited capacity, small size of organization, concerns about funders’ lack of interest in black history, and dearth of time to develop relationships, The Griot struggles to raise more funding beyond ticket sales.
The founder and CEO is overworked - Lois has limited capacity to attend to any needs beyond day-to-day operations. This seems to limit the time she can devote to fundraising, relationship building, the development of the building, audience growth and strategies regarding impending nearby development. Lois loves her work and is deeply committed to it but does endure a certain amount of stress from the lack of additional support.
There is an opportunity to grow The Griot’s audience – While The Griot has a dedicated audience of enthusiastic visitors, there are opportunities to continue to grow this audience to generate more revenue and to better achieve the museum’s mission.
There remains untapped resources within the Museum’s building – An entire floor of the museum is available and underutilized. With limited time and funding, this area hasn’t been developed but could be. The founder is interested in what might be possible for this space.
Impending developments nearby could pose incredible opportunities or threats to The Griot, but the museum is not connected to these developments – Lois has not been engaged in conversations surrounding these impending developments, but is generally excited about the potential positive effects they could have on the museum. Based on the history of displacement and racially-motivated disinvestment in St. Louis applied to different regions (ie. black neighborhoods), these developments may also pose challenges to The Griot.
Design Challenge Statement
“How might we ensure the financial well-being of the Griot Museum?” We see the financial well-being of the museum as interrelated to all the other issues we have uncovered through our research.
Beginnings of ideas
Create a strategy for fundraising
Design & launch a Kickstarter campaign
Support Lois in grant writing efforts, including past grant audits
Design a strategy for outreach to new development projects
Streamline work through automationDesign new campaign to draw new audience – social media?
Create Volunteer Program
Decrease Cost of Building
Because Aki and I are working with a partner who is not based in Boston, geography will determine the listening practices we will be able to employ. We’re trying to be creative – what listening practices can we employ when we are not on the ground with our partner? For our work we are hoping to learn more about some of Lois’s (our main representative from the partner institution) processes around fundraising and audience outreach, as well as determine more information about her network as it relates to fundraising, new audiences, and the two new developments that are slated for The Griot’s neighborhood.
Similar to Aki, believe that an activity analysis will be particularly important to dig deeper into Lois’ processes. She is nearly a one-woman shop who covers most of the tasks related to the museum. Similarly, focusing on flow analysis will also allow us to pin down how Lois’ activities connect, and may reveal opportunities within her processes. Some of these processes will give us better insight into what Lois has already tried, as well as roadblocks and areas less traveled.
For some elements of our initial co-research, I think it will be helpful to envision what future activities could look like–a realistic future with all of its potential snags, as well as an ideal future in which The Griot and Lois are thriving in the manner they would like. For this type of research I think the listening practice of journey mapping and role playing could be interesting, and I think both can be done over the phone/video chat. Journey mapping may be a helpful next step to activity and flow analyses and allow Lois and our design team to imagine more ideal processes. Role playing could allow for us to better understand how other key stakeholders, partners or users might engage with some of our design ideas, but also how Lois might disrupt processes that she is currently a part of and wants to change.
This week, because Aki and I were both out of the country, we completed a set of follow-up questions over email with Lois. The week prior we drafted a set of questions we wanted ask Lois. We began the conversation sharing a little about who Aki & I both are and what we are hoping to get out of the partnership. I think this set an honest and personable foundation for the codesign relationship. We sorted our interview questions for Lois into categories with sub-questions. We then traded off asking questions and then taking notes while on the call to make sure Lois understands that Aki and I are in true partnership, even though my relationship with her preceded the project.
I have been thinking the breadth of epistemologies and methods of communication that can be present in this partnership, and wondering if in listening practices are best selected to honor the subjects at hand, the preferences of the co designing partner, the preferences of the designer, or some sort of calculation of all of the above. At present, I believe Aki and I are navigating with the subjects as our guiding force. For example, if we need to learn more about how Lois fundraisers, we will undergo an activity analysis; however, perhaps later in the process as we begin to understand our partner more and vice versa, perhaps our listening strategies would evolve instead of meet the needs of our partners preferred ways of knowing or methods of communication.
Lastly, an additional part of our listening practice will be listening to what stories and voices haven’t we heard from, and who can help to build our richer understanding of the issues Lois wants to address through our partnership.
I worked on part of a project in Nashville with main partners Conexión Américas (CA) and the Nashville Civic Design Center, an organization supporting development of the latino community in middle Tennessee. The project focused on the Nolensville Pike, which runs as an autocentric corridor through the South Nashville, a region where many immigrants have settled. In this area that has a large population of immigrants, many Latin Americans, a large Kurdish population in the U.S., and many immigrants from south and east Asia. The population of this area, just outside of the urban core, is growing quickly, but continues to maintain very typical suburban infrastructure. This means that the area is sprawling and not built for people but rather cars. Along the Pike speed limits are high, roads are wide, sidewalks crumbling, crosswalks few, (but growing number of) bikelanes sparse and it is just plain challenging to navigate these streets as a human and not an automobile. Auto-related injuries and deaths of pedestrians along the Pike are higher here than anywhere else in Nashville.
Despite the infrastructure, this neighborhood is thriving culturally and commercially. Casa Azafrán is a very active community center run by the beloved Conexión Américas; the Pike is home to a popular mosque; and many immigrant-run businesses dot the corridor. For economic and socio-cultural reasons, many residents in this area walk. Many rely on public transit, and walk from home to community centers, businesses, schools.
My team at Transportation for America & Nashville Civic Design Center worked with the latino community of Conexión Américas to address safety issues as they pertain to transportation infrastructure. With CA we held a workshop bringing together a wide variety of community members (members that CA typically engages with) to talk through some of the most pressing transportation-related challenges. Through these workshops, we identified that there was a divide between the older and younger generations about how they thought about transportation as well as the future of the area. To address this generational divide, we (the three organizations) facilitated a radio workshop in which the youth interviewed older residents about their experiences with transportation and hopes for the future and vice versa.
Through this arts-based research we collectively learned that there is no safe way for residents to cross the busy street to get to the very active Casa Azafrán building. The groups also identified language barriers in signage that was only in English. Many older residents aren’t bilingual and can’t read all signs. The group proposed a bilingual crosswalk in front of CA as a solution. This crosswalk would be the first of its kind in Tennessee!
The design justice principles which I believe this project implemented was that the process helped sustain and empower the participants and users. Through the workshops, participants began to understand their creative agency and learned a bit about how to work with the city and advocate for community needs. The effort was largely focused on centering the voices of the people who use this infrastructure to learn what is working for them and what isn’t. We also had to slow down our process and add in a new step of the radio interviews, acknowledging that design is an ‘emergent’ process. We collaborated with a design firm and my team’s role was more of facilitator. The design team, however, participated as well as facilitator. I think we could have spent more time learning more about what is already happening in the community to address transportation and linguistic challenges.
Lately I’ve been contending with what feels like two different sides of my practice. Wait, scratch that.
Contending with what other people frame as the two sides of my practice. I’m either the silly, crazy public artist whose work delights, unites and ameliorates–or the social justice warrior who dares to confront the public with challenging issues. Justice and joy are not different sensibilities. They emerge similarly from a longing for liberatory internal and external space. Liberation leads to justice and to joy.
I am an entrepreneurial civic artist, cultural producer, writer, communications strategist and public space lover passionate about engagement that dissolves barriers. My work reimagines public spaces to enact social change. I currently serve as the Arts & Culture Fellow at the Metropolitan Area Planning Council of Boston while I pursue my Masters of Design in Art, Design & the Public Domain at Harvard University. Previous to relocating to Cambridge, I served as the inaugural Arts & Culture Outreach Associate at Transportation for America where I co-wrote a national field scan on arts, culture and transportation commissioned by ArtPlace America. From 2011 through 2016, I lived and worked in St. Louis, MO as a social practice artist and creative community organizer, and have had the joy of working all throughout the nation, as well as El Salvador, Spain and Berlin.
I serve as the Founding Director of STL Improv Anywhere, a guerrilla performance collective disrupting public spaces with joy and mischief. I am also Co-Creator of Building as Body, The Poetree Project, #ChalkedUnarmed, and produce annual city-wide events–like the No Pants Metrolink Ride and International Pillow Fight Day. I sit on the board of the Midwest Artist Projects Services. My work has been supported by the Regional Arts Commission, Pulitzer Arts Foundation, Gephardt Institute for Civic and Community Engagement, Marfa Dialogues, the City of St. Louis, and more. As a writer, I have published in Hyperallergic, Temporary Art Review, Public Art Review, Surface Design Journal, Art Animal Magazine, Riverfront Times, The Mantle, FEAST Magazine, Alive Magazine and more. I serve as a member of the national Placemaking Leadership Council for Projects for Public Spaces, and formerly served on the Next City Advisory Committee. I speak regularly on the topics of public art, social practice and social justice.
PROJECT & COMMUNITY PARTNER
This semester I plan to work with my fellowship team at the Metropolitan Area Planning Council and the community of Natick, Massachusetts, led by Natick Center Associates. MAPC has been tasked with supporting the town of Natick as they think through the redevelopment of their city center. I’d like to try to encourage the stakeholders in Natick to really dig in and use art and culture not just to be the cherry on top, but to help confront and address ongoing challenges in their region. Also involved in this project are partners Americans for the Arts (AFTA) and the American Planning Association (APA), who will be providing support and evaluation recommendations. APA hopes to learn from this process to be able to begin to build a model for replicated curriculum and processes.
I this class, I’d like to work on uniting administrative and creative practices into one muscle. I am frequently asked to do or be just one or the other, but I think the binary is destructive, so I’d love to practice inhabiting it all at once in this class.
Another learning goal includes gaining better insight into how to leverage technology and media in my practice. Next I’d like to gain more fluency in these technologies and media to be able to incorporate them into my practice without necessarily needing a collaborating. These media include video, code, projection, apps, and whatever else makes sense for these emergent contexts.
I’d also like to spend more time thinking about the nucleus from where justice/joy emerge and how to bring people into that space through my practice.