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New York City Department of Cultural Affairs Immigrant Movement International

Curated by Virginia Poundstone | January 15, 2019

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Immigrant Movement International is a community support centre established in Queens by a Cuban artist. Over four years of operation, it has:

  • Delivered training and the means of artistic expression to immigrant communities
  • Initiated national and international art projects tackling difficult social issues
  • Developed leadership skills within the local community.

Immigrant Movement International (IMI) is a community-led organisation that provides free training and support to the immigrant population in Corona, Queens, responding to the immediate needs of the community. Its programmes so far have ranged across dance,nutrition, childcare, bicycle maintenance, construction safety, classical music, English language through art history, Spanish for Mandarin speakers, computer literacy, screen printing, immigration law, and counselling for women who are victims of domestic violence. IMI also acts as a platform for socially-engaged artists to advance immigrant rights and address neighbourhood concerns.

IMI was instigated in 2011 by Cuban artist Tania Bruguera and the Queens Museum (QM), with support from Creative Time. IMI is based on Bruguera’s notion of arte util – art that imagines, creates and implements socially beneficial outcomes – and the QM’s interest in working more closely with its local population. Bruguera began the project by spending a year living in a small apartment in Corona with five illegal immigrants and their children, gaining a thorough understanding of some of the problems illegal immigrants encounter daily.

At its peak in 2011, New York City’s foreign-born population reached 37.2% of the City’s 8.24 million residents, and in Corona the proportion is much higher. More than one third of the City’s immigrant population live in Queens, and 64.2% of Corona residents are foreign-born, with large numbers of Mexican, Ecuadorean, and Dominican residents. Immigrant residents tend to have a more difficult time accessing City services, educational opportunities and artistic programming than other population groups. Recent immigrants often score below average on educational attainment, health outcomes and other indicators of quality of life and social well-being. Although engagement with the arts often correlates with improvements across other indicators, cultural organisations face difficulties connecting with people outside traditional cultural audiences. IMI ties into New York’s wider strategy around working to ensure the whole municipal population is engaged with the arts and culture.

IMI’s project base is a storefront on Roosevelt Avenue in Corona, Queens. In its first year, under Bruguera’s leadership, IMI had more of an arts activism flavour, organising several social, political, and artistic actions. ‘Make a Movement’, a day dedicated to action on cultural enrichment and immigration issues, was held on the first Sunday of every month. Some resulting actions include the Immigrant Respect Letter Campaign, a town hall meetingon the DREAM Act with the New York State Youth Leadership Council, and a Slogan Writing Workshop.

In addition to monthly community actions, IMI put on several major events, including a Conversation on Useful Art, and the Re-Conceptualizing the 21st Century (Im)Migrant conference, which brought together politicians, activists, academics and community members, culminating in the development of a Migrant Manifesto. IMI then announced an open call for artists around the world to respond to the Migrant Manifesto by taking action on December 18th, International Migrants Day. More than 200 artists participated worldwide. IMI now has an important role as a think tank for those interested in creating a more humane and dignified legal and economic reality for migrants in the future, and as a laboratory for experimenting with the merging of arts and activism.

As part of its work in the local community, at the outset IMI held workshops for immigrants; most of the people who came to the store were interested in learning English or needed help finding employment or legal aid. So after the first year of programming, IMI transitioned to community ownership and focused on developing as a community space for education and training, health support and legal services, as well as for activism and campaigning.

2014 marks four years since the IMI began and it is clear that there is a strong, committed community dedicated to sustaining the programme. There are currently 10 community leaders ranging from 12 to 70 years of age. The leaders direct the project with the support ofthe Queens Museum. QM covers the cost of rent, utilities and staff support for IMI, and also helps raise funds to provide supplies and leadership development. IMI operates in a community comprised mainly of working class immigrants with varying levels of formal education, so one of the programme’s primary missions is supporting emerging leaders by providing training opportunities and staff support.

IMI now has around 250 families that regularly attend workshops and participate in offsite community programmes. All of this is directed by a Community Council made up of user-members, two part-time space coordinators, a part-time IMI Fellow and staff from the Public Programming Department at Queens Museum. These stakeholders meet monthly to review proposals and plan future projects (many of which are put forward by artists).

Recent special projects have included a day-long retreat for all IMI workshop leaders and future workshop leaders; participation in the Monument Quilt Project to promote awareness of sexual violence against women; a cultural performance for the Real Immigration Reform forum (IMI worked with immigrant musicians to create a new song for the finale to rouse the crowd to action); and a workshop with artist Raúl Ayala to contribute to a large-scale art project for the September 2014 Climate March.

Regular activities include Mujeres en Movimiento (Women in Movement), a healthy lifestyle initiative that meets every day of the week for dance, yoga, and biking activities; Occupational Safety workshops for those in the construction trade; ESOL training; digital photo and video training; the Corona Youth Music Project Youth Orchestra with 250 youth participants aged 4 to 14; Mobile Print Power, an ongoing screenprinting programme for young adults; and four different folkloric and contemporary dance groups who hold their weekly practice sessions at IMI.

As the fourth year of the project commences, as well as continuing to deliver alternative and empowering activities that respond to the needs of the local community, IMI hopes to grow and strengthen the Community Council that directs the project, developing new leaders regardless of their age or level of formal education. It also hopes to take its programming beyond the physical storefront space, onto the streets of Corona.

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