In 2019, a group of local activists met to brainstorm ideas on how to promote voter participation and civic engagement in the Buckeye neighborhood, and with the support of the Saint Luke’s Foundation and Cleveland VOTES, the Informative Action Committee (IAC) was born.
Erika Anthony, co-founder of Cleveland VOTES, an organization that works to elevate and amplify civic engagement in low-income or hard to reach communities, explains that their main contribution to the project was to give IAC the tools to mobilize other residents in Wards 4 and 6. With the help of training sessions and resources, IAC created a website, printed informational materials, and opened a physical space to bring the community together.
IAC’s art gallery at 11917 Buckeye Road opened its doors October 10. “I See Voices Art x Activism,” its first exhibition, showcases the artwork of 10 local black artists from Wards 4 and 6. The gallery aims to spark conversations and spur civic engagement in a safe space, through live stream events and socially-distanced in-person events.
“I See Voices” was a dream project of Josh Perkins, who is in charge of the gallery and is a Cleveland VOTES Democracy Fellow and cofounder of IAC. Perkins believes that the formula to get people involved is to meet them where they are. “The grocery store, at the places where they hang out, the playground, at social centers, you have to go where people are and bring the information to them,” he said.
Perkins, a Buckeye resident, has a long history with advocacy and civic engagement. He and his mother ran the multicultural arts organization A Cultural Exchange on Larchmere Boulevard. He currently works in business development for a construction company.
In 2017, Perkins ran for city council in Ward 6 against 13 other candidates. He came in second, but instead of feeling defeated, Perkins was motivated to do more, having heard directly from residents about the issues that were affecting them. Voter turnout in Ward 6 is typically very low, and Perkins wants to help change that.
“When you have single parent homes, people working 70 hours a week to survive … sometimes they don’t have the energy to get engaged,” he said. “When I was running for council and knocked on people’s doors, half the people didn’t know who their councilwoman was or what that person was responsible for.”
He believes the art gallery can be a place that helps connect people to their communities. In addition to spurring civic engagement, the IAC’s goal is to bring the arts to those who don’t usually experience them. “It is a mission of mine to bring as much … beautiful fine art [as I can], right into our urban corridors,” Perkins said.
For Perkins, it’s very important to support Black artists by giving them a space to show and sell their work. One of the pieces on display in the gallery is “A New Day,” which depicts a young black protester in warm colors standing in a black-and-white crowd full of signs that read “Be the CHANGE” and “Amplify your VOICE”. Inspired by Black Lives Matter, artist Stina Aleah explained that her art is a call to say, “All of us possess a unique voice and experience that can transform our communities. This painting is symbolic of shedding the fear of standing up and standing out.”
Although the Covid-19 pandemic has made the project challenging, they’ve adjusted to this reality by holding events outdoors as much as possible, including socially distanced barbeques in the parking lot. The space can accommodate 20 people wearing masks. People can also view the artwork by appointment.
IAC’s gallery, which is part of the Long House Community Arts Building owned by Robert Bray, will run until the next primary election in May and is open on Monday and Wednesday from 4-7:30 pm and Saturday from 1-5 pm. Perkins hopes that this project will inspire similar efforts in other neighborhoods.
Claudia Longo is a bilingual freelance writer, translator and social media coordinator who lives in Cleveland with her husband and two children.