Insight/Incite: Engine and the USDAC

Devon Kelley-Yurdin

Whenever I give people a tour of Engine, an arts non-profit in Biddeford, I always like to say, “we see Engine as an incubator.” I explain that we aren’t only incubating ideas and products in our makerspace and digital fabrication facility or through our summer and afterschool arts and design programs. What we are creating space for is growth, vision, and experimentation within everything that we do. We support emerging artists by offering affordable studio space and feature early and mid-career artists in our gallery. We welcome in and coach new instructors, interns, and volunteers, and provide real-world experience to young makers through programs taught by working professionals. We were founded on the idea that the arts are important for economic revitalization, and we’re committed to designing, launching, and promoting community-based arts programming with socially responsible practices

The focus on education, both youth and adult, has evolved over the past few years to become more important to the organization. Our programs include summer and afterschool arts and design activities, and the Compass Project, a boatbuilding program for youth. Engine is the only art and design focused organization in Biddeford, and southern Maine, that is focusing on the A/D in S.T.E.A.M. (science, technology, engineering, arts/design, math) to support youth in developing skills and discovering career paths in the visual arts and applied arts fields, such as illustration, graphic design, animation, programming, 3D design, digital fabrication, woodworking, boatbuilding, and precision machining.

Some new pilot programs we have in the works include 1) a graphic design club for high school students that will work with a professional mentor to design marketing collateral for local organizations, 2) hosting a social work intern and collaborating with groups like Community Partnerships for Protecting Children (CPPC) to create programing for young folks who may not typically have access to art-based outlets and/or students who need or desire an alternative environment to the traditional classroom, and 3) creating public learning opportunities about how artists and designers can engage with municipalities beyond public art committees. 

As an illustrator, designer, and printmaker with a passion for community engaged creative programing, I am constantly trying to expand my own and other people’s visions of what creativity looks like. I think it’s a creative act to decide how you want to move through a day, how you build relationships and the networks you weave, how you organize people and engage them. I believe administrative and cultural organizing work can also be considered an act of creation (even if what you’re creating is the opportunities for other people to create).

This sort of thinking, the expanse of our perception of creativity, is also really important in my other work as the New England Regional Envoy for the U.S. Department of Arts and Culture. Unlike it’s name may lead you to believe, the USDAC is not a government agency. It’s a people-powered department; a national action network inciting creativity and social imagination to shape a culture of empathy, equity, and belonging. Through a combination of local organizing, national actions, and learning and research, we use human connection, policy initiatives, participation, play, and performance to support the creation of arts and culture in the public interest and catalyze the public’s interest in arts and culture. Another way I like to put it is that it’s the performance of a department that should exist, but doesn’t (until now!).

When I host USDAC workshops I always like to post at least one of the questions that were at the center of the department’s formation three and a half years ago: How can we shift art and culture from the margins to the center of civil society, given their true value and support as catalysts for social transformation? What would it look like to perform a people-powered department—as both a playful work of collaborative art and as a serious vehicle for community-building, field-building, and movement-building? How might we invite artists and non-artists alike to step up as cultural organizers, generating momentum and public will for programs and policies that make cultural democracy real?

This people-powered department is just that, people-powered. And when I think about big social and environmental issues and how vast they can feel, I also ask myself, who is skilled at standing at the edge of a big gray unknown and stepping boldly into it? The answer I usually come up with is creative folks. I always like to say that my personal practice as an artist and maker has been useful to me, if for no other reason, so that I can learn the lesson over and over and over again that I don’t have to know how something is going to end in order to begin.

I see my role as Regional Envoy as having two major tracks at the moment. There is the outreach, education, and capacity-building that happens through workshops and gatherings that support local organizing and public engagement. This can happen anywhere in New England, and I’ve already partnered with some groups in Providence and Worcester to put on workshops that share tools for cultural organizing, educate and uplift conversations about cultural equity, and build capacity and public will for programs and policies that support arts and culture as the important parts of society that they are.

Additionally, a huge part of what I’m doing right now is identifying artists, activists, organizations, and public agencies in New England who are committed to cultural equity and arts organizing and to facilitate connections to the USDAC and to each other. The Envoy role is only six months old, so it’s a collaborative process – a creative process – discovering how it can be the most useful and effective in the region.

People can register on our website to be a USDAC Citizen Artist (you don’t have to be a U.S. citizen or an artist) to find out more and be kept in the loop with opportunities to engage with upcoming actions, events, and new policy and organizing toolkits. I am also always available to connect directly with folks who want to learn more, host a workshop, or need technical support for USDAC-aligned projects and campaigns. And, if people need a space to gather, I know a great arts organization in downtown Biddeford that would love to host it.

Devon Kelley-Yurdin is Education and Outreach Coordinator at Engine, 128 Main Street • PO Box 1681 • Biddeford and USDAC New England Regional Envoy.

For more info or to contact the organizations: www.feedtheengine.org  ; learn@feedtheengine.org and www.usdac.us  ; devon@usdac.us