Expanding Community Participation

Posted by Libby Maynard On December - 9 - 2011

Libby Maynard

Continuing the focus on community engagement and participation in arts and culture, I’d like to share with you how we at The Ink People in Humboldt County, CA, have been practicing these principles for the last 25 years.

Our DreamMaker Program invites community members who have a vision for an arts and culture project or see a need in their community that can be addressed through such a project, to partner with us.

Sometimes I think of us as the center of a broad web, supporting and nurturing community-initiated visions. We are not a fiscal receiver. The board of directors decides whether or not to adopt each project as a full-fledged part of The Ink People, with full nonprofit benefits and stakes our reputation on each one.

In addition to this, we give administrative support and intensive mentoring to each project, as well as offering a series of Mini Nonprofit “MBA” classes. The classes are designed only to give project leaders an idea of what they don’t know, so they can ask the right questions to have the best chance at success.

Generally, a project follows one of four paths. It may be short term, with limited and well defined goals and outcomes, such as the publication of a book about Japanese Senryu poetry by the artist’s grandmother, with illustrations by the artist, and a series of workshops on writing Senryu poetry.

Longer projects may exist successfully for years, but as needs are addressed or the project leaders’ lives change, the project may be easily shut down, without going through the long and complex process of closing a 501(c)(3) organization.

My favorite example of this was the Intertribal Coalition for Cultural Continuity, which was created to revitalize local traditional American Indian cultures. The primary focus was to share elders’ knowledge and skills with younger generations to re-establish circles of learning in the traditional manner for teaching regalia making, basket weaving, and associated songs and stories. This was achieved and there are now thriving local tribal cultures, so the project was closed.

Then, there are those projects whose leaders don’t see the point in starting their own nonprofit, like having us do the administration, and appreciate sharing our reputation, so they stay on as DreamMakers. One example is the Hmong Community of the Northcoast, which has been with us since 1995.

Finally, some projects may feel well-established and successful, and want to get their own 501(c)(3) status. We help them do that, as well. Some examples are the Redwood Discovery Museum, Redwood Curtain Theater, and The Studio, Art for Developmentally Disabled Artists.

Since we began the first version of the DreamMaker Program in the mid-1980s, we have fostered over 200 projects, of which less than 3% have not achieved their goals.

At present, we have over 60 active projects. There is constant turnover, with an average of 12 new projects a year. Not bad, considering the population of Humboldt County is about 130,000 spread over an area one-third bigger than Delaware.

Each DreamMaker project is self-directing and self-funding. We help guide them and have a rich offering of resources to help them along. For all the funds they raise, we take an administrative fee, though it only partially funds the program. We presently receive additional funding from the National Endowment for the Arts and a local foundation, the Mel & Grace McLean Foundation.

The key to DreamMaker success is being open to and listening to good ideas, and helping people help themselves.

Most DreamMaker projects are about engaging community members actively in participating in the arts. The projects are initiated by community members for the community, to address community challenges.

Over the years, we have seen a lasting and dramatic impact on the quality of life in our neighborhoods and public spaces, as well as an increased sense of well-being amongst our citizens. One survey found that over 98% of Humboldt County residents participate in an art form weekly!

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