Diverse Voices Create the Community

Artists are everywhere, on every block and in every community. Finding the opportunities for artists to share their creativity and networks can strengthen community bonds, build relationships, and help a community imagine what’s next. That is what Springboard for the Arts found from 2011 to 2014, working with the City of St. Paul and Twin Cities Local Initiatives Support Corporation along the Green Line light rail construction during the Irrigate project, which trained artists in partnership building, creative placemaking, and funded their creative projects. That model of artist-led community development has now been used in advance of construction for Cultivate Bottineau, a project coordinated by Hennepin County Bottineau Community Works and Springboard for the Arts, partnering with the communities along the proposed Blue Line light rail line. Through training, technical support, and funded projects, Cultivate Bottineau is bringing out the artists in the communities of North Minneapolis, Golden Valley, Robbinsdale, Brooklyn Park, and Crystal, to share a vision for their communities, and to cultivate creative people power. During the first year of Cultivate Bottineau over 40 artists participated in the creation of over 25 arts events along the Bottineau Corridor.

Artist Geno Okok stands in front of a building with a tiger mural
Geno Okok in front of his mural at Value Foods African Market. Photo by Geno Okok.

Making Your Mark on the Community

What does it mean to contribute to the community that you grew up in? That was the question sitting in Geno Okok’s mind as he considered how to make his mark on Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, the city where he grew up. From his days attending Crest View Elementary, Okok remembers seeing the corner store turn into a gas station. Then, from a gas station, it turned into a grocery store, Value Foods African Market.

With the light rail transit (LRT) line planned for development in the northwest suburbs of Minneapolis, Okok saw his contribution to the Cultivate program as a way to influence the appeal of the suburbs for people riding the line in the future. Okok said, “most public art is done in Minneapolis and Saint Paul.” He wanted to have his suburban community reflect the vibrancy and creativity usually associated with the urban core, and wanted to see more high quality artwork that gave more meaning to its buildings.

Okok’s mural occupies an exterior wall at the market, a grocery store that reflects the changing demographics of the Brooklyn Park community. In recent years, the City of Brooklyn Park has seen a rise in residents from African immigrant and African American backgrounds. Okok, who identifies as part of the Liberian community, was inspired to follow a safari-theme that, to him, seemed true to the grocery store’s African identity.

In addition to a means of contributing to the community, the Cultivate project gave Okok a chance to enhance his own arts business. Many locals shared and liked his work on social media which gained him a new level of visibility. He also received a few offers of business and grew new connections as a result of his work. For a young artist like Okok, the mural not only proved that art creates a pathway for people to apply their talents in a community, it also gave him the opportunity to make his artistic print.

A group of people stand in a line
Geno Okok and Snoti Jappah. Photo by Ernest Norris Jr.

Showcasing community assets

Snoti Jappah, a resident of Brooklyn Park who is also Liberian, describes herself as a musician, singer and songwriter who focuses on R&B, pop and Afro-pop. Coming from a family with a musical background, Jappah has always dreamed of becoming a full-time musician and is recognized within the Liberian diaspora as a rising star. She works toward that goal now by performing where she sees an opportunity to contribute her unique voice.

For her performance, Music in Crystal, Jappah invited a fellow artist to have a live guitar and acoustic session to accompany her singing. “Doing a full acoustic performance was different for me,” she said. The risk that she took in performing differently than her norm paid off. Her interactive performance had pauses in between songs for discussion and questions.

“I wanted it to be intimate and wanted to be able to connect to others over music,” said Jappah, who made new connections with the bar that she performed in. “I became an asset to them and they became an asset for me. If they want a community event again they now have a new pool of artists to tap into.” She sees the bar as a new venue for her and her artist friends to use.

“I was hoping to introduce people to something different that they hadn’t heard of before. I also wanted to learn myself about what others’ music preferences are.” Jappah said that the environment created a dialogue about the issue of transportation development in the area. She sees the project as a means of creating awareness.

She felt that she was successful in creating a unique and artistic vibe that spoke to her creative process. In addition to succeeding as a performer singing her music live for the first time, Jappah’s Cultivate project had somewhat of a snowball effect. She shot a music video for her new single and got many new bookings. She was also invited to perform at festivals and other independent-artist events.

When members of the community are involved in sharing the assets that they have to contribute to development projects, it creates a shared ownership and space where people feel proud of the neighborhood. “When people ride the train through the neighborhood, I want them to see the creativity of the place and that it’s not boring,” shared Okok. What he and Jappah valued about the Cultivate program is its ability to provide people who are within a community the opportunity to celebrate local talent. “It’s not like outsiders coming in and telling a community what it needs.”

Cover photo: Snoti Jappah performing. Photo by Ernest Norris Jr.