Narrowing the Equity Gap Through Creative Placemaking
Early on, Rebecca Cordes Chan recognized the power of the arts to bring people together.
Chan grew up in Skokie, one of the most ethnically diverse cities in Illinois. It was there that she saw how participating in the arts helped make the community more cohesive.
“It was usually the arts that brought people together,” she says. “It transcends languages and culture and other kinds of social boundaries. I always thought about (it), but it’s really kind of manifesting in what I’m doing now.”
It was a formative insight — as was hearing about family members who had been denied opportunities because of the color of their skin. As a person of mixed race, she also sometimes encountered bias.
“As a kid, that really stung,” Chan says.
Chan grew determined to confront those injustices. Today, she is an emerging leader in the field of Creative Placemaking, combining her appreciation for the arts with her passion for social justice.
Creative Placemaking fuses arts and culture with community development, bringing fresh perspectives and creative approaches to the challenges facing American cities. With Kresge-supported leadership opportunities, Chan is helping make the field more equitable and impactful.
“The different positions I’ve held have always been about shedding a light on injustices — and now, correcting them,” she says.
Like Creative Placemaking itself, Chan started out at the neighborhood level, engaging residents in projects ranging from murals to miniparks at Baltimore’s Station North Arts and Entertainment District and the Robert W. Deutsch Foundation.
“Rebecca is kind of the invisible hand in helping to guide or shape broader thinking and goal setting around equity. This journey of inquiry doesn’t stop with her. She also inspires others to come along.” —Jennifer Hughes, National Endowment for the Arts
Her next position afforded a broader view of the city and its challenges. In 2015, Chan accepted a fellowship — sponsored by Kresge and the Surdna Foundation — at The Reinvestment Fund, a Baltimore-based community development financial institution (CDFI). As a mission-driven lender, the fund provides capital for nonprofits and small businesses.
The city saw a difficult time when protests ensued after Freddie Gray died in 2015 from injuries suffered while in Baltimore police custody. Memories of chaotic demonstrations and soldiers in riot gear were painfully fresh. Against that backdrop, the fellowship offered an opportunity to examine arts and development funding in relation to Baltimore’s deep-rooted inequities.
“We were asking, ‘How is capital flowing, to whom and for what?’” Chan says. Her research revealed that many artists and entrepreneurs, especially those from low-income communities of color, were unable to access capital. Without targeted technical assistance, such as financial coaching, community development funds tended to bypass those who needed them most.
That discovery process “widened the aperture” for the fund, says Regina Smith, managing director of Kresge’s Arts & Culture Program. “It expanded their understanding of the needs and opportunities in the community, and how creativity could offer different approaches to address issues in the community.”
Chan moved to the national arena when she took a position in 2016 as program officer at the Local Initiatives Support Corp. (LISC), one of the nation’s largest CDFIs. In partnership with PolicyLink and with support from Kresge and the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), she designed a technical assistance program for the funder’s Creative Placemaking grantees across the U.S. Chan is also helping to integrate Creative Placemaking into LISC’s national work on inclusive economic growth.
At the same time, she has “retained the ability to effectively support and understand what happens on the ground,” says Jeremy Liu, senior fellow for Arts, Culture and Equitable Development at PolicyLink. She also serves as a bridge between partners such as artists and elected officials, says NEA Director of Design and Creative Placemaking Jennifer Hughes.
While traveling to communities across the country, Chan has affirmed the need to center racial equity in her work. She particularly remembers visiting grantees in what Liu calls a “racial equity-challenged context.” The grantees’ project would have obscured an important piece of local African American history. Her African American colleagues came away feeling invisible.
“I just wondered to myself, ‘How in this moment do I deliver constructive criticism in a way that’s not going to alienate me from them?’” Chan says. “I realized I’ve done some work in this area, but I need to dig deeper.”
An opportunity to do just that soon arrived. In 2018, Chan was awarded a PLACES fellowship by the Funders’ Network for Smart Growth and Livable Communities. Supported by Kresge, the fellowship helps grantmakers embed the values of racial, social and economic equity into their work. Chan especially valued the fellowship’s practical training on how to deal with bias and racism.
She recently helped launch a Racial Equity Learning Group within LISC. Open to all staff, it draws nearly 70 people to its monthly calls and gatherings.
At LISC, and in the broader field of Creative Placemaking, “Rebecca is kind of the invisible hand in helping to guide or shape broader thinking and goal setting around equity,” says the NEA’s Hughes. “This journey of inquiry doesn’t stop with her. She also inspires others to come along.”