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‘Climate season’ arts and theater pave way for resiliency in Gary » Yale Climate Connections

Gary, Indiana, community members, urban gardeners, historians, and theater professionals recently joined in the “Resilient Midtown Tour” of Gary as a kick-off to the “Climate Season,” opening a full run of theater productions and community events focused on climate change.

The program is a product of Indiana University Northwest’s Department of Performing Arts and the Calumet Artist Residency. Connecting people from across northwest Indiana, the tour has highlighted local stories of African American creativity, self-sufficiency and resilience, showcasing community gardens and the realities of food insecurity in a neighborhood lacking a grocery store.

As an artist who has been making work about environmental issues for almost 20 years, I find striking contrasts  in my hometown of Gary, on the south shore of Lake Michigan: the toxic fallout from the largest steel mill in the Western Hemisphere and the extraordinary biodiversity of the Indiana Dunes National Park.  Everywhere one looks are glaring instances of loss and damage from environmental injustice and racism.

Vacant lots, abandoned homes and a brutal past

Blocks of vacant lots and abandoned houses and businesses belie one of the most brutal instances of racist legislative policies in Indiana, which facilitated the gutting of Gary’s economy through “white flight” by changing buffer zone laws for the development of adjacent towns and cities. With a land area the size of San Francisco, Gary over the years has had its population drop from 180,000 to about 75,000 and has lost much of its commercial tax base since the election of the first black mayor of a major city, Richard Gordon Hatcher, in 1968.

African American resiliency and leadership on environmental issues remain a powerful legacy for Gary, especially in these climate crisis times. As one of his first accomplishments, Hatcher worked with his city administration to bridge racial divides and pass the first regulations to limit air pollution emissions from the burning of coke at the US Steel works in 1970.  A generation before that, in the face of Jim Crow segregation in the Steel City, Gary’s Midtown residents developed strategies for self-sufficiency, including the Consumers Co-operative Trading Company, a black-owned co-operative founded in the 1930s by Jacob Reddix, a teacher at the now-shuttered Roosevelt High School in Gary. Within a short time, the cooperative had more than 400 members and ran the largest black-owned grocery in the country, along with a gas station and a credit union. Its motto was “co-operation not charity.” The co-op also held classes on the history of cooperation and co-operative economics, launching Reddix as one of the nation’s foremost experts on cooperatives and as the founding president of Jackson State University in Jackson, Mississippi.

Critical role for the arts in creating resiliency

Along with learning cooperative economics, organizing for civil rights and political power, the role of art was important for creating resiliency during these times. The Midtown neighborhood was also where Vee-Jay Records was founded, the largest Black label before the rise of Motown (and the first record label to release the Beatles in America). The Jackson 5 also grew up in Midtown – not as an anomaly, but as a product of their environment: they grew up in the shadow of Roosevelt School, dubbed “The Music Factory,” and as part of a long history of pioneering Gary musicians in the blues, gospel, and jazz.

As a Gary artist addressing environmental issues and increasingly focused on climate change, I ask myself regularly if my work is making a measurable difference. In many disciplines, success is measurable, whereas in art, success is often subjective.

In 2012, with colleague Katherine Land, I co-founded the Calumet Artist Residency (CAR) and bought a pair of adjacent abandoned houses to use to help artists with their work in hopes of “enriching our local community.” I admit that I’m not sure we knew what that meant at the time. Over the past decade, scores of artists and advocates have created art during their residencies in various mediums, including the visual arts, music, creative writing, and theater.  

In 2018, CAR worked with the local Beyond Coal Campaign and other environmental groups to pressure our local utility, NIPSCO, to move away from burning coal. Collaborating with local artists and residents, one of our artists-in-residence helped create a jazz-infused multimedia theater production called “Ecopolis Gary,” which envisioned Gary as a regenerative city in 2030.

Mural at St. John’s Lutheran Church Garden (Ecopolis Hub) by Parris Gill Sr. (Photo by Parris Gill Sr.)

Held at the local Progressive Community Church, whose electricity is powered by solar panels and whose congregation operates a sizable urban farm, the performance set out specific benchmarks for establishing an ecodistrict, an Emerson Center for Self-Reliance, edible trails and urban farms, and green enterprise zones. We called for creating a community solar farm to provide equal access to renewable energy. With performing artists and local activists, a community meal and dialogue resulted in more ideas and ways for moving toward action. 

Artists tell stories. Cultural activities such as visual art, music, and storytelling are important because they connect scientific data back to our personal lives.

The arts engage people in forwarding change

Cultural shifts precede political change, which is something we can learn from past social movements for workers rights, civil rights, and LGBQ+, to inform strategies for environmental and climate justice today. Thinking about the interdisciplinary functions of art and culture in this context can help to create an understanding of how art can help engage people and contribute to actual change.

(Photo: Courtesy of Corey Hagelbert)

We started creating all-ages educational materials with local artists, including “The Rethink Your Lawn Coloring Book” (with Melissa Washburn) and “Fill Your Town with Fields of Sunflowers” (with Casey King), for events and youth programs. CAR has taken on the job of facilitating local garden efforts, helping start two community gardens and a one-acre food forest. We’ve planted a few hundred native fruit and nut trees to sequester carbon and provide food security for residents, pollinators and wildlife, and every year we plant more sunflowers. We’ve provided support for the local Youth Climate Council.

It’s important to use the energy created in these arts and theater productions to take the next steps; to take what happened onstage to create energy and ideas for action.

Here in Gary, this effort became a unique community-to-campus collaborative in 2020, when Gary-based Indiana University Northwest partnered with the Calumet Artist Residency to launch a year of programming on climate change – featured as “The Climate Season,” conceived and led by Katherine Arfken and developed with my collaboration.

Hiring former CAR resident artist and author Jeff Biggers as its first Climate Narrative Playwright-in-Residence, IU Northwest’s Department of Performing Arts commissioned an original play to address the legacy of environmental injustice, resilience, and struggle in Gary and across the region, all in the context of an unfolding crisis brought about by climate change. Biggers has worked with area residents to collect interviews, oral histories, and field research.  Bringing together community actors from Gary with IUN student actors, the play “Kaminski’s Lot” set in Gary in 2021, follows the journey of a van full of IUN students and their professor, who must take refuge in a greenhouse at a seemingly abandoned lot when a disastrous storm shuts down the area. In a celebration of storytelling, led by an urban farmer and her niece, “Kaminski’s Lot,” directed by Mark Baer in six recent performances, connects with the history shared in the Resilient Midtown Tour, placing questions of legacy, culture, and personal histories on stage, in a time of climate change impacts and challenges.

As part of the Climate Season’s mission to integrate sustainable materials and methods into IU Northwest Theatre productions, set designer Katherine Arfken created several significant scenic elements to be constructed with recycled materials. For example, part of a 10′ x 14′ greenhouse was built with salvaged windows and designed with the hope of eventually installing a full version within a local community garden. Through the production process, the campus scene shop became a laboratory for climate resilience. Members of the production team, actors, and community members took part in Midtown and urban farm tours as part of the rehearsal process, and every audience member of Kaminski’s Lot received a certificate for a native fruit or nut tree. (We will be distributing 800 trees total). The Broadway Green Alliance included “Kaminski’s Lot” as a case study for climate theater.

The Climate Season initiative will continue through the Spring of 2022 with other arts, theater, and community events, including lectures, tours, and food and restoration projects.

To enact meaningful climate action, we, as a society, have to make physical changes to our infrastructure such as increasing uses of solar energy and working towards energy efficiency. But we also have to learn how to cooperate among various disciplines. Theater is inherently interdisciplinary, involving flexible workshop space and with electricians, carpenters, clothing, and lighting and sound designers collaborating with research assistants (dramaturgs), and writers with humanities and storytelling backgrounds. A great place to learn important skills in creating local resilience to climate uncertainty, theater is also a model for cooperation among disciplines.  

Theater is an effective medium also for helping guide conversations around how we present climate action to create a world that is more just and built on deeper community bonds, while connecting us to the deepest roots of who we are as humans.

Clearly, we’re now at a point with climate change that our disciplines should not be asking “if” there is something to do to address the climate crisis challenge within our individual disciplines, but rather “how” numerous too-long “stovepiped” disciplines can collaborate to galvanize engagement and action.

Corey Hagelberg is an interdisciplinary artist and teacher committed to connecting people, art and nature. He lives and works in Gary, Indiana.

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