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10 Socially Engaged Art Practitioners to Know: 4. Los Angeles Poverty Department

Los Angeles Poverty Department

Los Angeles Poverty Department (LAPD) creates performances and multidisciplinary artworks that connect the experience of people living in poverty to the social forces that shape their lives and communities. LAPD’s works express the realities, hopes, dreams and rights of people who live and work in L.A.’s Skid Row.

LAPD believes in the power of imagination to motivate people —and not only artistically by acknowledging the hopes, dreams, rational and spiritual power at the core of everyone’s humanity. LAPD’s success has encouraged many Skid Row agencies to integrate arts into their programs, and has informed policy. We’re a pipsqueak organization that has had a major impact on raising the value placed on the arts by social service providers and policy makers.

LAPD’s activities and projects have used theater and other arts to thematically focus on a constellation of inter-related issues of continuing importance to Skid Row, and other low-income communities. A common element is to create acknowledgement for the accomplishments of the neighborhood. In articulating the new reality of the neighborhood, we create a narrative that causes re-thinking of a variety of issues, including: gentrification and community displacement, drug recovery, the war on drugs and drug policy reform, the status of women and children on Skid Row and mass incarceration and the criminalization of poverty.

Based on our continuous, committed work on Skid Row, LAPD has been invited to create residency projects in communities throughout the US, and in the UK, France, The Netherlands, Belgium, Bolivia and Nicaragua, working with drug recovery programs, shelters, policy advocates and arts organizations. We’ve won a number of awards including LA Weekly Theater Award; New York’s Bessie Creation Award; the San Francisco Art Institute’s Kent Award; Theater L.A.’s Ovation Award; Cornerstone Theater’s Bridge Award; and an Otto Award for political theater. In 2008, LAPD was nominated for “Prix du Souffleur” award for “Best Ensemble” in Paris theater, for our production “Red Beard, Red Beard”.

LAPD tells the rest of the story, what you don’t hear elsewhere. We create change by telling the story of the community in a way that supports the initiatives of community residents. We want the narrative of the neighborhood to be in the hands of neighborhood people. We work to generate this narrative and to supplant narratives that perpetuate stereotypes used to keep the neighborhood people down or to justify displacing the community. We want to create recognition of the community and it’s values.

We want to create a normative community on Skid Row and normative communities for all people living in poverty. In other words, if they’ve got municipal services in some parts of town, then we want them in ours. If they’ve got parks, restaurants, community centers, then we want the same. We want the same policing in our community as in others. Not, bending of the laws to serve racial profiling or to effect any other aim such as harassing people so that they will leave the neighborhood so that it can be developed.

We make change by creating initiatives that bring together Skid Row service providers, grass roots organizations and community members. With the Urban Institute and Americans for the Arts, we initiated a series of neighborhood convening’s for residents and community organizations to articulate the role of culture in Skid Row and to find out what they desire for the future. The results were published by Americans for the Arts in a paper co-authored by Maria Jackson of the Urban Institute and John Malpede of LAPD. The paper affirmed the importance of grass roots culture arising from the initiatives of Skid Row residents, and has been a hugely well-received and often cited source of validation among Skid Row cultural activists. As OG Man, whose initiatives include art workshops and starting the Skid Row 3 on 3 basketball league told Malpede, while brandishing a copy of the report: “Now, finally we got proof of what we knew along but no one listened to.” In July 2010, we hosted a panel with the LA Central Library in their very visible ALOUD series that announced our “Walk the Talk” project: a peripatetic performance with 36 scenes. Each scene in “Walk the Talk” was performed at the site associated with the efforts of 36 neighborhood social and cultural visionaries. This project has become a bi-annual parade-performance event and includes both the performance and the creation and installation of a permanent public artwork — a wall of portraits, of these same community visionaries.

In April 2015, LAPD opened it’s Skid Row History Museum & Archive at 440 S. Broadway. The museum functions as a means for exploring the mechanics of displacement in an age of immense income inequality, by mining a neighborhood’s activist history and amplifying effective community resistance strategies. It also serves as a literal and artistic common ground, a welcoming space for Angelenos to meet and mingle and explore civic issues together.

LAPD values accessibility and inclusion. We meet people where they are. We don’t give life sentences: “homeless”, “drug addict”, “crack addict”. We believe people grow and change. Tolerance. Society judges, gives labels rather than giving the space for recovery. LAPD doesn’t do that. Not judging, we build compassion.

(Source: LAPD History)

Photo courtesy LAPD

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