Thursday, 02 November 2017 19:22

We Are the Future: Q&A with Borderlands & Motor City Street Dance


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This month we check in with two organizational grantees of the NALAC Fund for the Arts from the Sonoran Desert and Motor City. We ask them what’s it’s like to be a grantee and where they see the future of Latinx arts and cultures. Borderlands Theater in Tucson, Arizona is supporting immersive theater in the historic Barrio Anita, while Motor City Street Dance Academy in Detroit, Michigan is teaching youth the dance elements of hip-hop through the S.E.E.D. program (Spreading the Elements Everywhere in Detroit). Read on to learn more about this work and how in many ways, small Latinx arts organizations already represent the future of our diverse arts and culture field.


Borderlands Theater is dedicated to fostering the telling of diverse and quality stories through theater. The organization champions the development and production of new plays while producing plays by established playwrights whose work resonates with their diverse audiences.


What has Borderlands Theater been able to accomplish with the NFA grant?

NALAC funding is supporting phase-two of The Barrio Stories Project, which celebrates and preserves the history and heritage of Tucson’s historic Mexican-American barrios. Through oral history collection, archival research and deep collaboration with Barrio Anita residents, a team of local artists and theater makers will produce a theatrical event combining performance, video projections, and festival elements to showcase the unique character of Barrio Anita. More importantly, the project aims to strengthen existing - and create new - relationships among neighborhood residents, and build systems of decision making that will increase the capacity of residents to maintain their neighborhood against encroaching gentrification.


What kinds of challenges have you faced while implementing your project?

One of the first challenges we faced was the time and effort it took to organize residents of the neighborhood, which involved attending community meetings, canvasing the neighborhood and going door to door. It has been a slow process, but is the only way to truly get our unique vision across to barrio residents. We are also working with the one remaining business, an elementary school and the City's Parks and Recreation Department. Coordinating all these stakeholders while championing the project has taken a considerable effort.


The other challenge, and it is a welcomed one, is this gorgeous puzzle of how to use the tools of theater and creativity to address the needs of barrio residents. There is this strong desire for neighbors to get to know each other better, for renters new to the barrio to understand the history and character of the barrio and value this in the way that 3rd or 4th generation residents do. There is a need to maintain original adobe houses – to keep them from falling into disrepair and getting bulldozed - not only to maintain the Sonoran aesthetics of the neighborhood, but its historical designation as well. Additionally, residents want the name of their park changed from a white settler who led a massacre of hundreds of Apaches, to the name of a neighborhood priest who was born in Barrio Anita and tended to the souls of its residents for fifty years. How do we employ the best of theater and art – its ability to inspire empathy, to educate, to create moments of exquisite beauty – in the service of the community building needs we have identified? This is the challenge which lies at the heart of our project, and at the heart of Borderlands Theater's success in the future.


What does the future of Latinx arts & cultures look like to you (and others at Borderlands Theater)?

As theater makers, we are all aware of the demographic shift taking place in this country. The conversations around diversity, equity and inclusion -which have filled every conference and public forum recently- are necessary for the large historic institutions, but small, Latinx-based arts organizations like Borderlands are already at the next stage. Our board is diverse (and has been for decades) as are our staff, the artists we work with, and the subjects of the work we produce. This is the same for countless other Latinx and other POC [people of color] -based arts groups. The key to our survival is in learning the ways that arts organizations can be a vital partner in creating resilient, sustainable communities.


How does the work of Borderlands Theater serve as an advocacy tool?

Through our recent work, the docu-theater and oral history based projects, we have been working hard on "flipping the script." That is, highlighting local history (sometimes very recent, such as the banning of Mexican American Studies classes in 2010), as alternative narratives that change the way Tucsonans and Tucsonenses see themselves in relation to the histories of power in our region. This helps to foster a sense of place and belonging among Chicanos, Mexicanos, Native Americans, and other marginalized communities in Tucson. We are advocating for the expansion of the Southwestern narrative to not only include but to center narratives of communities who have contributed to the rich culture and history of the region in very deep ways. Though a local effort, we believe our work will reverberate on a national level, as Arizona and the border continue to be at the center of the American conversation. 


Motor City Street Dance Academy works to enhance the lives of Detroiters through hip-hop, physical activity, and healthy living. They were founded to uplift disenfranchised communities in Detroit, and they mentor youth and provide them with a safe space in which to express themselves.


What has MSCDA been able to accomplish with the NFA grant?

The NFA grant served to help us expand our capacity. With it, we were able to bring in other artists to really push our skills to another level. We were also able to expand the amount of schools we were able to work with and meet our equipment needs. We also had access to programming and trainings from NALAC, as well as a network of collaborators that we did not have before.


What kinds of challenges did you face and overcome when implementing your project?

One challenge we faced was planning allocation of funds between not just dance training, but also administration and equipment. The way we overcame the challenge was by utilizing our student body to help us assess our strengths and weaknesses. They were very honest about what exactly we needed to do to provide quality programming and offered opinions that helped us prioritize where to spend funds.


What does the future of Latinx arts & cultures look like to you (and others at MCSDA)?

The future of Latinx arts and cultures looks to us like something that we are shaping ourselves, especially when we think about the future of hip hop dance. A lot of other programs focus on the emcee element and dj/production element of hip hop; MCSDA is the only one we see utilizing the strength of dance on the floor and off the floor to continually provide a quality program, not only in Detroit but in our national network of Breakin’ Schools. This is fueled by a culture that is steeped in Latino culture and traditions, and that enables us to engage generations young and old with our academy.


How does MCSDA’s work serve as an advocacy tool?

Hip-hop is a youth culture created by African American/Black youth and later mixed with influences from Latinx cultures, and is still to this day driven by youth from all over. The MCSDA mission is to serve and provide for the youth in our community and strengthen their collective voices by creating young artists and professionals. Our work is steeped in youth voice and creative control. In this way, we aim to increase the understanding of hip-hop culture, and to expand the scope of youth voices in school and after-school programming.


Learn more about NALAC’s flagship grant program and past grantees at Join our mailing list to stay on top of future deadlines.



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