2008 YP4 fellow Elody Gyekis is earning a double-concentration bachelor of fine arts degree with a minor in civic and community engagement. She has designed, organized and painted three community murals in inner-city Harrisburg.
Location: State College, PA, United States
- Issues Areas:
- Economic Justice
Campus: Pennsylvania State University - State College, PA
Fellowship Class Year: 2008
Blueprint: Revitalize Millheim
Elody's Blueprint focused on countering the effects of rural decline in Millheim, PA. She worked to revitalize the community, moving it forward to a new-age version of its previous state of economic, cultural, and ecological sustainability so it could once again become a lively, empowered, and engaged community with an active appreciation and participation in the arts as an integral part of life.
Featured Fellow Spotlight
Elody, what do you stand for?
I stand for art as a means for social activism.
Tell me about your Blueprint for Social Justice.
I’m working on a project not on my campus but in my community. I’m organizing in a small rural lower-class area of central Pennsylvania—the area where I grew up. The way my process works is that I’m trying to reach out to as many different people in the community [as possible] to get their input and involvement.
In my mind it’s not so much about the mural as the process to create it, and what can happen in that. I see it as a forum for conversation about the community in the broadest sense. I’m trying to get the community to share their vision, so it’s not just my vision—like when I talk about vision building in the blueprint—but I want the community to create a vision with me and then I want to design a mural that’s about that vision.
In addition to getting the community involved in the idea building process, I use a very simple mural technique by creating a paint-by-number mural. So all summer we’ll be painting the mural together. So it’s also a casual forum for interaction in the community between people who don’t often get to interact.
So that’s pretty much my project. We’re doing the mural on the main intersection—well, the only intersection—in this community.
How are you reaching out to the participants?
I’m using a variety of different ways, both through the general media and word of mouth. One approach, and the easiest, is to make phone calls and write letters to already established organizations, such as public schools or different clubs and organizations—there’s a women’s club and a seniors’ group and also churches. So I make phone calls to their organizations.
Also, there was article in the newspaper about the project that made the front page in the Sunday paper. We’ve been posting information about community meetings in the newspaper, putting [information] on the radio, putting fliers up in the main part of the downtown area, sending out e-mails. Every means possible—I even went on Facebook and Facebook stalked everyone I knew from my high school to get them to know about the project. Any way I can think of, I try, because I want to reach as broad an audience as possible.
What has been your biggest struggle as a progressive leader?
Oh goodness, that’s a tough question. I’d say there are two very different struggles that I’ve experienced.
One is purely logistical. I’m an artist in the stereotypical sense; I’m a disorganized person. I’m a hard worker, but it’s not easy for me to be an organizational leader and I found that because of my interests and my passions and my leadership capabilities I find myself in an organizational role fairly often. So it’s a constant struggle for me to keep track of names, things, and numbers and to write grants and do fundraising and organizing budgets—that’s really hard for me because my mind does not work that way.
And then the other struggle is much more personal. I think with this kind of work you have to constantly examine your experiences and figure out what your motives are and how effective you are, just how you feel when you’re faced with various obstacles. It’s always a very developmental and personally changing process for me. So I think it’s always a personal struggle as well.
How do you deal with those struggles?
By always examining myself and taking time to reflect on the experiences. I bring it into my own personal artwork a lot. I’m a bachelor of fine arts major at my school so I bring it into the studio as well. I try to be as present as possible and [as] accessible as possible, to be open to get to know people and listen a lot. But I mostly bring it to the studio when I’m having internal battles with myself.
What have been some of your biggest successes?
I think successes come in funny small ways. I mean there are the big moments like when the last mural I was involved in […] had a big unveiling ceremony and the press was there and you get all these congratulations and everything is beautiful and happy, but for me I just feel awkward in those situations.
I think the biggest successes are in the little moments, when you see something or hear something that shows what you’ve done is important or meaningful to somebody. Even in just a small way, when it becomes personal and someone you’ve gotten to know through the process has a positive response and is excited about it, or you can tell that something changed or even something as simple as a relationship or a friendship that was created in that process. I think it’s just little moments. It might be that one sentence you overhear, and that will make everything worthwhile.
What inspired you to apply for the YP4 fellowship?
I’m a civic and community engagement minor, and there’s a woman who I was working with for my minor, and I was telling her about my interests to do some community art projects locally and I was sort of looking for various means to do that—various tools to help me, particularly in the beginning stages of it. So I was telling her and she said, “I just got this e-mail about this fellowship and I know some people who did it before” and she recommended it to me. So I didn’t really know much about it, but I went off of her recommendation when I applied.
What has stood out about the program so far?
The Summit itself was really cool. It was really interesting to be in that setting. I’ve been to a lot of conferences before, but never one specifically around activism. It was really odd and interesting and great to be treated as a professional—and given food and lodging at an excellent conference over social activist work. Usually the grassroots stuff is a little lower maintenance. So that was cool! Also really great to hear the keynote speakers and do the workshops.
The other thing that was… really useful was to write up the Blueprint because the structure for writing up the project really made me think about my intentions and what the actual goals and deliverables were. It was pretty different than the usual grants I have to write up for funding and such. It was a good exercise for me to think about things differently.
How would you like the progressive movement to change in the future?
I’m not sure. I think the direction that YP4 is taking — putting people who are working on different kinds of activist projects together and having them interact and hear about each other’s ideas — is really good. I think that having that kind of personal level networking between different movements that are obviously related and interconnected is really useful and even necessary on a greater level to make bigger changes.
What’s next for you?
I have another year of school, so I’m trying to finish up everything I’m doing at Penn State and from there I don’t know. I want to go to grad school at some point, but I don’t know exactly when and I don’t know exactly what for. But I’m very interested in three really different things. I’m totally a nerd at heart; I want to continue on the scholarly approach to doing things as well. I’m using the project I’m doing for YP4 as the thesis project for my honors college senior thesis, so I’m doing a lot of different research on how collaborative public art can be a successful form of community engagement—so I’ll be writing a lot on the topic. So there’s the scholarly side, then there’s the on-[the]-ground, get-your-hands-dirty, interacting-with-people aspect and then there’s the fine arts—I’m very involved in my own studio work. So one way or the other, I’m going to be involved in all three of those things.