by Karen Plourde
Interns from BuildaBridge International were making jewelry with sex workers in the Dominican Republic in 2009 when one of the workers spilled the beads she was using all over the floor.
“And she was in some distress about it, because these went all over the place, and there were a lot of them,” recounted Dr. Vivian Nix-Early, co-founder and chief operating officer of the Germantown-based group. “But what happened? Everybody gets down on the floor and helps her pick them up.”
Nix-Early, 65, and her colleagues at BuildaBridge call that an “a-ha moment,” a metaphor for a life lesson that can be learned in the course of an art activity. Those moments and lessons are what BuildaBridge has been about for almost 20 years. In that time, J. Nathan Corbitt, co-founder; Nix-Early, their part-time staff of five, 20 artists and a number of volunteers have worked with people in crisis in Philadelphia and throughout the world. Their clients include families in shelters, refugees and survivors of natural disasters. They’ve developed programs for using the arts to help those in need heal from their trauma, and they now teach those programs to community workers in other countries.
BuildaBridge’s roots go back to 1997 at Eastern University in St. Davids. At the time, Nix-Early was a graduate dean at the school and was volunteering to help a struggling multi-ethnic gospel choir there. Corbitt was a professor of music and cross-cultural studies at Eastern. In August of that year, some of Corbitt’s graduates who were working in South America called and asked if they could bring people of color to an area of Costa Rica where people of Jamaican descent had settled. The residents had suffered through an earthquake in the fall of 1996, and rebuilding had yet to start.
“There was a lot of depression. Ten congregations were fighting with each other. Just a lot of community distress,” Nix-Early said. “They had the idea that maybe a music workshop would bring people together.”
Corbitt put together an ensemble that included Nix-Early, some students and musicians — African American, Hispanic, Anglo and Kenyan. They went to Costa Rica and ran a music institute in partnership with the Caribbean Theological Centre, a Baptist seminary there. They returned three times over the next five years and saw the community start to work together.
“(The first year) the culminating concert, we had to march through 100-degree heat to five of the different churches because they just couldn’t agree to have it at one place,” Nix-Early said. “By the third year…there was this community center named for Marcus Garvey, and by that time there was all kinds of healing in the community, enough for everybody to agree, ‘y’know, let’s not even just have it at one of our churches. Let’s have it at the community center.’”
The residents went on from the institute to form church choirs in which they performed their indigenous music. They also branched out, pooling their efforts to build a new school room and to join forces on some entrepreneurial efforts.
From their experiences, Nix-Early and Corbitt began to see how the arts could be used to resolve conflicts and rebuild communities. But they also realized that the artists working with them would need training.
“First of all, they didn’t always know how to teach,” Corbitt said. “They were good musicians, but they didn’t understand pedagogy and how you teach kids or adults. The other thing is, they had a hard time in recognizing the pain the local people were going through and understanding the nature of trauma.”
After the Costa Rica project, word spread about what BuildaBridge was doing. A Philadelphia native living and working with poor children in Guatemala approached Corbitt for help with engaging them through the arts. The group made a five-year commitment to that effort, and as part of it brought a portrait artist from Mt. Airy to work with gang members in prison.
After several years of working overseas, BuildaBridge began to turn its attentions to Philadelphia. In 2002, they put together a nine-day long yearly institute to train artists and professionals from all over the world who wanted to use the arts to help heal people who’d suffered trauma. The 14th institute took place in the city this past June.
Around the same time, the group committed themselves to working with the most vulnerable, whom they defined as children and youth in the context of poverty and crisis. In 2002, they were approached by representatives of the Philadelphia Department of Human Services to assist the Bright Horizons Foundation with creating “bright spaces” (safe spaces for learning and play) in shelters.
“They wanted us to do a mural,” Corbitt recalled. “And so we said, ‘We’ll do a mural, but we really want to do more than that. We’d like to consistently work with the kids.’”
BuildaBridge’s first mural was created at Woodstock Family Center in North Philadelphia with help from the children there. They worked with resident families off and on for over 10 years, initially using volunteer interns from Eastern University and the University of the Arts. Their work was funded in part by the School District of Philadelphia and a few corporations. Over time, the program expanded to other shelters in the city.
Al Quarles, coordinator of homeless and emergency services for the School District of Philadelphia, oversaw the work BuildaBridge was doing in the shelters.
“The program was easy to maintain because the shelters really liked BuildaBridge, the students really liked BuildaBridge, and they produced a high quality of work,” he said. The program was eliminated as part of funding cuts about three years ago, but Quarles is hopeful the school district will find a way to work with the group in the near future.
BuildaBridge is located at 205 W. Tulpehocken St. For more information, call 215-842-0428 or visit buildabridge.org
— To be continued