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Strengthening Community, One Love Letter at a Time 

by Margo Saulnier and Michael Johnson

A flautist and trombonist performing in front of a mural.
Photo Credit: John Robson
Local musicians Kat Knutsen and Michael Gallant performing in downtown New Bedford. Photo by John Robson.

Step aside, Paris: New Bedford, Massachusetts is the new city of love. Residents created a city-wide letter-writing campaign that inspired an internationally successful documentary.

Each of us has a compelling story to tell. Each of us has a story that can move others to action. It’s this shared belief in the power of stories that inspired Arts Midwest and the community of New Bedford, Massachusetts to collaborate on a year-long effort to listen, support, and celebrate the connections being created by art, culture, and creative experiences.  

There is a magic to artists. And New Bedford is blessed to have an incredible pool of talented people who have a deep attachment to the city and a fierce ambition to involve themselves in its civic, professional, and community life. Their creativity took center stage in 2022, through a love letters campaign that started with grants to artists and organizations and culminated in an international-award-winning documentary short about the city and its 101,000 residents.  

A woman in blue standing in front of a mural of a woman singing.
Photo Credit: John Robson
Vocalist Candida Rose Baptista of Golden Rose Music in front of Eden Soares’s mural celebrating Cape Verdean culture at the Cape Verdean Association in New Bedford’s Island Park. Photo by John Robson.

Arts Midwest came to New Bedford as part of Creating Connection, a national research and messaging initiative that works to make creative expression, arts, and culture a recognized, valued, and expected part of everyday life.  While previous iterations of Creating Connection focused more broadly on professional development to arts administrators nationally through workshops and peer-learning cohorts, this past year was focused on deeply learning and loving one place.  

In total, more than a half million in grants and contracts were dispersed to strengthen non-profit organizations and artists in the city through Creating Connection. These community stories are the ones that sometimes get lost, are unheard, or are not amplified enough in our daily lives, but really reflect the spirit and vibrancy of New Bedford. 

What were examples of Creating Connection in New Bedford?  

Re-telling New Bedford’s History

Lee Blake, president of the New Bedford Historical Society, is on a mission to document and celebrate the history and culture of African Americans, Cabo Verdeans, Native Americans and other people of color in the region. Motivated by the African proverb “Until the lions have their historians, tales of the hunt shall always glorify the hunter,” Lee believes the power of creative expression is one of the most effective ways to tell the stories of freedom seekers, like Frederick Douglass, whose first home in freedom was in New Bedford, as she describes in her interview on PBS News Hour 

Highlighting Creative Entrepreneurs

Artist Dena Haden runs the Co-Creative Center, a gallery, workshop, and co-working space for creative entrepreneurs. Her work last year to highlight artists in New Bedford is culminating with a book being published in October 2023 by Adams Media, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, called “On the Wall Posters: Street Art – 30 Graffiti-Inspired Wall Posters.” Pre-order your copy on Amazon or pick one up this fall at Urban Outfitters.  

Spreading City-Wide Love 

Iva Brito believes the creative practice can serve as a practice for liberation and spreading love. Her project provided immigrant youth a holistic learning experience to explore civic leadership. Julia Roth Ritchie and Cedric “Vise 1” Douglas created a Love Letters post cards, asking residents what they loved and wished for the city, and also how the city could love them back.  

A group of people seated around a table, engaged in discussion.
Photo Credit: John Robson
Creative Ambassadors meeting at artist Rhonda M. Fazio’s Interwoven to plan their Love Letters for New Bedford campaign. Photo by John Robson.

Sharing Artistic Practices 

Artist Rhonda M. Fazio knows first-hand the challenges of being a full-time artist and single mother. She became the most creative during her most trying times and shared her years of artistic practice through her workshops “Dying to Wear It: Creating Community Through Color,” “SNAP to the Max,” using SNAP benefits at Farmers’ Markets to make nutritious meals, and her “Interwoven,” a gallery and maker space that creates a safe space for all to explore their creativity.  

Highlighting Immigrant and Black Culture  

Several other organizations and artists accomplished impactful work in the community. Singer, composer, and educator Candida Rose Baptista’s song “Love Each Other Through” was the inspiration for the Love Letters campaign. The Cape Verdean Association produced a documentary to highlight Cabo Verdean culture and history. Journalist Gerardo Beltrán Salinas is “the voice for those without a voice,” sharing stories of immigrants, most from central America. 3rd EyE Youth Empowerment held hip-hop pop-ups in front of free walls in several neighborhoods, where artist Mandy Fraser asked residents what they love about the city and incorporated their words into her murals. BuyBlackNB expanded their pop-up vendor markets to feature youth from middle and high schools celebrating Black excellence and creative entrepreneurship.  

Cultivating Open Art Experiences  

New Bedford Symphony Orchestra worked with staff, teachers, and families from Gomes Elementary School to do a fun family fest. DATMA (Design Art & Technology MA) held outdoor design workshops to promote their free large-scale outdoor public art exhibits. New Bedford Art Museum created “The People’s Gallery” to feature work by residents who attend their free open studios and stop by their ARTmobile in parks and community centers. 

Creating Meaningful Documentation 

Filmmaker Ethan de Aguiar recorded over 50 events, exhibits, and programs throughout the city. He and Beatriz Oliveira interviewed dozens of artists, which culminated in the award-winning “Love Letters for New Bedford” 15-minute documentary that is currently on the film festival circuit.  

A crowd seated in a theater applaud as two people stand.
Photo Credit: John Robson
Community members at the “Love Letters for New Bedford” private film screening, a project made possible through Creating Connection. Filmmaker Ethan de Aguiar recorded over 50 events, exhibits, and programs throughout the city. He and Beatriz Oliveira interviewed dozens of artists, which culminated in an award-winning 15-minute documentary that is currently on the film festival circuit. Photo by John Robson.

Takeaways for Other Communities

As we reflect on this collaborative project, we’d like to share a few short takeaways for other communities who might be interested in engaging their residents in similar efforts to strengthen the places they love through art, culture, and creative experiences. 

  1. 1

    Offering opportunities to connect is key

    Nearly a decade ago, Arts Midwest conducted a national research study into what people care most about in their lives, and where those interests align with arts participation. After a year of deep engagement with New Bedford residents, we strongly believe that connection is still key. Not everyone is going to identify with the arts and cultural activities happening in your town, but more folks might be interested if they see an opportunity offering them a chance to connect more to their loved ones, their cultural community, or even themselves. For more on these values-based recommendations to strengthen your arts marketing, check out our Ideas Hub.

  2. 2

    Listening shouldn’t be a luxury, it should be foundational

    Are you serious about crafting moments or messages that will matter more to others? Listening is your secret sauce. Focus on deep, empathetic listening. When we listen for understanding rather than simply to respond, we assume less and learn more. This might sound a bit cliché but there’s no short-circuiting this phase of any meaningful project or personal relationship. Pausing to map stakeholders and carving out more time for strategic empathetic listening sounds like a luxury many of us cannot afford, but when we do gift ourselves the “luxury of listening,” the results will likely inspire you to do more of it for more people.

  3. 3

    Transformative storytelling takes time & trust

    Who hasn’t felt reluctant to tell stories or express themselves creatively? That’s normal. It’s your right. Sharing about ourselves can feel selfish, vulnerable, or even unsafe. We’re not advocating people reveal more than what feels comfortable. We’re recommending people share and listen at the slow speed of trust. So, if you invite community members on a similar journey, no matter the scale, slow down and remember trust.  

What’s next for New Bedford and Creating Connection?  

A gathering of people sitting outdoors under a large tree.
Photo Credit: John Robson
Community members gathering at Hazelwood Park before Reggae on West Beach. Photo by John Robson.

Although Arts Midwest’s Creating Connection initiative is sunsetting in 2023, we’re glad to say that work in New Bedford is continuing.  These efforts will continue thanks to renewed Barr Foundation support to New Bedford Creative, a program of the New Bedford Economic Development Council, and the hub behind the Creating Connection’s successful efforts to engage local residents in creative experiences over the past year. You can continue to find information about Creating Connection on our website.  

Thank you for reading and please tell us what you think. After all, what’s a story if it’s not shared? Thank you for teaching us that, New Bedford, one love letter at a time.