For Iris Brown, the community gardens of Norris Square transport her back to her hometown in Loíza, Puerto Rico.
“I wanted to focus on bringing pieces of my island to the gardens,” Brown, 74, said.
Brown is co-founder and coordinator of Grupo Motivos. This group of 15 women came together to make positive change in their neighborhood by converting empty lots into six community gardens. The gardens, which were created between 1980 and 2006, pay homage to the Puerto Rican roots of many of the residents in the North Philadelphia neighborhood.
Co-directors of Termite TV Collective, Mike Kuetemeyer and Anula Shetty, worked with Brown in the mid-2000s when they collaborated with neighborhood residents on two documentaries highlighting the gardens, “Las Parcelas” and “Villa African Colobó.”
The filmmakers are returning to Norris Square to collaborate with Brown again through their project, “Places of Power — Norris Square.” Through the project, Kuetemeyer, Shetty, and community residents will film the gardens and gather oral histories to create a virtual reality experience in which viewers will be able to explore the gardens on their own — thanks to the power of 360 cameras — while taking turns listening to different community residents tell their stories of power.
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“There’s all these maps with all these markers of tourist sites, commercial sites, but what is missing are these emotional markers,” Shetty said. “How do you capture and preserve the memories of a neighborhood?”
This is what the project seeks to accomplish through once again documenting the gardens.
Brown took a break from working in the gardens after 2006, when the last garden was created, Villa Africána Colobó. This garden explores the African diaspora in Puerto Rico and the experience of Black Puerto Ricans.
Brown started tending to the African garden again this last year. She is working to upkeep the garden with a couple teenagers she was connected with through the nonprofit HUNE.
“I believe that personal stories and challenges in life and patience and things like that, I believe that we can reach out, especially to youngsters because they are the future,” Brown said of working with youth.
For the “Places of Power” project Brown will serve as the community liaison, working to get residents involved in the project. She said it will be a challenge to get women from Grupo Motivos involved. Since the documentary projects of the mid-2000s, members have gotten older and started to have health struggles.
Still, Brown is up for the challenge.
Brown will also enlist other community members to be a part of the project. The goal is to have a multi-generational group of members involved. Brown said it will be important to highlight the people living in Norris Square, where she has resided for more than 40 years.
“Most of the time people believe that a hero is a person with superpowers, and I believe that our heroes are right here in the community,” Brown said.
Once completed sometime toward the end of 2021, the project will be another addition to the community archive. And one of the goals of “Places of Power — Norris Square” is to let residents tell their stories in their own voices.
This was similarly the case with the first iteration of “Places of Power” in 2016 that highlighted places of belonging in the Fairhill and Hartranft neighborhoods, including an informal and beloved penny candy store.
“These are neighborhoods where the media portrayals of them are fairly negative,” Shetty said, “and it’s also about getting people to control the narrative.”
Kuetemeyer and Shetty said part of social practice and community media is letting residents drive the project’s focus. They will develop prompts and explore the concept of belonging, but the specific topics of the oral storytelling interviews will be left up to residents.
“Rather than going into a community with a pre-set idea of what we want to have happen there, our process is to go in and work with community members to explore what the issues are in the neighborhood, what the solutions are, what people are thinking about,” Shetty said.
"The artwork is not just the final project, but the whole process of creating it."
“The artwork is not just the final project, but the whole process of creating it,” Kuetemeyer added. “Having people interviewing each other within the community even if nothing happens to that video, it’s still really powerful conversations and connections that get created through the process of diving in and sort of investigating.”
There will be 10 consistent participants in the project, who will be compensated with a stipend. But there will also be open workshops for the whole community to learn about the project, practice their storytelling skills and learn how to use camera equipment. The project is funded with grants from the Leeway Foundation and Independence Public Media Foundation.
The project will be captured in part using 360 cameras to develop the virtual reality aspect of the final piece, which will allow a viewer to see whichever part of the gardens they want to just by turning their head.
“With 360 you see the full context,” Kuetemeyer said. “With traditional video, there’s a framing that happens by the filmmaker and so they select out what they want the audience to see and what they want the audience not to see, perhaps.”
“With VR, I think it has a deeper connection to memory and to experience through the physical connection,” he said. “When you watch traditional media, it’s basically just the eyes that are moving around.”
Shetty said critiques of their work call out this technology as elitist, noting it isn’t accessible for community residents. But Shetty disagrees and said that the internet faced the same arguments in its early days.
“So many billions of dollars have been invested in this technology, and AR and VR, the idea is for commercial use, but what if it could be a platform for community storytelling?” she said. “So that is what we are really excited about.”
Part of the project will include “demystifying” this technology through community workshops, where residents learn how to operate the equipment that will be used in the filming.
Learning to operate the camera equipment is again another challenge Brown is ready to conquer, she said, noting residents learned a lot during the filming of the documentaries more than a decade ago.
“We had the same situation when we learned about sound and cameras and expensive equipment…and this beautiful documentary was produced,” Brown said. “So we did it once, and I know that we are going to be able to do it again.”
The workshops, along with the storytelling that will occur are integral to the community collaboration element of the project. And for Brown, these aspects make her experience in the gardens even more fulfilling.
"It's beautiful because of the ... dreams and accomplishments of these women and other people from the community."
“It’s beautiful because of the looks,” she said of the gardens. “But it’s more importantly beautiful because of the workshops and the conversations and the dreams and the accomplishments of these women and other people from the community.”
As for the conversations that will be had throughout the community interviews, Brown also said the direction of conversations are unknown because they are determined simply by who shows up in the gardens each day.
“That is part of the beauty,” she said. “We don’t have a book, we don’t have anything prepared. It just comes.”-30-
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