For the fourth in my series of interviews with socially-engaged contemporary artists, organizers, writers and thinkers as part of the SOCiAL: Art + People events, I sat down with artists Mike Blockstein and Reanne Estrada, co-founders and collaborators in the artist-run interdisciplinary organization called Public Matters. Public Matters is a multivalent and dynamically shifting arts organization dedicated to affecting powerful change (most recently regarding food injustice in impoverished communities) over long periods of time through youth media empowerment, collective creativity, leadership development, and physical and behavioral change. They are engaged in enormous partnerships with UCLA, USC, and various community organizations as part of a five-year NIH grant to combat cardiovascular health problems in East Los Angeles, and have effectively integrated arts and creativity into combating an enormous public health crisis in a way that very few arts organizations have. I have previously analyzed the organizational structure of Public Matters, but in this interview the artists have a chance to speak more in depth about their partnerships, their teenaged collaborators, and the role of arts in social justice.
Sue Bell Yank: We can start by talking about this particular event, coming up on October 20th at 10am in East LA, the Market Makeover Smackdown!
Reanne Estrada: SMACKDOWN! I like to say SMACKDOWN as if it were in capital letters. One of the things we learned with our work with Market Makeovers is that the work really begins after the stores are physically transformed because then you have to bring in the process of making sure people come to the stores and buy the fresh produce, the healthier items, so the store owners will keep participating and the solution becomes a sustainable one for the community. So that's, as you know, a big undertaking because you have to promote the stores, promote the inventory, but you also have to promote behavior change. So people who are used to a cheap processed food diet that's very convenient, are suddenly fiending for kale, or going crazy for that winter squash. So there's a gap that we have to overcome. That's where the "Smackdown" came in, because this fall we're working with students from the School of Communication, New Media and Technology (CNMT) at Roosevelt High School, so they're working on the store transformations and the promotion of the project. We thought the "Smackdown" would be a good way to get their competitive juices flowing, and also to bring in fresh blood and new attention to the stores.
Mike Blockstein: So the competition is basically that the class is split into two teams, with one representing Yash La Casa Market, which was the first market in East LA that was transformed, the second, Ramirez Meat Market. This is still all about an educational and learning project, so all of a sudden a group of high school students is asked to conceive of a public event, come up with public educational parts, come up with parts that are fun and entertaining, then they have to execute it, they have to promote it...these are all things that are not in the normal course of affairs for a teenager. But for us it's always about the students becoming community health leaders and advocates. We even call the class a "community leadership" class. So leadership, for us, is not about talking about it in some abstract sense, like "you need to learn how to be a good public speaker" it's more like, you're going to do it, and it's a little bit of trial by fire. It means it's not necessarily going to be a "polished" event, but it will have a lot of feeling and spirit. Really it's still about community-led change. If a group of young people are actively involved in that and they're invested in it, that's going to attract an audience that's very different than if there were some chefs coming in, and they're going to do a demo. This has happened with our students, where they start talking to their parents about what they eat at home. "Hey Mom, I don't think you should buy that stuff anymore," or "What about this instead" and that is so much more impactful than someone hearing something, an ad, a message, whatever it is, versus someone within the family pushing for that change.
Reanne Estrada: That's definitely something we stress when working with young people, which is that at this particular age, as teenagers, they hold a very powerful position, and maybe they don't really realize it yet. They're loud enough that they can nag their parents into doing things, and they can also serve as role models for younger siblings, friends, family, so they occupy this very special position where they can actually reach people. Maybe more so than just adults or young children. So our job is to make it easier for them to recognize that in themselves, and to identify what their particular skill sets are so that they can feel a sense of ownership in what they do.
Sue Bell Yank: That's a beautiful way of thinking about teens. Were these market makeovers done previously? How long have they been made over?
Reanne Estrada: The stores we're working with now have already been made over. The first store, Yash La Casa Market, which is on Hammel Street at Hazard, was made over almost a year ago. The grand reopening was the 29th or 30th of October of last year. And the second store, Ramirez Meat Market, is on Fulsom and Rowan, so they're both in East LA, and it was made over in March. The two transformations were close together.
Sue Bell Yank: How do the make overs of these particular markets fit into the larger frame of what you're working on now?
Reanne Estrada: The project that we're working on, which is the Proyecto Mercado Fresco, is a part of a project out of the UCLA-USC Center for Population Health and Health Disparities (CPHHD), and that is a big five-year grant that was funded through NIH (National Institute of Health) and the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. The Center itself has the larger research agenda of addressing cardiovascular health of Latinos in East LA and Boyle Heights. So there's a component that's focused on home interventions, there's a second component that's based on biomedical markers where they're tracking people doing bloodwork, trying to connect the dots that way, then there's a third component which is the one we're working on, which is the community intervention component, and that's the Mercado Fresco project. We're working with members of community, most directly with the teens and the storeowners. So that's how we figure into the puzzle that is the CPHHD.
Sue Bell Yank: How did you get involved with a center like the UCLA-USC Center for Population Health and Health Disparities as part of this giant grant they're working on, as artists who have this artist-run organization? How did you get involved in this kind of partnership?
Mike Blockstein: We were doing this type of work in South LA previously with the South LA Healthy Eating Active Communities or HEAC and one of the lead PIs (Principal Investigators) on the NIH grant was someone we knew and he had come in and worked with the students. He had an idea what they possibly wanted to apply for for the NIH grant, and he was interested in learning more about the Market Makeovers. So it literally transpired that, based on our work, they re-shaped their proposal, so that's a circumstance where they wrote our model into their proposal. Not always the case, but that was the story this time.
Sue Bell Yank: Taking a step even further back, what led you both to this place, in terms of the problematics that you wanted to address, and in developing this work? It is so hybrid in nature, and it's hard to think of anybody else who is doing anything similar, so how did you weave your way in there?
Reanne Estrada: Infiltrating public health.
Mike Blockstein: We will give you totally different answers here. For me to answer that also means talking about personal background. I studied visual art, I've worked as a visual artist, but I also worked out and was then the director of Southern Exposure, which is a non-profit art space in San Francisco. As time went by, I became more and more interested in and then developed this whole Artists in Education program that they have, and the idea there was about working with youth and community organizations that didn't have arts-based programming but wanted it, and also who were in the neighborhood that we were in, the Mission District, where there was no connection between Southern Exposure, the exhibition/performance/what-not space, and this much larger section of community. So it was about, well, maybe there needs to be some change there. And then I was doing, at the time it was called "community-based public art," now it's "social practice," whatever, but there also came a point when I became disenchanted with the myopic vision of how the art world deals with socially-based issues. So I left all of that and did a one-year mid-career program at the Kennedy School (for Government) at Harvard, really just because I wanted to see how people from the rest of the world approached issues that I was interested in, but clearly they were coming from different disciplines, different backgrounds, non-profit, government, military, you name it, it was there. At the same time I also felt like my role there was to be an ambassador of artistic and creative process. It's not necessarily what I set out to do, but I realized pretty quickly that, "oh, there's not a lot of people like me here." People in policy don't even think about creativity.
Then, following that, Public Matters evolved through a series of conversations with people who are artists but also people who are educators and people who are media professionals, just about, how can we advance our process and our goals collectively in a way that we can't do individually?
Reanne Estrada: Business cards.
Mike Blockstein: Yes, having a name!
Sue Bell Yank: Branding!
Mike Blockstein: Also, having a different structure, because we're an LLC (Limited Liability Corporation), we're not a non-profit. And having run a non-profit, I wanted nothing to do with that model.
Sue Bell Yank: Which now, I feel like more and more artist groups and collectives are interested in incorporating outside of a non-profit model.
Mike Blockstein: I wouldn't say an LLC is a perfect model either, it has a lot of drawbacks, but it's different. It does address the power dynamics of we're no longer an individual artist, we're a group, we're an entity. But really the idea was with Public Matters was, how do we do these long-term, neighborhood, space-based projects that build these really strong partnerships across disciplines, across institutions, where you're partnering with a school, or a very small non-profit, or a university, where we're the conduit working with young people and trying to engage them with leaders in their communities so that there's a real concrete relationship there. So they're real lofty goals. It's also that these are not small-scale projects, the things we do tend to take years. We don't believe in the whole, okay, here's a six-week or a six-month project. That's about enough time to build some sense of trust, and then when it's done, everybody's left thinking, okay, now what?
Reanne Estrada: For me, coming into this with the sense that creative people are grossly underutilized in the public arena. There's this prevalent perception of artists, of creative types being in their own little world and not really part of the world. I feel like that's starting to shift now, thankfully, because more people are open to those kinds of cross-disciplinary collaborations, but it's by no means the norm. There's a quote that I always remember, though the fog of the years has clouded who actually said this brilliant idea, and I'm gonna mangle it, but, it's the idea that in order to make some sort of social or political change, you need to be able to see the world other than how it currently exists. And in order for that to happen, you have to have creativity. That's something we try to bring into all our relationships, whether it's with young teens or young adults, or even with our community partners. Having a conversation about how they can be more creative, or explore options they hadn't really thought of before. That's a perspective that "outsiders" or "artists" that aren't part of a particular organization or community, that's something that we can offer.
Sue Bell Yank: How do you feel that this relates to what you might consider your art practice? It is an artist-run organization, so is this the art practice, or are there separate art practices you engage in? How do they relate? Or is that just a complicated question?
Reanne Estrada: I actually feel like I have this practice that has different components to it. There's the work with Public Matters, which is the more public, social practice. I also have an individual studio practice, where the work I create is completely different from any of the things we do when we're working collaboratively. I also collaborate with these two other women as part of the Mail-order Bride/M.O.B collective where we perform, we make videos, we get dressed up, we act out, also very different. I often refer to it as a very schizophrenic practice, and the connections between them aren't really obvious. I think it would be very difficult for people to track, but as I'm making the work I feel the threads and the connections between them. One track of the practice might influence another one but it's not an easy thing to verbalize. It might just be a balancing act of "okay, I need to veg out in the studio and be in that head space so I can come back and bring that alone time into a collaborative, more public art."
Mike Blockstein: For me, it's different, because prior to Public Matters I was doing these community-based public art education projects that were already place-based, that had some of these elements, and then I was also running this organization, and those things were really my practice, just as Public Matters is my practice, now it's just about working at a different scale. Ideally the work is richer, it has more depth, it's more complex. I always gravitate towards artists who continue to grow and evolve, whose practices are not easily defined, but really, they're just creative people and they do different things. I get asked a lot, "do you still do your art?" Because I also did studio work, but I don't really do the studio work any more, and to me, the answer is "I am." But some people get that and others don't.
Reanne Estrada: In my case, when we're working with students, I feel like a big part of my job is to be an instigator of mischief, just because I do have the background of getting dressed up and acting out. I always tell them straight up, "We would never ask you to do something we wouldn't do ourselves," and it's only after some time of working together that they actually understand that that's true.
Sue Bell Yank: That she'll do anything!
Reanne Estrada: We will do anything. So as a result, our students have gotten dressed up as giant fruits and vegetables. They've gone out into public! That's not something that very self-conscious teenagers will do! But they'll do it for the project, because it's for community benefit, and also it's something they haven't done before. It gives them a chance to grow in a really different way, even the really shy ones.
Sue Bell Yank: So part of what you guys do, creating these strong partnerships seems like a guiding principle, but I can also imagine that that would be really challenging in terms of scales, languages, so I'm wondering how you've overcome some of those challenges, how you've built bridges, and what sorts of things you've faced?
Mike Blockstein: It's just like all relationships, it's a process. Roberto Bedoya, who was one of my mentors, said "community is a verb." It's a really good way of thinking about things. It's an action, but it's changing and evolving. And most relationships are just that. Relationships you have with your friends, your family, it's always ongoing. Sure, there are tests, but there are also great moments of growth and coming together. And part of it is having a sense of what are the overall goals, what are the common goals, and how can each partner/group both contribute, but also gain? When you bring in a university and you put them in the context of working with high school students, universities generally don't have direct relationships with communities. But they'd like to have them. High school students, the students who we work with by and large are not the type that would apply and get into UCLA, but now they can work directly with people from UCLA, whether they are students, grad students, faculty, staff, whatnot. All of the sudden that changes their relationship and their view of the institution. They think, well maybe I can do something at a UC, and they have people who want to help them get into a UC-type place. For the community-based organizations is also thinking about capacity building. One of the biggest issues is how do these activities endure above and beyond any one particular funding cycle. And that's an extremely lofty goal, because now you're talking about something that no longer has any economic driving force or a convening driving force, but that's why we do work where we're working with younger people. It seems cliché, but if you get them involved at that stage in their lives, they're much more likely to develop an affinity and a sense of passion and commitment to the areas where they live. And we've directly heard students say that to us. They will say, my parents were part of this generation of Chicano activists - and for me, I don't want my children to grow up in the food environment that I'm growing up with. So they see a role for themselves.
Reanne Estrada: And they've said as much in public contexts. I remember Omar and Vanessa were talking to a group of high school principals, trying to get them to buy in and support the project, they said that "25 years from now, I want to walk down the streets of my community and know that it's a healthier place and that I had a hand in it."
Top image: Ramirez Exterior Before After | Photo: Courtesy of Sue Bell Yank.
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