Dixwell Stories: Urban Bush Women, Dance and Community Service
According to literature on the Dixwell Project, in 1999, the International Festival of Arts and Ideas and the Regional Cultural Plan, through the auspices of the Greater New Haven Arts Council, began a cooperative project with the Dixwell neighborhood in New Haven’s largely middle and lower-middle class African American community. The Regional Cultural Plan was at that time beginning the establishment of a Cultural Development Team in Dixwell. One of the team's first tasks was to select a nationally recognized artist who would spend several months in Dixwell and would work collaboratively with community members to create a new work for the 2001 festival. The residency and commissioned work was made possible by several grants. There was a six-month review process, and the team ultimately selected Urban Bush Women for the project. Over the next year and a half the company visited the community and began to develop relationships and interact with various groups in Dixwell to learn about the rich history of the community. In May, ten members of Urban Bush Women took up temporary residence in New Haven, delved deeper into the community, conducted workshops, recorded oral histories and began working with a group of Dixwell artists and apprentices to develop the piece Dixwell, which premiered at the festival that summer.
In my interview with her, Zollar discussed the way in which she developed Community Engagement Projects. She said that she chose the term Community Engagement Projects because there was something about the term "Outreach" that did not sit right with her. This is an important point because it is indicative of a larger paradigm shift within this kind of work. I suggested and she agreed that Outreach implies a certain directionality. In other words, the organization is the base and goes out into a community often to educate. While noble in intent, what is often missing is the reverse action—the community coming to the organization and the organization learning from the community. Urban Bush Women’s Community Engagement Projects are intended to be more reciprocal than other models and resists the power dynamics implicit with Outreach program models. Zollar claimed that, "It is not us as artists coming in and bringing our expertise to this community that doesn't have any culture. It's really being engaged with a group of people. They're learning. We're learning. To the mutual benefit of both of us." Zollar points to the power of a community's culture. Often a lot more is going on that meets the eye in a community and these projects are intended to help bring these issues to the surface.