Love My Neighbor Project

Background

Love My Neighbor is an art intervention and social action project conceptualized, developed and led by the known California artist Alexey Steele.  It is originated in the City of Carson, California, where artist had his studio for fourteen years.  The City of Carson is one of the most statistically diverse municipalities in the United States with all its cultural richness and social challenges.  It is the turf of sixteen active gangs.

The cross section of Art and Society was always of Alexey’s Steele’s particular artistic interest and Love My Neighbor project became its prime expression in its artistic form as My Neighbor Series in paintings and works on paper on one side and as a social experiment on the other.

The concept behind his work is to capture uniquely inspiring local heroes who command a special universal love and admiration even within most difficult neighborhoods.    

At the center of the project is a process of creation of original artworks of My Neighbor Series by Alexey Steele that is conducted as a form of community outreach, their public installations and children community engagement programs that explore opportunities opened by art outreach.

The project was envisioned as an intercommunal unifying bridge-building initiative and is centered on the artists live portrait series showcasing compelling images and stories of the beloved and inspiring diverse neighbors who serve as unique binders of local community and, whom artist believes, are the true everyday heroes of our society.

Based on his artistic outreach to the community since 2005 the project was launched by the artist in 2015 in collaboration with The City of Carson Human Services with the grant from The City of Carson Cultural Arts Commission.

From 2016 Alexey made the focus of his project the notoriously difficult, chronically underserved and historically marginalized Carson neighborhood called “Scottsdale.”

Opposite to often seen role of art and artists as agents of gentrification, Alexey Steele have developed in Carson the model for public art serving as a viable tool of community rebuilding and turn around.

In collaboration with 501 (c) 3 non-profit Artward Initiative in 2017 Alexey Steele founded the non-profit Artward! Gallery “Scottsdale” to directly engage this underserved community with Love My Neighbor public art project.  The gallery now serves as base for continuous community engagement.

The process of creating his artowrk of the My Neighbor Series on-site in the series of live sessions open to public became a unique way of community engagement that never happened there before.  It opened the door into the community and build the trust with the residents of this difficult and long-neglected neighborhood, created the opportunity for continuous engagement in this notoriously hard to set foot in community.

Building on Initial Success

Based on the initial success of the concept and in collaboration with 501 (c) 3 non-profit Artward Initiative  we created a non-profit on-site Artward! Gallery Scottsdale with permanent Love My Neighbor public art installation as the point of continuous community engagement.  They then were able to develop multiple programs and build the network of strategic collaborations to engage local at-risk youth to spark their interest in creativity and social engagement through art using art as antidote to local influence of gang life. 

With Atrward Initiative Steele built such programs as Love My Neighbor Curriculum, teaching local youth through art to love their neighbors and neighborhood, Artward! Kids Studio where local youth under professional artist guidance were able to tap their creativity with art supplies and equipment provided by Artward Initiative. 

Collaboration with Bank of America

The ongoing Love My Neighbor public art project in “Scottsdale” neighborhood of Carson opened the opportunities for engaging this historically hard to impact neighborhood.  Expanding these opportunities Alexey Steele and Artward Initiative have developed a unique collaboration with the Bank of America’s volunteer team of community outreach Better Money Habits program. This collaboration resulted in launching Love My Neighbor Day – an outreach program to which all Scottsdale children were invited as difficult as it was to organize and manage, identifying kids with interest in art while Bank of America volunteer group provided free personal financial management advice to parents and older kids.  

The method was further developed to make this concept mobile and take the portable professionally set up children art studio to the streets as part of city-wide events in strong collaboration with the City of Carson and Bank of America.

The developed by Alexey Steele Love My Neighbor Day mobile children’s art tent with its Love My Neighbor message operated under artist’s leadership by the volunteer team of Bank of America community outreach Better Money Habits Program was twice selected to represent Bank of America at the Los Angeles’s iconic Taste of Soul celebration, in 2018 and 2019.

Support and Recognition

The extensive art outreach programs were built with financial support of The City of Carson, Wells Fargo Bank, California Arts Council and Bank of America Foundation.  The successful engagement led to shifting perception of the community both from within of itself and from the outside, including by the city of Carson and by the Sheriff’s department.   Carson residents who were once afraid to set foot inside the Scottsdale community started to arrive by the busload to visit the Love My Neighbor public installation in the Artward! Gallery.  Scottsdale residents and the Carson Sheriffs started to develop mutual trust. 

The Love My Neighbor public art project is a platform for unique strategic collaborations between a non-profit, individual artists, city government, a national corporate entity, and local law enforcement.  The City’s long-term inability to connect with Scottsdale residents on a meaningful level has been changed with this public art program.  Trust was now developing. 

Art-centered locally-embraced Love My Neighbor program was able to deliver a measurable impact that long alluded policy makers. In the authoritative recognition of the program’s real world measurable community building impact the Love My Neighbor Public Art Project in the Scottsdale Neighborhood of Carson and its founder Alexey Steele have been selected as a prestigious 2019 California Park & Recreation Society (CPRS) Creating Community Award of Excellence recipient in the important Social Equity category.  There were great plans for 2020.  Then came COVID-19.

Pivoting to Global and National Emergency

COVID19 emergency became the greatest true challenge for the Love My Neighbor program. The program was designed and built to deliver engagement, to build community connections, to bring people in and together. The pandemic shattered all plans, as all planned events were public and involved large gatherings. All funding was also lost as the City of Carson as many other municipalities had to bear the burden of emergency.

Yet, the success of Love My Neighbor program and its deep embrace by the community well positioned Alexey Steele and Artward Initiative to be responsive to the rapidly emerging community needs of the emergency. Instead of opting to hunker down and hibernate, they decided to adopt the program, pivoting it to addressing the newly emerged vital needs of the community they served. 

Such pressing need quickly emerged to be the support of quarantined elderly and at-risk residents of this long suffering from inequity neighborhood.  The key need was emotional and food relief.  Alexey and Artward Initiative came up with the model to combine both.  Though never working with food distribution before, within five days of stay-at-home order and through their contacts with nonprofits they secured necessary partnerships and food donation sources. 

Steele then selected best artworks created by local Carson and Scottsdale kids through the Love My Neighbor program and started to attach the prints of those works to emergency food distribution packages.  They served as uplifting keepsake items and as a continuous personal children art exhibit delivered directly to Scottsdale residents in need, making art a signature part of their emergency relief operation. 

He then started to reach out to Scottsdale kids staying at home asking them to create artwork and messages for their elderly and at-risk neighbors.  Not that it was easy.

Alexey Steele and Artward Initiative also engaged their long-time collaborating partners from nationally recognized Carson Sheriff Stations’ Gang Diversion Team (GDT). In addition to food relief packages they provided them with art supplies, flyers and instructions.  Steele also created an instructional video and the designated standalone pages on our website with detailed instruction for participating kids and their parents.

In many ways the crisis revealed the unique community building nature of Love My Neighbor project and the resilient power of its unifying message.  Not only what they delivered turned out to be important, but the very process and logistics they have built had turned out to be community-building as it brought together local community activists, residents, security company and law enforcement as volunteers in their art and food emergency relief program.  

The organization is grateful to Bank of America Foundation for eventually providing a critical support for the continuation of the program.

Expansion to Culver City

Immediately before the onset of the pandemic at the beginning of 2020 Alexey Steele was appointed as the first Artist Laureate of Culver City, California.  The appointment was based on the recognition of the rare combination of his artistic achievements on his extensive experience of community outreach and art program building. His mandate was to help establish and develop the new and important city program.

Alexey brought his Love My Neighbor project to Culver City as the center of his Artist Laureate tenure.

Distant Live Session and Art as Resilience

Alexey Steele was not slowed down by the pandemic and adopted his award-winning program with innovative distant live portrait sessions and live casts portrait sessions translating his pandemic experiences into a new body of work. He kept showcasing special neighbors through his art in a technology powered virtual sessions.

Throughout 2020 – 2021 Steele conducted remote live portrait sessions with long time Culver City residents who each left their own mark on their Culver City Neighbors. In his work Alexey prefers a live interaction with the model in a series of live sittings as opposite to simply copying a photographic snap shot.  In order to fulfill his vision and to continue portraying his special neighbors live for his Love My Neighbor project in midst of the health emergency, Alexey have developed an innovative approach. 

The heroes of his works remained in self-isolation in their homes maintaining contact with the artist via Facetime session which were transmitted to a TV screen at artists’ studio while Steele was working on his portraits as if his model was sitting right in front of him.  To make the live session public they were streamed live to Facebook and viewers were invited the same way as if the session were held at public venues in Culver City as was originally planned.

The project raised awareness of the enduring strength in our community’s spirit, reaffirming our ability to persevere, overcome and recover as well as of protecting most vulnerable segments of our society at the time of pandemic.

Throughout the pandemic Alexey Steele have conducted and participated in the emergency relief operations of two California cities and shown the art to be not a luxury product line but a form of essential social services.

Commitment to a Long-Marginalized Community

With their award-wining program Steele and Artward Initiative engage the long marginalized and underserved “Scottsdale” neighborhood of Carson, one of the most difficult remaining in LA County and an example of 50-year policy failure.

There were various good attempts to bring change to this community, particularly by the city of Carson, yet our program is recognized as the first one to successfully engage, take hold and gain trust of this hard-to-reach community.

The community consists of over 3000 residents 74% Latinx, 19% Black, 6.7% Asian, pre-covid 23.9% below poverty line, pre-covid unemployment 8.58%. The neighborhood is a home turf to a notorious “Scottsdale Pirus” gang which decimates the social fiber of the community, instills fear, turns the area into the grounds for the ongoing inter-gang violence. 

This long-suffering community was devastated by the Covid emergency – the unemployment is way above pre-covid level, the infection rate was high, the kids who were locked out of schools and all after school activities are subjected to a rising gang influence, the crime is surging and poverty rising.

“Scottsdale” Carson is also a prime example of glaring systemic inequity as all experts pointing out to the outdated and deeply flawed California legislation covering HOA requirements as an insurmountable structural source of marginalization effectively preventing the community from its right to self-govern.

Recovery and Post Covid Programing

The COVID-19 emergency had a devastating impact on our inner cities.  It was seen first hand with Love My Neighbor project and the Artward! Gallery at the long neglected and marginalized “Scottsdale” community of Carson, California.  Unemployment is rampant.  Violence and gang activisation was up.  The was an emerging need once again to pivot the program, now to support and encourage the community recovery.  To help community lift its spirit the Love My Neighbor 2 Recover Kids Art Contest in “Scottsdale”was launched.  It was possible to do tanks to a super timely and generous support from Bank of America Foundation. 

The emotional impact of the program had a multiplying effect when residents through fliers that they all received knew that something positive and real was happening in their battered by the pandemic community.  The response was just as heartfelt and beautiful as the kids art that was turned in.

The ongoing kids art contests have encouraged the creation of joyful, beautiful and meaningful art that was presented on the wall of on-site Artward! Kids Studio, provided support and inspiration to kids through awards, certificates of recognition and free art supply kits! The Award celebration and children art exhibition events have brought the community together and once again showcased the depth of our community support and collaboration with The City of Carson as the City Council recognized the contest winners with the Certificates of Recognition presented by Council Members.

New Exciting Collaborations and Expanding the Message: Love My Neighbor – United Against Hate

In 2022 as a result of his inner-city work in the City of Carson, Alexey Steele was offered and able to develop a unique opportunity to collaborate with newly established Los Angeles County program LA vs. Hate and established a joint collaboration with his flagship Love My Neighbor project, cross-messaging with LA vs. Hate, Love My Neighbor, and United Against Hate. He also established a collaboration between himself as Artist Laureate of Culver City and LA vs. Hate in preparation for United Against Hate week and brought United Against Hate Week to Culver City as part of the ALP.

Alexey have developed, organized and conducted a series of events for the United Against Hate Week (November 13 – November 19) in Culver City, the City of Carson and in the City of Long Beach.

Expansion to Long Beach Community of “Carmelitos”

The Love My Neighbor program is currently being expanded to “Carmelitos” community of Long Beach, the biggest housing complex of LA County.  The demographics and challenges there are very similar to neighboring “Scottsdale” community of Carson and the experiences and methods which were developed there answering the needs of this community. The project is a new collaboration between Alexey Steele, Artward Initiative, “Carmelitos” Housing, he largest in LA County, and the office of Long Beach Councilmember for the 8th District, Al Austin II.

Key Lessons

The key lesson that was learned throughout the pandemic is “stay on the mission – always respond to the emerging need”.  For this it is critical to be deeply imbedded in the community, earn its trust and support. If this is a crisis or difficulty, you have to share it with the community you serve.

The Love My Neighbor program had deep and emphatic response and support of the community as it happened to visualize the communities’ desire for self-respect and transformation, yet it is the crisis that proved how vital are the connections that we built.  Addressing critical needs in critical times together with local community activists had brought us together more than ever.

When pandemic finally started to subside, we found ourselves positioned better than ever for the recovery stage.  We now know with certainty that both our model and our message work in the communities like Scottsdale and we now ready to expand our reach. Instead of effectively being shot down by the pandemic, we were strengthened.

Another key lesson is “build and sustain strategic collaborations”. Stay true to your partners and they will stay true to you. You cannot do anything alone however good the intentions.  Based on local engagement and support find and build collaborations critical to the mission. Work and reinforce them. Never let it go.

Third lesson is “innovate as problems come your way”. Problems and adaptations are the best source of innovation.  Never be stack in previous success or in previous failure. No matter how bad things are, you can always make them better for those you serve.