In the Loop
Faculty News : Sep 30, 2021

Sparking a shift: UF faculty envision arts as a resource for community empowerment through SPARC352 project

By Brandon J. McKinley

Dionne Champion has always been interested in both the arts and science. She calls herself a dancer and an engineer, but she was told early in her education that she would need to choose just one.

“I reject that,” Champion says, “because I am both. I cannot be one and not be the other. This is who I am in my work and in my life.”

In her undergraduate years, Champion studied chemical engineering at Florida A&M University. She also participated in the Orchesis Contemporary Dance Theatre, a student organization that Champion says was uniquely all-inclusive.

“It was the kind of thing where, if you wanted to be there, you wanted to participate, and you were willing to do the work, you were welcome,” she says.

Half of the participants weren’t even students, according to Champion, but instead members of the community. Orchesis’s performance of African dance styles welcomed community dancers and musicians who brought expertise and resources to the organization.

Champion says it was one of her first experiences being a part of the institution while also getting outside its walls.

“Those connections were very fluid from the university into the community,” Champion says. “That experience has shaped my philosophy on education.”

Champion went on to student dance education at Temple University. After graduating, she founded DancExcel, a creative arts center in Indiana where she designed and implemented educational programming that infused science, math, writing, and history into music and dance activities.

She credits this experience for deepening her commitment to exploring both STEM and artmaking opportunities for children of color.

“I think not only about how to broaden their participation,” Champion says, “but also about how to understand, respect, and shed light on the ways in which children already engage and the strengths that they bring to the table.”

Put simply, Champion studies the way people learn through creative expressive movement forms, like dance. In a recent project, she led a hip hop making “computation camp” for middle school students in communities of color. The students used the elements of hip hop—like beatmaking, deejaying, rap and dance—to explore more computational ideas, such as looping, sampling, and randomization. Champion said the goal was to help students to connect these ideas and understand that they can be programmers.

Currently, as a faculty member at the UF Center for Arts in Medicine, she’s leading two National Science Foundation projects that bring science, technology, engineering, and math topics to more informal spaces that engage Black and Latinx youth through dance.

“I like to work outside of schools and typical education institutions and bring the work to the people where they actually live,” Champion says.

* * *

Alana Jackson also finds herself in a conjunction of disciplines. When she was young, her mom told her if something doesn't exist, you create it.

“The arts were heavy in me,” Jackson says. “All day long I could sing and song write. But I was also incredibly drawn to the health professions. Financial stability for family and what kind of future I would have was on my mind.”

As a teenager, Jackson had to take up the role of being a caretaker, and she says she experienced loss early in her life. She came to understand that medicine can’t always solve everything, and she found herself engaging with arts practices at critical moments in people’s lives.

“Sometimes conditions don’t have a cure,” she says. “So then what? What are the other opportunities that exist so that people can stay connected to who they are and their identity?”

Enrolling at Duke University, Jackson applied her mom’s advice and designed her own major, defending her choice to combine public health and performing arts in front of deans and administrators.

She later graduated with distinction and founded a dance class series for Parkinson’s disease patients and their caregivers, laying the groundwork for the program’s continued success to this day.

A self-described artist, strategist, and communicator, much of Jackson’s work has focused on the intersections of arts and public health. When she first arrived in Gainesville, she was recruited by UF Health Shands Arts in Medicine at a time when the organization was focused on bringing its successes in the clinical hospital settings out into the community.

Jackson was involved in developing programs like HealthStreet’s Night of Dance, an event that celebrates dance while spreading the word about available health resources, and Theatre for Health Outreach at Alachua County Public Schools. She’s also worked with adolescents at Alachua Academy, a residential partner with the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice for girls at risk for substance use and abuse. 

In her artistry, Jackson says she is foremost a music maker.

"I say music maker to include the ways I work with words, sounds, and programs," Jackson says, "because I love the harmony and the synergy and the ways that people work together to create something that sounds really beautiful."

She’s a spoken word poet, a performing artist, a creative writer, and a dancer.

Her community-engaged leadership demonstrates her understanding of meeting people where they are, outside of educational institutions. But inside, she also sees opportunity.

“I recognize how important it is to be in the institutional spaces too,” Jackson says, “because it creates and promotes shift.” 

Jackson works to connect spoken word curriculum to language arts and social studies courses in primary and secondary schools. She says incorporating creative and arts practice can change the way teachers and students interact and the way they see themselves.

“I’m looking at art as a mechanism towards identity, art as a mechanism towards agency, and art as a mechanism towards actualization,” Jackson says. “Those are the kind of tenants that I usually am looking at with my work connected to health trajectory and wellbeing.”

Presently, Jackson is a service learning lecturer at the Center for Arts in Medicine, where she met Champion. The two were quickly recruited to lead a new project. 

* * *

Champion and Jackson met when they both joined the faculty of the UF Center for Arts in Medicine in 2019 as part of the Faculty 500 initiative, an ambitious hiring effort by the university. With the opportunity to increase its faculty by 25 percent, the College of the Arts put forth a “meta-narrative,” a hiring statement that sought change-makers. Champion and Jackson answered the call.

With their respective expertise in community-engaged research and work, the two were approached by the Center for Arts in Medicine’s director Jill Sonke about joining a new idea: SPARC352.

An abbreviation for a “Space for People, Art, Research, Community, Creativity, and Collaboration,” SPARC352 is an envisioned knowledge and empowerment hub for Gainesville.

The initiative aims to develop self-sustaining community centers for learning, wellness, workforce development, and historic and cultural preservation. The centers will provide access to a range of resources and programming, including creative studios, flexible work areas, and makerspaces for people to work, learn, and create together.

Champion and Jackson, who have taken on the role of co-directors, say it’s also an opportunity to offer a range of programming at the intersection of art, culture, education, wellness, and entrepreneurship in a central and readily accessible location. Existing programs, like the Center for Arts in Medicine’s Dance for Multiple Sclerosis class or events from 352creates, could join new offerings in theatre and creative writing workshops, makerspace trainings with tools and equipment for community artists, and others.

As described on the project’s website, SPARC352’s goal is to cultivate a collaborative environment with and for communities to develop new partnerships, programs, research, ideas, solutions, and knowledge on the issues—and in the ways—that matter most to them.

Champion says SPARC352 is not just a place or a proposed building but involves both a physical presence in the community and an intentional engagement with Gainesville residents.

In many ways, the work began on day zero, the co-directors explain. For this kind of project to truly be beneficial to the community, they say it must be built with local residents and flexible to meet their needs.

The duo explains that sometimes the requirements of institutional research projects can pose a challenge to community-engaged work. The structures and processes for academic research can limit the time researchers spend building projects with the communities they aim to serve.

As one example, Champion says academic research is often expected to reference a body of literature, rather than emphasizing community conversations. Even when participants are offered stipends and compensation for participating in research, there’s no long-term or promising change in the community.

“The community feels that,” Champion says. “They feel left behind. They feel used in a lot of ways.”

Champion and Jackson have convened multiple community groups and conversations and found those sentiments present in the University of Florida’s home city. They say overcoming that history to build trust has been a large, yet crucial, task to start discussing possibilities for SPARC352.

Jackson says it has been about showing up, listening, and finding common ground.

“Instead of approaching it from separate lenses of UF and community, we looked to find our common ground,” she says. “What’s our shared vision? What does it mean for all of us to live in the same space and how do we caretake for this same space together?”

Their conversations and meetings helped them shift tactics and tailor ideas. The working group originally discussed the idea of having membership fees to help self-sustain SPARC352 centers but conversations revealed more about the feasibility and likeliness people would pay for it. They also learned about which programs the community is most interested in.

The process can be messy, unconventionally organized, and ever-changing. But, as artists, this is where Champion and Jackson feel most equipped.

“I claim that as my expertise,” Champion says. “Being an artist and an engineer simultaneously means living in the messiness of process. Together, I think we kind of embraced that and didn't feel stressed that it wasn't moving in some kind of linear fashion.”

SPARC352 Working Group Members

Dionne Champion, Co-Director of SPARC352, Center for Arts in Medicine 
Alana Jackson, Co-Director of SPARC352, Center for Arts in Medicine 
Terri Bailey, Bailey Learning and Arts Collective 
Jacob Larson, The Bull and Gainesville Vineyard
Carla Lewis-Miles, Greater Duval Neighborhood Association
Turbado Marabou, Cultural Artist and Educator
Faye Williams, MAMA’s Club and Porters Quarters
Rhonda Wilson, Star Center Theater
Andrew Telles, Office of Collaborative Initiatives 
Osubi Craig, Director, Center for Arts, Migration, and Entrepreneurship 
Tina Mullen, Director, UF Health Shands Arts in Medicine
Jill Sonke, Director, Center for Arts in Medicine 
Onye Ozuzu, Dean, College of the Arts  

In the spring of 2020, the City of Gainesville put forth an invitation to negotiate, or ITN, to redevelop the Old Fire Station No. 1 downtown, which was left empty after the construction of a newer station.

Partnering with Gainesville community members—including local artists, community leaders, entrepreneurs, and culture bearers—faculty from the UF College of the Arts, UF Health Shands Arts in Medicine, and the UF Office of Collaborative Initiatives put forth a proposal for the old fire station to become the first SPARC352 location.

The envisioned partnership would provide access in the form of space, services, and resources to help community members organize and take action on the issues that directly impact them.

“The fire station would be an ideal spot for a SPARC352 center because of its central location,” Champion says. “It could become a front porch of the university to the community, a space where members can walk in and feel a connection to UF while having the agency to shape and own it for themselves and their community.”

While arts and culture are foundational to SPARC352, the directors envision it as more than an arts center, instead representing an inclusive, arts-integrated approach to neighborhood development, growth, and sustainable positive change.

Jackson says it’s an opportunity to co-locate resources at the intersections of arts, culture, migration, entrepreneurship, and wellbeing.

“We’re artists,” Jackson says, “but if the community wants something else, like health resources, we are exploring how we can be a bridge or a connector. Sure, we have parameters within grants and funding and our own expertise, but how can we leverage the gates that we’re at?”

Champion and Jackson’s own experiences incorporating the arts with health, science, and education have taught them the value that arts practices and approaches can bring to solving problems.

“What we're looking at with SPARC352 becomes a representation of what integration can truly look like for people to be whole people, for communities to be the whole communities,” Jackson says, “for us to not look at things as so separate and for multiple sectors to take responsibility for the ways in which we steward one another.”

Much like Champion’s work with integrating hip hop and math or dance and engineering, she believes the arts can be an important tool for individual and community wellness.

“Art can be a tool for self-actualization and for radical healing,” Champion says, “whether that's around issues of race and racism or social justice or inequity or really any of the things that the community is interested in solving. How can arts be tools useful resources for helping people do the work that it takes to build themselves, to develop agency.”

As members of the university, the co-directors see SPARC352 being mutually beneficial to the community, to research, and to the university’s mission.

Champion says it’s a chance for UF to bring in more funding. Her two recently awarded National Science Foundation grants involve projects that would be ideal for a SPARC352 center.

She also says SPARC352 provides opportunities for faculty to interact with audiences in meaningful ways, particularly in the College of the Arts, where community-based projects are so common and inherent in arts research and practice.

Jackson hopes that SPARC352 opens doors for students to get involved with the community they go to school in.

“Thinking about the goals of a university,” Jackson says, “if we're trying to prepare future leaders, hopefully we can facilitate in some way, shape or form the ways that they identify in terms of what it means to be a good citizen locally or globally.”

Jackson says helping students have a meaningful exchange with the community, instead of a more transient four-year experience could shift relationships in Gainesville.   

“As agents of the university, how can we bring something to the community?” Champion says. “This project has an opportunity to embrace the university’s land grant and to realize it in our own backyard with communities on our doorstep. SPARC352 gives us a way to give back and demonstrate our purpose for being here.”

You can learn more about SPARC352 on the Center for Arts in Medicine’s website and read the proposal on the UF Office of Collaborative Initiatives website.