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Bryn Mawr seniors win $10,000 Davis Grant to fund arts project involving homeless men

Bryn Mawr seniors Lucy Edwards and Adaobi Kanu believe in the power of art to transform the lives of those who practice it. This summer, a $10,000 grant from the Davis Projects for Peace foundation will enable them to put that faith to work in West Philadelphia, where they will collaborate with homeless men on an ambitious project to generate income, self-esteem, and community understanding through artistic production.

Edwards and Kanu will work with Project H.O.M.E., a Philadelphia nonprofit that provides housing and services to chronically homeless people, to give daily lessons in dance, visual arts, and creative writing to a group of 10 to 15 men at one of Project H.O.M.E.'s shelters. The instruction in all three art forms will concentrate on storytelling and encourage the men to share their personal narratives.

After eight weeks, the collective will give a dance performance and publish a chapbook containing the men's writing and color reproductions of their artwork. Fifteen hundred books will be printed and distributed to the artists, who can sell them on the street or at the performance in Clark Park that will mark the completion of the project.

The books, say Edwards and Kanu, will serve several purposes.

"Most of us have seen homeless men in the streets begging for money, and people generally try to avoid looking at them and hurry past them as fast as they can," says Edwards. "But the whole dynamic is altered when the exchange is business instead of charity. Most people will feel more comfortable making a contribution to the future of someone who's taking an active role in improving his condition."

But the content of the books is critical, too, Kanu adds.

"Homeless men are one of the most stigmatized populations in the world," she explains. "People make all kinds of assumptions about them, and the average person isn't willing to engage a homeless person in conversation. Without a voice, they have no way of dispelling misconceptions and stereotypes about homelessness."

They cite a conversation they had with a homeless man in West Philadelphia who feels deeply isolated from the people who pass by him every day without acknowledging his presence.

"By the end of the conversation, he was crying," their project proposal reports, quoting the man: "We’re homeless, but we’re humans! People, they don’t see that. I try to tell them but people don’t even talk to me."

Edwards and Kanu hope that a book filled with the stories of homeless men will help readers "see the human under the 'homeless' label."

They chose to focus on men for their project because, as their proposal states, "They are the people most often asking for change on the sidewalk. They are the majority of the homeless, and those who are most feared by society. Also, men are an underserved population: in the United States, homeless women and children receive much more funding than do homeless men. "

Edwards, who is a painter, will teach visual arts; Kanu, a dancer and choreographer, will provide instruction in movement. A third partner, Lovella Calica, will teach writing; Calica is the director of a writing project for the nonprofit group Iraq Veterans Against the War.

Both Edwards and Kanu have taught before (Edwards taught in Argentina and is currently enrolled in a Praxis course titled "Arts Teaching in Educational and Community Settings," taught by Associate Director of Dance Mady Cantor; Kanu has completed an independent study focused on dance teaching and has experience teaching dance in a variety of settings); and each has worked with homeless people.

Over the past academic year, Kanu has been conducting dance and expressive-movement workshops with children at Women Against Abuse, a Philadelphia shelter; she has also founded Voices Unleashed, a dance group that addresses community problems and exposes children in inner-city schools to dance as an art, and Street Outreach, a group that coordinates the delivery of excess food from Bryn Mawr's dining halls to a Philadelphia shelter.

Last summer, Edwards taught art and co-curated an exhibition of a homeless artist's work in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Her co-curator was also a homeless man, and Edwards says that she anticipated having to struggle to overcome her own ingrained prejudice against homeless people.

"But I found that when we talked about art, all of that fell away and we were really able to approach each other on level ground. I had no trouble respecting him as an equal," she says.

A Hanna Holborn Gray grant funded her trip to Argentina to research artists' responses to gentrification.  

"The Hanna Holborn Gray internship really changed my understanding of what's possible," Edwards says. "I had personal experience of art as a source of empowerment, and I thought that it could work to improve the lives of people in very difficult situations. But before the internship, it was just a hypothesis. In Buenos Aires, I saw the evidence."

The exhibition Edwards co-curated featured the work of an artist who, Edwards said, had not spoken for several years before he became associated with Arte Sin Techo (Art Without a Roof), the organization that Edwards was researching. After he began painting with Arte Sin Techo, he began to speak.

Edwards also cites the story of a woman from a squatter settlement in Buenos Aires who told her that working with a group of female muralists made it possible for her to return to school to earn a high-school diploma and then a degree in social work.

Kanu, too, has stories about the transformative power of art. She recalls a little boy in the shelter where she taught.

"At first, he was very uncommunicative. His range of motion was very limited, and he hardly spoke. Eventually, the dancing really opened him up. He became so much more confident in his body and with his voice—he always wanted to talk to me about what he had learned in school and what was happening in his life."

Kanu 's work with Axis dance, a company that integrates able-bodied dancers and dancers with disabilities, will likely inform her work with homeless men this summer.

"People who have spent time sleeping on the street tend to have physical problems and may feel alienated from their own bodies," Kanu says. "Encouraging people to tell their stories through movement shows that all bodies can move in beautiful and expressive ways. Dance helps people feel more awareness of and control over their physical presence in the world—it helps you take ownership of your body. That's especially important to homeless people, who really don't own anything else."

If the project is successful, Edwards and Kanu hope to extend it into a long-term program.

"If the participants are interested, we will support them in forming an artists’ collective. They can contribute a set percentage of their book earnings to a pool of funds that will enable them to buy more supplies and continue creating their books," they write in their proposal. "This project is a springboard for innumerable offshoots, only a few of which we have already imagined."

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Posted 5/1/2008 by Claudia Ginanni