Leaders: Kaela Geschke and Gwendolyn Garth

Project: A Bridge that Bridges

Neighborhood: Campus District/Central Neighborhood

Raised on ioby: $2,115 for artist and facilitator fees, art supplies, food, and promotional materials



Q: How and why did you both become involved in racial justice activism?

Gwen: I was born into it. My mother was always active - she brought me to the March on Washington in 1963. I've always been active doing something in the neighborhood, but then I got involved in the wrong thing. I now have twenty years of recovery from alcohol and drugs, and when I found myself in tenth or eleventh year of sobriety, I got the urge to do more than just go to school, go to work, and asked myself once again, “what can I do in my neighborhood?” Doing nothing was still part of the problem, so I wanted to work on the solution.  When you step outside yourself and outside your house, you can do something. You can make a difference.


Kaela: I think if you're involved in community work, you have to be involved in racial justice work because they are really inseparable, given the history of our country, policies and practices. They are completely intertwined,  and I have a deep belief that whatever affects anyone of us affects all of us, and we're not going to be able to get solutions unless we address the inequities of the past.



Q: Tell us about this project:  what did you create and what were you aiming to accomplish?

Kaela: The Bridges That Bridges project created a community mural about race and racism. We created the mural over a highway that separates downtown Cleveland from the Central neighborhood. Above the highway is what's known as Campus District, which recently has had a lot of resurgence. Then below the highway is Central, which historically has been predominantly Black and has really dense public housing at this point. The bridge that goes over that space is where we decided to paint the mural as a statement to point out the structural racism that exists in our city and our planning and also, to be a point of unification to start addressing that division.

We decided to use a practice called Make Art Talk Race that was created by Neighborhood Connections, a local organization here. What that looked like was having a conversations about race, racism, privilege, and segregation with people who lived and worked on both sides of the bridge. We held ten sessions throughout the summer.



Q: Why do you think that art is such an important tool to bring people together?

Gwen: To me, the bridge project is a way to bring people I wouldn't ordinarily have seen on a day to day basis together -- a diverse group of people having a difficult conversation. Art has always for me, as an artist, been a healer. The act of making or creating something is healing in itself. It broadened my horizons personally: I have a new set of friends I wouldn't ordinarily have met. It has brought me out of that “them vs.  us” kind of thinking.

It’s awfully hard to be mad at somebody when you’re painting. You forget your differences. Art was very vital to my own personal recovery -- I'm a student of art therapy, and I see the therapeutic value in art. It gives you an opportunity to express yourself if you can't find the words.


Kaela:  The mural was a great entryway for people into conversations that are usually difficult and uncomfortable if you don't know how to approach them. Having art as a doorway allowed people something to do with their hands.  When you're working with your hands you can get out of your head a little bit.


Q:  This project was about creating something tangible, the mural, but also about modeling a kind of collective change through dialogue. Why is that part so important?

Kaela: I grew up in the city of Cleveland and I don't know how often I interacted with people that were different than I was in terms of religion, race, and age. To be in spaces that are diverse, and to intentionally create those spaces, I think, is a radical act it in itself. It’s powerful to be able to have communication and dialogue with people that have had different lived experiences than you -- especially in Cleveland because Cleveland is an extremely segregated city. I think we all need to purposely seek that out or we are going to stay in the same situation that we are in as city and probably as a country.


Gwen:  When you do a collective piece, it shows in a small way what can be done on a larger scale. When you change someone’s mindset you've changed part of the world.



Q: What were some of the key steps were that you took to begin the project?

Kaela: The first thing is to gather a diverse group of people. Send out a call for people who would be interested in this kind of dialogue -- It will only work if everyone is curious and really wants to be involved. We reached out to people and put out fliers at nearby universities, the hospitals, talked to people who lived in housing, and found leaders in the community who would also reach out.

We had an application process, not to be exclusive, but to know who we were starting with, because people have different levels of consciousness around race, racism and segregation. In order to be productive, I think you have to know who is in the room, so an application is a way to let people self-identify. If people are on opposite ends of the spectrum, overcoming that in just a couple of months is probably not possible.

Before you even select your group, one of the first steps is to set ground rules about how you want to be in this space. That way everyone knows what they are walking into. We had all the days planned out in advance so that people knew what they are committing to, because it was not a small thing. We found that allowing this process to play out over time, over three or four months, it really allowed the group to gel and created the best outcome.


Gwen: At our first gathering, we sat in a circle and just introduced ourselves. The circle is very important -- you have to set the environment so that the people feel safe, because the conversations get tough. You want people to open and to grow. It’s up to you to create that environment. You start by talking about why we're here, do introductions, and let people know what we're getting into.


Q: What’s your advice on putting together a project team?

Kaela: For anyone that is going to lead conversations about race, racism and privilege, I think it is ideal to have a person of color and a white person that work well together. Everyone hears something different when different people are saying it, and that's just a reality. I think if you're lucky enough to get somebody like Gwen, who is an art educator and can also peak on issues of race and racism, that's ideal. Gwen is also from Central -- your artist should ideally  be from the neighborhood that you’re working with and the population that you're working with.


Q: What resources were most useful?

Kaela: Definitely time. In every session it felt like we ran out of time -- there aren't many spaces where people feel comfortable having conversations about race and racism, and even getting to know each other. Allowing yourself and your group time for that is pretty unique, and you’re doing that while you are also co-creating a design for a mural. Ours was not small -- 80 feet long and two sides of the street. You need to be able to balance those two. Making space to create and have fun and play and also cover topics that are difficult takes lots of time.

We were lucky to have some local places donate or give discounts on paint. Sherwin Williams is headquartered in Cleveland so we're lucky on that one. Lakewood Supply donated paint brushes and Campus District found some funding too and we were lucky to have an ioby project as well because that got the word out to other people who could contribute in different ways.

We had a good meeting space that's central to where we were working and that people felt comfortable in. If people don't feel comfortable in that space it's just another barrier to what could be difficult conversations to begin with.



Q: How did you go about getting permission for the project?

Kaela: If you're doing a public art project, you have to be aware whose property you're working on and what permissions may need to be checked off. For our project, we let the City know that we were doing it, but we did not necessarily get all the permissions. We saw it as something that was of the neighborhood and by the neighborhood, and we've only gotten compliments on it, so we feel okay with that.  Sometimes it's appropriate to ask for permission and sometimes you can just ask for forgiveness.


Gwen: The residents of Central feel that it's up to them to take charge of their neighborhood -- if I clean up my neighborhood, how can the city say I'm not supposed to be doing that? You never have to ask anyone permission to do good.


Kaela: As an organizer, it's part of your responsibility to provide the cover for people to do what they need to do in the neighborhood. That might be that you're going to city hall to at least inform them of what you're doing, and ideally you bring somebody from the project with you, because I think they deserve to be involved in the process, and have the opportunity to get their voice heard.

One of the powerful moments during the bridge project was, we had a county sheriff pull up on the bridge while we were doing the project, and it kind of freaked everybody out: “There's a cop here, what do we do, do we actually have permission to do this?” I went and talked to the officer, and he rolled down his window just to say that he had been watching what we were doing over the last several weeks, and he thought it was one of the most important things happening in the city right now.


Q: What kinds of advice would you give to someone looking to do something similar?

Kaela: Goal setting and intention setting at the beginning of your process helps eliminate a lot of questions and confusions that might come later. When you're working in a large group, or anything more than a couple of people, breaking up into teams is okay. We learned that consensus decision making isn't always going to happen. It's okay to break up in small groups and share stories. It's okay to break up in small groups and make decisions. We adjusted on the fly. We had one team pick out the colors, one team worked with Gwen to actually start doing the drawing and figuring out what was going to go where, then another team got together to decide what words and message is going to go on the wall. That way everybody got their voice in. Everybody got to use their gifts, assets and strengths and got to be involved in the process.


Gwen: The facilitators and must be on the same page, must be people persons, and have a passion for what they're doing, and to be able to bring people in.

One day while we were painting, some ladies drove past coming from work and they got out of their car -- we invited them to join us. I was like, come on in and put your mark on the wall. These young ladies came and painted and they stayed with us all that summer and then came back and joined the conversation, so that's the kind of thing that you want to have. We had young kids there. People like to see or know that they actually contributed to something. To see their stroke on the wall. That kind of thing gives a person a sense of pride in participating in their community.


Kaela: A few other key ingredients I don't think we mentioned yet: we had food, we had music because we’re creating an environment. A rule that we try to use is “don't invite somebody to something that you don't want to be at yourself.”

Something else I also suggest is getting local media involved. We had some people see us on the news, and then came down the next session, and wanted to paint. People are going to be ready for different levels of engagement. There were some people who were all in, and they are a part of that core group that met ten times. But we also had opportunities for people who lived and work in the community, or walk over the bridge just to stop for five minutes and have a conversation. Gwen was really great about just pulling people in: “What do you think about this project, do you think this is an issue in our city? Do you want to put a stroke on the wall?” Sometimes they stayed for that and sometimes they stayed for a whole hour, and came back and did the project next year.



Q: How do you to deal with burnout in the midst of difficult conversations and overwhelming issues like racial injustice?

Gwen: I believe in what I'm doing. I believe that we can come together as a people. That's my mission. I get up and think, “We are going to clean up the neighborhood. We are going to bring some people together today.” Self care is important. I read a lot of self help, do creative journaling, and I meditate a lot. And I'm an artist, so I throw paint.


Kaela: I have a little folder that I keep positive feedback in. It’s important to remember how some of the work you and your team have done has impacted people. Go back to that sometimes because then you know you're making little steps. I think when you’re thinking about systemic racism and what it’s going to take to undo it, it's easy to feel overwhelmed. It's going to take a long time just to make dents in that system. But the more spaces we create like this, and the more people we bring into the conversation, we’ll make our way there at some point. Keeping the long view in mind, and having fun in the short term, I think are both important strategies.


Q: What do you wish you’d known when you’d started?

Gwen: If you want to do a project like this, come talk to us. Make sure it's something that you are passionate about wholeheartedly because it's not an easy thing.  You have to be willing and open to other people -- you’re not in this by yourself. You have to be committed. You also have to read up, and stay knowledgeable but not be afraid to say, “I don't know everything, lets learn this together.” You have to be humble.


Kaela: You can rely on outside experts. We had somebody come in and talk about the history of the Central neighborhood. We use a lot of materials that predates us, including the “invisible knapsack” concept that goes back to like 1985. There's lots of literature out there, so find what's going to work for you and your group. Know that you're still learning. I'm not an expert on race and racism. There's so much literature that I can be reading, and there's always more training I can be doing, so never let yourself think you understand it all by any means.

We need to keep creating opportunities for people to talk, and have some direct follow up steps, because when we were done, people were like, “what's next?” I would be prepared with a way for people to plug in with other groups, so that we can continue feeding people’s passion and very earnest desire to continue having conversation and maintain tangible changes.

More about Kaela Geschke, Leader, A Bridge that Bridges

Kaela Geschke is passionate about connecting community members in creative ways to ignite social change. Her passion for grassroots change has driven her travels and allowed her to work alongside diverse groups of people—ranging from advocacy with Native women in Alaska to program development in Northern Uganda and civic engagement with adolescents in Chicago. Kaela returned to her hometown of Cleveland where she has been practicing community network building for the last five years. Currently, she is applying this practice to addressing economic inequities as the Wealth Initiatives Manager at Neighborhood Connections. Kaela has her Master's in Community Development and Social Justice from Chicago Loyola.


More about Gwendolyn Garth, Leader, A Bridge That Bridges

A resident of Cleveland’s Central neighborhood, Gwen is an activist and artist. She is the founder of Kings & Queens of Art, a grassroots collaboration of artists of all disciplines with special focus on artists from the re-entry sector. Gwen completed a two-year Network Weaver fellowship with Neighborhood Connections, and is a graduate of the Neighborhood Leadership Development Program and of Cuyahoga Community College's Women in Transition Program. Gwen has also served as Ohio's State Leader for AmeriCorps and as City of Cleveland's Division of Recreation Chapter Chairperson of AFSCME Local 100 and Manager of Cultural Arts for the same agency.


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