“You can’t design something without imagination,” says community activist and facilitator Cortina Caldwell. “Innately, we all have this power and capacity to be creative.”
Late last year, Caldwell and her collaborators launched Artists Designing Evolution, aka adé PROJECT, a “home for artistic liberation across the Southeast centering an inclusive approach to organizing across the spectrum of identity, and age,” according to the collective’s website.
“Art gives us a way to see things we couldn’t see before and have conversations we couldn’t have before,” says Caldwell, the project manager. “It’s not that art is the endgame; it’s the fuel, it’s the catalyst.”
Adé PROJECT is at work on such initiatives as Celebrating African Americans Through Public Art. That effort, formerly known as the city of Asheville’s Visiting Artists Project, has been rebranded to deepen the focus on African American heritage and issues. Caldwell is the project manager for that venture, too, which currently seeks local artists to work collaboratively on a mural and installations honoring the history of The Block, Asheville’s historic black business district.
The launch party for adé PROJECT was Triumph for Trayvon in February — a Black History Month celebration that incorporated storytelling, a candlelight vigil, spoken word, music and dance. The group’s most recent offering, an Art + Wellness Weekend at the end of July, brought a screening of the documentary Silence Sam, workshops for students and a dance party to the YMI Cultural Center.
The goal is equity — the opportunity for excellence, says Caldwell. Adé PROJECT works toward that mission from five directions: creative facilitation, entrepreneurship, service, storytelling, and training and education. By studying research, such as that of the Annie E. Casey Foundation (which seeks to improve the futures of children at risk of poor educational, economic, social and health outcomes), Caldwell determined that “the way the educational system has been designed, it has extracted creativity, imagination, artistic expression, culture, heritage … the things that create a sense of identity [and] personal expression,” especially among nonwhite youths. “Students of color achieve the most when they are being engaged creatively.”
Another aim for adé PROJECT is to work with as many artists of color as possible, using a cooperative model. “We often are left out of decision-making processes or not invited to the table where decisions are being made,” Caldwell explains. “So it feels really important for the work to be driven by the community it seeks to serve.”
Early on, she made a list of all the artists of color she knew of and/or had been working with in Asheville and realized many of those creatives weren’t known by many in the broader community. Caldwell refers to them as “the invisible of the invisible.” The work of adé PROJECT has been informed by the needs and challenges of such local makers. Examples include amplifying paid artist opportunities and providing youth engagement opportunities.
“This is something that came out of my lived experience as a woman of color and someone who is queer,” she says of the impetus for adé PROJECT. “I get how hard it can be to access resources.”
Caldwell grew up in Morganton, where her first job was at her grandmother’s catering business that served, among other events, Asheville’s long-running and now defunct Bele Chere festival. “It wasn’t until I started this work and I really started reflecting on my journey [that] I realized how much I had learned from her and how much she had taught me as a businesswoman,” Caldwell says.
After years away from her home state, in Oakland, Calif., San Francisco and Chicago, Caldwell realized she needed to bring her ideas home. “I have a lot of hope for Asheville,” she says. “We have to say we’ve tried everything we could, and I don’t know that we’ve tried the arts and creativity in this way that I see is so possible.”
So, among its many undertakings, adé PROJECT is looking to shift the traditional model of working with the arts and business communities. Rethinking the call-for-artist process, which is seen as impersonal to some, is one such step. Other navigational tools include assistance in such small tasks as “filling out an application for a contract,” says Caldwell, “because these things might be no-brainers for some of us, but for those who haven’t had access to the language of the information, it can be a barrier.”
She adds, “We see this pattern of huge disparity with the black community” — Caldwell notes the State of Black Asheville study, among other sources — “so we want to start there, to give this opportunity of advancements and gradually grow more inclusive of other folks.”
Another program in the works, in response to the need for racial equity facilitators of color (and frequent calls for local leaders of color to serve on boards, staffs and ventures that seek diversity) is training for 10-15 community members. This pilot program, in its first year, already offers paid opportunities for those who have completed the training. It’s funded primarily through the Government Alliance on Race and Equity and a grant from Race Forward. Applications from members of the black community are being accepted through the end of this month.
“This is our response and way of training up other folks in our community [who] can use a creative lens to look at [challenges] differently,” says Caldwell.
Learn more at theadeproject.org.