Pageantry as Climate Activism: Let Their Voices Sing in Bursts of Color to Support the Earth

Interview by Olivia Ann Carye Hallstein

Earth Celebration’s Ecological City pageant in the Lower-East Side Manhattan supports resilience efforts put forth by the community through art integration. Much of the existing gardens have been developed independently from public funds and resources and are under threat by new development. Felicia Young, the community organizer behind the arts integration component of the project, discusses the importance of arts and theater as a form of community engagement and activism. 

So much about this pageant is about real policy issues effecting the community. In which ways can art act in a symbiotic relationship to planning and policy efforts like the ones you are highlighting?

Art has the ability to inspire and engage people to connect emotionally with the world around them — places, issues and challenges. It is from that emotional connection and deeper understanding of issues and the places they are rooted in, that can inspire and engage people in action for change.

In 1990, when the 60 community gardens on the Lower East Side of New York City were being threatened with destruction by proposed development plans, I thought I could apply creating public theatrical pageants with processions as a public participatory art form to mobilize an effort to preserve the gardens in my neighborhood. The artistic pageant could provide a powerful and public forum for the community to tell its story. This would affirm their narrative that was counter to the city view at the time, that viewed the gardens as vacant lots to be developed. The city officials had not acknowledged that the act of urban improvisation and revitalization by a low-income community to transform the vacant rubble strewn lots (that were a consequence of city neglect throughout the 1970’s) into magnificent gardens – was an irreplaceable benefit that had become vital to the community’s culture, health, safety and well-being.

The pageant gave voice and visibility to the community that felt powerless in the face of the mighty developers and real estate interests that seemed to control the overall city agenda. The pageant became a 15-year annual collaborative arts project. The arts provided a bridge and an accessible form to mobilize action on the issue, engage diverse sectors of the community to work together creatively and build a powerful grassroots coalition effort. This led to policy change with the preservation of hundreds of community gardens throughout New York City, when Mayor Bloomberg transferred many gardens from HPD (NYC Housing Preservation and Development) to the NYC Parks Department in 2002. This offering them protection from development plans.

(East River Park Spirit- City Hall Hearing)

Fantastic that art has been able to create lasting change! In a video interview for Earth Celebration’s Ecological City, you mention that arts-based organizing can engage a wider population than raw activism alone. How have you noticed increased engagement and what have some of these wider effects been?

The collaborative and participatory art projects and theatrical pageant have engaged youth, schools, families, organizations representing diverse special interests and sectors of the neighborhood, as well as the core stakeholders such as the gardeners. If that effort had started as a protest, it would have been a small group of activists engaged and not the larger community. Many of the participants got introduced to the effort and issue through the cultural activity.

Protests can project an angry energy and alienate the very community one is trying to engage. People participated because they could express and tell the stories of these magnificent gardens that were about to be demolished, and do that through joyous affirmation, visual art and performances celebrating them and their meaning within the neighborhood.

The artistic forum of the pageant was a safe zone, where various groups, who often did not communicate, could come together for a common goal and collectively communicate through a public cultural expression. Within the pageant the community enacted each year, not only the battle with developers, but also the preservation of the gardens with the release of 50 live butterflies by the butterfly children and nature spirits. This theatrical story did not end at the pageants close, as it built a grassroots coalition effort that continued beyond the framework of the pageant and led over the years to effective policy change.

(Waterfront Procession, Photo: Rachel Elkind)

There are so many people involved. In fact, The Earth Celebrations: Ecological City is hosting many varied workshops with local artists. How are some of these projects engaging with their surroundings in unique ways?

 For our Ecological City-Art & Climate Solutions Project, 3 months of bi-weekly workshops engage community participants to collaborate with our artists-in-residence, creating visual art, giant puppets and costumes that explore local sites and their climate solution initiatives. The artistic works are presented in the culminating Ecological City-Procession for Climate Solutions featuring a spectacular 5-hour procession with 20 sustainability site performances celebrating the climate solutions throughout the community gardens, neighborhood and waterfront.

 After Hurricane Sandy, the community gardens we helped preserve, proved their new role mitigating climate impacts by absorbing flood water and providing a myriad of urban climate solutions — from plants and soil sequestering carbon and trees filtering polluted air and cooling urban temperatures, to green infrastructure of bio-swales mitigating run-off and ponds collecting rainwater, as well as vital urban sustainable agriculture. While these local climate solutions were thriving, many residents could walk past a garden without knowing how they were connected to their importance in mitigating city or global climate challenges.

GOLES (an organization engaged in low-income housing issues as well as coastal resiliency) collaborated with Earth Celebrations’ theater Director Drew Vanderberg to create a performance about surviving hurricane Sandy. The participants were residents from the NYCHA city housing along waterfront that was severely impacted. They performed their story within the pageant and documentation of the performance was presented within city council – land use planning hearings.

The Mobile Mural -LES Sustainable Solutions engaged community through workshops to create a 50-foot-long mural consisting of 5 panels presenting the architectural features and community vision for the East River Park. The workshops engaged numerous partners at various locations throughout the neighborhood to research and collaborate on the painting of the community vision plan, that the city administration was abruptly dismissing, for a new plan that would demolish the entire park including mature trees and habitat for numerous species. The mobile mural was featured in the procession and at various rallies, press conferences and city hall hearings.

(River Grass Portrait Photo: Rachel Elkind)

So much of sustainability is also community related, how have you expanded local efforts beyond climate resilience and into community resilience in the face of climate disaster?

Climate resilience and community resilience are one. It is the people, their lives, their community and neighborhood that are all impacted by climate change. We have directly experienced this on the Lower East Side, a low-income neighborhood on the frontline of climate impacts due to flooding, sea level rise, pollution, as well as displacement from market rate development. The city administration has been engaged in a top-down approach to many sustainability, urban planning issues and policies, with the wealthy developers interests and goals for profit as a driving force. Former Mayor DeBlasio announced New York City is officially upholding the Paris Climate Accord with goals of reducing carbon along with billions for green infrastructure projects. At the same time his policies are destroying grassroots community generated climate solutions that communities have created free of cost to the city, such as the plan to destroy the Elizabeth Street Garden in Soho/Nolita.

(Ecological City: Waterfront Closing Tableaux Photo: Rachel Elkind)

How has the unique community of the Lower East Side contributed to the inspiration and execution of a project of this scale?

The Lower East Side is a community of inspiring cultural diversity with residents representing various interests and backgrounds. It has been a neighborhood of immigrant communities for hundreds of years that shaped its culture with a mix of traditions, as well as the artists from all over the world that have made the Lower East Side their home. Earth Celebrations projects have grown out of the community issues, struggles and achievements related to these contested public spaces, gardens and parks. These spaces still exist and thrive because of how the community is deeply rooted in shaping its future through its creative and collective strength.

(Felicia Young: Earth Celebrations & Ecological City Director Portrait Photo: Rachel Elkind)

Lastly, what is your vision beyond this festival as both an individual and an organization?

For over 30 years, I have pursued a vision and quest to create framework and cultural action projects, where the arts were applied to engage communities to confront local environmental crises. Through participatory and collaborative arts my vision is to mobilize action on solutions and ecological, policy and social change.

Cultural strategies that proved successful included ritual based collaborative and community-engage art; with both the partnership-building creative collaborative action it generated, as well as actual policy change that the effort led to with the preservation of hundreds of community gardens. The theatrical pageant art form worked to provide a collaborative creative process that engaged the community. The a culminating public forum throughout the streets was significant for sites embedded with the histories, struggles, achievements and common goals for the community’s future.
Art has the ability to inspire and engage people to connect emotionally with the world around them — places, issues and challenges. It is from that emotional connection, deeper understanding and visceral experience, that can inspire action for change.

Art does not only reflect life but can affect it too — and engage people to connect with what is and imagine what is possible. I have found that by engaging a community in an artistic expression, that is a collaborative co-created public cultural action, that the community is enabled to reaffirm their collective goals — and then move from the experience of this artistic expression and theatrical reality, into real life action, impact and change.

(Top photo: Ecological City-Procession for Climate Solutions Photo Credit: Rachel-Elkind)

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ecoartspace was conceived in 1997 by Patricia Watts in Los Angeles. In 1999, Watts partnered with east coast curator Amy Lipton, operating as a nonprofit under the umbrella of SEE, the Social and Environmental Entrepreneurs in California. 2019 marked twenty years that Watts and Lipton have curated art and ecology programs, participating on panels and giving lectures internationally. Combined, they have curated over sixty art and ecology exhibitions, many outdoors in collaboration with artists creating site-specific works. They have worked with over one thousand artists from across the United States, and some internationally. Starting 2020, ecoartspace became an LLC membership organization based out of Santa Fe, New Mexico.

A project of the Social and Environmental Entrepreneurs since 1999

Go to EcoArtSpace

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