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Q&A: Seattle Housing Authority’s Jen Song shares how arts and culture drive community building among public housing residents  

Arts & Culture

In late November, The Kresge Foundation unveiled $30 million in grant commitments to advance racial justice. This investment marked a pivotal institutional milestone, underscoring Kresge’s belief that to expand opportunity in America’s cities, the Foundation must invest directly& and strategically in community-based efforts that address systemic racism and inequality. This new commitment represents a sharpened focus of Kresge’s longstanding racial equity grantmaking – a focus the Arts & Culture Program has prioritized for several years.

Yesler Terrace

Since 2018, Kresge’s Arts & Culture Program has focused its grantmaking strategy on equitable Creative Placemaking, which elevates arts, culture and community-engaged design as central elements of community development and planning. The team explicitly invests in creative initiatives that drive equitable outcomes. One such investment is with the Seattle Housing Authority (SHA). Since 2015, the Seattle Housing Authority has been working to replace more than 500 aging public housing units and add an additional 1,200 affordable apartments as part of the Yesler Terrace project. In 2015, the SHA launched an effort to replace more than 500 aging public housing units and add an additional 1,200 affordable apartments as part of the Yesler Terrace project. The new affordable housing would be partially funded through the sale of select parcels of land to private investors that would add about 3,000 thousand market-rate units, making Yesler a model mixed-income community.

The need for this kind of community development innovation is extremely important in cities like Seattle – growing rapidly, with considerable income inequality, fast-rising rents and nearly half of all residents now coping with a housing burden.

Not only did the Seattle Housing Authority take on one of the largest public housing redevelopments in the country, the organization also offered painting classes to residents, a photography exhibit, youth design and literary arts workshops, oral history projects, public art installations and an artisan sewing collective – all through the Yesler Terrace Arts Initiative. As an organization dedicated to fostering stability among residents with low incomes, the housing authority is working to connect arts to greater economic and social inclusion for its tenants. Amid cranes and construction fencing, they placed a big bet – that arts and culture can be key drivers in building a community in this changing neighborhood.

Yesler Terrace Youth Media Program.
We reconnected with Jennifer Song, Manager of the Yesler Terrace Arts Initiative at the Seattle Housing Authority, to see how the program is progressing – especially since the affordable housing crisis is escalating due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

 Kresge: Jennifer, we are in awe of the Yesler Terrace Arts Initiative. Describe the projects you lead and how you first became interested in this work.

Since November 2015, I’ve been the administrator for arts and culture programs at Yesler Terrace. My position is located in SHA’s Development department, which is responsible for financing and planning new affordable housing and redevelopment; developing community amenities; and supporting neighborhood associations. Prior to SHA, my professional background was in museum and community arts education; and most recently, I was the Associate Director of Education at the New Museum of Contemporary Art.

Considering how public institutions leverage the arts to create community connections has been central to my work in both museums, as well as in public housing. In both fields, I’ve had the unique opportunity to understand firsthand how art, artists and institutions come together to serve the public and what the related challenges and possibilities might look like. My museum work has informed my current housing work in helping to shape guiding questions, such as how do institutional mandates square with people’s needs and realities? How do we create authentic, productive spaces for conversation? And how can the arts help us to make meaning of our lives and the world around us? I am extremely grateful for the experience I’ve gained at SHA, and the opportunity to take my understanding of arts, community and institutions in an entirely new and meaningful direction.

Kresge: Tell us about the industrial sewing co-op program. What were your goals when launching the course, and how is it structured to engage residents?

Yesler Terrace Sewing Co-Op Program.

The sewing program is one of our most popular offerings, and we’ve worked hard to adapt it to the needs and experiences of our residents. Originally, our goal was to provide an economic development track for residents to learn or hone skills that could lead to factory employment or another trade opportunity. We quickly realized that many of our interested residents weren’t in a position to obtain a part-or full-time jobs, due to family obligations or other reasons. Those residents wanted to learn sewing skills for their own personal use or to provide small paid services for their friends and neighbors.

Our program structure included weekly evening sewing workshops with trained facilitators that supported different levels of sewers, from beginning to expert, and introduced new skills. Programs were held onsite in a community room, with childcare activities available to those who needed them. Field professionals, ranging from one-woman businesses to design professionals, were brought in to talk about different sewing-related jobs and products, and in some cases, hire participants to create piecework for them. Field trips introduced sewers to the basics of shopping at craft and fabric stores, so that residents could pursue their own projects independently. In addition to weekly workshops, we offered Pop Up sewing events, where instructors and volunteers brought sewing machines to different locations at Yesler Terrace and surrounding neighborhoods and offered mending services and new skills workshops to anyone in the community. These popular events expanded the reach of our programs by fostering new connections to neighboring community centers, senior homes and classrooms.

Resident engagement occurred at all levels of the program, from how activities were structured to selecting guest speakers. Deliberate attention was paid to when and where classes should be held, and the format of the workshops was tweaked regularly according to feedback from residents. Residents were encouraged to be group leaders both informally, by sharing personal projects with the group and helping to prepare and take down the classroom set up, or formally, by becoming resident ambassadors. Ambassador positions were paid and included responsibilities such as calling residents to remind them of class times and helping out at Pop Up Sewing events. Program managers regularly held in-person focus groups with participants to find out how they were doing and what they found enjoyable or challenging about the program. It was clear that participants felt strongly that the program not only provided wonderful sewing skills training, but also provided important and consistent social opportunities for neighbors who might not share the same language or experience.

Kresge: How has this program been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic?

The Yesler Terrace community newspaper and activity guide features residents’ stories, artwork and poetry.

The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted many of our typical means of planning, communicating and gathering as a community. Thankfully, several aspects of our program have enabled us to maintain a consistent presence at Yesler and respond in new ways to the needs of our residents. Flexible contracts with artists that dictate expectations, but not prescribed activities, allowed us to shift gears quickly and develop new methods for reaching residents. For example, when an artist could no longer hold in-person community conversations focused on neighborhood connections, she produced a community newspaper and activity guide that featured resident stories, artwork and poetry.

Having strong staff contacts across departments has enabled us to align with emergency response efforts of frontline staff. Operations and Community Services staff protocols for food distribution services to residents inspired an artist to collaborate with a Vietnamese community leader to create cultural care packages. These packages included comfort objects and cultural food ingredients, such as fish sauce, that weren’t available in typical food services but would provide much needed comfort to residents experiencing anxiety and isolation. Positioning residents as leaders and community caretakers set the scene for SHA to hire Yesler sewers at a competitive rate to create masks for fellow residents. Throughout all of our arts and culture efforts during COVID-19 lies a consistent commitment to create programming that supports existing efforts, is informed by knowledge of the community and lifts up resident voices.

Kresge: Why is it essential to integrate Creative Placemaking into public housing developments? What is the value of integrating arts, culture and community-engaged design into community development projects?

Yesler Terrace Park

The activities of Creative Placemaking provide tremendous value to community development projects, especially in public housing. While physical and emotional wellness, social engagement and new platforms for resident self-advocacy directly benefit residents, the institutional rewards are equally great. In our own programs, we’ve seen incredible gains in SHA’s understanding of why and how resident voice is essential to development practices. Our activities have allowed us to bring people together, investigate resident needs and see firsthand the capacity for residents to care for their neighborhood and one another. Creative placemaking activities provided SHA with a new language with which to talk about community experience and raised our standards of care. In addition, the activities are unique in how they allow us to demonstrate to the public and to other institutions SHA’s holistic approach to housing development.

Kresge: Why is incorporating residents’ voice key with any community development project – but especially public housing?

By incorporating resident voice into development practices, we are reminded that we are building housing and communities for people with their own cultures. In an era of affordable housing crises, compounded by the effects of COVID-19 and decades long racial injustices, residents’ own voices anchor community development in their own needs, experiences, and cultures.

Kresge: During our recent BASED (Building and Supporting Equitable Development) Convening, grantees shared their work at the intersection of arts, culture and affordable housing has taken precedence to ensure the health and wellbeing of residents. How has your organization been able to respond to residents’ needs?

The Seattle Housing Authority’s response during COVID-19 follows a multi-layered approach, from communicating policy impacts and providing essential food services to residents, to instituting accommodations for staff whose personal lives have been impacted. As residents experience unprecedented stress in all aspects of their lives, ensuring the physical and mental health of residents is essential. In some cases, artists have collaborated with community health workers to provide personalized services, such as cultural care packages for Vietnamese elders, or created new methods of communication, such as a community newspaper and activity guide that highlights resident culture and voices. As part of an initial mask distribution campaign, machines from cancelled sewing classes were loaned to Yesler residents who were hired to make face masks for community members and staff volunteers distributing meals. Throughout all of these projects, artists have committed to working closely with community partners and SHA staff to ensure that efforts integrate seamlessly with new, emergency operations and protocols while providing a welcome lift to community spirit in difficult times.

Kresge: Can you share an update on the Yesler Terrace redevelopment project?

The Yesler Terrace redevelopment project continues to move forward at a rapid pace. Currently, all original households have relocated successfully and on schedule. The majority of the original 493 households chose to remain at Yesler, while others have moved to other SHA family communities, or elsewhere. More than 50% of the total replacement units have been built, with 631 income-restricted units complete to date and more than 900 in development. More than $50 million has been invested in parks, open space and infrastructure, including new roads, a new 1.8-acre city park, pocket parks and community gardening patches. For the first time, there are more market rate units built at Yesler, than affordable housing units.

Kresge: As a personal reflection, what is one of the most memorable moments of your career where you were able to see the impact of your organization’s work?

In spring 2018, Artist in Residence Rachel Kessler collaborated with SHA Development and Property Management staff to transform an unoccupied housing unit into a temporary community art project. Part of the last remaining blocks of original Yesler housing and slated for demolition, Unit 191 became a community art gallery, meeting space and art studio for residents. The space hosted backyard cookouts, neighborhood meetings, art workshops and karaoke parties and attracted hosts and participants as varied as local seniors, construction workers on lunch break and SHA frontline staff. Unit 191 provided necessary opportunities for all those involved to reflect on community change, honor local histories and share stories. Located on the edge of Yesler Terrace, the building was visible from the street, creating opportunities for the artist to engage with numerous passersby, many of whom shared personal memories and questions about the Yesler redevelopment. As a placemaking project, Unit 191 was remarkable for the relationship-building that occurred leading up to its creation, involving SHA institutional partners and community leaders. The Unit 191 project showed an institutional commitment to honoring the needs of residents to process and reflect on their lived experiences and the institution’s embrace of creative placemaking strategies.

The Seattle Housing Authority is part of a growing body of nonprofits, municipal governments and community allies that are turning to creative placemaking as a key driver in their efforts around equitable development. The Yesler Terrace Arts Initiative was supported through a three-year project support grant. For leaders like Jennifer Song, focusing on an ongoing evolution of practice is one of the most critical elements of Creative Placemaking.