Lawrence, MA – Eleven artists, municipal leaders, and creative business owners graduated on Oct. 26 from Essex County Community Foundation’s Creative County ChangeMakers program.
The eight-month leadership support program – which includes facilitated and project-based learning, peer networking, and leadership training with area experts – is designed to build an inclusive and sustainable arts and culture ecosystem in Essex County. The goal is to connect people with diverse perspectives and backgrounds to grow a network of creative leaders who understand the importance and power of thinking regionally and strategically about arts and culture.
The graduation celebration took place at El Taller Café and Bookstore in Lawrence, where the new ChangeMakers – the third cohort to complete the program – shared their experiences with event attendees, including previous ChangeMakers graduates, friends, and supporters.
“What a group you are,” said ECCF’s Creative County program director Karen Ristuben, who co-facilitated the ChangeMakers program alongside Creative County steering committee members Lisa Miller-Gillespie, a 2022 ChangeMaker and the executive director of Lawrence Festival of the Arts and communications consultant Danielle Coates-Connor. “We’re so grateful for the energy and dedication you all brought to this program.”
During the graduation celebration, each participant shared highlights from the program and the details of how they plan to leverage their $1,000 ChangeMaker grants to seed impactful arts and cultural projects across Essex County.
ChangeMaker project ideas include a traveling creative writing and theater workshop based in Salem; a colorful and inclusive redesign of the courtyards at Methuen grammar schools; building the capacity of the newly formed Ipswich Art Association; and, in Haverhill, a series of educational trainings that would educate local municipal leaders about the importance of arts and culture in planning.
“We spent time learning about arts and culture ecosystems; we learned about policy change,” said 2023 ChangeMaker Erin Padilla, executive director of Creative Haverhill, a group that is leading the longtime movement to transform the former Cogswell School into a robust community arts center. With a series of municipal trainings for incoming city officials, Padilla hopes that she can inspire a collective understanding of how arts and culture can be a powerful catalyst for positive change in the city. “We’re going to move in that direction thanks to the [ChangeMakers] program. We really believe in the systems-level change these trainings could provide.”
The celebratory event at El Taller was filled with laughter, emotion, and energy as participants talked about the ChangeMakers program’s impact on them personally and professionally.
“This has been an amazing experience,” said Vanessa Lopez, the director of Veasey Memorial Park in Groveland, who is working on building organizational capacity and increasing engagement in support of the park. “I’ve learned so much – about myself and my community.”
“This cohort showed me that I don’t have to go to Atlanta to find a sense of community,” said Lawrence resident and Christian hip-hop artist Otto de la Cruz, who founded Light of the World, a gathering and concert by like-minded creatives.
With previous shows in Atlanta and Lakeland, Fla., de la Cruz is bringing his first show to Lawrence on Nov. 4.
Overall, ChangeMakers participants expressed appreciation, gratitude, and a desire to continue to develop the connections they made over the last eight months.
“I hope we can continue to inspire each other and know that we’re not alone,” Lopez said.
“I’m very lucky to have been a part of this amazing leadership project,” said Maurisa “Reese” Charest, an adjunct faculty fellow in Northern Essex Community College’s theatre arts program, who proposed the traveling creative writing workshop. “To my cohorts, thank you for laughing at my jokes and listening to my ideas and validating them.”
Fittingly, the evening ended the same way ChangeMakers began – with art at the heart of it all. For her project, ChangeMaker and owner of Slow River Studio in Topsfield, Jess Yurwitz, proposed a series of free art workshops across Essex County. The goal is to share the creative and healing craft of sketching. And she wanted to make her case with a demonstration.
She asked everyone in the room to grab a piece of paper and pen, to study the person sitting across from them and, without once looking at their paper or lifting their pen, to draw their subject. Within seconds of starting this blind, continuous line-drawing exercise, the room erupted in laughter and conversation.
“And that is the magical, healing quality of art,” said Yurwitz. “It is very simple to teach people to become artists. I’m on a mission to help people identify themselves as artists.”
Connecting people to art – and to each other – is the key to building and strengthening the arts and culture ecosystem across Essex County.
“This is the human infrastructure for change,” said ECCF Executive Vice President and COO Stratton Lloyd, pointing around the room. “And you all are a part of it.”
“Thank you for being a ChangeMaker, for being so vulnerable, and for bringing your gifts and talents to this group,” Miller-Gillespie told participants.
The 2023 ChangeMakers graduates include:
Mitch Ahern, Trustee, G.A.R Hall and Museum, Lynn; Director of Operations Museum of Printing, Haverhill
Cynthia August, founder, Ipswich Art Association; chair, Ipswich Cultural Council
Julie Barry, Senior Planner for Arts & Culture, Planning and Community Development, City of Salem
Edwin Cabrera, Founder, Lynn Hip Hop Wall of Fame; Executive Directory, Lynn Music Foundation
Maurisa “Reese” Charest, Adjunct Faculty Fellow, theatre arts, Northern Essex Community College
Otto de la Cruz, Lawrence hip hop artist
Sunil Gulab, Artist, community organizer, Lynn Creative Cities; Lynn Arts Festivals
Jennifer Loiselle, Activity Coordinator, Methuen Senior Center; President, Tenney Grammar School PTO; Chair, Methuen Cultural Council; founder, Methuen Artists Unite
Vanessa Lopez, Director, Veasey Memorial Park, Groveland
Erin Padilla, Executive Director, Creative Haverhill and Cogswell ArtSpace, Haverhill
Jess Yurwitz, Founder and owner, Slow River Studio, Topsfield