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In Conversation: an Interview with Patrick Fisher of Erie Arts & Culture

Photo credit: Erie

Patrick Fisher is Executive Director of Erie Arts & Culture in Erie, PA. The Council works to promote, support, and develop culture and creativity at the regional level, ensuring broad opportunities for residents and tourists exist throughout local communities educationally, socially, and economically, all through the lens of social equity. Patrick defines himself as a culture worker, acting at the intersection of arts and activism, where transformational power exists to help individuals, organizations, and communities work their way out of old grooves and break habits that are counterproductive to realizing holistic outcomes. Patrick strives to give communities greater aspirations and action that can bring these ambitions to fruition, working to achieve his vision where residents, merchants, community organizers, artists, and culture-bearers demonstrate agency and are engaged as active participants in shaping the social character and built environments in their neighborhoods, towns, and cities. We asked Eric about arts and placemaking as a tool for economic growth, community building, and inclusion.

What are a few ideas that come to mind when you think of good placemaking? What are the characteristics of a community with a strong sense of place?

I think aspects of good placemaking start with an idea generation process that is inclusive and participatory. I'm a big fan of Matthew Mazzotta's work (Open House and Storefront Theater), Spud Marshall (Designing Creative Communities), and Gamar Markarian. They utilize creative mechanisms of community engagement, such as board games and outdoor living rooms, that drive creative planning and low-barrier ways to foster a sense of place and belonging. Stopping people in their tracks by delivering an experience out of the ordinary is a great approach to expand participation beyond those who would typically lend their voices, opinions, and talents to an initiative.

I believe that communities that have a strong sense of place have taken the time and made the effort to recognize the assets that exist within their community, whether those assets be people, businesses, infrastructure, or events. They pay homage to their heritage and history while also creating space for identities to evolve. These communities value residents and engage them in a manner that taps into their creativity, imagination, experience, and wisdom.

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What are some specific tools Erie is utilizing to ensure growth remains focused on community priorities?

I'll be honest and say I think this is an area where Erie has an opportunity to do better. In communities like Erie, which can sometimes have a scarcity mindset, there can be a lot of competing priorities and sometimes certain priorities are weighted more heavily than others. Unfortunately, historically in our community, the needs, interests, and aspirations of the broad community have not always been recognized, valued, and then acted upon. Traditionally it wasn't uncommon for matters like transparency and equity to be disregarded when making critical decisions involving project planning, resourcing, and implementation.

This is why I think it's important that communities fund and support advocacy groups. The work of these groups is centered around community priorities and when organized properly they can keep funders, developers, and elected officials both honest and accountable. When I think of organizations doing good work in this area, I think of Pittsburgh's 1Hood Media. I deeply admire their mission of building liberated communities through art, education, and social justice. They've also proven that if you are bold in your work and committed to the cause you can attract the attention of national-level funding sources.

Your team has a clear focus on equity and diversity. What does this look like in practice?

The team at Erie Arts & Culture is composed of emerging talent. What I love about this is that none of the team members come with the baggage of being loyal to history. They aren't making decisions based on how things have historically been done. They come to their positions with curiosity and a deep commitment to being better, so we are always examining our internal policies, procedures, and practices through a critical lens centered around inclusion, diversity, equity, and accessibility.

In the work we do, it's important to recognize that no community is a monolith. Communities are composed of people, with each person carrying with them their unique lived experiences, reference points, aspirations, abilities, and adversities. When we approach the work by taking all of this into consideration, and we engage in conversations related to barriers and challenges, we are better equipped to identify opportunities for systems change and not just best practices but next practices.

As a result of the work we've been doing, the beneficiaries of our work look drastically different today than they did in the past. But there is no finish line for this work, only milestones along the way.

In the work we do, it's important to recognize that no community is a monolith. Communities are composed of people, with each person carrying with them their unique lived experiences, reference points, aspirations, abilities, and adversities.

When tracking equity, quality of life, and quality of place, what indicators are you using to measure what works and what doesn’t?

We believe our work should focus on impacts in three key areas: personal development, community development, and economic development. I'll be honest and say that oftentimes, for one reason or another, the metrics we adopt are the ones that are passed down to us by our funding sources. It's time we work toward changing that because it is not uncommon for grant reports we are responsible for to speak solely in terms of the quantitative and undervalue the qualitative. Furthermore, much of the work we are doing doesn't always deliver an impact within a one-to-two-year period, which is oftentimes the grant cycles to which we are beholden.

One thing I like to do on Instagram is search geotags. When doing so, I look for projects we've led that are being documented or shared online. For instance, in 2019 we led a large-scale mural project on a 12,000-square-foot observation deck located along our waterfront. We transformed what was once a brutal gray concrete surface into a bright abstract mural. It has served as a backdrop to engagement and wedding photos and senior portraits, it is heavily featured in our region's visitor guides, and is the site of a free weekly outdoor yoga class put on by Erie Downtown Partnership.

In regard to equity, we're constantly looking at how our resources are disbursed and to whom opportunities are being awarded. We track data related to demographics and geographics, then use that information to determine if we need to change our approaches in order to achieve our equity goals.

Erie boasts a plethora of cultures, main streets, green spaces, and distinct ambiances created by diverse demographics. What are a couple of areas or businesses you patronize, and why?

I live in the urban core, specifically on the West Bayfront. I'm two blocks from Downtown Erie and two blocks from recreational trails that run along our serene Bayfront. Typically, my work day concludes with a walk along a 4-mile loop that utilizes these trails. It helps me decompress at the end of the day, while also providing me with an opportunity to engage with my immediate neighbors and broader community members who also utilize the trails or parks and waterfront along the trails.

Nearly the entirety of the city of Erie is defined as a food desert. However, within our urban core, there are a wealth of markets owned and operated by New Americans originally from Syria, Iraq, Bhutan, Nepal, Ukraine, and Burundi. I'm a strong proponent of these food markets and believe them to be the resolution to our local challenges surrounding food access.

I also love local coffee shops, such as Ember + Forge, Purrista Cat Cafe, and Pressed. Coffee shops are great neutral places to meet community members and engage in meaningful conversations.

Photo credit: Our West Bayfront


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