What We Learned: The Belonging Community Art Project

In the spring of 2017, The Sprout Fund mobilized citizens in Pittsburgh and Allegheny County to positively affirm that we all “belong.” Nearly 250 submissions were received as a result of the call for art, including more than 100 submissions from youth under the age of 18.

We believe the Belonging Community Art Project was successful because it was deeply informed by the communities it endeavored to serve. If you want to develop your own program like Belonging, here are some key steps that we recommend.

Community-Informed Program Design

Take the time to listen, in person, to the people you hope to serve.

In the two months prior to launching the program, Sprout staff members hosted in-person meetings and lengthy phone conversations with representatives from all fourteen community partners. These conversations took place at Sprout’s office in Garfield and in the partner organizations’ own spaces, and these meetings critically informed the project activities and messaging.

For example, some organizations indicated that recent law enforcement activities had led some community members to feel uncomfortable being photographed or having their names or neighborhoods posted online; as a result, we adjusted our application and our documentation activities to be sensitive to those concerns. One immigrant community was enthusiastic about participating in an art-making activity but were less familiar with what kinds of materials (like markers and acrylic paint) might be expected to be used in such an activity; as a result, Sprout staff helped the community shop for materials and helped coordinate their submission to the competition. We even chose the program’s name based on partner guidance, as community partners favored a term that conveyed inclusion over other similar words that suggested problematic power dynamics or exclusivity.

Perhaps most importantly, meeting with partners allowed us to determine the most appropriate kick-off date for distributing the yard signs and posters: the World Refugee Day Celebration in Market Square on June 21. Because we were collaborating with the organizations who coordinated that event, Sprout was able to secure a table to distribute materials at the event, allowing us to authentically and effectively reach the audiences we intended to serve with this project. By developing authentic relationships with community partners, we were able to find relevant, high-impact opportunities to reach our intended audience and to impact the communities we endeavored to serve.

Engaging Expert Support

Staff your project with subject matter experts.

The Sprout Fund engaged consultants for the project who could bring special expertise to developing the program’s outreach strategy. The Sprout Fund ran a successful public art program in Pittsburgh from 2003 to 2010, and we engaged that program’s longtime manager to lead artist outreach and the development of our call for art. We also engaged a local consultant who specializes in event planning and community organizing to spearhead our public outreach efforts. These expert team members built Sprout’s capacity during the program and were vital in our efforts to enlist the best program participation possible.

These activities were documented through photography and video produced as a result of this grant. A final video documenting the project is available on the project website. This video includes footage from community engagement events and remarks by Mayor William Peduto and representatives from partner organizations. Additionally, the video is narrated by representatives from key community partners.

Community Engagement & Outreach

Many submissions were produced as a result of community art-making events that were hosted by partner organizations and sponsored by a grant from The Heinz Endowments. All of these events were modest in ambition, seeking to engage small groups of community members in art-making activities intended to produce submission to the project. Additionally, we hosted an artist happy hour in a well-known gallery space and spoke at assemblies in local schools.

The Belonging partner organizations also served as key distribution hubs for materials, handing out more than 1,000 yard signs and posters to their community members. Additionally, materials were distributed by key regional partners: staffers from the Office of the Mayor distributed 120 yard signs and 2,000 posters in locations across the city, including Citiparks locations, police stations, and the City-County Building. Posters and yard signs were also distributed at all 19 branches of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh.

Community-Informed Decisionmaking

Design multiple opportunities for relevant community input.

The winners of the competition were selected by two juries and an online public voting process. The artist jury represented local art professionals, including local artists and representatives from key arts organizations and local government. The youth jury consisted of 13 students who hailed from 9 different countries and 5 high schools from Pittsburgh Public Schools. Many of these students are participants in Global Minds, a nonprofit founded by an Allderdice sophomore that promotes unity and dialogue among youth in Pittsburgh with a focus on peer mentoring and outreach to English Language Learners.

A total of 69 finalist designs appeared on two public voting sites, one for submissions from adults and one for submissions from youth under the age of 18. More than 14,000 votes were cast, and ten designs were selected from this process for the “community voices” poster, including the top five adult designs and the top five youth designs. The public voting process was intentionally designed to be just one of many factors that contributed to the decisionmaking process. If you choose to use a public voting process, consider how the tool that you use will enable participation and how it will contribute to your program’s goals. Keep in mind that any public voting process is a popularity contest and runs the risk of uneven participation: Some voters may try to game the system, and some people may have more access to mobilizing online participation than others.

After 17 successful years of seeding change in Pittsburgh, The Sprout Fund sunset its work in June 2018. To learn more about The Sprout Fund’s work and its legacy, please visit our website at https://sproutfund.org.

Communities are better places to live, learn, and thrive because of the people and ideas supported by The Sprout Fund in Pittsburgh. www.sproutfund.org

Communities are better places to live, learn, and thrive because of the people and ideas supported by The Sprout Fund in Pittsburgh. www.sproutfund.org