Engaging with Engagement

Earlier this summer, the Steel Yard partnered with LISC Rhode Island to welcome Steve Velazquez  a Providence-based ethnographer/heritage worker  as the Yard’s first ever Community Engagement Coordinator. 

Since his brief stint with the Yard is nearing its close, this blog post will serve as one Steve’s informal parting-gesture. It’ll focus upon discussing the future of a question the Steel Yard took a step back to rethink this summer: “how do we come to define engagement?”



It’s easily one of the most pervasive buzzwords exchanged amongst art curators, public historians, and cultural-workers of the like today. 

And yet, what exactly does the term actually mean? Or rather, what does it mean to not only type about it, but to actively foster it?

Whenever I ask myself this question, I like to think about how when you try to “walk in someone else’s shoes,” it’s almost guaranteed that you’ll find your toes squished, or that your heel will begin to chafe with the fire of a thousand suns. I like to think about how in either case, you recognizing that profoundly awkward feeling in your (unhappy) feet is you doing a good job. Because the point isn’t to make your foot fit; the point is to empathize through similarity as well as uncomfortable difference. To try.

Sure, my life would be miraculously easier if I could take a break with a paperback edition of Engagement for Dummies — hitting the ground running with an algebraic formula for “engaging” with “engagement.” But alas, that’d be missing the point.

While I’m not one for declaring absolutes, I can confidently say that an institution that “engages,” is an institution that
 isn’t afraid to stumble around in these imaginary shoes; to listen-in on what the actual owners have to say; to empathize with why it is that they’re saying it; and to collaborate with them on writing a new story together. A story that not only connects us, but leads us somewhere new.

To echo this conversation into how the Steel Yard is choosing to interpret engagement — how it’s choosing to stumble through the spectrum of shoes that make Providence the stellar place it is — we’re gonna turn our attention to just one community engagement venture the Steel Yard came to actualize this summer: the Pop Up’s.

What’s a Pop Up?

This is a shot of our Dexter Park Pop Up // We asked people to scavenge for local flowers and stencil them into ceramic tiles. 
Make Stuff
Share Stuff
Connect through Stuff

These are the three phrases I’ve been using to market the Steel Yard’s new Pop Up project  the new collection of traveling “art booths” that tries to ask not “how do we bring people into the 
Yard?” but rather “how do we bring the Yard to the people?”

Though ceramics is the only medium that have been been explored thus far, the Steel Yard’s ultimately goal is to erect a fluid circuit of art-making booths that travel into local neighborhoods, and invite passerby’s to get their hands dirty with all of the four mediums that make the Yard what it is (welding, blacksmithing, jewelry, and ceramics). The second goal is to erect art-sharing booths: mini-museums that invite Yardie’s both old and new to display 
their Yard creations, write their own object labels, and join fellow 
participants in curating their Yard experience — their story — to next-door neighbors.

Both booths were designed to openly remediate issues of access and belonging into a collaborative opportunity  a chance to work together in sculpting what’s an unfamiliar Yard to 
some, into a more familiar Yard for all. However, this post will come to a close by focusing upon the three ways in which the early iterations of the art-making Pop Up’s worked as an engagement venture this past summer.

How did they engage?

1) They fostered a deeper dialogue.

Unlike more traditional outreach strategies, the Pop Up’s didn’t ask people to discuss “Yardie things,” they asked people to engage with “Yardie things.” To dive into a multi-sensory dialogue where one could get their hands dirty with a new material, and thereby experience a piece of the Yard on a deeper, more complex level.

2) They fostered an empathetic listen. 

The Pop Up dedicated 
a solid block of time, space, and clay to giving our local communities the floor; to giving people the chance to embody their feelings not only towards creativity but the industrial arts more broadly.

For whether or not people knew about the Steel Yard, the technologies 
and materialities the industrial arts involve command, presented a degree of authority that time and time again often came to read as a “Keep Out” sign to passerby’s. People who were amazed, but also intimidated to participate in the Pop Up at first glance.

3) They fostered both a solution and an open invitation.

With simplicity and multi-sensory learning as its tools, the Pop Up’s have been working to democratize this barrier, dissolve 
inhibitions, and ultimately take a proactive step outside of the Yard to activate positive-morale — a connection to our hallowed ground and the creative possibility it may very well hold for “you.”

Since the Pop Up’s are in their very early days we’ve only been able to see glimpses of the connections, new publics, and new stories that are to come. Yet be this as it may, one thing is certain: through continued ventures like the Pop Up’s, we here on 27 Sims Ave are hard at work with stepping outside our box (Yard?) to think about the discoveries we can make and the new publics with whom we can engage in finding them.

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