Fellows Update II: Sarah Rafael García

Map of Third Ward (2018)

Map of Third Ward (2018)

Sarah Rafael García is a 2019 Kathrine G. McGovern College of the Arts – Project Row Houses (KGMCA-PRH) Fellows. The KGMCA-PRH Fellowship invites artists and cultural practitioners to the Third Ward to work alongside urban planners, educators and policy makers to engage in creative collaborations that involve the Third Ward community. The Fellowship is a research-based program that allows people to spend time addressing complex challenges that impact communities of color.

Fellows Update is an opportunity to share the research reflections from the Fellows’ point of view. Read Sarah’s second update.

Fellows Update: Libby Bland

“Maps aren't static - boundaries change every year. Historic Third Ward 1944/2019" – Libby

“Maps aren't static - boundaries change every year. Historic Third Ward 1944/2019" – Libby

Houston’s Third Ward is suffering from both rapid gentrification and planning fatigue. Despite being under the jurisdiction of at least seven different neighborhood and city plans, there are three and four story townhouses being built on every other block that are all wildly unaffordable to the majority of Third Ward residents. The existence of a plan, without any ability to enforce or fund the initiatives that it details, is largely just a broken promise and people notice. Every time someone comes to a struggling community and claims that they can fix all of the problems, it gets people’s hopes up just to let them down when they inevitably fail to live up to the expectations that they have set. During a community meeting last weekend, residents talked about how worried they are about the construction around them and their concerns about the groups that are coming in proposing to help.

I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to do ethical engagement in a community that has been under a microscope for years. It’s very easy to have good intentions and still be exploitative. It’s very easy to be an “askhole” where you demand input and engagement from people without offering anything in return.

Ethical engagement requires honesty. Honesty about what you can and cannot do. Honesty about what your goals are compared to what your community partners’ goals are. It takes an honest and active understanding of what power dynamics are at play. It takes being honest about what power you hold and exert over others, whether that power is perceived or real.

Ethical engagement requires persistence. Marginalized people who are treated more like a campaign stop than a community are exhausted. They have been poked and prodded and used as a resource to extract from rather than as intelligent human collaborators. Too often community engagement is a box to check off a list in service of a much larger project that offers no direct benefit to any of the community members. It is treated as a means to an end instead of an intentional and deliberate process.

I am so excited to have the opportunity to start working with Third Ward residents through the KGMCA-PRH Fellowship. I’m deeply passionate about connecting the stories and experiences of people to places and thinking about how spatial conditions and policies often compressed experiences to the same few blocks for a wide variety of people. The physical environment impacts us all in different ways and to an extent that we don’t often unpack. The roads we drive down, the corners where we wait for the bus, the streets that we avoid (intentionally or not), all tell a story about our experience with space and place. For me mapping is an active exercise in layering our personal realities over the frameworks of the past. It’s an active confrontation of how the city is built versus how it is actually used and experienced. Community mappings are an exercise in uplifting the stories that are omitted from the larger narrative of a city. They are also an exercise in working with folks to reevaluate the influence that the built environment has on them and how they might have more of an influence on the built environment in return. Community mappings are an act of reclaiming ones agency over a neighborhood that is changing around them. I’m excited to start working with residents on mapping the Third Ward.

Fellows Update: Sarah Rafael García

On my first day, I purposely asked the Lyft driver to drop me off in front of Project Row Houses. I felt compelled to start my first visit at the iconic shot gun houses. Maybe I was echoing other tourists too by romanticizing the history. But as I stared down the sidewalk towards the white peaks, the rain made me hesitate. Being familiar with Texas storms, my enthusiasm evolved to worries that a downpour would soak my laptop in the next five minutes. With disappointment, I forced myself to take an alternate route and walked down Division Street, which introduced me to the second-story buildings with porches. What did it divide?

It was then that I reflected on my previous visits to Houston and the Third Ward. While attending my MFA program and living in Austin from 2012 through 2015, I visited Houston once a semester. Initially, I came for the Vietnamese and Lebanese dishes. Eventually, I also visited for the free museums that displayed art by brown, black and queer folks. I sought affirmation for my decision to enter an MFA program that catered to white narratives. And Project Row Houses was one of two stops I made over such weekend trips. Never actually envisioned me here.

There, on two of the porches, I saw people conversing. One a young brown mother and her child, another a black woman under a porch talking to a black man standing in the rain. They nodded and smiled and two of the folks said hello and ignored my awkward jog and rolling baggage. The child continued without a glance, the rain continued to gain momentum, but no one seemed to care, the water was part of their life. What did they see that I didn’t?

I saw a community. Immediately, I felt like I didn’t belong. Who am I to be strolling in their yard with a purple suitcase and artist pride? I was a visitor, not a member of their community. I was the artist coming in to collect their stories and experiences. I was the visiting artist I snickered at in my city of Santa Ana, California, which fights gentrification against those within the city limits. I knew I had to be more observant, I knew I had a lot of research and reading to do. If I am going to ask questions, they would have to be new, they would have to be well-thought out. They would have to give the community a reason.

A hundred steps later, after passing a group of all black and brown folks bantering at the Gulf Gas Station, I was at the first home that would host my year-long fellowship. A shot gun house replica, similar to the images by John Biggers who I only knew in a book. That evening I got food delivered because I wasn’t quite sure where to eat in the area. I also started reading the text that would set the foundation for my project, How Racism Takes Place by George Lipsitz. Huh, a Jewish guy writing about African-American history, didn’t expect it, or maybe there’s more there? I started with the Project Row Houses chapter then read excerpts from other chapters that were referenced.

Although often people say these are called shotgun houses because a shotgun can be fired through the front door and it would go right out the backdoor without hitting a wall, it has also been traced that the phrase has been derived from the word “shogon.” In West Africa, “shogon” means “God's House.”

I was in bed under a reading light. At the precise moment I read the proposed definition, a breeze in the room forced me to pop my head out of the book and scan from left to right. And that’s when I thought how life and death can travel in the few seconds it takes a bullet to go through a home. Imagine reading this at the same speed as the flying bullet. And what if we were to measure the fractals of each sense of time between here and there, between there and here, between slavery and freedom, between 1941 and 1945, between Black Panthers and urban developers, between tomorrow’s past and the 2030 future; each minute fraction between blinks and the spirits who called me to look beyond here and there.

Pause.

Did I lose you? Or do you see what I see?

Back to bullet speed.

Those small pieces of matter that make each second of time, those moments where white becomes brown and how an image of a shotgun evolves to God’s House; all has turned into a future where shades of skin and multiple languages are what make this space we have shaped into our image. Where color is freedom, where words like shogun, shaanti, barrio, kapitbahayan, cộng đồng and تi آل هة الب — all mean us, not them.

And there is where all of here begins…

Introduction to Fellows Update

Libby Bland and Sarah Rafael García are the 2019 Kathrine G. McGovern College of the Arts – Project Row Houses (KGMCA-PRH) Fellows. The KGMCA-PRH Fellowship invites artists and cultural practitioners to the Third Ward to work alongside urban planners, educators and policy makers to engage in creative collaborations that involve the Third Ward community. The Fellowship is a research-based program that allows people to spend time addressing complex challenges that impact communities of color.

Our new feature on the blog, titled Fellows Update, is an opportunity to share the research reflections from the Fellows’ point of view. Before our first Fellows Update, please watch Libby and Sarah’s introductory lectures to understand what inspires them to create their art.

-  Ryan Dennis, PRH's Curator and Programs Director   

Eureka Gilkey Graduates from American Leadership Forum Class XLV

Eureka-Gilkey-Executive-Director.jpg

Eureka Gilkey graduated from the American Leadership Forum’s Class XLV at the commencement ceremony held last week. Eureka is the Executive Director of Project Row Houses. 

The American Leadership Forum (ALF) is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to join and strengthen diverse leaders to serve the common good. For more than 37 years, ALF has supported a network of 1,300 Senior Fellows who strengthen and broaden the social fabric of our community. ALF was founded to create a regional network of diverse senior-level leaders across private, public and nonprofit sectors committed to building a stronger community. 

Each year, established leaders from various sectors in the community participate in a yearlong, national caliber leadership development program that allows participants to broaden their perspectives, explore differences, build relationships and engage in dialogue around some of our most challenging issues.  Senior Fellows represent a broad range of leadership positions reflecting social, ethnic, gender, geographic, political, religious and work sector diversity. Selection is based on demonstrated outstanding leadership and potential for growth, integrity, professional stature, commitment to the community beyond their profession, willingness to learn, to challenge assumptions, and to increase understanding and awareness of others. ALF curriculum builds deep, lasting and trusting relationships, fosters appreciation of differences, teaches and builds dialogue skills and creates an environment that is highly conducive to appreciative inquiry, emergent change and impactful collaboration. For more information, please visit alfhouston.org.