When you walk into the storefont, vibrant images and elaborate scripts created by immigrants and their children tell stories of movement, struggle, and triumph. There’s the large notepad on the easel with words written in English leftover from an ESL class, and lanterns that loom gracefully from the cut-out wall in the back. Framed photos of the community members dressed in brightly colored saris, clutching shawls and engaging in everyday activities, hang from the winter white walls.
This is the storefront of the Southeast by Southeast project, a formerly defunct property that has been transformed into a community arts and resource center for new refugees from Bhutan, Burma, and Nepal living in South Philadelphia. A year later, numerous events are held there almost every day, like cultural food nights, sari giveaways, and art therapy and art classes. Translators and community members have taken ownership of the center.
Southeast by Southeast began in 2012 with a series of community events and workshops. Developed in partnership with the City of Philadelphia Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Services, and Lutheran Children and Family Service, the goal of this project is to build a safe and supportive community space for immigrant and refugee families to learn about one another, gain access to important social services, and lend their voices to public art projects planned for the neighborhood.
“We are here to learn more,” Padam, a Nepali immigrant said. “Our main goal is to achieve and to incorporate ourselves into American life.”
It did not take long for project artists Miriam Singer and Shira Walinsky to realize they were not the only artists involved with the project; many who arrived to engage in workshops brought considerable creative talents with them, ranging from tatting to weaving. Singer and Walinsky saw an opportunity to use public art as a way to share the many creative traditions present (see sidebar).
“One of the most impressive things is that the creative process has been an open exchange between artist and participant. All of the projects draw from the strengths of new refugees – their proud history, culture, and relationships with each other,” said Melissa Fogg, MSW, Coordinator for the Philadelphia Refugee Mental Health Collaborative and services coordinator for the project. Fogg has been the connector, creating workshops and shepherding the community building process, which has resulted in a unique partnership between the artists, social workers, the community, and doctors at Jefferson University who guided the photo voice project.
As the project has grown, attracting hundreds of residents and visitors, it has evolved into an exemplary model of creative place-making. In addition to the storefront, the community has created a garden at 7th and Emily streets, which is a vital part of their lives. Mural Arts has received funding to continue Southeast by Southeast through the next year.
“We want the best quality of life for our children, including preserving our culture and education for them,” said community resident Durga.