Elise Pepple & Heather Zinger: A Conversation

This week we will be featuring conversations with leaders working in communities. Elise Pepple is storyteller extraordinaire based out of Portland, Maine where she is currently pursuing her Master’s in Social Work as well as working on Portland Brick which builds public memory by collecting stories about place from those who have been long term residents in the community. Heather Zinger is a multimedia artist working at the intersection of art and health in Fargo, North Dakota. She is currently working at the Artist-in-Residence at the Cancer Center as well as working as an Artist Organizer in western Minnesota to promote healthier communities. She is piloting an organization, ART LAB that will use art to build healthier, more inclusive communities.

We found out we have an incredible amount of things in common. We both have fraternal twins, speak French, and LOVE swapping stories. We both dig how the Field Notes questions gave us an opportunity to talk about problematic rhetoric and what community-engaged work looks like. We’d love to hear any thoughts and comments about our responses below, which centered heavily on questions of identity, representation, inclusion, facilitation, relevancy and humility:

How do you define “community?”

Elise: To me, the word “community” has the same potential and pitfall as the word “god.” Often when it is used I wonder if there are a lot of assumptions embedded. Like how with the word “god” a bunch of people think of a white dude with a beard, but for other people there are many gods, animal gods, and no god. I wonder with the word “community” if we are similarly imagining a singular fantastical (be it collective) being. The word “communities” has the benefit of reflecting no singular entity.

There is something for me about my experience of community and the way I get the word that relates to the human scale. It is the number of people I can wrap my head around and care about. I can wrap my head around the 400 people I lived with in a small town in Alaska. I knew all their faces. I knew on some level their personalities. I also knew they knew me for better or worse as a flawed person they shared life with.

Heather: “Community” for me means a place where I find connection and a sense of belonging. I think of it as a place where I can make everyday (and fairly pedestrian) contributions to the lives of those around me. That being said, “community” can take on a multitude of meanings and along with that, some underlying assumptions that may only speak to a specific identity or set of interests. My interest in this regard is to learn how to expand the discourse and rhetoric around the word “community” so that differing ideas and needs are able to co-exist side by side in public spaces and imaginings.


How do you see the role of cultural entrepreneurs like you in the community?

Elise: Is “cultural entrepreneur” a compliment or an epithet? Does professionalizing a field that has way less to do with economic success a misnomer? Is it a misappropriation of that language to apply a word that relates risk to economic payoff? Is it a way to make work that makes no money feel at least sexy via a title? Also, I wonder how we get knighted as cultural entrepreneurs. Who calls us that? Or what would be what people who see us do what we do call us? Weirdoes? I like the etymology as someone who “undertakes.” I see the role of creative think/doers as working outside systems they can evaluate to undertake what is missing with the hope of applying generative strategies that increase vitality.

Heather: I don’t necessarily self-define as a cultural entrepreneur. Culture has been around since the beginning of humankind. It evolved, as a response to the physical environment, bodily needs for survival and the psychological need for meaning. Fundamentally, culture is not pre-constructed or linear, rather it’s a responsive process driven by having a human mind, body and spirit. In this way, it’s very human centric. I also find that the phrase borrows heavily from business culture and rhetoric that I find problematic at times. In a nutshell, business culture formed around making and selling products and services this is not the case for culture or the arts which are usually process heavy and experientially focused.


Why do you think people are talking about creative placemaking so much now?

Elise: I think people talk about creative placemaking because of the general malaise generated by an over-mediated and under-connected world. I think we dream about connecting. I think it is the same reason people are obsessed with the idea of place and the idea of home. In a good way, I think it reflects what eaters know: flavor is local. So how do we celebrate local flavor?

Heather: The advent of technology that now permeates and mediates so much of our lives is creating a lot of physical isolation. It’s also impacted spaces that were deemed as both public and social. Here in the States, most people are encouraged to have their own car, their own house, their own shed of tools, a lawnmower, etc. There are less daily moments to connect outside of work, to collectively share, to collaborate, to participate…

I think there’s a need to re-activate and re-engage public spaces to address these larger social needs. Studies have shown that being social is pertinent to good health. I was reading about Duke University’s healing arts program and as soon as patients had their own rooms with TVs they were less interested in going to public spaces in the hospitals to watch performances. The challenges with “creative placemaking” are similar to the word “community.” Who are we re-imagining these spaces for? These re-imagined spaces would serve what habits? What behaviors? What interests? Does everyone have a voice at the table?


Talk about the work you’re doing in your community: What was the catalyst for this work? What started you on this journey?

Elise: The catalyst for my work is the social work principles that all people desire a sense of belonging and a sense of meaning…but that the way social work does this is boring. I see my work as an opportunity to experiment with increasing both a sense of belonging and a sense of meaning. I am in social work school but I would like social work to embed more vital strategies into how they create both of these things. I think creative strategies may be useful tinctures to eye-drop into social infrastructures. If done well, they don’t dilute it, they help it heal and laugh. But if you want a one-liner, I do this work because it matters. By “it” I don’t mean this work. I mean you matter, this time on the planet matters, the people I am walking by on the street matter!

Heather: I currently work as the Artist Organizer for Springboard for the Arts and PartnerSHIP 4 Health where I use art to engage different communities and organizations to become healthier. I also work as the Artist-in-Resident in the local Cancer Center. What I’m finding is that many people want to use art to heal themselves or others, to connect with others, to influence others, etc. In this region there’s a ton of interest in community engaged artwork and practice but there isn’t much support for artists who want to do this work anchored firmly in the arts. How can one remain an artist but work on projects or in communities in and around social issues and concerns? How does an artist navigate this? What should they learn, be aware of? Who is talking to them about ethics and relational boundaries? The experience that most artists get in art school can be very divorced from the world post art school. Even in the handful of “Social Practice” programs out there, there is not much critique and/or examination of white identities and privilege in the creation of community engaged work. When white privilege in not unpacked and dismantled, it will continue to promote systems of oppression.


What is the driving force? What continues to motivate the work?

Elise: I am motivated by the fact that I see all people, all places as site-specific work. There are a million beautiful possibilities. I want to see those possibilities happen.

Heather: To see, hear and heal those that want and need to be seen, heard and healed.


Who is it for? Who benefits from this work?

Elise: Historically this has been a tricky question. To borrow from social work, this was historically a field in which white women decided who the deserving poor were and what they needed. I have no idea if anyone will benefit from this work. My hope is that this work celebrates who people are and what makes a place unique. The experiment is to do the work and find out.

Heather: Me. Local communities. The world.


What is the role of cultural entrepreneurs like you in the cultural sector?

Elise: Sheesh! I was just about to try to say something really self-important! Can I answer with an emoji?

Heather: My role is to show up and be right sized. To acknowledge that I’m participating consciously in a process, not running the show.


When you hear the terms “cultural sector” or “arts and culture field” do you feel that includes you? Why or why not?

Elise: I want these terms to include me because peeps in the cultural sector know how to have a good time and are such good dressers! I also want an economy where all folks know and feel they are included in the cultural sector. Separating people from culture is I think a byproduct of Cartesian dualism. Based on how I present, as a woman in loud dresses, I at least look like a part of the arts and cultural field.

Heather: I feel that I’m in the arts and culture field, though more specifically, I’m anchored in the arts and healing field. I see art is a response to culture. For example, all this focus on socially and community engaged art practice is quite telling that this might be a neglected area in our larger culture. What I hear more often than not most days is that feelings of disconnection and isolation are rampant.


Finally, fill in the blank: Creative/cultural work makes communities _______.

Elise: Creative work can make communities more fun. Cultural work can make communities celebrate their inherent value.

Heather: Stronger, more relevant, more connected to the meaning making mechanism that exists in us all.



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