The Very Social Business of Survival:
Building Partnerships and Community through Food, Art and Activism
by Dr. Jennifer Burtner, Tufts University
Community Engagement – Putting Methods into Practice
“YUM: A Taste of Immigrant City” is a multi-year project aimed at studying and supporting thirteen locally-based first and second generation immigrant owned restaurants in Somerville, Massachusetts. Initially the project was conceived of in the Seminar “Anthropology in Action: Fieldwork Methods for the 21st Century” I taught in the Fall of 2008 while at Tufts University . It began as a local mapping and graphic design project aimed at identifying local small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) key in the public cultural and economic life of Somerville during the recession. That semester we had been conducting transects of Somerville, each week returning to the classroom to discuss the readings we had been doing which were focused on the radical new ways intersectoral alliances were leveraging resources and capital (financial, human & social) to address community priorities and needs. As the national and Massachusetts recession deepened, unemployment figures rose and more and more storefronts in Somerville became vacant, the challenge for us as faculty and students at a University committed to public service became how to build such an intersectoral alliance so as to better 1) assist small local nongovernmental organizations working with vulnerable populations within the community, and 2) support key sectors of the community which were now under stress due to the deepening economic downturn. What could Tufts University and “Engaged Anthropology” have to offer?
The Geography of Food
Then Sophomore Roxie Salamon-Abrams one day in class came up with the idea. “Why not begin charting all of the small businesses in the area, create a map and explain how they function as culturally meaningful centers of commerce?” Given the overwhelming importance of restaurants as community building spaces, we narrowed ‘businesses’ down to ‘restaurants’. Furthermore, given our interest in immigration, multicultural urban spaces and how families were attempting to stay together and weather the recession, we decided to further narrow the field to first and second generation immigrant owned restaurants. Still the field was too broad. This had to be research that could be done in small semester-long segments, with undergraduates, taking into account the precarious year-to-year situation of lectureships, and the fact that we had no funding. Finally, it was decided that each restaurant we focused on had to represent a different country of origin and its cuisine, and that together they as a group had to represent different established neighborhoods throughout Somerville . With those criteria, we hit the streets again.
While students in “Anthropology in Action” came up with the idea of creating a map/network of immigrant owned restaurants, undergraduates taking my other class that semester – “Growing Up Latino” – lent their skills and insights. They used the field transects they were doing for their class to begin the process of identifying possible restaurant partners. Walking the streets of Somerville , literally from morning (breakfast), to night (through lunch, well into dinner), in sun, rain and snow, they looked for businesses that would represent the broadest range of cuisines Somerville was home to. Eating, drinking, talking with owners, staff and surrounding businesses, we in teams, groups and individually collected menus and took photographs of Somerville streetscapes. After several months of work, we came up with a rough cut of approximately 10 restaurants.
Meanwhile, we began talking to the Director of our long-term community partner The Welcome Project, Warren Goldstein Gelb, explaining the project and seeing how we might be able to connect it with their mission and agenda. Feeling the impact of the recession on their funding base for programs with Somerville ’s immigrant community, he suggested the idea that a discount card be created that could promote the restaurants, but also support The Welcome Projects’ various community building programs. We discussed the idea with the restaurant owners (most of whom already had similar discount policies) and the first steps in creating the YUM discount card began. With this the Welcome Project joined us.
‘The Colors of Culture’ – Leveraging YUM Media
But we lacked the images and a kind of aesthetic sensibility that would capture the dynamic and unique feel of the places we were working in. The solution was brought to us by Anjali Nirmalan, one of the students from “Growing Up Latino”, who was enrolled in Tufts’ joint program with the School for Museum for Fine Arts (SMFA) and was at the time also taking a class with professor Chantal Zachari at the SMFA. Through Nirmalan and Dr. Zachari, the class, entitled “Text & Image”, adopted us and “A Taste of Immigrant City” as their final project. Dr. Zachari sent her student designers into the field, where they studied the architecture and color schemes of the community and businesses, spoke to owners and sketched restaurant storefronts. Back in their design workshops they used this material to conduct market research on colors that appealed to the palate (red and yellow – in case you are wondering), create hand-drawn logos for each business, design the map and brochure layouts, and mold by hand original 3-D creations. One of these original art pieces was the humorous and colorful red and yellow playdough letters YUM emblazoned with vegetables and nuts that is today the key brand of the project and graces the front of any number of the project’s publications from our blog, to Sandwich Boards, to posters and the discount card. “We chose to decorate it with broccoli and nuts because we wanted to communicate the idea of eating healthy, and the colors really popped” student designers explained. Nirmalan continued with the project after the Fall semester was over, writing her 2008-2009 senior honors thesis on the ongoing work, through which she helped us to develop a relationship with the SMFA’s Catherine Tutter, the Associate Director of the Artist’s Resource Center – an institutional cosponsor and great supporter of the project.
As work continued, we struggled to find the institutional support and funding to continue the work. The answer came in the form of a call from Nancy Wilson, Assistant Dean of Tisch College . As I drove through the corn fields and cattle ranches of the Midwest during my 2009 summer field work, I received a call from Wilson, who informed me that Tisch had just received a Learn and Serve grant from the Federal Government as part of the stimulus package. This grant would allow faculty, students and community organizations to work with local partners in Somerville to address issues related to the recession. Did I think our project would fit? After numerous conversations with Wilson and Goldstein Gelb “YUM: A Taste of Immigrant City” was chosen to be one of first three projects at Tufts that would receive year long funding for AY 2009-2010. Further institutional and financial assistance from Peter Levine at CIRCLE allowed us to expand our work, offering two courses “Immigrant Cities: Space, Place and Urban Landscapes in the 21st Century” (Fall 2009) and “The Very Social Business of Survival” (Spring 2010), fieldwork excursions, and a series of arts workshops (partnering with the Tufts Craft Center and their student liaison Helen Corless). These workshops (offered in Fall 2009 and Spring 2010) brought together Tufts students and Somerville High School Students active in the Welcome Project’s “The Liason Interpreter Program of Somerville” (LIPS). With technical guidance from Corless, Phillip Bleak and myself, students were trained in the basics of design and carpentry and took the images created by Zachari’s SMFA students, turning them into buttons, refrigerator magnets and building sidewalk sandwich boards for the restaurants. This transformed the beauty of Somerville into images, taught technical art skills and appreciation, and brought students from Tufts and the community together. The products created in these workshops will be distributed through our project and our partner restaurants. People will be able to wear art, put it in their homes and walk by it in the streets – a constant reminder and celebration of our community’s cultural diversity and economic vibrancy. In this way we are contributing to more than our community’s economic survival and revitalization. We are participating in its cultural renaissance, combining a whole new way of experiencing food, art, language, culture and community.
Since September students in “ Immigrant Cities ” and “The Very Social Business of Survival” have been hard at work reading and conducting research on immigration policy, community revitalization initiatives, and the impacts of depressions and recessions on different U.S. communities. Lessons learned have been that survival (physical, economic, cultural and spiritual) is a complicated negotiation of access to resources, constantly changing production/distribution/consumption chains, broad social networks, personal knowledge/skills and ability to take strategic action. Surviving as a restaurant owner in Somerville during the recession however requires even more – hard work, artistry, family support, business savvy, a loyal clientele and, often, faith in a higher power. How best to document this fast paced reality in words and images has been a challenge. The solution again, came from students and the increasing pool of volunteers that had begun to join us. They took the form of a blog designed by Signe R. Porteshawver (http://yumsomerville.wordpress.com/), photography by Louis Blavet, Kelsea Carlson, Becky Cyr, and Phillip Bleak and educational & ethnographic video and electronic restaurant reviews by videographer Emily Schwartz. Indeed, there is not space for all the names of all the people who have contributed to this project (see insert for more).
Together these efforts have helped “YUM: A Taste of Immigrant City” to evolved into a cultural and economic revitalization project which seeks not just to raise the visibility of these restaurants and to document their rich social, historical and economic contributions to the city and region, but ultimately to expand their clientele so that they might better survive the financial downturn that has threatened so many of our region’s SMEs. While the Welcome Project (it employees, volunteers, and affiliates) actively markets the 1,500 YUM restaurant discount cards that have been created as part of this broader project, me and my students and the countless volunteers who join the project everyday will continue throughout the summer of 2010 to document through photography and video documentary shoots, research, interviews, and ethnographically informed restaurant reviews the diverse histories of these businesses and of the people who created them and run them today. If you want a way of exploring your city, revitalizing your community, supporting local family businesses and eating the best food the world has to offer, your table is waiting. Please join us.