Last year, Nicole Lightner's world opened up. She can thank the Tucson Pima Arts Council's PLACE grants for that.
Lightner, now an 8th-grader at Pistor Middle School, was in a program that used dance and poetry to develop community. Safos Dance Theatre was awarded the grant for the program from the Tucson Pima Arts Council.
Denver poet Bobby LeFebre led the class, and students from Hiaki High School on the Pascua Yaqui Indian Reservation were brought to Pistor to participate. The idea was to open communications and foster understanding between Latino and American Indian youth through poetry and dance.
"In poetry, people get to express themselves, and in that way you get to bond," Lightner recalls.
"We had their thoughts and they had ours. It brings you closer."
Safos received the PLACE - People, Land, Art, Culture and Engagement - grants with just that in mind.
The four-year-old PLACE grant program has doled out a total of $400,000 to arts organizations to carry out community-based programs. Every dollar of those grants has been funded by private organizations that believe in the power of arts to effect social change.
Roberto Bedoya, executive director of the Tucson Pima Arts Council, sees enormous value in Lightner's experience.
The arts, he believes, can make a big difference in perceptions, understanding, even civility.
"The Tucson Arts Brigade works with the Boys and Girls Clubs in some of our tougher neighborhoods," he says, ticking off other PLACE grantees whose work has made a difference.
"Borderlands Theater is not afraid to look at border issues. CODAC mental health worked with muralist David Tineo to create a mural that told the story of the differences in the neighborhood. The neighborhood got involved and it really brought people together."
The PLACE initiative grew out of the Council's 2008 Pima Cultural Plan.
"It was an extensive process with hundreds giving input into the future of the culture in Southern Arizona," says Bedoya.
"We addressed what is distinctive about Tucson and our identity ... what we can do to build projects that speak to our identity."
The program was specifically designed for arts-based projects that engaged the community and dealt with issues of tolerance and/or civil society.
"Historically, there have always been community-arts projects," Bedoya says. "The difference with the PLACE grants is the civic engagement. There are multiple stakeholders engaging with people to make art. In that, I believe we are a national leader."
The program has attracted some big-name backers - The Kresge Foundation funded the first two years, the Nathan Cummings Foundation and Open Society Institute underwrote the grants in 2011, and Open Society funded the 2012 grants. Bedoya says this year's funding has been tentatively approved by a private foundation.
The civic-arts projects "help us understand each other better," says Bedoya. "And they create a sense of belonging. And that belonging is so important to having a sense of being a citizen of Tucson and the world."
Here are three of the close to 50 organizations that have received PLACE grants.
The Finding Voice Project
Years funded: Fiscal years 2010-11, 2011-12, 2012-13
Amount: $21,500 total
Project: Finding Voice helps young refugees learn English, get acclimated to a new life and country, and make connections with others through writing and photography. It was founded and is led by photographer Josh Schacter and Catalina Magnet High School teacher Julie Kasper.
Details: Laxmi Dahal knows what it is to struggle.
In 2008, Dahal, now 20, came to this country from Nepal, his birthplace. After his family fled Bhutan they lived in a refugee camp in Nepal.
The camp was dusty. Crowded. Often unsafe. Refugees could not work. They were treated as outsiders and without respect.
When his family immigrated here, Dahal enrolled in Catalina Magnet High School.
"It was a new country, a new life," recalls Dahal. "It was confusing. I didn't know how school was, it was new people, a new culture. I didn't even know where my classes were."
He knew some English, but it was halting. He was assigned to Julie Kasper's English as a Second Language class, where the Finding Voice project is a tool used to help refugees.
"It felt like home. ... We shared our stories and voices. Being in a new country, when you hear from others who came from the same kind of experience ... I learned so much."
Today, Dahal is a student at Pima Community College, preparing to transfer to the University of Arizona.
"Finding Voice helped people to reach out," he says, giving the program the bulk of the credit for his success. "They are doing wonderful work."
The program began in 2006, when Kasper and Schacter thought connecting literacy development with photography might be effective.
"Now we've moved on to other forms of art," says Schacter. "Theater, poetry, radio - all with the goal of literacy development for the English language, and to connect the refugee and immigrant youth to the community."
Each year, students use words, film, photography and other art forms to tell their stories, or their perspectives, feelings, thoughts, concerns, hopes.
"We find we can use their stories as ways to create dialogues about stereotypes and misperceptions," says Schacter.
Every year, the Finding Voice participants are expected to take on a project that involves the Tucson community. That expands the students' worlds, and often the community's understanding of the life and struggles of immigrants, says Schacter.
The program has received national recognition and the eternal gratitude of students like Dahal.
"We can talk about Finding Voice for the whole day and it would not be enough," he says.
The Tucson Chinese Cultural Foundation
Year funded: Fiscal 2011-12
Project: Beyond Groceries, uncovering the history of Tucson's Chinese neighborhood grocers.
Details: "We spent three years or so exploring the history of the Chinese in Tucson, with particular emphasis on Chinese grocery stores," recalls Robin Blackwood, the chair of the cultural center's history committee.
The PLACE grant would help the committee bring a bit of that history back to the neighborhood.
"We did oral histories and collected artifacts and photos," says Blackwood.
Last May, they had a "rolling history party," bringing a busload of about 60 to the sites of former Chinese groceries in five different Tucson neighborhoods.
At each stop, neighbors streamed out of their houses to join in the fun, which included entertainment, food and even a film about the history of each market.
"We celebrated the Chinese grocers in Tucson and the diversity and tolerance of the neighborhoods that had nurtured them over those years," says Blackwood.
Discovering more about the neighborhoods was one mission of the event.
"We had a story-telling corner, and we brought along a video camera and invited people to tell their stories about what they remembered. About 65 people over the five stops participated in that."
Sonia Molina, whose father owns the one-time Chinese-owned La Primavera Market on South Ninth Avenue, was the contact for her neighborhood's party.
"It was pretty cool," she says. "There were lots of people from the neighborhood there. ... It was like a big picnic."
What the history committee uncovered wasn't put away once the party was over. An exhibit with oral histories and details about the project's discoveries is now at the Tucson Chinese Cultural Center, 1288 W. River Road.
"Tucson has a very unique culture," says Blackwood. "It has a special feel, which comes from small neighborhoods which have long and diverse histories, and we need to celebrate that to keep Tucson's special flavor alive."
New Articulations Dance
Years funded: Fiscal 2010-11, 2011-12
Amount: $15,500 total
Project: Flow, which used dance, workshops and other community events to address water issues in Tucson.
Details: A crash course in water issues began the project, says New Articulations' Kimi Eisele. Then the company created workshops and dances designed to raise awareness and create a deeper understanding of them.
"We did some workshops with children at various community centers in town, looking at water issues through the body, and how the body and movement can help us understand the water cycle and water challenges."
With the second grant, they continued to work with children through community centers, as well as a residency at Borton Elementary that focused on dance informed by the movement of water.
In their continuing quest to reach adults, New Articulations teamed up with Tucson-based Watershed Management Group.
Lisa Shipek, executive director of Watershed Management, was preparing to give a talk at a green infrastructure conference. Eisele proposed that she use dance-point, rather than power-point, for her talk. Shipek was game.
Nine dancers used movement to punctuate Shipek's points to a crowd of about 200 engineers and scientists.
"It was a very technical crowd," recalls Shipek. "But the talk received a standing ovation, and people were really moved by it."
Other aspects of the Flow project included watershed tours, which took participants through walks along Arroyo Chico, the Santa Cruz, and at Navajo Wash. Eric Drew, a naturalist with Irontree, led the tours, explaining how water works through the landscape.
Occasionally, dancers would pop out to illustrate Drew's points, and, at the end of the tours, participants were invited to translate what they learned through movement.
"We wanted to help them remember what they learned by embodying it," said Eisele. "The idea was to have them be active participants in learning."
The Flow project culminated in a New Articulations dance in the Santa Cruz River bed, which included water-themed performances.
"We can talk about Finding Voice for the whole day and it would not be enough."
20, refugee, Pima Community College student
Contact reporter Kathleen Allen at email@example.com or 573-4128.