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Why Investing in Arts and Culture is Investing in Community Wealth Building

To make a difference in justice, art and culture grants need to provide fast funding and community autonomy

Authors: Olayinka Credle

Often, when I speak about arts and community wealth building, many people ask, “How Does Art Build Community Wealth?” Although innocent and genuinely rooted in curiosity, I believe it speaks to a larger issue — which is that arts is seen as an add-on or extracurricular activity in the realm of social and economic justice, rather than a core part of restoring community wealth and autonomy.

After all, when funding important work to make meaningful differences in disadvantaged communities, the priorities can often start with food justice, funding community resources, childcare, land justice, and many other things seen as mission critical. And yet, the arts are so much more than a garnish. Art is the lifeblood of human connection and can be deeply rooted in history to connect people to their past through culture, history, and heritage. Community wealth builders often use the knowledge, traditions, and wisdom of their ancestors, local culture, and history to inform the same decisions that lead to the success that funders are attracted to in the first place.

Additionally, when we listen to and uplift local community leaders who are using art and culture as a way to build community wealth, we are honoring the whole community. In short, we can survive without art, but as a society we cannot thrive without it.

As Christina Patiño Houle of Las Imaginistas, explains, “Local community heritage means centering the voices of those who have been systematically exploited, extracted or silenced…Rebalancing art, culture and investing in community wealth building is a strategy to unlock cognitive strategies for reframing that will restore right relationship with the earth.”

Unfortunately, the arts are still very much seen as optional, accounting for .004% of state and federal budgets, and the process to get those funds is incredibly arduous. What’s more, nonprofit and government grants are often funded by tax dollars for specific industries and research, which means that the usage of grant funds are tightly monitored and restricted.

Even those experienced in the grant application process will share that it can take several months of concerted effort to gather the data, fill out the forms, and get the necessary certifications to submit a credible grant application. If an organization met all the requirements, completed all the paperwork, and submitted their grant application today, it would likely take up to 6–8 months or longer before that organization were to see any money, and they wouldn’t have the freedom to use that money as needed outside of the strict terms set by those grants in the first place. In short, BIPOC organizations seeking to address issues specific to BIPOC communities, often are not served by grant organizations who are often operating in an oppressive financial system.

“There is a lack of commitment and faith in the creation of community-owned models of economic and social opportunity. Creative investment is necessary to ensure our communities can build the food and economic systems they need to maintain culture and build community wealth.” — Lorena Andrade of La Mujer Obrera.

Much has been written about the inherent issues with grantmaking but to move forward, we as an industry, need to think holistically about solutions. For us, that looks like thinking carefully about the grant process and the terms involved, by both providing funding and autonomy and doing so quickly. We place a great deal of emphasis on autonomy, because in many cases BIPOC communities know best what’s needed to make meaningful change in their own communities. In short, community autonomy gives the power back to those most equipped and positioned to serve their own needs.

As best said by Nwamaka Agbo, an expert in restorative economics and community wealth building as well as the CEO of Kataly Foundation, “When communities come together to collectively own and manage assets, they can leverage their joint economic power to collectively assert their rights and exercise cultural and political power in a more impactful way than they would on their own. And, when neighbors build community wealth together they create safe and sovereign spaces that foster self-determination and build shared prosperity”.

At Common Future, we believe in unrestricted and fast grants, that give honor and space to the organizations and communities to make the best decisions for their culture. In March of 2021, we partnered with ArtPlace America to resource four organizations working at the intersection of arts/culture and community wealth building. We put out a call for applicants for our Reimagine: Community and Culture Grant, which would provide $50,000 in unrestricted funding support, 3-months of virtual peer-to-peer engagement with other grantees, as well as further opportunities to work with Common Future. We are proud to announce that the final selected organizations who will participate in this program are New Communities Inc., Las Imaginistas, La Mujer Obrera, and Wormfarm Institute. These amazing organizations all share an incredible care and priority for building their local community’s health, wealth, and autonomy.

In Albany, Georgia, one of the country’s most fertile and productive farming regions, New Communities Inc. — the first community land trust in the U.S. — and the Charles Sherrod CDC are working toward racial justice, economic security, and farm sustainability.Las Imaginistas is a socially engaged art collective building a culture of liberation for all beings. The group is based along the Rio Grande Delta in Estok Gna territory. They are disruptors, truth tellers, healers, shapeshifters and magic makers. The group centers the mother earth, the divine feminine and nonbinary energies as central guides to re-balancing the cosmos.La Mujer Obrera is dedicated to developing and using their creative capacity to express the dignity and diversity of their Mexican heritage, from indigenous Mesoamerican roots to contemporary expressions, and to develop and celebrate community through economic development, community building, community health and civic engagement.Wormfarm Institute is a national leader in rural creative placemaking. Hosting an Artist Residency Program, an evolving laboratory of the arts and ecology, and fertile ground for creative work, Wormfarm explores the links between rural and urban communities within and beyond the food chain, creating opportunities for cross-sector collaboration.


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