Above and beyond isn’t enough to describe these grantees. Each month, we’ll be featuring a new interview with an organization from our NEA Big Read community. This month, the International Festival of Arts & Ideas shares stories from their NEA Big Read community in New Haven, Connecticut: from artists to students, community centers to libraries, a university to a mayoral office.
Tell us a little bit about your organization!
The International Festival of Arts & Ideas was founded by three community leaders with a vision of presenting world-class art in the city of New Haven, bringing people together across racial, economic, and generational divides. The highlight is our annual Festival, which has taken place for more than two weeks every June for almost 25 years. The Festival animates the theaters, green spaces, and streets of New Haven with music, plays, circus, dance, and more.
The New Haven Free Public Library’s Readmobile, which featured “Citizen: An American Lyric” and companion titles, during the Hillfest neighborhood celebration. Photo by Kaylah Gore, courtesy of the International Festival of Arts & Ideas.
Who is your community and how do you connect with them?
The New Haven community is amazing in its diversity. We are the home of Yale University, so there are always many academics, creatives, and young students around. At the same time, we are an old city with a rich history of immigration that persists to this day. Through our many partnerships and the broad scope of the Festival we aim to connect with every member of our community – to teach each person something and to learn from each person.
The NEA Big Read New Haven planning team with Claudia Rankine. Photo by Judy Sirota Rosenthal, courtesy of the International Festival of Arts & Ideas.
What makes/made your Big Read unique?
We really pride ourselves on convening a wide variety of partners in the planning process each year, including organizations both large and small and from across the spectrum of community engagement organizations. This leads in kind to an incredibly diverse range of programming which allows us to deeply engage every member of our community.
We are fortunate to have allies at Gateway Community College and New Haven Public Schools who work to integrate the NEA Big Read into their curriculae, reaching thousands of young people and their families. The New Haven Free Public Library (NHFPL) and The Institute Library created some great programming aimed at people who are out of the classroom, as did FitScript and the Jewish Community Center of Greater New Haven.
The other thing that I think makes our NEA Big Read really special is our commitment to selecting books that challenge us thematically and spark meaningful dialogue. This drives us, our partners, and our community to examine ourselves for a meaningful experience that New Haven has embraced with open arms.
The NEA Big Read banner hung at the New Haven Free Public Library to announce the 2018 NEA Big Read. Photo courtesy of the International Festival of Arts & Ideas.
Why did you select this particular book and how have you seen your community engage with your selection?
Through a series of vignettes, Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric combines poetry with commentary, visual art, quotations from artists and critics, slogans, and scripts for film, laying bare moments of racism that often surface in everyday encounters.
Citizen: An American Lyric fits right into the work the Festival and our partners have been doing on both an individual level and as a city. Connecticut has the largest academic opportunity gap in the country, a fact which is acutely felt here in New Haven. This feeds into other issues of inequality in our city which disproportionately affect people of color and those who live in lower-income households. It was also a great benefit that Claudia Rankine has recently made our city her home! While she was not able to join us during our major programming in May and June, she was able to be very active in the months leading up to the Big Read.
Claudia Rankine and P Carl, discussing “Citizen” and Rankine’s other work, during the 2018 Visionary Leadership Award Luncheon. Photo by Judy Sirota Rosenthal, courtesy of the International Festival of Arts & Ideas.
Monica Youn and LeRonn P. Brooks discuss the Racial Imaginary during the International Festival of Arts & Ideas. Photo by Judy Sirota Rosenthal, courtesy of the International Festival of Arts & Ideas.
What aspect of your programming do you feel has been the most impactful?
Two of our most powerful Big Read events were those that engaged young people with Rankine’s work—our Festival Fellows’ Town Hall on Art as a Gate Opener and The WORD poetry jam. The Festival Fellows are a small group of local high school students who attend classes taught by our Community Engagement Manager at Gateway Community College. Over the course of six months they have the opportunity to engage deeply in the local arts community here in New Haven, and to dive into the work of Claudia Rankine. This culminates in an event which they host at the New Haven Free Public Library as part of Citywide Youth Coalition’s Dinner & Dialogue series, that is both a showcase of their work and a chance to lead a community discussion in response.
The WORD—an organization led by local artists Aaron Jafferis and Hanifa Washington featuring a team of Word Warriors—also had a major impact this year. The WORD worked with teachers and students in New Haven Public Schools during their spring semester to craft poetry in response to Citizen. As part of the Festival’s ALTAR’d Spaces series, Word Warriors performed these pieces during an at-capacity performance at First and Summerfield Church.
Hanifa Washington and Aaron Jafferis during the June 13th performance of The WORD. Photo by Judy Sirota Rosenthal, courtesy of the International Festival of Arts & Ideas.
Poet Ihsan Abdussabur performs during the June 13th performance of The WORD, which featured works written in response to “Citizen: An American Lyric.” Photo by Judy Sirota Rosenthal, courtesy of the International Festival of Arts & Ideas.
More generally, what do you think makes a program impactful or successful? Why?
Once again, this goes back to the partnerships you cultivate. We are lucky that the New Haven Free Public Library is an incredibly innovative and resource-rich institution. The NEA Big Read would certainly look a lot different in New Haven if not for their strong programming and leaders. We also have incredible support from Mayor Toni Harp, whose commitment to making New Haven “the city that reads” helped drive the revival of the NEA Big Read in New Haven in 2017 after a brief hiatus.
Inside the New Haven Free Public Library’s Readmobile. Photo by Kaylah Gore, courtesy of the International Festival of Arts & Ideas.
Could you talk about some of the events that you felt were more creative or participatory? What was the background or process behind those events?
One of the most powerful projects was the painting and installation of hoodies on the Downtown New Haven Green. Led by local artist Katro Storm, this project began at our kick-off at NHFPL’s Stetson Branch Library and continued on the first day of the International Festival of Arts & Ideas. We loved that the project was open and interesting for people of all ages and any level of artistry. The finished project was striking—a memorial that stood in the center of our city for two weeks, hoodies painted in remembrance of those who have had their lives irrevocably altered due to racism.
Display of artwork created by the community in response to “Citizen: An American Lyric.” Photo by Shannon Mykins, courtesy of the International Festival of Arts & Ideas.
Could you share any favorite anecdotes or stories from your community, about the book and the program?
It was also inspiring to see Gateway Community College professors embrace the book so fully and in so many different areas of study—from literature and art to business and economics. The students were just as excited about Citizen: An American Lyric and Claudia Rankine. At the end of the Visionary Leadership Award luncheon honoring Claudia, they approached her to ask her to speak with students at the college. She gladly accepted, leading to an incredibly powerful event at the end of the semester.
Claudia Rankine pictured during the 2018 Visionary Leadership Award Luncheon. Photo by Judy Sirota Rosenthal, courtesy of the International Festival of Arts & Ideas.
Lastly: what is your favorite line from your reading selection?
One of our favorite lines from Citizen: An American Lyric is: “Just getting along shouldn’t be an ambition.” It is a reminder that we should always aim higher—for appreciation, inclusion, understanding, and equity.
“Just getting along shouldn’t be an ambition.”
—Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American Lyric