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Articulating a Community Arts Practice

Several months ago I began work with Skywatchers, a program of the San Francisco-based dance company, ABD Productions. Founded by Anne Bluethenthal, Skywatchers is community arts program and ensemble which foregrounds the lives and stories of people living in the Tenderloin neighborhood of San Francisco. This is a neighborhood that is often reduced to statistics about poverty, addiction and crime. Skywatchers offers a different lens, a point of engagement that appreciates the persons who make up this community. For five years, Skywatchers has been collaborating with Tenderloin residents as storytellers, co-creators and performers, sharing performance pieces that reflect the richness and complexity of their stories, and are often set in the Tenderloin National Forest. This forest, as is true for every Californian forest I’ve visited, is magical. But this forest is particularly special – comprised of a single and enormous redwood, enclosed or three sides by the walls of SRO (single resident occupancy) Hotels and by a large gate on the fourth side. The lone redwood peers over the rooftops and stands as a beacon of beauty and nature, emergence and creativity. This post isn’t about the forest, precisely, but it is worth a visit if you have yet to see/experience it.

Back to Skywatchers, the program spent its first five years of working with adults living in 2-4 of the Tenderloin SROs. I was initially brought on to support the development and implementation of their new youth program at Larkin Street Youth. After a few weeks working in the youth program, Anne and I agreed that I might be an even greater support to the program by working behind the scenes. The month of August (and some of July) was largely dedicated to crafting components of the Skywatchers handbook. Anne is committed to sharing successes, challenges and most importantly, strategies with the wider collective community arts practitioners. In response to what felt to Anne like a lack of public access to practical strategies in the field, she was inspired to develop a handbook. Additionally, this year Skywatchers is expanding to more SROs in the Tenderloin, and bringing on more new artist facilitators. So I was excited to bring what I have learned about curriculum development, staff training, and manual writing (mostly from my time at Urban Roots) to the development of the first Skywatchers Handbook. In the creation of the Handbook, I got to work with local artist facilitators Yanina Rivera and Zoe Bender, and collaborate closely with artist, professor and writing extraordinaire, Deirdre Visser. Together we crafted several core values for the program, and articulated the methodologies utilized to implement those values. We refined the mission and vision of Skywatchers and described several of the inspirations and challenges that have been arisen over the years. The handbook was designed as less of a how-to manual, and more of a practical account of the program’s intentions and evolution. This format for writing was also exciting to explore – it felt like a way to acknowledge our own humanity and room for growth, while embracing the wisdom that comes with years of practice in a form.

Working on the handbook was an excellent opportunity for me to continue to reflect on my own practice and values. Perhaps one day I’ll be writing my own handbook of practice!

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