Vernon Araujo: Helping Artists and Communities Respond to Climate Change

Photo: Courtsey of Mr Araujo

I met Vernon Araujo through the Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation, where we both serve on its Board of Directors. During a recent meeting, Mr. Araujo shared an update on the status of the arts community in St. Thomas and the Virgin Islands in the wake of the two hurricanes those islands experienced in 2017.

Mr. Araujo is the development director for the Family Resource Center, which aids families experiencing the impact of all facets of violence and social instability. The organization also works with artists and helps facilitate arts programming for youth and children.

Listening to his presentation, I realized disaster preparation is not just for those living on the islands or on the coastlines. These days every region of the United States has experienced some climate disaster—flooding, fires, tornados, and blinding rain or snowstorms. That means it’s time for us to recognize that access to the arts is not limited to the engagement campaigns we design. Arts organizations and artists must also be prepared to respond to climate change, too.

In 2020, I believe every arts organization and every artist should have an emergency plan in place, not only for economic recovery, but to also insure that during a climate disaster or national crisis, when people most need inspiration, encouragement, upliftment and hope, the arts will remain available as part of our communities’ social safety net.

This interview with Mr. Araujo reinforces why this is so important and I thought it imperative to share this information with the readers of Arts & Culture Connections.

Donna Walker-Kuhne: Tells us about the community where you work with the arts and artists.

 Vernon Araujo: The Virgin Islands is a melting pot; we have predominantly people of color. I would say close to 65-percent, if not more, are of African-American, West Indian or African descent. There also is a substantive Latino population from neighboring islands, Puerto Rico and Central America. There is a French-Creole speaking population, and we have people from India, Jordan and Palestine. So, when we talk about trying to make sure we have reached the community, it is both diverse and vast. There are several micro-communities that we try to insure are represented.

Fortunately, everybody primarily lives in the city and in the schools we don’t have a whole lot of segregation. As a small island kind of town, we don’t really have a choice but to meet, interact and work together. Sometimes there are conflicts, but we have been fairly successful with supporting the arts institutions and venues to continue to do what they do.

I’ve been on the board of the Family Resource Center for about five or six years. We work with families experiencing domestic violence, youth violence, sexual violence, etc. But we also are responsible for and we enjoy providing opportunities and resources for artists—visual artists, musicians, writers, etc. We help showcase their work in the Virgin Islands and abroad.

During my tenure on the board, it’s really been exciting because the Family Resource Center is working on three different islands—St. Thomas. St. John and St Croix. Each is different and each has its unique artistic heritage and requires attention. So, we have quite a big job as far as reaching out to all the different communities. But it also makes it exciting because we get to see and experience all of the different forms and expressions of creativity.

Donna: How does living in a hurricane zone impact your ability to support the local artists and offering access to the arts?

Vernon: As many of your readers may know, we had two Category 5 hurricanes (with sustained winds exceeding 200 mph) in September of 2017—Hurricanes Irma and Maria. At that time, we had not had a major storm since 1995 when Hurricane Marilyn (Category 3) struck the U.S. Virgin Islands, St. Thomas and Puerto Rico, killing nearly 20 people and causing $2.3-billion in damages.

With twenty years between those major storms, those of us who made it through Hurricane Marilyn became complacent. And the people who had moved to St. Thomas during those 20 years had no idea of the magnitude or impact of hurricanes. So, when we got two, back-to-back, and they were both bigger than Hurricane Marilyn, a lot of people were really unprepared.

This was especially true for people in the arts—both institutions and individual artists. The storm caused the loss of lots of creative space—working studios, galleries and schools. The roofs were ripped off or collapsed and everything inside was ripped apart.

The hospitals also were damaged and the many people who relied on medications or those who were diabetic had no resources for what they needed to sustain their lives. We had a mass exodus of people from the island, including artists, after the storms.

For the people who stayed, two years later, we are still having the issue of locating or finding space for youth and artists to engage in the arts. Space is so very limited and that’s one of the major challenges. So that means there is no space for imagining, creating, dreaming, setting up an easel. There’s limited access to art supplies. When you think about how important the arts are to our daily life, this has truly been a big challenge not only for individual artists, but also for the community at large.

 

On the positive note, about a year ago, the Virgin Islands Council of the Arts was able to offer some $70,000 in grants to artists for the recovery of art supplies, equipment and gallery space. Many artists have been going through a lot of post-traumatic stress—many lost a lifetime of work—and those grants helped them to see a little hopeful light.

Donna: What was happening with the greater community and were you able to utilize the arts in any way during the recovery efforts?

 Vernon: Just to give you the scope of it–I know several people who lost their homes, their jobs and their vehicles in one night. And they have children. Very few people have ever been in a situation where they’ve lost everything. So, you know they have to establish priorities—although everything seems like a necessity all at once.

The entire island experienced post-traumatic stress. We saw that in the spike in violent crime, assaults, children fighting in schools and an uptick in gang activity. We firmly believe that the lack of creative spaces and the abrupt disappearance of sports and other extracurricular activities because of the storms contributed to this.

We did our best to respond as soon as possible, making efforts to engage children in the arts; getting them interacting with the music they love; sports activities, and the extracurricular activities. We made paint brushes and camera gear available to keep them positively busy. Violence can have a ripple effect, especially in a small town or small community, so you really have to nip it in the bud before it further exacerbates the existing crisis.

Donna: That is a painful and difficult situation! How has that changed what your organization is doing and what you’re urging artists to do?

Vernon: People are rarely sufficiently prepared for storms. And that’s why everyone’s initial reaction during a disaster is usually a “Band-Aid” approach—we want to offer relief and support as soon as possible. But that’s not always the best solution, so what we’re trying to do is think about planning and long-term efforts and to help the community think about preparation as well.

I think it’s important to prepare for the worst-case scenario, and I don’t think you can ever over-prepare. In that way, you’re protected, and you can make modifications if the situation changes.

Everybody, not just artists, living in a potential hurricane-zone, including the entire eastern coastline of the mainland United States, needs to be thinking about this: All the things you deem absolutely essential need to be protected now. It is absolutely essential that all of your personal documents are in order, secured and easily accessible in the event you have to leave your studio or your home quickly. There’s not much time to think in an emergency. Just to know that you don’t have to get a new license, or find a birth certificate, or you don’t have to attempt to recover art supplies after the storm can go a long way to helping you in the aftermath.

My personal experience—my camera was in a safe location and I had charged batteries, which was great because we had no power on the island. I was able to document the entire aftermath of the storm. Later, I was able to print the photographs and they were exhibited at a gallery. People could come together, see the photographs and dialogue about them. These are the types of things we can do, as artists, to continue working if we plan ahead.

Donna: What has been the broader community response to the situation?

 Vernon: Post storm, reaching out to each other might sound cliché. But the community had to get together—all of us needed a crutch; all of us needed a shoulder, and it was essential that we worked together to get back as quickly as possible to some state of normalcy. Preparation, getting together, working together as a community was essential.

Unlike after Hurricane Marilyn in 1995, there are now more post-storm resources available. For example, the Atlanta Art Foundation has been very supportive. It is really positive and so helpful when you are in a crisis; to know that there are resources or people that are willing to help.

After the storm, we also received assistance and care packages from every single state on the mainland of the United States. So, we felt the love, especially from New York, and we would not be in our current state of recovery without all of that support. As a matter of fact, we received another 45 for container relief supplies over the last few weeks and we’re still going through them. We are in a much better situation than we were two years ago and we’re very grateful.

Donna: What’s next for the arts on St. Thomas in terms of expanding your efforts to insure the possibility of broader audience growth and inclusion?

Vernon:  First, we have some challenges to overcome. Unfortunately, a lot of our infrastructure for the arts has been damaged. So, what we’re trying to do is get Community Development Block Grants to be able to renovate, fix and make better some of the arts venues, institutions and arenas. For example, the auditorium that was destroyed was hit with sustained winds that were upwards of 220 mph. Some people recorded winds on the islands as high as 300 mph.

In some areas, we need to change the building codes so that all of our buildings can withstand the worsening storms. Currently, our infrastructure is based on standards that are more than 30 years old. Going forward, we don’t want to repeat the same mistakes and have the same scope of damage. We don’t want to have to recreate the wheel every time we have a storm!

At the same time, I’m excited about all the new arts grantees that have come before us. Several artists are exploring new mediums and new projects. Some of them have to do with the storms—their reaction to it; coping with it; the aftermath. So, we’re excited to see what will be created out of the rubble of this tragedy.

A storm is a great equalizer—whether you’re black, brown, yellow, or even a millionaire, we all experienced the devastation. I think it humbles people and that is really positive moving forward. I expect this will be reflected in the arts that are being created and I am looking forward to participating and assisting in this process as much as possible.

Donna: Thank you, Vernon, for sharing this thought-provoking and insightful information.

Postscript for you: During the process of preparing for this interview, I ran across information about the Craft Emergency Relief Fund (CERF), which makes available “Get Ready Preparedness Grants” for artists in crafts disciplines to safeguard their studios, protect their careers and prepare for emergencies. While the deadline has passed for 2019, there are many important tips on that website that all artists and arts organizations should consider, especially given the worsening climate situation.

I hope you will share your comments, thoughts and/or other resources in the section below. You can also send me an email: donna@donnawalkerkuhne.com.

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