C4AA Alumni Spotlight

Cecilia Lim, C4AA Art Action Academy Alumni 2017, Queens Museum, New York City

Cecilia Lim is a Queens-based artist, designer, and community-based trainer and capacity builder who believes that we thrive when we connect to ourselves, each other, and our environment. Cecilia is a community care and cultural worker with Ugnayan Youth for Justice and Social Change (a core partner of Hate-Free Zone Queens [HFZ]), and recently helped launch a successful action with HFZ and Queens Neighborhoods United. Read her alumni interview, for successful campaign insights and part of her journey as the daughter of immigrant parents, all of which speak to the heart of NYC’s fight for justice and neighborhood grassroots change today.

BACKGROUND

“I’ve wanted to be an artist as long as I can remember, but my mom was very clear about social justice. She saw in me an ability to advocate for myself and thought, oh you can do that for others too. She told me, ‘anyone can be an artist, you should be a lawyer.’”

As the first generation US-born daughter of immigrant parents from the Philippines, with both Pinay and Chinese heritages, Cecilia Lim has a rich family history of migration and social justice. She pursued meaningful social change by working for years in non-profit and government sectors, within communications and media, advocacy and education, project and program management, and peer counseling, but the arts kept calling out to her.  

“I couldn’t really figure out how to make the creative work central, because as a child of immigrants you really want to please your parents, you really want to make the sacrifices they made worthwhile. And I could tell my mom was not so happy with me focusing on creativity.”

But the arts had a purpose Cecilia could not ignore, and through her use of peer counseling and the support and encouragement of her community, she decided to take a chance to follow her dream of centering creative work in her life. After leaving her government job in 2015, Cecilia travelled to the Philippines. There, she connected with a small group of organic farmers and learned about the concept of permaculture, where “one of which the main ideas is to amplify your impact in the world and strengthen the cohesion and the interconnectedness by trying to overlap the different things you have going on.” Inspired by this concept, she returned to Queens, NY, and searched for ways to integrate community-based work, peer counseling, project and program management, and all of her creativity.

TRAINING TO USE ART FOR SOCIAL CHANGE

“How can I elevate arts and culture in the fight to end oppression? How can I mobilize the use of creativity in the fight for social justice? Somewhere in there, I realized, I could actually be a movement artist. I have experiences in all these different realms, but I didn’t have any formal training on how to be a movement artist. I was inspired by DRUM’s Moving Art Program, and wished there was something similar that I could participate in. So when I learned of the Arts Action Academy it seemed like this is exactly what I’m looking for.”

Cecilia participated in the October 2017 Arts Action Academy (AAA) in Queens, New York. But before the training she thought…

“Okay, somebody has thought tactically and has organized their mind around how to do this work in a systematic way – with intentionality with deliberation – being methodical about it. I wanted that. The two Steves are incredibly generous sharing what they’ve learned, developing it, distilling it into a methodology. And I wanted to meet other people and build community with other creative folks who are trying to do the same thing. So those are the two things that I was hoping for and absolutely, the program totally delivered.”

“It was amazing to see how we trusted each other working on that final project. That was incredible – incredibly impressive. That the two Steves created the conditions for us to be able to work that well together.”

Photo by Cecilia Lim: Community members summon Lady Liberty during C4AA final Art Action Academy 2017 Queens project “Hate-Free School of Magic and Wizardry,” Jackson Heights, Queens, NY.

At the end of each Art Action Academy, C4AA has participants conceive of, build and implement a public art action, to collaboratively test out all the lessons they’ve learned about creative activism in the course of the Academy. C4AA was intentional about having the 2017 Queens AAA cohort’s final project support the current organizing efforts in and around Corona, where the program was hosted by the Queens Museum. Because of Cecilia’s neighborhood-based community work, she was invited to play the role of community liaison. “I was already thrilled to be an AAA participant, and this chance to have my cohorts final project support the community-based work I’m involved with was beyond what I knew I could expect or want.” In this role, Cecilia shared information about Hate-Free Zone Queens (HFZ), a core partnership of community-based organizations anchored by DRUM – Desis Rising Up and Moving, which proactively builds a community defense system that “centers and empowers those in our communities that are most directly targeted by discrimination and hate. We can support each other, we can love and protect each other, and in this way build unity not only among people who are directly impacted but with everyone, understanding that we all have a role to play in creating the societies that we want.

The final project was the “Hate-Free School of Magic and Wizardry” an interactive public participatory magic show performed in the 74th St-Roosevelt Av subway hub in Jackson Heights. “ICE” was made to melt/disappear; community members re-wrote the Muslim ban; and Lady Liberty was summoned to rally community members to “Love and Protect Each Other.” At the end of each show, community members were invited to get involved in building a Hate-Free Zone, and a flyer was distributed with HFZ core partner organizations’ contact information.

While this action took place in her home community of Jackson Heights, a challenge in continuing the relationships with other alumni in this training is that they came from all over for this Art Action Academy. “Understanding that building broad community is part of the larger vision,” however, keeps Cecilia engaged in the process of growing the connections with her AAA cohort.

WIELDING ART FOR SOCIAL CHANGE

Cecilia continues to focus on building community with arts and cultural workers to maximize the potential collaborations for social change and has incorporated tools from her AAA training into her work with HFZ, primarily working in Jackson Heights and the immediately surrounding neighborhoods of Corona, Elmhurst, and Woodside. HFZ values the power of arts and culture to uplift, unite, and transform people both individually and collectively. As a key part of Cecilia’s community care and cultural work with Ugnayan, she is part of the HFZ team that finds and creates opportunities to and engage community members and institutions with arts and cultural work to become part of HFZ.

Following Cecilia’s AAA graduation, she wrote us:

“I had my first experience of pitching the seed for a public participatory art action (inspired by Candy Chang) to a community-based group, then working alongside them to make it happen! It was so successful the first time, the group, Queens Neighborhood United (QNU), decided to do it again the following weekend. In support of QNU’s anti-displacement campaign for the old movie theatre site in Elmhurst (a developer has contracted Target and has proposed a plan for mostly unaffordable housing), members of the Elmhurst community were invited to write their ideas for the site on paper seedlings and pin them atop ants for the ants to carry aboveground and thereby make publicly known the community’s desires for the site.”

Photo by Daniel Cardenas (QNU): Multiple generations of community members participate in the “I wish this was a” art action collaboration between Hate-Free Zone Queens and Queens Neighborhoods United, Elmhurst, Queens, NY.

Also a HFZ core partner, Queens Neighborhoods United had been steadily campaigning for more than a year to ensure that the 82nd Street site would be developed for the largely immigrant community, which is comprised of many small businesses and families. Cecilia began thinking about a possible participatory art action could be used to support QNU’s campaign. She began with the seed of an idea, that “We could do something, give the community an opportunity to vision publically and participate publicly in an exercise where we make something visual out of the wishes that they want for this space” and within a week of getting her idea approved, together QNU and HFZ put it into action. The first day, they collected more than 100 letters to the borough president expressing the communities desire for development that benefited the community. The next weekend they collected another 100+ letters. And this was success was far beyond a letter writing campaign. “This action was effective in the way that we were able to reach many generations of community members to envision what they wanted for their community.

Photo by Daniel Cardenas (QNU): Accessible affordable housing, a center for young people: Community members make public and visible what they want to be built at the 82nd Street site in Elmhurst, Queens, NY.

“It was incredible. People’s reactions were just wonderful, getting to see the community and having people thank us for doing this and seeing that people were trying to do something.  I think it was successful because it was accessible – through the language, the process, we had music playing, and also we had plenty of people doing outreach.  All the people from QNU really owned it, I had this little idea…I had this little idea and then the whole thing was collaborative.”

The “I wish this was a” art action really propelled QNU’s anti-displacement campaign; gave QNU further credibility within the community; and was significant in bringing the campaign to this current moment – the developer has withdrawn its application to build a Target and unaffordable housing! QNU is strategizing their next steps to make some of those ideas community members wrote on the seeds a reality.

STRENGTH IN THE GROUNDWORK

“The big takeaway and advice I would want to give is to be involved in the groundwork, to be organizing along with, by working alongside, which means doing what needs to be done in order to move work forward: outreach, production work, fundraising, etc. First ask what do you need me to do, be present and be engaged in that, have a sincere interest in that and then maybe you’ll have some opportunity to some other work you really want to do.”

ART ACTION ACADEMY ALUMNI CONNECTIONS

Having participated in the Art Action Academy has connected Cecilia to other alumni in unexpected ways. “I went to a panel and the great thing was I was able to connect with Tomie Arai who was a 2016 graduate of the Art Action Academy and also a founding member of the Chinatown Art Brigade Collective. She invited HFZ to be part of the session they were doing at Open Engagement, and they were very clear about centering the work being done in Queens.” It was a great opportunity to speak with other creatives about the work being done in Queens.

With over 1000 alumni working on an outstanding array of artistic activism, we also asked Cecilia what would be useful to her, what questions would you want to ask of them? “I’m trying to figure out how to do this work on an ongoing basis in a way that is not just as a volunteer. How do people who have a similar approach to this as I have, how have they figured out how to do that? And how do you not leave yourself out in the process?”

Any ideas, answers, or questions? We want to hear from you.  Please write us and continue the collaboration.

“There is so much emphasis on process and on the strength of social justice movements being about the relationships that we have with each other. And I know from experience that we can certainly move without having great relationships with each other, you can put that interpersonal work on hold… but we move so much farther and so much faster and so much more enjoyably when we do have strong relationships with each other. And we build those strong relationships by being involved in all aspects of the work.” Cecilia Lim, Arts Action Academy Alumni, 2017.