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Investing in Arts Education

How Integrating the Arts Into Our Communities Builds Opportunity

Photo: Courtesy of Jesson Mata

Allentza Michel is a social practice artist, urban planner, and policy advocate. She has 19 years of experience across community and economic development, food security, public health, and transportation.


Allentza Michel

Social Practice Artist, Urban Planner, Policy Advocate and Founder, Powerful Pathways

Michel is also the founder of Powerful Pathways, a consultancy that combines urban planning and art as well as provides workshops and community initiatives on urban planning and civic design. Powerful Pathways works closely with nonprofits and government agencies to advocate for local underserved communities.

Recently, Michel was awarded the Jorge and Darlene Pérez Prize in Public Art & Civic Design. The foundation and its award were designed to “empower all stakeholders in the public art process and to create a platform to develop greater national visibility and appreciation of the unique role that the arts play in shaping our experience of the built environment.” Michel’s award included a cash stipend of $30,000 to support her work and help facilitate discussions with national leaders in the arts.

A space of refuge

Michel’s passion for the arts started at a young age, and it would go on to influence her career path. “I have been writing and drawing for as long as I can remember,” she says. “The arts have always served as a space of refuge from the weariness of the world for me. As I got older and began working in community development and organizing, art making was a vehicle for expression and bringing people together.”

Although she never received a formal degree in the fine arts, she took several arts classes throughout undergraduate and graduate school, and her passion for the arts never dimmed. Unfortunately, Michel notes, there aren’t any higher education programs that combine urban planning and public policy with the fine arts. However, she hopes cross-sectional career paths will become more common and accessible in the future.

“I hodgepodge[d] my college education,” she says. “It was very a difficult experience, and there was even some resistance, but I think now there is more openness to cross-sectional career paths.”

Building a platform

On her work with Powerful Pathways, Michel says, “It’s sad to admit, but in the past seven years, Powerful Pathways has never received a grant of more than $5,000 for our community-engaged arts practice. Like with academia, the work we do is not common because social practice art is still considered new and unconventional to institutions, including big philanthropy.” This lack of support and recognition often means that Michel must sacrifice some of the time that could have been put into community-based initiatives.

“We find ourselves getting complimented for our work but rarely selected or deemed eligible for funding,” she says. “It also means we are in a pinch as we grow as an organization. The [Jorge and Darlene Pérez Prize] will support just that — our community engagement in the arts. And my personal hope is to build a platform to amplify the importance of having community members deeply involved in a process.”

Civic design and urban planning are still considered a relatively young field, and as such, awards like the Jorge and Darlene Pérez Prize in Public Art & Civic Design can help young professionals learn about the field and its opportunities. Michel remains excited about the future of the field, and she notes that civic design training and education are needed.

She also shares that her company will soon be offering virtual talks and presentations that will discuss the social impact of design, as well as policies that disrupt design and cause harm to the communities they are meant to serve.

“Civic design is about so much more than putting up murals for beautification,” she says. “The ‘civic’ means that the people are democratically setting the course for themselves and revitalizing their community, with art being just one of many design dimensions they can take.”

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