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Shey Rivera Ríos and the importance of Providence's artists, healers, and culture bearers

"People have been displaced, they've been used for their cultural and artistic gifts but many of them can't live in the city. I'm one of the people who doesn't know if I can afford a home in Providence now, where I've poured my energy for years. So what is the relationship we want to see between art and culture, affordable housing, wellbeing, and climate justice?"

Shey Rivera Ríos
Shey Rivera Ríos (Cat Laine, Painted Foot Studio)

The Providence Preservation Society organized two conversations about the Comprehensive Plan on May 30 and June 3 at their Meeting Street offices where around 75 people participated. It was at the first of those meetings that Shey Rivera Ríos knocked me out with their take on arts and culture in Providence. Shey Rivera Ríos is an artist and cultural worker in Providence who “creates digital and physical altars that interrupt colonial memory and liberate queer Boricua futurity. Their work is transmedial, with narratives interwoven across multiple platforms and formats. They use digital art, performance, and installation to create a mejunje (mix) where magical realism and science fiction become doors to decolonial futures.”

The City Plan Commission approved the draft Comprehensive Plan on June 18. It now moves to the City Council and the Mayor for final approval.

I spent some time with Shey transcribing and refining their words from that meeting:

“I've been a resident of Providence, Rhode Island for the past 14 years. I'm a cultural worker, artist, and local organizer. I've been doing deep work in this community - in the arts and culture sector - for the past 14 years. My lens is art and culture, but the role of art pushes across sectors, so I'm heavily invested in the community development side, community participation in planning, and civic processes related to environment, health, and education. I was one of three lead facilitators for the Providence Cultural Plan. When I first came to Providence, I read the first cultural plan, which was in 2009 and I recently revisited it. It had a big focus on economic development which was great - it provided some starting points but it also had a lot of gaps, especially around cultural equity and quality of life.

“It's been a long time since that plan was made and a lot of things have shifted, specifically, there is a direct call for cultural equity and specific practices in the draft Arts and Culture Chapter of the Comprehensive Plan [page 39]. I love seeing that the new cultural plan’s strategies are in there. I also was wary about it, because it didn’t include the specific ways in which the strategies that we identified in the cultural plan would be addressed. We need the commitment to specificity and want it to be intentional. 

“The current cultural plan emphasizes the role of art and culture in different sectors. For a long time, our culture was used as the economic piece, and that facilitated the development of cultural facilities. We have AS220, we have the Waterfire Center, the Steel Yard - and that's great because it ensured permanence when a lot of economic strategies for cities use artists and art spaces as displacers.

“Artists are regular people who struggle. There are working-class artists and people from very diverse backgrounds who make up a large part of our creative economy. This idea that artists are outsiders is not accurate. There are a lot of residents who are culture bearers and artists - and they still struggle. 

“People gravitate to affordability. Providence in the nineties was an economically depressed place. There was a strategy to push for economic development and make sure that these cultural venues were permanent. That's great because we have permanent places, however, flash forward to 2024 and, as you all know, we are in a precarious place where we do not have affordable housing. People have been displaced, they've been used for their cultural and artistic gifts but many of them can't live in the city. I'm one of the people who doesn't know if I can afford a home in Providence now, where I've poured my energy for years. So what is the relationship we want to see between art and culture, affordable housing, wellbeing, and climate justice?

“What I like about this cultural plan is the idea that back in the day, Providence was thinking about art and culture as community development. We still are a leader in this. A lot of cities don't know this, but there are advanced ways that we're using art and culture to preserve place. This specific focus on the cultural plan and place-keeping is super important.

“In the comprehensive plan, they took up the seven strategies of the new cultural plan. The seven strategies are art and well-being which includes the right of people to live healthy lives. It includes climate, health, and justice. There's place-keeping in neighborhoods. We have to preserve the cultural fabric of our neighborhoods and the people who live and work there - small local businesses should not be displaced. There's so much richness.

“Then there's the creative workforce and creative economy piece. For me, that's important because our cultural sector tends to be seen as an add-on - like our whole purpose is to fill hotels and restaurants - and that's not what it is.

“We are cultural workers. We have small businesses. We get artists paid. We get young people paid. We do all this work that's important in the economy. In a time when all these structures are falling apart and things are shifting, a lot of people have developed alternative ways to form economies here. We need support and we rely on each other. We are a very strong fabric of people doing important work, but there's not enough sourcing for the creative workforce and creative economy pouring into that. People don't see us as small business owners. Then there are resilient nonprofits as another cultural plan strategy. Many institutions have been resourced for a long time, but a big gap is the resourcing for cultural organizations. There's only Expansion Arts, which is one program that supports culturally specific orgs and it's not enough. They get $10,000 a year and you all know you can't run a nonprofit organization on $10,000 a year. That's crazy. 

“The other piece is about the future of arts, teaching, and learning. We have incredible afterschool programs here for young people that save young people's lives and give them job readiness, pathways, and a sense of community and ownership that allows them to rise as leaders. These are stellar, award-winning programs. What do we do to support the teachers, though? What about the people who are doing the work on the ground? There's a big gap of support there. You all are seeing art and culture, but we're interconnected with everyone else.

“The last strategy of the cultural plan is public awareness, advocacy, and tourism. 

“I am not a tourism person. I believe that we need the place-keeping piece to center the people who have been doing the work for a long time. How can we solve the precariousness and the lack of resourcing for people to do their work and not leave, not lose their homes, be able to source their families, and have health care? That should be the center of our investment in our own culture - us here. If we center the people most impacted here, the people who come from other places to join us in art and cultural celebrations are going to benefit. But we can't center the other way around. We can't be focused on who's going to come in when we are not taking care of our house and our people. It's great that people from Connecticut and Massachusetts come to Rhode Island, but not when our artists can't afford to have healthcare for their kids.

“We all benefit from the beauty and the power of cultural work and this piece about art and healing is very important. We are going through so much hardship in our society right now. It's the culture bearers and the healers who remind us of hope and connection and we need to source that work. It's often taken for granted. I see it as similar to the labor that women and non-binary people do. That's the emotional labor of caring for family and community and it's often not seen or compensated. We need to shift the language and we need resources that work.

Arts, Culture, and Tourism has a budget of $1.3 million annually. The three top line items in the city budget are the schools, police, and firefighters. We are thinking about all the ways we need to support our community, society, and young people - but we're opting for policing instead of looking at what our young people need, like recreation centers, more teachers, health resources, and more programming. We have health community workers, let's put them to work to support folks with substance abuse and things like that. We need to do more affordable housing - but real affordable housing - not pretend affordable housing that is market rate.

“I believe in the power of art and culture. I believe in our artists. I believe in the power of our young people to define the future. I like that the Comp Plan incorporates the cultural plan, but where's the budget? We're seeing less resourcing toward a sector that takes care of important social issues. We need to see real investment and resources being committed to make this impactful work possible.”

Shey Rivera Ríos

Editor's note: this article was originally published on Steve Alquist's reader-supported Substack on June 24, 2024. It is reprinted here with his permission.


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