Stories can fade away as soon as they are told, unless they are preserved and shared again and again. The See Our Light project in Glenville is bringing residents together to tell their stories and digitize them into a neighborhood art installation. The effort is part of a larger plan within Glenville to bridge the “opportunity divide” by connecting residents to technology.
See Our Light stems from Sonya Pryor-Jones’ vision to bring digital fabrication technology, or computer-aided design that can be used to create objects in the real world, to the neighborhood she grew up in. Pryor-Jones, whose day job is serving as chief of youth and family success in Mayor Bibb’s administration, partnered with Ingenuity Cleveland, Literary Cleveland, and Sears think[box] to capture stories of Glenville residents and create an art installation.
The See Our Light exhibit is under construction and will be displayed at the two Glenville libraries at 11900 St. Clair Ave. and 10200 Superior Ave. After that, it’s slated to eventually move to the new Fab House, a home owned by Pryor-Jones that, after renovation, will house technology like 3D printers for the community – as well as host creators themselves for weeks or months at a time.
From tech industry to neighborhood project
Pryor-Jones was introduced to digital fabrication in 2008 when she worked as executive director of a regional STEM initiative and as an advocate for STEM education. She also worked as vice president and chief strategy officer for the Fab Foundation, which is a network of people and spaces around the world that use digital fabrication for change.
Digital fabrication involves using a variety of tools such as 3D printers, textiles, sewing machines, photography stations, vinyl cutters, and other equipment used for making things. Maker spaces are where the tools are located and provide an opportunity for people to share their expertise.
“I was having a fantastic time learning how the digital fabrication technology was making change in so many places in the world, and my access to the network led me to think how I could make change in the community I love the most, Glenville,” said Pryor-Jones.
So, she reached out to Literary Cleveland, which teaches writing to community members. Pryor-Jones told them about an art project in Barcelona, Spain, that used digital fabrication to create boxes that could be lit up from inside and then stacked on top of each other. She then explained how the Glenville Project would use words, sentences, and images by people in the community to make the box.
“After learning how the storytelling would be used in the final art installation, we said yes because it was right up our alley of getting the community to write about places, their neighborhood, and each other,” said Matt Weinkam, executive director of Literary Cleveland.
Making it happen
Literary Cleveland worked with the Glenville libraries, Sankofa Fine Art Plus, and ThirdSpace Action Lab to invite community residents to participate in the project. Glenville residents and writers Charlotte Morgan and Rhonda Crowder were tapped to facilitate storytelling workshops. Then Crowder, Morgan, and Weinkam met and devised a plan to get residents to tell their stories. They used prompts to get people writing and index cards to keep the stories short.
“We also chose themes that we thought everyone would have something to say about such as new and old places or a place they fell in love at,” said Weinkam. “We asked them to draw vivid pictures of the places to describe what it looks, sounds, and smells like which helped to open up the discussion.”
Four writing workshops were held at the two Glenville public libraries in June through August 2022, during which participants shared their stories and selected words, phrases, colors, and shapes they would like etched into the final art pieces.
Morgan, who has lived in Glenville for more than 50 years, said she was blown away by the stories the participants told. Crowder, a freelance journalist who previously worked for the Call and Post, agreed to be a facilitator because of her love for writing and helping people express themselves and because of the maker space element attached to the project.
“The workshops were wonderful and even therapeutic for residents who lived in Glenville their entire life or who grew up in the neighborhood, moved away, and then came back,” said Crowder. “The participants shared memories of food, restaurants, and people that represented Glenville.”
Glenville resident Rita Knight-Gray is a 60-year Glenville resident who participated in the storytelling workshops after learning about the project from friends and social media. She shared a story about Star Bar-b-que. “I remember them because of their polish boys,” says Knight-Gray. “I went to Kent State University but would travel back to Glenville just to get one.”
From index cards to digitization
As the team collected the stories, Ingenuity Cleveland collected the words and then showed participants various digital fabrication processes and samples that could be used for the art pieces – techniques that will continue to be available at the new Fab House in Glenville.
“Ingenuity is known for working collaboratively on large scale art projects that lift up many voices, so partnering with Sonya [Pryor-Jones] was a perfect fit,” said Emily Appelbaum, artistic director for Ingenuity. “We were brought in as partners to use our expertise of working with community members to bring an artistic vision to life.”
After the storytelling was complete and the art designed, the partners and participants met on September 10 at the Sears think[box] on the CWRU campus to test a prototype of the art. This involved stitching together two art pieces using clear acrylic on color tiles, allowing light to shine through the tiles and illuminate the participants’ words, which were etched onto the tile using laser cutters.
Think[box] was brought in as a partner because it has the equipment and tools that are used for digital fabrication. Ainsley Buckner, director of prototyping and community engagement at think[box], said the facility is open to anyone. “We are like a library, but instead of books we have machines that people can use,” she said.
“Having a Fab House in Glenville creates the ability to pursue digital equity in a community that has been disenfranchised for a long time,” said Dawn Arrington, vice chair of Mantles and Makers, a national organization that focuses on equity in the maker space and organization. Fab House is a project of Mantles and Makers. Arrington said she values the project’s authentic community outreach.
Glenville resident Elisabeth Still, who attended the September 10 event, believes the Fab House will be a great place for people in the neighborhood to explore their creativity once they become aware of it. “This is state-of-the-art equipment and tools,” said Still.
To prepare for the Glenville Fab House opening, Pryor-Jones hired Chenoa Miller as project director. Miller is a recent Glenville High School graduate who has a background in community engagement.
“After being told from someone in Pryor-Jones’ network that the project was about Glenville and had to do with digital equity to help my community, I wanted to be involved,” said Miller. “This will allow access to digital devices and fight the digital divide that exists in our neighborhood.”
Weinkam says that the project has been a great partnership with Glenville residents, and he hopes it is just a starting point. Morgan, for her part, plans to continue with the project and said it could be “a great place for kids to go after school.” Miller wants youth to be present in storytelling, see stories being put together in the Fab House, and hear the stories of prior generations.
While Pryor-Jones did not major in engineering, math, or science, she sees how those disciplines play into everyday life and how important they are. “Regardless of your major, if you’re going to be a citizen in the modern world you have to have some level of knowledge in these areas and be comfortable with it,” she said.
Over the next five years, Pryor-Jones and Miller plan to work to have the Fab House become a staple in Glenville. “I would like it to be the first place where people come to visit and interact with,” said Miller.
Christina Easter participated in The Land’s community journalism program.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Sonya Pryor-Jones lives in Glenville.