Success Story Part 3: An Artist Community

ZYEP now reaches over 700 kids, a record high, and ZYEP participants report greater psychological well-being. The Ho’n A:wan Park will further the mission of ZYEP and provide a dedicated space for Zuni culture to continue to thrive.

ZYEP now reaches over 700 kids, a record high, and ZYEP participants report greater psychological well-being. The Ho’n A:wan Park will further the mission of ZYEP and provide a dedicated space for Zuni culture to continue to thrive.

The Zuni Youth Enrichment Project began in 2006 after a pediatrician named Tom Faber, MD, MPH, came to work at the Zuni Indian Health Service Hospital. Every year, he would ask his young patients, “What are you doing this summer?” And he repeatedly heard, “I’m not doing anything.”

Recognizing the importance of positive activities and role models in children’s lives, Dr. Faber started asking more questions and ascertaining interest in the community. From there what developed was a long-standing 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization committed to providing healthy summers and healthy futures for Zuni children, backed by the values and traditions of the Zuni culture.

This third and final article of a three-part series tells the story of the Zuni Youth Enrichment Project, its mission and programs, and how it has fostered relationships and leveraged funding to grow from hosting one small camp to becoming an artistic landmark and a formal hub for the Zuni artist community.

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PART 3
An Artists Community

In building the Ho’n A:wan Park, a new standard was set.

While Zuni Youth Enrichment Project had always collaborated with the community and pursued only approaches that integrate the Zuni culture, the input of artists was not always sought. Zuni Youth Enrichment Project was a youth development project but not an arts-based organization, says Joseph Claunch, Ph.D., co-director of the Zuni Enrichment Project.

In moving forward with the Ho’n A:wan Park, ZYEP approached local artists and ensured their voices were heard. What everyone soon realized was the perspective and resourcefulness of this population. And ultimately, this artists’ group not only became critical contributors to the park, it established itself as a resource for future projects at ZYEP and throughout the entire community.

Belonging to All of Us

While 80 percent of adults living in Zuni Pueblo identify as artists, they did not always come together in purpose. But with objectives of the ArtPlace America Community Development Initiative calling for local artists to lead ZYEP’s development of a park space, getting their input was essential.

Through a connection with the local artists, ZYEP advertised for participation for the official Artists Committee. To participate, artists had to be masters in their art form, well-respected in the community, and willing to advocate for their ideas. The organization brought together 15 artists, and ultimately had six active, engaged members.

Their buy-in and participation was essential, but they were cautious in the beginning, not about coming together as artists, but about the park project, Dr. Claunch recalls.

Indoors and outdoors, 11 murals showcase the skills of local artist while illustrating Zuni cultures and traditions. Having this ongoing spotlight on their work ensures that art is always valued and Zuni lifeways are being passed along to next generations.

Indoors and outdoors, 11 murals showcase the skills of local artists while illustrating Zuni cultures and traditions. Having this ongoing spotlight on their work ensures that art is always valued and Zuni lifeways are being passed along to next generations.

“They were skeptical, voicing that a lot of people came to the community and said they wanted to do this or that, but plans would typically fall through,” he says. “It was humbling to hear.”

Dr. Claunch says the mistrust was justified, and all he could do was assert that they had funding, and they had the commitment to seeing this project through.

As plans continued, the artists overcame doubts and came together in regular weekly meetings among ZYEP, the Artists Committee and the architecture firm. Through the five months of planning, there were natural delays, Dr. Claunch says, which did trigger questions from the artists. Still, they remained committed, and he says he was continually impressed by their perspectives and insights.

“I was always amazed by how deep their strategies could go compared to ours,” he says. “They could approach youth development through a lens of art, and in doing so they could give Zuni youth a better sense of who they are, where they come from, and what’s important about being Zuni.”

Respected and Resourceful

As the planning and design went on, the artists were called on more and more. For example, when the project required wood posts for fences, the artists had resources to make that happen, Dr. Claunch says. “There were so many things in addition to producing art. They were resourceful and well-connected, and that led to them being sought out more by the community.”

Beyond sports, the park provides a gathering place for summer camps and youth-enrichment activities. Most importantly, it creates a space for art to be passed down and for Zuni children to learn about their culture and traditions. Here, kids learn Native design that will be featured on murals, pottery and signage throughout the community center.

Beyond sports, the park provides a gathering place for summer camps and youth-enrichment activities. Most importantly, it creates a space for art to be passed down and for Zuni children to learn about their culture and traditions. Here, kids learn Native design that will be featured on murals, pottery and signage throughout the community center.

He tells of his experience serving on a panel that was asked to question candidates running for governor of Zuni. Opinions were diverse and there were conflicts in regard to priorities and vision. “I was able to say, ‘We need an artist on this panel’,” he says. “Artists make up one of the largest stakeholder groups in Zuni and it makes sense to advocate for them.”

When an artist did join the panel, it changed the nature of the questions. “The focus became art-based. And that provided clarity that contributed to the success of the panel,” Dr. Claunch says.

A Model for the Future

The formalization of the Artists Committee has elevated the role of art in ZYEP programs. What became evident in the park design was the creativity and communication style of artists and an inherent approach that can make any project better.

For Tom Faber, MD, MPH, co-director of the Zuni Youth Enrichment Project, the Ho’n A:wan Park represented what is possible when the whole community comes together. “The tribe trusted us enough to provide a long-term lease for the land; cultural leaders offered insights on how to ensure that the park fit within the context of the Pueblo; community members identified their priorities for the space; and Zuni artists literally designed the park,” he says.

Their involvement has been memorialized with art throughout the community center and park and on plaques presented to them at the grand opening of the space. Dr. Claunch reports that upon seeing their names engraved, the artists were glowing.

The perimeter of the Ho’n A:wan Park and Community Center provides for an ever-evolving canvas. The Artists Committee played an integral role in not only sourcing the perimeter wall, but also ensuring it would be a vehicle to display and share Zuni art.

The perimeter of the Ho’n A:wan Park and Community Center provides for an ever-evolving canvas. The Artists Committee played an integral role in not only sourcing the perimeter wall, but also ensuring it would be a vehicle to display and share Zuni art.

Local artist and committee member Jeff Shetima was the first to be contacted by ZYEP for the project and was present at the public meetings to help recruit fellow artists. He says he’s been honored to be involved. A specialist in carving, jewelry making, metal art, drawing and painting, Shetima says the project empowered him to work with the architects and to see the artists’ vision come alive through the blueprints. He says the committee became like a family, and it provided a structure for bringing art to the community. “Every piece of art tells a story of our history and our culture, and every time someone sees a piece of art it opens a dialogue and becomes a learning tool,” he says.

Dr. Claunch adds that the committee also opened doors for artists to further contribute to the community. He says many are becoming increasingly organized in their efforts, and seeing this ArtPlace grant in action has inspired them to look for other opportunities to organize as community artists.

One of those opportunities has been the forming of an Arts Cooperative, says Shetima, which is further uniting many of the members of the Artists Committee in advancing Zuni art. “It’s made us stronger,” he says. “It’s given us a way to do what’s important for our community.”


In summary, this is a success story, illustrating what can happen when an organization has a vision and builds on momentum. It is what’s possible when programs take hold and funders see positive outcomes that inspire other funders.

Catherine Bryan, Director of Programs at First Nations, speaks of how ZYEP has thrived over time, and that by demonstrating impact, the organization has been able to achieve multi-year funding, which is imperative to long-term growth and sustainability, especially in Indian Country. “That’s what awesome about this model. It has allowed them to build capacity and that’s something all organizations need to aspire to.”

Invitation to the Grand Opening

Invitation to the Grand Opening

From the initial programming, to the establishing of a Ho’n A:wan, to elevating art through an Artists Committee, ZYEP is positioned well to keep going.

“If you would have asked us in 2008 if we would have done all this, it would have seemed very far-fetched,” adds Dr. Claunch. “Now there’s potential for even more.”

Through the park, he says, ZYEP has room to grow. They want to continue developing relationships, involving the community, and recognizing long-term partners, including First Nations, who have contributed to ZYEP’s mission. There is potential, Dr. Claunch says, in being a model for other youth organizations, and for developing more parks on the Zuni Pueblo.

“We want to have as many families and kids as possible doing fun, healthy things in the way of the Zuni people,” he says. “We want to dream big.”

By Amy Jakober

This is Part 3 of a three-part series.
You can see the previous sections at these links.

Part 1: http://indiangiver.firstnations.org/nl190102-04/
Part 2: http://indiangiver.firstnations.org/nl190304-01/