Thursday, December 12, 2019

Red Clay Dance Company: Words to Live By: Community Engagement

The leadership of Red Clay Dance Company explores themes and topics inspired by various words that resonate among its artists, students, administrators, and supporters. We have been offering examples in a series of stories this fall and have asked for your responses to them as well.
This month, we conclude with COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT:
  • actively attract and occupy the attention, interests, and voices of our glocal community and involve them in the work of artivism to address our collective needs and interests

What does community engagement mean to Red Clay Dance Company?
Vershawn Sanders-Ward, Founder and Artistic Director
Community engagement starts with our commitment to being deeply rooted in the communities we serve. Rather than situating the company elsewhere in Chicago, we made a commitment to serve the South Side of the city, so our offices and program space had to be on the South Side. To engage means to come to a shared understanding about what each person values, needs, and dreams for and then finding synergy and connectivity in these areas to begin building and working towards a common goal. Community engagement is about respect and care for the communities you are part of and allowing that understanding to guide every decision about how you build together. Red Clay Dance strongly believes that we are stronger together, and every community has value because people have value. The key to finding alignment in community-building work is honoring and celebrating the assets of every person in that community and collectively and strategically working from a place of abundance, not scarcity. 

Leana Allen, company member

In my own words, community engagement is the gathering and exchanging of goods, services, or ideas with the people around us. I think this has been necessary to ensure the survival and well-being of human society since at least the age of great civilizations. Red Clay serves as a hub in which the black community can gather and learn about issues of social justice, and how to express oneself as an artivist, then walk away with new movement tools. And no one is left behind. I think our Making the Artivist program at Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center is a good example. Being part of these programs has taught me so much. I’ve been able to fill the roles of instructor, student, and employee and learn at all levels. I’m so happy to have been connected to this community, which has engaged and encouraged me to dig deeper.

Cynthia Cornelius, Red Clay Dance Academy coordinator

Community engagement has many definitions across many disciplines. At its root, I believe community engagement is the process by which an individual and/or an organization builds ongoing permanent relationships for social benefits and positive outcomes. Building a trust and understanding the core values and issues of the community are essential to building this relationship. Key to this process is listening, giving the community a voice, empowering and ensuring they have access to relevant, valued social settings and activities.

I have spent more than 25 years as executive director of a nonprofit alternative education school funded by the state of Illinois, designing and implementing creative programs to meet the needs of disadvantaged youth and adults in underserved communities in Chicago and around the state of Illinois. I continue to use these skills as a teaching artist for the award-winning Goodman Theatre, Victory Gardens Theater, and as Red Clay Dance Academy coordinator. I am passionate about the arts and have been successful at motivating at-risk youth and adults to become positive, participating citizens through theater arts, writing, storytelling, music, and dance. I have taught and learned from students, community members, teaching artists, board members, and politicians that art is relevant, educational, engaging, influential, and changes opinions within communities about what is possible.

Anjelica Masson, company ambassador
To me, community engagement means the 
relationship one organization has with the people 
in the neighborhood. I believe Red Clay does a 
fantastic job stretching itself and its resources to 
grow their community and mission, as well as 
creating a safe space for beliefs and voices to 
be heard through dance and art—which also 
might be called “artivism.”

Anthony Vega, board member
Community engagement is a critical component of 
any organization that places the community 
at the center of the organization’s mission. It is 
intentionally placing community as a valued 
partner in the growth and success of a 
company or organization. For me, the 
growth and success of a company relies 
on effective community engagement. Bringing 
our community into the work we do ensures we 
are providing a social benefit. In turn, our 
community allows us the opportunity to 
grow as a company. Community engagement 
isn’t just a motto, a box to check for funders; 
it is a value we practice every day. 
Community engagement is at the center of the 
great work Red Clay Dance creates. From CPS 
partnerships, affordable dance classes for 
South Side youth, and participation in After 
School Matters to its renowned partnerships 
with professionals in the field, Red Clay 
connects with its community at every 
opportunity. At its core, Red Clay Dance 
Company creates opportunities to engage 
community youth through its CPS 
 partnerships and affordable class programs 
and provides a service that has 
benefited its Washington Park community. 
As Red Clay grows, its partnership 
with the community only strengthens. 
Community engagement is lived and 
practiced every day and is the reason Red 
Clay continues to grow and succeed.
We’d like to know what COMMUNITY 
ENGAGEMENT means to 
you! Please email and share your 
thoughts with us.

And, to continue the conversation, 
please join us at  our Winter 
Sharecase and Holiday Party Saturday, 
December 14 at 2 p.m. at Fuller Park 
Auditorium, 331 W. 45th Place, 
Chicago. The event culminates our 
three-part email series Words to 
Live By and features a performance 
by Red Clay Dance Academy students. 
Admission is free; please RSVP at 
Photos top to bottom:
1. “Liberated Bodies," a free multi-generational 
movement workshop conducted by Vershawn 
Sanders-Ward at the Silver Room, summer 
2. Open company rehearsal during the creative 
process of Ekili Munda | What Lies Within at 
Fuller Park, 2018.
3. Vershawn Sanders-Ward with Michael Brown, 
park supervisor at Fuller Park, where where 
Red Clay Dance Company has been an Arts 
Partner in Residence since 2015.
4. Free multi-generational movement workshop 
at Fuller Park, summer 2018.
5. “Liberated Bodies," a free multi-generational 
movement workshop conducted by Vershawn 
Sanders-Ward at the Silver Room, summer 

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