Collinwood Ballot Box projects got out the vote, now get underway

Perhaps you've already heard: this year is a pretty big election year. And while you are going to hear a lot of people encouraging others to get out there and vote as November draws near, the folks at Northeast Shores Development Corporation in Cleveland have already managed to engage a slew of Collinwood residents to participate in a different kind of election.

Collinwood is a neighborhood of 17,000 residents in one of the area's few residential lake front communities. It is a "proud mixed-income, mixed-race neighborhood," as Northeast Shores executive director Brian Friedman describes it. "We have economically challenged families where employment and education opportunities elude them as well as people who have more choice. We try to bridge those groups by using arts as an engagement tool amongst those people because it's a language everyone understands."

The demand in the neighborhood is high. Collinwood has the lowest market time for homes in Cleveland, but they have made sure that the prices remain stable.

<span class="content-image-text">Collinwood Ballot Box project voting - photo Julia DiBaggio</span>Collinwood Ballot Box project voting - photo Julia DiBaggio

"We haven't seen the kind of negative signs of gentrification yet and are keeping a close eye on that," says Friedman. "We're still selling artists homes as low as $65,000, and making sure artists have a road to own their commercial spaces as well as buy their homes. We're not trying to bring in some absentee landlord who’s not going to renew the lease on a gallery so they can collect more money from a Starbucks."

For the past decade, Northeast Shores has provided support for artists around community development, which is especially evident in the energetic Waterloo Arts and Entertainment District. Friedman says they have funded approximately $200,000 to almost 200 different projects, all tackling aspects of community development through the lens of art. The Ballot Box Project will build on that stalwart reputation and is the organization's latest effort to engage the residents.

"We're asking artists to think creatively about vacancy and youth engagement, to engage teens around workforce employment opportunities, and we have done this in a variety of different ways," Friedman explains. "We have done this on a first-come, first-served basis, and we have also done a panel review process where community members read and examine proposals and give the artists feedback."

This is a model known as "participatory budgeting," an idea for inclusive development that is gaining national traction, and it is the first of its kind in Ohio.

"The point of Ballot Box is to intentionally explore which arts interventions happen in 2016 using the very traditional American concept of everyone votes and majority rules," says Friedman.

Supported by a $120,000 grant from ArtPlace America, Northeast Shores employed a democratic decision-making model, in which the residents of the community impacted by the development decided in part on how to allocate the funding. Other project sponsors include MetroHealth and Cuyahoga Arts and Culture.

First the neighborhood decided on four subjects to focus on: healthy eating, youth engagement, Collinwood history, and vacancy. The artists submitted their project proposals up to $15,000. Friedman says the organization received a range of proposals from $388 up to the full $15,000. In the end, more than 30 proposals, ranging from Peace Flags for vacant houses to a program to teach area youths how to design and print their own tee shirts, made it to the ballot boxes from March 4 through 9.

The project kicked off with a colorful parade during the March Walk All Over Waterloo event. Then voting began - and took off.

"There were 520 ballots cast," reports Julia DiBaggio, Northeast Shores community assets manager, adding that the turnout surprised just about everyone. "If we had any more people voting, we wouldn't have been able to physically handle the volume."

Voting took place in various locations in the neighborhood during two-hour time slots throughout the week. The Cuyahoga Board of Elections loaned out five voting booths for the events.

<span class="content-image-text">One of the winners, Linda Zolten Wood: Operation Vegetables</span>One of the winners, Linda Zolten Wood: Operation Vegetables

"The booths were all filled at all times," says DiBaggio, adding that people were filling out ballots anywhere they could find a spot. Anyone over the age of 14 was eligible to vote. Friedman notes that for the younger voters, it was the first type of ballot they ever engaged with, and was a preview of sorts of what will happen when they turn 18 and can participate in an actual vote.

In the end, nine projects were awarded their requested amounts:

- Stephen Bivens: This is Collinwood: History in Everyday People

- Benjamin Smith: Riff Mechanics

- Linda Zolten Wood: Operation Vegetables

- Lori Kella: Farm to Table Cookbook

- Kevin Scheuring: Eat Local and Learn

- Michael Hudecek: Craft Up Collinwood

- Margaret Craig: Neighborhood Arts Ambassadors

- Cindy Barber: Bicycle Rickshaws on Waterloo

- Bridget Caswell: Collinwood Camera Club

While most of the projects are just getting off the ground, tentatively scheduled events include timeslots for the "Craft Up Collinwood" project, which will endeavor to beautify vacant and boarded up storefronts and buildings; recording oral histories via the "Riff Mechanics" project, which will utilize a transformed ice cream truck as a mobile recording studio; and regular photography classes at Waterloo Arts via the "Collinwood Camera Club" project. Some events are slated to begin as early as this month while others will unfurl in June and July.

"All of these are definitely placemaking activities and all have a piece where community can engage in the art making," says Friedman.

A subtler goal of the Ballot Box project, Friedman says, is to see if participation in this project translates to the other big vote this year. Will this help to increase voter participation in the 2016 presidential election? He thinks it might.

"Throughout this process we have reminded people to make sure they are registered to vote," he says. "There is a statistically low vote in minority neighborhoods, so we're hoping to increase the overall vote, but we're also hoping to possibly spark a deeper understanding for artists of the importance of being civically engaged in the democracy process."  

Erin O'Brien contributed to this article.