Building Bridges - A Look Back

As the APAP Building Bridges grant program moves toward its next iteration, organizers and presenters reflect on the impact the community unifying initiative has had over the years in the Inside Arts article by Alicia Anstead below.

Far Wider and Deeper

BuildingBridgesFall2019InsideArts Two years ago, Inside Arts reporter Jake Stepansky wrote Bringing Back the Song, a story for this magazine about a grant that allowed Midwestern communities to find unity and connection through the music of Somali culture. The background of the story was that APAP and the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation/ Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Arts had been working together since 2006 with the Creative Campus grant program, which continued through 2011. Because of the program’s success, Duke and DDFIA asked APAP to develop the Building Bridges program in 2012, with DDFIA partnering as a funder. The mission was to “advance relationships and increase understanding between Muslim and non-Muslim communities for mutual well-being.”

Over the years, much attention had been paid to what was learned from the accomplishments, as well as the challenges, of grantees at the conclusion of each cycle. As such, guidelines and evaluation/research protocols continued to evolve to ensure greater impact for the participating communities and the field as a whole. Campus-based presenting organizations were the primary recipients of grants, but partnerships with organizations and leadership from the greater community were critical to sustainable and meaningful impact. It became clear along the way that there was a need for this type of work to reach beyond university towns to rural areas and other communities.

But back to our 2017 article for a moment. For that, Stepansky spoke to artists, community members and presenters about the impact of Midnimo (the Somali word for “unity”), a large-scale project in 2016-2019 that included a three- site, five-member consortium — The Cedar Cultural Center/ Augsburg College,; Paramount Center for the Arts/ St. Cloud State University and Minnesota State University, Mankato Department of Music — that grew out of the APAP Building Bridges: Arts, Culture and Identity grants funded by Duke. Stepansky’s story focused on the Cedar Cultural Center in Minneapolis, the Somali community of Minnesota and the role of music to unite its members as well as the broader community. The program was multifaceted with a wide array of participants: Somali youth, Somali elders, non- Somali millennials, artists, K-12 youth.

“Whenever there is a Somali artist, the line starts from half a mile away to get into the show,” project manager Fadumo Ibrahim said at the time. “The Cedar has never had that experience before. We’re able to engage the Somali community in a way that makes them feel excited and like they want to be here. Instead of us having to say ‘Hey, come here!’ they’re saying, ‘We want to be here!’”

Midnimo Paramount Center for the ArtsThe experiences in Minnesota and in many other locations were object lessons to both APAP and Duke about broader implications for the field. As the APAP and Duke move forward to craft a new program that will build on those lessons and as APAP launches a website that summarizes all the Building Bridges, those lessons are being foregrounded as examples for leaders to study, consider, enact. And it requires an awareness that, time and time again, was central to the work of Building Bridges participants.

“When you engage in this work, you inevitably have to approach it with a different mind frame,” says Krista Bradley, director of programs and resources at APAP. “You have to be humble and know what you don’t know. The nature of the work requires a readiness to be engaged in intercultural sensitivity. The experiences have changed the way presenters have seen their role and given them new strategies overall. It’s made them better presenters. Presenters have such an important role to play in this time of fractured communities. This project really brought home the duty and responsibility of being a presenter.”

Zeyba Rahman, senior programming officer at Duke for the Building Bridges program, has been observing the process and progress of the program since 2013. “We are living in a moment where there is a failure of leadership, more importantly, a failure of imagination,” says Rahman. “Hate has been elevated for political power and ambition. This short-term thinking has shattered our social fabric; balkanizing hurts us all in the end. There is an urgent need to restore trust and understanding between American Muslims and their neighbors. Our commitment in support of this work is unwavering and in service of the mutual well- being of our communities. As the sole ongoing program of its kind in a private, U.S.-based foundation, we are immensely proud of our grantees’ bold, creative ideas and remain passionate advocates of their work.”

In addition to building bridges between communities that have been siloed from each other by politics, racism, fear and/or complacency, the program has also had implications within the Muslim community.

Waayaha Cusub during Midnimo at Cedar Cultural CenterScott Stoner, who retired from APAP two years ago and is now an independent arts consultant, oversaw the program during most of its years with APAP. He has seen the impact of learning about and embracing other cultures, of the way in which exploring another culture can lead to a deeper understanding of one’s own culture. No culture, he says, is monolithic.

“This kind of work helps to build bridges within Muslim communities and especially among young people to help them gain a greater notion of self-identity — what it means to be a Muslim-American,” says Stoner. “We also discovered that such arts-based grants programs help leaders and activists from diverse — Muslim and non- Muslim — organizations within a community to establish and deepen connections with each other that lead to greater inclusivity and sense of belonging benefitting the entire community. This includes learning about appropriate language, protocols and mechanisms that are respectful and accepting of any culture — beyond Muslim-majority regions.”

One of the lessons Stoner took away from the work is that presenters, agents and managers need to work more closely with artists, especially leading up to residencies, to ensure maximum opportunities for the artist to serve as a catalyst, role model and bridge to audience engagement. Additionally, artists need to be included in planning opportunities to share stories and experiences that encourage participatory creative experiences that are deep, authentic and ultimately transformative. “This is especially important for young people from immigrant cultures living in the U.S. We saw how artist- led activities positively affected the way they feel about themselves, friends, family and the broader community,” he says.

That played out for Jon Catherwood-Ginn, associate director of programming at the Moss Arts Center at Virginia Tech, during SALAAM: Exploring Muslim Cultures, which took place from 2016 to 2019 at the center. He tells the story of a Syrian family that had resettled in the town as refugees from civil war. Despite arriving in Blacksburg, Virginia, with limited knowledge of English, a teenage boy in the family joined the center’s Arabic music ensemble. He gained a network of friends, skills to play the oud and opportunities to perform around the region, including alongside guest artist and personal idol Omar Offendum, a Syrian American hip hop musician.

In the course of such watershed moments, Building Bridges reinforced Catherwood-Ginn’s belief that opening up the programming process to a host of uncommon partners can have enormous value for all involved. The practice helped him pull his “head out of the sand,” he says, so he could see opportunities for major impact that may have otherwise gone unseen.

“I gained an indelible sense of how our work — when curated with diverse partners and rooted in a clear, ambitious mission — can manifest real advances in equity,” says Catherwood-Ginn. “Broadened access to the programming process raised visibility on our stages and galleries among artists from underrepresented communities, flowering relationships across differences in identities and cultures. I’m so grateful for how this program offered a path for our community to contribute and connect with a national network of organizations rectifying ignorance of and bias toward the mosaic of Muslim cultures and identities around the world.” That sense of being part of a mosaic came up in another Building Bridges project. Mosaics: Muslim Voices in America at Moraine Valley Community College Fine and Performing Arts Center in Palos Hills, Illinois, explored the breadth of American culture through the lens of Muslim artists living and practicing in the U.S., with a focus on personal narrative.

Student Theater Production at Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the ArtsTommy Hensel, the center’s managing director, met with his steering committee to discuss the grant two days after the 2016 presidential election. As he began to explain the importance of the grant to the organization’s work, he relayed the emotional weight of the moment. The enormity of the work ahead, he knew, was more vital than ever, and he understood, as Krista Bradley put it, the duty of his role as a presenter, community partner and facilitator.

“Very often as a performing arts center in a college, we feel like we are laboring in isolation and that the larger college community does not pay any attention to us nor As we progressed through the two years of programming, I got more and more feedback from people I had never met, or who worked in departments that historically had shown little visible interest in our programming. Ultimately, the program helps build bridges not only to the community outside the college, but also within the college itself. One of my greatest takeaways has been that when you create something about which others can also have passion, they will be equally or even more willing to take on portions of the project.”

Hensel also had a personal takeaway.

“Before this project, I felt as though I was well-respected in the college, but that I was just ‘that guy who runs the performing arts center,’” he says. “I had a few good friends at work, but not many. Through this project, I have developed some deep and lasting friendships with many people at the college who were previously ‘just co-workers.’ After the depth of interdisciplinary collaboration during the project, I feel as though our work is now more deeply rooted across the college and that faculty are now far more willing to adapt their curriculum to integrate our programming into the student experience. For me personally, this project has opened me up to the idea that we have not truly been exploring enough cultural diversity in our programming.”

The Moraine initiative has concluded, but Hensel’s concept of exploring artistic and cultural diversity is a top programming priority now. He has made a conscious effort to increase programming related to cultural expression from many different world regions including Tibet, Mexico, Argentina and Indonesia. APAP and Duke have built the scaffolding to continue the work of Building Bridges and hope to make announcements about future grants at the APAP|NYC conference in January 2020.

For Bradley, the payoff will come from moving more deeply — beyond the college campus — into the presenting world. “We hope folks will read about the expansion of Building Bridges and say: ‘Wow, I had no idea our field is addressing these issues in our world and has such an impact. How can I become a part of this?’” Building Bridges is about understanding what it means to become a part of the intercultural landscape of the U.S. At the heart of the project is also something fundamental about the practice of the arts and the primacy of community life.

“When we cooperate together to advance our common hopes and aspirations everyone benefits,” says Duke’s Zeyba Rahman. “The way forward for this aim is to knit our communities together stitch by stitch through ongoing activities that engage people, person to person.”

Alicia Anstead is the editor-in-chief of Inside Arts magazine and a co-producer of APAP|NYC. She is also associate director for programming at the Office for the Arts at Harvard.


Building Bridges resources

Visit our Building Bridges webpage for numerous resources, grantee information and more.