Urban Innovator of the Week: Laura Zabel

By Nicole Rupersburg

Nicole Rupersburg is a freelance writer and editor who covers business development & entrepreneurship, arts & culture, and food & travel for national audiences. She is the project editor and lead writer of Urban Innovation Exchange and Creative Exchange.

Dec 12, 2015 | Urban Sustainability | 0 comments

This profile was originally published by Urban Innovation Exchange in partnership with Meeting of the Minds and Kresge Foundation. For more stories of people changing cities, visit UIXCities.com and follow @UIXCities.

laura_zabelSaint Paul, Minnesota’s Springboard for the Arts has existed in some form for over 35 years, transforming as an organization several times over before its latest incarnation as Springboard.

Executive Director Laura Zabel, whose background is in theatre, has been with Springboard since 2005, and under her leadership it has grown to a national organization impacting thousands of artists annually. And while it is certainly an arts-focused organization – the word is right there in the name – it is important not to define it, and perhaps therefore dismiss it, as solely an “arts organization.”

“We don’t talk about Springboard as an arts organization,” Zabel says. “We think of our work as a community economic development organization that is run by and for artists. That’s a really important inflection point in our work. Putting the focus on how artists can be a part of community development, and not just siloed and ‘special’ over in the corner, helped us find a whole different community of colleagues and peers. The programs that Springboard does don’t look like a theatre company; they like a community development corporation.”

Springboard has always focused on artist career coaching and business skills. But, over the last 10 years, the organization has grown to include urban and rural offices in Minnesota, and its reach has expanded through national programs and partnerships. In addition to acting as advocates for artists in community and economic development, it has also become an unparalleled resource center for artists, offering access not only to things like professional development resources, but also human services like affordable healthcare.

“That was one of the first things we took on when I started,” Zabel explains. “We did a survey of artists and their needs, and we heard over and over again that healthcare was the biggest barrier to working as an independent artist. Artists are twice as likely to not have health insurance. They have high self-employment and low variable income. Also if you don’t have an employer to help you navigate your options, it gets really difficult.”

In the beginning, Zabel recalls, they were just a handful of artists in Minnesota tackling the huge national problem of affordable healthcare access. They had no external support of investment initially, setting out to speak with physicians, insurance brokers, and anyone else they could in the industry to understand the landscape of health insurance from the people who were engaged in the work every day. They realized quickly they wouldn’t be able to do anything about healthinsurance, but health care was where they had the ability to really make an impact.

Artists’ Access to Health Care was launched long before the Affordable Care Act passed and increased access to healthcare for those who long struggled with it. But the process is still very challenging and opaque, which is why Springboard is an advocate for MNSure, Minnesota’s health insurance marketplace.

In addition to offering a comfortable place for artists and freelancers to find help in accessing insurance – all of Springboard’s staff members are practicing artists, so artists feel they have an advocate who has also walked the walk – Springboard is an outreach partner for MNSure and has had support from the marketplace to create resources to help guide people through the insurance process, includingvideos made by artists in a kind of coming full-circle.

“This is how the creative community can help the broader community,” says Zabel. “This kind of reciprocity is how the artist community can be a resource.”

She says their work around healthcare became the blueprint for how they could do this kind of work of learning about other parts of the community, delving into different sectors, and forming reciprocal relationships.

That reciprocity has been echoed in Springboard’s placemaking work, which Zabel describes as really being about working with local community development organizations to help them imagine how they can engage with artists and see how artists can be useful in their work.

They did it with Irrigate, a three-year placemaking initiative designed as a response to a major construction project through the heart of St. Paul that disrupted several communities. They’re doing it again with Roots of Rondo: Black Artists Rising, engaging artists of all generations who have a connection to the historic African American neighborhood of Rondo in St. Paul.

“It’s a neighborhood that’s going through a lot of changes and artists have a role to play in showing the experience of being in the community as people come in to help them understand who is already there,” Zabel explains. “The focus is on the assets that exist in the community already. Every community and every block has artists already. This community has a huge challenge that artists should be charged with. Artists have the responsibility to engage and figure out what their role could be in making their community a healthier, more equitable, better place to be.”

And that really gets to the heart of Springboard for the Arts as an organization: it aims to make its community – in this case, the national, even international, artist community – a healthier, more equitable, better community. Which is why, in addition to building a plethora of resources for artists, they are all about resource sharing.

“Our end goal of success for Springboard is about system change,” Zabel says. “We are interested in creating a mechanism that supports as many artists as possible, in the broadest way possible. At Springboard, more is more! We had this demand from outside of Minnesota and an interest in this bigger model, but with systems that are locally-rooted and sustainable, not a drop-in model. We ended up in this place of, ‘Oh, let’s just give it away.'”

What they’re giving away are artist toolkits, hosted through their artist story-sharing and resource website Creative Exchange. Toolkits are resources for artists that have been developed and used by other artists, arts councils, community organizations, city departments, and so on.

It all started with the Knight Foundation-funded Community Supported Art (“CSA” – modeled after the community supported agriculture farm share concept).

“It was a tremendous success,” says Zabel. “Also for us to see the reciprocity in that, watching people take this program and make it better and more relevant, was tremendously helpful for us to see our work in this broader context. There was so much promise in that. Creative Exchange and the toolkits are all sort of born out of that idea – what if we take what we’re doing here and give it away, without reinventing the wheel and starting from scratch?

‘This is a direct challenge to nonprofit culture that gets pushed a lot to replicate corporate culture. We’re not in the business of making money but in the business of making change, so we’ll write down what we’ve learned and give it away for free.”

Their latest toolkit, Work of Art: Business Skills for Artists, just launched this week. It is a 12-part workbook and video series that guides artists through every facet of building a successful and sustainable career. Users can choose to purchase the starter toolkit with a DVD of all 14 videos plus five copies of the published workbook, a printed guide, and a one hour phone consultation with Springboard for $200, or…they can just download it all for free.

“Springboard has been doing this program the longest and it’s a program that does generate earned income for us. This is a place where we’re really living our values and doing this kind of radical sharing. Any nonprofit consultant would look at that and say, ‘Oh, you have to protect that.’ Nope: we’re going to publish that and everyone can have at it. That’s coming full circle. People are going to have more access to that curriculum; artists anywhere will have access to that opportunity.”

For Zabel, this is just one more step towards a larger system change.

“I’m really interested in how the broader nonprofit sector can push a different way of thinking about scale and impact that’s maybe a little more collaborative and collective. A lot of the time the nonprofit model gets used in a siloed way that replicates all of the practices of a for-profit business without any of the advantages. We don’t have pressure to have huge profit at end of year, or pressure from shareholders. Our pressure should be to make the most change possible and deliver on our mission in the highest-impact way possible.”

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