Social Empowerment Through Arts, Culture and Mobility

By Elka Gotfryd

Teeko Yang

One decade ago, construction began on the Green Line of St. Paul’s light rail transit system. The train runs along the main corridor of Frogtown, or Little Mekong, through the heart of its business district. Through the lens of urban planning, the marriage of commerce and light rail is a strong one; better public transit feeds commercial activity and enhances mobility for all. In many cases, locals greatly appreciate this approach. In Little Mekong, however, residents and business owners had mixed feelings about the new infrastructure: while some felt they benefitted from the new LRT, others strongly resisted it, feeling threatened by change.

The highly diverse St. Paul neighborhood is the city’s historic gateway for immigrants and refugees, and its population is largely low-income. The businesses in the area reflect its local demographic, as do its public spaces and infrastructure. Aside from the new Green Line, completed in 2009, little investment has been made in the public realm; the neighborhood lacks green space, and pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure is scarce at best.

In response to the proposed development, business owners and community activists established the Asian Economic Development Association (AEDA), recognizing the dire need for representation of Little Mekong’s businesses and residents. While the primary reason for its establishment was in response to the Green Line, the AEDA has since expanded to provide financial guidance, to empower women in business, and to advise small Asian businesses in the district. Two years ago, the AEDA formed its most recent taskforce, a four-person Creative Placemaking team of four determined individuals, including the young and inspiring Teeko Yang.

Project Associate on AEDA’s Creative Placemaking team and graduate student of Arts and Cultural Leadership at the University of Minnesota, Teeko is passionate about leveraging arts and culture to empower individuals and communities. The goal of the AEDA Creative Placemaking team is to build cohesion, to empower low-income residents, and to highlight entrepreneurs and artists of color in the Little Mekong business district. Teeko’s role is to coordinate a number of committees and manage local artists, always encouraging communication and dialogue between artists, businesses, and residents. She knows that sensitivity toward a local community entails that each and every placemaking initiative should involve its members throughout the process, express existing local culture, and address the community’s needs.

The Little Mekong Night Market, organized by the AEDA Creative Placemaking team, attracted 15,000 patrons in 2015 and close to 18,000 in 2016 to enjoy what the neighborhood has to offer. (Source: AEDA)

In her work, Teeko has found her biggest challenge to be encouraging community members to be open to change, and to envision life beyond the basics. The communities in the Little Mekong Business District are primarily Southeast Asian, many of which share a long history of trauma and displacement. Many Vietnamese, Hmong, Burmese, Somalian, and Thai communities, for example, fled their home countries during times of war and hardship and landed in Minnesota, where a strong welfare program assisted their acclimation. “They don’t think about innovation,” says Teeko. “They think about survival.” But Teeko is determined to help these communities see that they can move beyond survival and begin to thrive.

“It’s going to take time, maybe even generations” for the survival mentality to change, Teeko recognizes, and the first step is to “encourage a sense of place where people can have an active role in building and shaping their own lives.” There is a lot of tension among different groups fighting for their right to public space, but Teeko is confident that when communities and organizations work in cooperation and collaboration, public spaces and places can and will be shared, and neighbors will learn to better support one another.

Although her core efforts are in support of Creative Placemaking initiatives, Teeko’s focus is not limited to arts and culture. In fact, one of her biggest concerns for Little Mekong’s residents is health and well-being. “People don’t go outside or walk,” she says, and she knows that with the right approach and with proper investment, it is possible to create opportunities for residents to engage in more active lifestyles. Teeko is eager to introduce walking, biking, and overall mobility to Little Mekong.

At Pro/Walk, Pro/Bike, Pro/Place in Vancouver this September, Teeko wants to learn how to recruit policy makers, local authorities, and funders to create and invest in healthy places that promote biking, walking, mobility and activity. She will also keep her eyes and ears open about how to align “community, arts and culture, and policy” — what she sees as three parts of a whole. In other words, “We know how communities build communities, but how can cities build communities?” Like many other Creative Placemaking organizations, Teeko feels the AEDA needs to develop a metrics-based research approach in order to build a convincing case to inform decision makers.

For more inspiration and information about movers and shakers like Teeko, meet us Vancouver this September 12–15th for PWPBPP 2016!