On a map of the city, Original Northwood and New Northwood are interlocking puzzle pieces, adjacent to one another. In reality, says Brian Francoise, the two neighborhoods couldn’t be farther apart.
“Original Northwood is more white, with more single-family homes. It was built by the Roland Park Company, and at one point in time, black people couldn’t even live there,” Francoise says. “New Northwood has more row homes and is 97 percent black.
Francoise, a theater artist who lives in Original Northwood, was troubled by the separateness, and says many of his neighbors—in both communities—were too.
So with this Community Fellowship, Francoise will use his background as an educator and artist to try to create bridges between the two Northeast Baltimore neighborhoods and encourage them to work collectively on issues that would benefit both communities.
“This is what I call civic arts practice,” Francoise says. “It’s when artists employ the assets of their craft in response to community needs. Theater people, for example, are marketers—we’re communicators. We know how to do a lot of things that might help the non-arts community.”
As a part of his fellowship, the Sister Neighborhood Arts Program (SNAP), Francoise plans to recruit a pool of artists, citizens and activists—both young and old—to enroll in a civic theater course. While the community members are learning about civic arts, Francoise will attend neighborhood meetings, listening, learning and building relationships. After the course is over, the team will create an original play, exploring the history of Greater Northwood, and infusing the production with real issues about which the neighbors are concerned.
Francoise and the troupe of newly-minted neighborhood civic artists will then perform the “history play” in and around the neighborhoods, engaging audiences in dialogue about segregation and other issues.
“There may be a dance number in the play or if kids want to do spoken word or some kind of music, we’ll incorporate that too,” Francoise says. “We want to show and tell the stories of the people who live here, and use the play to talk about our shared history and our shared futures, as a collective of neighborhoods.”
Francoise hopes the two communities will develop a neighborhood cultural plan and calendar, including arts-related ways to address community issues, such as violence prevention, health and wellness and childhood hunger. The plan might include a video or a blog series, or a celebratory street festival, he says.
The Morgan Community Mile—a community engagement and improvement initiative of Morgan State University, which straddles both neighborhoods—will partner with Francoise to provide workshop and performance space and promotion of events. Francoise also sees Morgan students and faculty making excellent ensemble members or volunteers. Francoise also will meet with residents and perform in libraries, churches or in private homes to be sure as many people as possible are heard.
“I’m going to go where the people are in these communities, to build trust, build bridges and help frame other people’s creativity,” he says.
Over time, he hopes to see a more integrated community, where problems are solved among community members and interdependence wins over separateness. But Francoise, a single father of two boys ages 11 and 7, also hopes to show his own sons what it means to bridge divides through art.
“There are gaps that need to be closed and I’m willing to take a risk to try to figure out how to do it,” he says. “I’m trying to show them what community building can look like.”