Rebecca Cordes Chan | Local Initiatives Support Corporation

Connecting culture, people and place

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.

Rebecca Cordes Chan – Local Initiatives Support Corporation (Photo by Matthew Rakola)

“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.

Expanding Scope

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.

Fusing arts and culture with community development, Creative Placemaking shines through in Little Mekong Night Market in St. Paul, Minnesota (top and bottom left), a community feast in Philadelphia (center below) and public art in Minneapolis (bottom). (Photos courtesy of Local Initiatives Support Corporation/Annie O’Neill)

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.”

Digging Deeper

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.”

Rebecca Cordes Chan

An Interview with Rebecca Cordes Chan

How do you like to show up as a leader?

I like to toe this line of bringing a sense of ingenuity but also practicality to the work, which I think is especially important for community development. Community development is, to be quite honest, a field that is in response to decades, if not centuries, of disinvestment in a lot of communities. As a result, I think it takes a certain amount of creativity to undo what is essentially years and years and years of challenges that communities are facing.

On one hand, we need to play by the rules, because there are systems in place -- the tools in our community development toolbox of tax incentives and financing and how you develop a community. But we also need to be creative in the way that we align all these different tools and resources to make change.

How does your organization think about leading it its field?

Being an intermediary is one of the least sexy but more critical pieces in the community development ecosystem. We can pull all the different partners together. We can align the people in terms of their missions and their core values. But I think more concretely, LISC outlives political cycles. While a mayor may have a four-year term, LISC is in it for the long run. So we can bring resources and expertise on a continuing basis to communities that might otherwise be pulled in one direction or another people of political or leadership changes.

What advice do you have for up and coming leaders?

My advice would be to design your alliances very carefully. Think about who you are bringing onto your team. In cases where you don’t really get to choose those people, really dig in and listen to what is motivating them, what drives them, what their core values are and find where you have alignment. It’s important to surround yourself with people who have goals and energy and vision that are similar to your own, so you can feed off of that environment and lift each other up.

Kresge's Take

Improving Lives in Marginalized Communities

“Creative Placemaking” — as a term and field of practice — is less than a decade old.

Arts and cultural activities add vibrancy to communities. (Photo courtesy of Local Initiatives Support Corporation/Annie O’Neill)

This notion of public, private, nonprofit and community partners working together to animate the unique attributes of a neighborhood with arts and cultural activities dates to the 2010 launch of ArtPlace America. Its mission is to position arts and culture as a core sector of community planning and development nationwide. Creative Placemaking is also central to Kresge’s mission.

“For historically marginalized people in disinvested communities, arts and cultural activities offer pathways to creative solutions that can lead to a sense of agency and rebuild social cohesion,” says Regina Smith, managing director of Kresge’s Arts & Culture Program.

The work of Creative Placemaking is unfolding in thousands of neighborhoods across the country. To support that hyperlocal work at a national scale, Kresge funds community development intermediaries — including ArtPlace America, The Reinvestment Fund and LISC — that in turn redistribute through grants and loans to local groups.

Springboard for the Arts is among those funded by ArtPlace. (Photo courtesy of Springboard for the Arts)

Kresge funding boosts the intermediaries’ ability to support a range of activities as well as their leaders. At the same time, Kresge’s support enables leaders to cultivate a racial equity focus to their work. That is essential in marginalized communities that have been scarred by redlining, segregation and disinvestment — and still struggle with systemic racism.

In 2018, Kresge-sponsored research found that the field of Creative Placemaking is gaining momentum and still growing.

“It is not considered a strong field yet,” Smith says, “but the Creative Placemaking field’s strength will come from individuals like Rebecca who are committed to doing the work through the lens of equity and opportunity.”

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