Maria Rosario Jackson

Holistic urban planner, member of the National Council on the Arts
Maria Rosario Jackson head shot

Maria Rosario Jackson Podcast Transcript
Music Credits:
 "Some Are More Equal," an improvisation performed by Paul Rucker and Hans Teuber from the cd, Oil.
“Twararutashye” (Coming Home) written and performed by Jean Paul Samputu
From the cd, Testimony From Rwanda
 Maria Rosario Jackson: When I talk about creative place-making, I think in some ways I go back to the idea of place-making as it’s been traditionally understood in urban planning and urban design fields, people being active and taking responsibility for creating the environment that they live in.  Creative place-making, in addition to that is the notion that art, culture, creativity, is at the heart of the process.
Jo Reed: That is Doctor Maria Rosario Jackson, a renowned researcher in comprehensive community revitalization and a member of the National Council on the arts and this is Art Works, the weekly podcast produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. I'm Josephine Reed.
The NEA has long championed the arts and artists as vital components in improving conditions in economically-distressed communities.  
In 2011, President Obama initiated Strong Cities, Strong Communities or SC2 a holistic approach to revitalizing economically challenged communities.  Although it is housed in HUD, the National Endowment for the Arts has been involved in the SC2 initiative since its inception.
This is the first in a series of programs that explores the arts and community development.  We'll examine the role of arts institutions as anchors in neighborhoods, art as an approach to combat truancy. We'll look at how the arts revitalized specific cities and speak with artists who work actively in their communities.  
We’re beginning with Dr. Maria Rosario Jackson and her thoughts about and experiences with community revitalization that has at its heart, the arts. 
Here’s some background on Dr. Jackson. She’s a senior advisor to the arts and culture program at the Kresge Foundation.  She sits on the boards of several leading arts organizations and she was a director at the Urban Institute for many years where she led research on the arts and neighborhood vitality. She teaches Urban Planning at UCLA and Cultural Policy at Claremont Graduate University.  I wanted Dr. Jackson to begin at the beginning: why would an urban planner who worked with economically challenged communities focus on the arts?  Why did she see the arts as vital for these neighborhoods, given all their other issues?
 Maria Rosario Jackson:  For most of my career that’s been one of the questions that people ask.  If you’re concerned with underserved communities, why are you doing this arts and culture stuff?  I’ve said this now for a number of years, but early in my career it was hard for me to articulate why, but at a gut level I knew that it was really important.  So often, particularly people trained in social sciences, will look primarily, and sometimes at its worst, exclusively, at quantitative data about socio-economic status to get a sense of what’s going on in that neighborhood or what’s going on in that community.  And I think that that’s only part of the picture, that in order to really understand the community, its history, its aspirations, where it is in this moment, you also have to look at the culture expression as another layer or as a way of deepening your understanding of what’s going on there now, what’s happened in the past.  So for me it’s always been yet another dimension of how you begin to understand a group, but in terms of why, I say this in a lot of talks now, that if you look around the world and throughout the ages at strategies that have been intended to conquer, oppress, diminish, the first thing that is taken away is the authentic ability to make meaning and express, to create, to tell your own story, which is what arts and culture does.  So if it’s so important that in efforts to disempower, it is such an important thing to do to take it away, then why in efforts to lift up, improve, advance, why isn’t it an integral part of how we think of doing that?  
Jo Reed: Why do you think it’s not at the core?  
Maria Rosario Jackson: I think people think it is extra. It’s superfluous, it’s optional.  I think as a society for lots of reasons, we’ve come to think of it as expendable.
Jo Reed: And now as we begin to move forward and there’s more of a conversation about creative place-making, what steps do you think, do we need to take, to really ensure that people who are committed to this are at the table when things are being planned?  They’re not called in at the last minute to talk about the paint job on the wall?
Maria Rosario Jackson: I think we have to think of our creative and aesthetic lives as, as important as other dimensions of our lives.  So let me back up. If part of the problem is that people think of the arts as not essential, then figuring out how to reassert the role of the arts as fundamental to our human well-being is part of the work and I think there’re several things that get in the way of that and one is that we tend to think about arts in a silo.  So, it happens independently of everything else.  And when we think about it only in that way it’s easy to just lop off.  If you think about it as integrated into how we live meaningful lives, then you can’t lop it off.  But so long as it’s understood as something separate, something that happens over there, something that’s not for me, I don’t have anything to do with that, I’m not creative, all of those things get in the way of feeling like it’s relevant or like it matters and it’s not making it up.  It’s about lifting up what hasn’t been understood as within the realm of arts and culture.
Jo Reed: Can you give me an example of what you mean?
Maria Rosario Jackson: So for example, when you think about heritage-based arts, right?  These are traditions, things that people do, whether it is holiday traditions or whether it is new forms of asserting belonging in a community through song, through music, through dance, through storytelling, through adornment, all of these things or all of these activities have a lot to do with the notion of belonging.  Especially when it’s done collectively.  So when you think of that kind of activity as within the realm of arts and culture, then all of a sudden it’s not so foreign, it’s not the thing that happens in a building downtown once a year or the thing that you can easily get away from, because it’s just part of your community life and that isn’t to say that the thing that happens downtown once a year isn’t important.  It is.  It’s, in my mind’s eye, under that same umbrella.
Jo Reed: Right.  It’s a big umbrella.
Maria Rosario Jackson: It’s a big umbrella
Jo Reed: Yeah. Folk often isn’t recognized as art, even by the people who are actually creating it. I think partly it’s because it’s part of the everyday.
Maria Rosario Jackson: And I think the work that is encompassed in folk art is critically important.  The term in how it’s been treated is challenging for me.  Right?  So because sometimes, there’s a notion that folk art is somehow less excellent or less valid within the art world, and when the label begins to drive that interpretation it’s problematic.  That said, I think that some of the work that comes under the label of folk is some of the most meaningful work, in part, because it is part of the everyday lived experience and it is so, in some instances, accessible and meaningful.
Jo Reed: And in some ways it’s what you know without knowing.
Maria Rosario Jackson: That’s right.  You don’t know.  The difficult thing with that kind of artistic experience is that you don’t value it until it’s gone.  So that when I was working at a think tank, and I was doing a lot of ethnographic work trying to understand, “How do people experience arts and culture in many different kinds of neighborhoods, but how do they value it also?” A lot of the focus group discussions that I did had to do with people identifying cultural assets in their own communities and sometimes it was hard to get the conversation started, because you would ask, “Well, you know, what’s here?” and they wouldn’t be able to say much.  But if you asked, “What do you miss when you leave?” then the conversation got really rich.
Jo Reed: The door opens.
Maria Rosario Jackson: Yeah and the things that are sensory and meaningful would come up.  I think with cultural heritage, a lot of it isn’t fully valued until it’s at risk or gone.
Jo Reed: Well, that speaks to the multiple relationships that people have with art and have with culture and as you say, it’s trying to open doors so that there’s an appreciation of what is in the community.
Maria Rosario Jackson:.  And I think that’s one of the premises of good, creative place-making, right?  Is that it does honor the authenticity of place and it in some ways presumes that there is something there already and something there that is potentially valuable.  I think place-making at its best doesn’t start with a tabula rasa approach.
Jo Reed: You’ve also been I think very articulate about talking about the economic impact that the arts have on community, that it’s certainly a very positive thing, but it’s a mistake just to limit the argument about the arts in creative place-making to an economic one.
Maria Rosario Jackson:.  I think that that’s right.  Economic impact is certainly important.  To only look at the economic impact of the arts, I think, though, is problematic because it gives short shrift to the many other ways that arts and culture contribute to communities and even if you wanted to put an economic frame on it ultimately I think some of the things that are possible, particularly through arts engagement, that isn’t only about arts consumption or participation as audience, but also includes other ways of engaging.  I think some of the contributions related to collective art making, to public art making, in fact, contribute to a sense of belonging, to a sense of stewardship of place, to shifting often in very positive ways both the experience of the built environment, the built environment itself, and the activity that happens in a community and these are often preconditions for other kinds of development and we don’t think about it that way, but I think it would be a much more appropriate and nuanced way to begin to think about why the arts matter in society.  Yes.  It can be about economic development, but it is also about all of these other things that on their own have merit and may contribute to economic development, if economic development is in fact your ultimate goal.  I question that economic development should be the sole goal or the ultimate goal.  I’d like to think that being able to realize the full potential of an individual or a community is an ultimate goal and maybe economic development is part of what makes that possible.
Jo Reed: And I also think the way that the arts encourage empathy, almost demand empathy.
Maria Rosario Jackson: Yeah.
Jo Reed: If you’re going to be involved with the arts.  So it’s a way of both realizing one’s self, but then moving out of one’s self.
Maria Rosario Jackson: That’s right.  I think that’s true.
Jo Reed: What have you seen in terms of the role of artists as leaders in these strategies around community revitalization?
Maria Rosario Jackson: I think that artists have the potential and have actually played very important roles in community revitalization and not only in the ways that people most commonly think.  I think often you think of artists as creating a big public artwork or a publicly accessible artwork and that that is the contribution.  I think some of the more interesting contributions in addition to that is when you think of artists helping people take responsibility for their own creative lives, and helping to ignite a more generative and creative kind of civic engagement with regular folks who may not see themselves as artists.  I think that’s a role.  I think that the role of an artist in a planning process, not at the end of a project, to decorate something or to perform and attract people to it, which is often the way that it’s, you know, the role of artists is conceived.  But to think of artists as critical thinkers who have a different point of view to bear on an issue from the very beginning.  So relying on artists to help frame an issue.  To help frame solutions, I think isn’t something that there is evidence of, but we don’t see enough of it on an everyday basis.  So one of the challenges I think in moving forward with this work is getting people to understand the range of ways in which artists can contribute to the creation of a community or the advancement of a community.  Right now, too often, it’s a very limited palate.  It’s a very limited set of options that people can imagine in terms of what the role of an artist might be.  So part of, I think part of the work of the NEA and other leaders in the art field is to change that.
Jo Reed: Well, you’ve written and talked about the idea of cultural kitchens. Tell me what you mean by that
Maria Rosario Jackson: So this idea of cultural kitchens, it came out of a book chapter that I did for a book that was on race and ethnicity in the 21st Century and it was the only chapter on arts and culture.  Everything else was about, demographic shifts and housing, and appropriately other things that are very important, but as I was thinking about the role of arts and culture in today’s urban contexts, and as we look to the future, it occurred to me that in, I think all over the world, but in American cities especially, there’s often the touting of diversity as a strength.  And when that happens, what gets lifted up typically is, you know, some event or someplace where the different groups in a community have come to reveal what they have to offer.  A communal table, if you want to call it that and I think that one of the manifestations of diversity that is most desired is participation at this communal table with some authentic culture to share.  It occurs to me that if a community doesn’t have a place to prepare what it is that they want to share or a cultural kitchen that they can’t really participate in an authentic way at the communal table.  You either have to go buy culture-- if you want to take the metaphor further, right?  You either, if you want to participate in that kind of potluck--
Jo Reed: Yeah.  Could I have a culture to go, please? <laughs>
Maria Rosario Jackson: Yeah.  You either have to go buy something or you have to borrow something from somebody else.
Jo Reed: <laughs>
Maria Rosario Jackson: But in order to meaningfully contribute something that is authentic and worthy of sharing, you have to have a place to prepare it.  So that was the kernel of this idea of cultural kitchens and as an urban planner and as I think about what are the essential amenities of a healthy community, I think cultural kitchens is one of them.  Where are these places that people can come together to be generative and to have reflection, discussion and debate about who they are and how they fit into the broader context?  So whether those cultural kitchens are for groups that form their identity around place or around race, ethnicity, or around age group or whatever it is, whatever the organizing principle is, the ability to come together and be generative and deliberative.  And have critical discourse and make something.  I think that’s in a central part of a healthy place.
Jo Reed: Where were you born and raised?
Maria Rosario Jackson: Los Angeles.
Jo Reed: L.A.
Maria Rosario Jackson: Yeah.
Jo Reed: And what brought you into urban planning?
Maria Rosario Jackson: You know, urban planning isn’t, like, unless you grew up with a parent who’s an urban planner, it’s not one of those things that you aspire to do.
Jo Reed: Well, this is why I’m asking. <laughs>
Maria Rosario Jackson: So when I was in college I was a journalism major, and as I was finishing undergrad I realized that I didn’t want to do that, but I was very interested in neighborhoods and communities and urban inequality and I thought, “How can I impact-- I don’t just want to write about that.  How can I impact that in a different way?”  and I went and I got a master’s degree in public administration because I thought that through public service and through work in governmental entities that I could make a difference and when I was in those master’s classes I was very young and a lot of my peers in class and classmates were probably close to the age I am now and seeking to advance in their careers in the public sector and <laughs> I would listen to how they framed ideas about how a city worked and how neighborhoods worked and I was horrified, maybe horrified too strong, but it startled me because the way in which issues in urban areas were framed were very different from how I understood them and not that I grew up in a very low income neighborhood, because I didn’t.
Jo Reed: Were you in L.A. proper?
Maria Rosario Jackson: I was in L.A. proper, yeah and I grew up in a primarily African-American working-class neighborhood not far sometimes from places that were being discussed in class and they didn’t operate the way I was understanding them, as they were discussed in class, and I knew that and I got fascinated with the whole idea of, “How is it that people frame issues to act on them?”  And that became what I was pursuing.  “How do I impact that?”  Because I thought, “If you don’t frame it right, you can come up with some really bad ideas and some really bad policies <laughs> and programs.”  So I got very fascinated with this whole idea of, “How do you frame public policy issues?”  And the place where I could pursue that at the time was an urban planning program.  So that’s how I ended up in urban planning.
Jo Reed: Well there’s been such a big shift in urban planning from the days of Robert Moses when dictums from above would reorganize blocks and blocks of a city and whole neighborhoods would be destroyed.
Maria Rosario Jackson: That’s right.
Jo Reed: Now there is some sense that that might not have been the best way to proceed.
Jo Reed: It strikes me as a really interesting time to be in urban planning.
Maria Rosario Jackson: I think so.  I mean, I think urban planning is a fascinating field.  It’s one of those fields where one is trained to and you have to think synergistically, because you’re thinking about place and people in place.  So that becomes the frame.  It’s less about housing exclusively or environment exclusively.  It is about place and the people in place, who are impacted by all of these or who can affect all of these issues.
Jo Reed: So cross sector or interdisciplinary thinking is just intrinsic to urban planning.
Maria Rosario Jackson: It is intrinsic to urban planning.  That convergence is something that you can’t get away from. You don’t want to get away from it.  You want to embrace it.  So I think a lot of planners find themselves at the intersections, in the cracks, or at the edges.
Jo Reed: Of many different fields.
Maria Rosario Jackson: Yeah.
Jo Reed: And that means you, I would imagine, have the ability to do some translations.
Maria Rosario Jackson: At their best, yes.
Maria Rosario Jackson: At their best, yes.  So yeah.  There’s definitely the inclination to, well, the need, to translate.
Jo Reed: Because when we talk about silos, one thing that I certainly always think about is each discipline, each field, has its own language, which--
Maria Rosario Jackson: Sure.
Jo Reed: --quickly can become jargon.
Maria Rosario Jackson: Sure.
Jo Reed: And it ends up being such an insular conversation.
Maria Rosario Jackson: That’s right.  That’s right.  I think you’re right about that.  One of the things that I’m really interested in right now is this idea of bridge concepts.  So when you think about silos or policy areas, what are the core ideas that somehow have resonance in other policy areas?  The notion of resilience is one.  So there’s interest in resilience in the health field.  There’s interest in resilience in environment.  There’s interest in resilience in community development, but they all mean something a little bit different, but there’s enough there to begin to knit something and I think within the arts field there’s discussion of resilience as well, often with regard to heritage-based art forms, right.  Where resilient communities continue to have them. The other place where it comes up in the art world is resilience in terms of arts organizations and whether they can weather economic turns and changes, right, in context or funding availability.  So resilience comes up there, but that is a concept that has traction in many different fields and I’m very interested in figuring out if you have all these fields that are interested in resilience, where do they overlap?
Jo Reed: You’ve also done work about individual artists who embrace creative place-making in their work.
Maria Rosario Jackson: Yeah.  I think that there are many different ways of pursuing a career as an artist, and this work that right now is getting discussed as creative place-making, I don’t think it’s for every artist because I think some artists are satisfied or seek out different ways of pursuing their career that doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with cross-silo work or attempting to work in the health sector or the community development sector, and there’s value to that kind of work as well.  The artists that I’ve been following and am particularly interested in, however, are those that see as part of their creative mission this ability to weave in and out of these different sectors.  So being able to work in a community development context and exercise creativity and the expression of aesthetics through a community development process is something that’s really compelling and interesting and necessary, I think and the training of artists to be able to do that isn’t always easy to come by.  There’s a lot of baptism by fire. <laughs>
Jo Reed: You teach and you teach cultural policy. What do you want to impart to your students?
Maria Rosario Jackson: The way I teach cultural policy is in some ways, it’s almost looking backward at a particular manifestation of arts and culture that someone may care about and then figuring out what ideas, resources, decisions, had to be accessed in order for this to come to fruition.  So if you think of, I don’t know, artists’ live/work space, right?  And you think, “Well, what are the cultural policies?” the quote, unquote “cultural policies” that had to be in place in order for this to come to fruition?  You’ll find that it’s actually a broad swath <laughs> or an important diversity of players that had to be in concert or sign off on this idea in order for it to happen.  So the policy doesn’t just exist in the cultural world, but there’s an economic development frame, there’s a housing frame, there’s all of these other entities that are implicated.
Jo Reed: Including the artists themselves, who move into lofts and warehouses without asking permission first.
Maria Rosario Jackson: That’s right.
Jo Reed: And then officials are confronted by that fact and sometimes policy changes.
Maria Rosario Jackson: That’s right.  So if you teach cultural policy that way, it’s not just about what are the five biggest issues in the arts world?  It’s not about just that. It is about what is this range of resources and decisions that have to bear on our cultural lives?
Jo Reed: You’re a member of the National Council on the Arts so what role do you see the NEA playing in this as we move into the future?  
Maria Rosario Jackson: I think the NEA has a tremendously important leadership role to play in this arena.  And I think that over the last few years the agency has made incredible strides in stepping beyond its comfort zone in creating relationships with other federal agencies and encouraging people to look at the arts through various appropriate prisms, that get at the many layers of value that we need to have more public discussion about.  So I think the NEA has a tremendously important role to play.
Jo Reed: That was national expert on community revitalization and member of the National Council on the Arts, Doctor Maria Rosario Jackson.
This is first in a series of programs that will look at role of the arts in reviving economically challenged communities.
You've been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts.  
To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAarts on Twitter. 
For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening. 


Maria Rosario Jackson talks about urban planning with art at its heart.