From Southwest to Midwest and beyond, a trellis for true community

Arizona State University alumna and artist Melissa Dunmore in conversation with Laura Zabel, executive director of Springboard Center for the Arts and Senior Policy Fellow with ASU’s Studio for Creativity, Place and Equitable Communities.

Left: Laura Zabel. Photo curtesy of Zabel. Right: Melissa Dunmore. Photo courtesy of Dunmore.

In early September, I had the privilege to interview Laura Zabel about the recent release of her research paper entitled Beyond the Ladder of Participation: A Trellis for Community Power. Our discussion encompassed themes of art, imagination, relational power, and the environment in a post-pandemic landscape. Currently, she serves as executive director for Springboard Center for the Arts and is a frequent speaker on arts and community development.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Melissa: Since we are now in 2022, what are some lessons can we draw from Arnstein’s Ladder of Participation or your Trellis post-pandemic?

Laura: The pandemic really highlighted and brought to the surface the degree to which the systems that we’re all working inside of are broken. And part of what I think is implied in Arnstein’s ladder is the idea that if we can just get more people to participate in our existing systems then that will build more equitable policies or projects. We’re in a moment now where more people have more awareness that continuing to invite people to the same tables that have produced the results that we’re living with is not going to be effective. We are in a moment where we need to collectively think about different kinds of leadership and different kinds of power and agency in communities. At my core I’m deeply practical, and impatient, so I feel like we need to do both. Yes, more people should participate in the systems we have and work to change them. And, we need to find ways to support a community’s self-determination to make their own systems or processes. That requires really ceding power to community versus just trying to invite them to where we already think power lives.

I think that’s one of the biggest lessons and feelings I have coming out of the last three years. We’re also in a moment where people are talking about and really focused on ideas of recovery or rebuilding, which creates an opportunity to make change more quickly. I have found that when we are in crisis, people are more open to new ideas­ — including that artists, and other less conventionally validated leaders, could be a part of a more creative and more justice-centered idea of what we build in recovery. I feel more opportunity for that now than I did three years ago.

Melissa: You describe yourself in your paper as an artist and not an academic, which is an important distinction to make. I can relate to that. What can artists infer from your work specific to this paper?

Laura: My whole driving reason for the work I do is that I believe that artists should be woven deeply into how we think about community change, system change, community development, and public policy. Particularly right now, coming out of multiple crises of the last few years, I feel this collective sense of imagination-exhaustion. People do have the sense that things need to change, but it is really hard for people to imagine things can be different or better. And that’s because of the experiences we’ve had. There is a potential for artists to have a powerful role in showing us what else is possible and helping people tap into their own imagination and creativity. Artists have very practical skills that are useful especially when we’re talking about participation and community engagement: creating mechanisms and projects that are relevant to the people in a community, that are accessible, because they are available in public and are things you can bring people to from many different ages and generations that don’t require everyone to speak the same language. Those kinds of experiential ways of gathering feedback, engaging people or helping people find others in their community interested in the same things and working together toward change are practical skills. Artists are essential and valuable to processes of community change and that’s different from the way a lot of people have thought about the role of artists. That’s the reason I do this work­­­ — the opportunity to try to support artists to do that changemaking work and to see it happen in real life and on the ground. That’s where my mission and purpose in the work comes from.

Melissa: What drew you to this field? Who inspires you and how do you describe your art?

Laura: I am a theater practitioner by training. Actor and performer. What drew me to the work I do at Springboard? Well, I can explain it in a way that makes sense in retrospect, but it would be dishonest of me to say it was planned.

Melissa: A non-linear path, perhaps?

Laura: To some degree, I have always been interested in the intersection of artists and community change, and how artists can be perceived as more valuable in participating in their communities’ biggest opportunities and challenges. When I was in high school, I organized a collective theater activity evening that was a benefit for AIDS research in my small, Kansas hometown. It’s really been through doing the work at Springboard where I’ve been for 17 years now that I think the things that were always in me — the intersection of being an artist and feeling motivated around ideas of community organizing — have been able to come together.

I’ve been able to connect with amazing mentors in the field. People like Dr. (Maria Rosario) Jackson, who I had the opportunity to work with on this piece through ASU, have been incredibly influential in the work to connect artists and community development. What is particularly resonant for me is Dr. Jackson’s work around what artists need to be more sustainable. That for me is the perfect Venn Diagram of what I’m interested in: that artists have these skills and capacities that our communities need, and in order to take advantage and tap into those skills we have to have better support systems for artists. We can’t expect them to do that by “magic”; they need to be able to make a living and put food on the table just like everyone else. People like Maria are north stars in that work.

Melissa: Where you are, is it considered the Midwest?

Laura: People say “upper Midwest” but I think that might come from a sense of Minnesota exceptionalism.

Melissa: It’s so interesting how people identify, right? There’s always been this way of defining different portions of this country. And I think we live in a time where there’s very polarizing language between states and between cities and even in regions. We are in the Southwest, but we’re not Texas, but we’re not California in Arizona. So what are some positive commonalities you see between the Southwest and the Midwest where art and community development are concerned?

Laura: That’s a great question. I come at this work always from a place-based lens. I am interested in big picture systems, and in national work, but I’m most fulfilled by on-the-ground neighborhood work and the ways people, cultures, and creativity are rooted in place. I’m most interested in how we create systems where we allow things to grow locally that are really specific. The specificity of context is something I care about a lot. One of the commonalities between the artist communities in the Southwest and Midwest, or upper Midwest, is that both places have an orientation toward community-based work. Sometimes that’s a function of not being as recognized or validated by some of our existing elite art systems, which I think actually is an asset. For me, it often means artists in those places want to be in those places and have more of a mature experience of thinking about how their work impacts community and the idea of neighboring.

A commonality a lot of people perceive as a difference is the way that weather impacts our experience of place. It’s very different weather, maybe the most different weather, but my experience being in the Southwest and the way the heat limits people’s ability to be outdoors is very much similar to how it feels here in the winter. I think that appreciation of our landscape, whether you’re talking about very cold and snowy places, or desert places, is often perceived as an “acquired taste.”

Melissa: Right? “It’s a dry heat!”

Laura: In Minnesota, the equivalent to “dry heat” that’s this thing people say immediately after, “Ugh, it’s cold and it snows a lot…but we know how to take care of it. It doesn’t slow us down.”

Melissa: There’s an expertise in the adaptation and it’s like a badge of honor in both places.

Laura: Which I think does give people a real commitment to place. And in some ways, it does give people a sense of commitment to each other. We are in a place that requires supporting each other. And my hope is, in both places, this translates to an awareness of the need to tend to the natural environment around us.

Melissa: There’s a sense of stewardship that’s very strong here with saguaros and mountains. I don’t know what the equivalent of a saguaro is where you are…

Laura: In Minnesota, it is about tending to clean water, rivers, and the way that even in an urban place the natural landscape is a part of our lived experience.

Melissa: Water is hugely important right now.

Laura: I guess that’s probably a difference and a similarity but it shows up in similar cultural ways.

Illustration by Dustin Lopez,

Melissa: So in Phoenix, especially now, we see a lot of rapid construction and people getting priced out of neighborhoods they’ve historically been able to live in. We see a lot of gentrification and there’s a feeling of helplessness, I think. So how can we hold developers accountable for their community impact? Because I think a lot of people don’t even know where to begin. We feel like it’s happening to us and we don’t have a say. We see a lot of historic preservation not happening and not a lot of community impact statements going on or people being invited to meetings. We get notified when a zone is changing, not asked if we want a zone to change. So how can we hold developers accountable using your model?

Laura: It’s such an important question and one I think almost all communities are facing. Certainly in Phoenix and the southwest there’s this rapid developer-led displacement and growth. And we’re to a point now, especially given some of the impact of the pandemic and remote work on rural places, where there’s no community that’s immune to that fear, potential pressure, and change that doesn’t serve the people who have contributed to making that place what it is.

I think often when we’re talking about community engagement and participation, especially as it relates to this piece I wrote, we usually are inviting folks into the process way too late. Once a developer is building a building, then that’s always going to be a building! So the opportunity for disruption or change in that trajectory is upstream or farther back in the process to where we can build a process where people have real power and agency to decide what happens in their neighborhood. That requires different processes and ways of inviting people into community planning and then different mechanisms for implementation. We need more investment in things like land trusts, cooperative development, tools that do allow investment and resources to come into a community but in a way that serves the people who are already there and isn’t designed just to extract wealth. That’s where rapid displacement happens, when we invite investment in a way that is primarily driven by extracting as much wealth from that community as possible for the benefit of someone outside the community. We’re not going to change that cycle if we start with developers, it has to start before that’s even on the table, and I admit that’s really hard for especially public sector folks to do.

For example, because cities and communities are facing big challenges around housing, there is definitely a sense that any housing is good housing and that building that housing as fast as possible is our goal. I absolutely believe we need more housing. But I think that we need to be able to do multiple things at the same time. Cities need to work on how they actually build systems for communities to have power in this decision-making process and to understand different models that would actually benefit the people who are there already.

Melissa: Right, building up and laterally so that we’re bringing everybody up together. It’s not just, “Look at this big building that no one can afford to live in,” like we see in luxury condo after luxury condo. Like, behind my house they’re building a luxury development and I don’t know who’s going to live there when we have an affordable housing crisis.

Laura: I don’t have the depth of understanding to understand why there is seemingly a limitless demand for fancy condos.

Melissa: Supply and demand, it’s backwards it seems.

Laura: Right, yes.

Melissa: What are you working on next? Where do you see your research evolving?

Laura: A project we’re working on at Springboard that’s really close to my heart is the national movement around guaranteed minimum income, and we started an artist-focused pilot in our neighborhood. One of our questions about guaranteed income especially as it relates to artists and culture bearers is, “Can [guaranteed income] be a way to create stability around their ability to stay in that place?” We’ve been doing a pilot of direct guaranteed income for a group of artists in our neighborhood in St. Paul. We’ve also engaged artists in narrative change-work around guaranteed income, economic justice, community well-being and community wealth-building. For me, this hits that intersection of how artists can contribute to large system and policy change and how they also benefit from those changes. So that is really exciting, and we’ve been working with a researcher on a whole set of questions around the impact of this work. I’m really looking forward to continuing to dig into that work and hopefully expand it to figure out how we share the learning in a way that contributes to this larger movement around economic justice and systems of support for individual artists. That’s the work that’s getting me up in the morning right now.

Melissa: Last couple questions. You begin your paper talking about 50 years ago with Arnstein’s model. How do you hope people expand upon your research 50 years from today?

Laura: I could only dream that something I wrote would have as much impact as that Ladder has had. It is a tool that gets taught all the time and prompts a lot of conversation and reflection for folks. What I actually hope people take from the paper is that we can, and should, question the models that have been around for a long time. And that you can do that even if you’re not from that discipline. I hope that in the future someone will want to re-re-examine it. Probably sooner than 50 years. Outside of the content of the paper, part of the process that was really important for me was that I wanted to challenge myself to, yes, challenge and, yes, push against, but also not discard something that has come before. We’re in such a moment right now where everything is a push back to something else, and it seems like this endless cycle of pointing out why someone else is wrong. I wanted to be able to use and build on Arnstein’s work and to create my own offering to the field.

Melissa: We don’t have to slash and burn, to keep the garden tilling metaphors going.

Laura: Exactly.

Melissa: Lastly, is there anything else you’d like to share with readers?

Laura: The opportunity to do this deeper writing and thinking and writing that ASU offered me has been really valuable. The piece is a result of that. As practitioners who are doing work in community or running organizations, we don’t often have the time, prompt or nudge to really dig into some deeper processing. I really appreciate the invitation to propose frameworks from a practitioner perspective back to systems of academia.

Thank you to Senior Policy Fellow Laura Zabel for her germane scholarship and discussion. Special thanks also to Dustin Lopez, community practitioner and muralist, for the artwork that accompanies this paper, which adds an organic element to the overall piece.