‘We need to know and hear from our community,’ says new DCPA leader
This fall, the Denver Center for the Performing Arts welcomed its first Director of Community Engagement, Laura Morales. Previously, Morales worked as a Community Relations Specialist with the city of Denver’s Department of Parks and Recreation, where she successfully connected more than 30 recreation centers to their communities by building on the unique qualities and assets of their distinct facilities and interests.
Meanwhile, she danced.
For the past 10 years, Morales has been involved Life/Art Dance Ensemble, both as a board member and performer. The Denver-based nonprofit strives to make dance more accessible to the community. “I’ve always needed to have a creative outlet,” she said. “I’ve needed time to perform, rehearse and be creative. I would have withered away without it.”
In her new position with the Denver Center, Morales has the opportunity to combine her passion for the arts with her unique ability to work with different communities.
‘Community Engagement all about building with versus building alone.’ – Laura Morales
Madison Stout: What is Community Engagement?
Laura Morales: It has a lot of definitions. It’s a current “buzzword,” if you will. But essentially, community engagement is the deliberate acknowledgment that we can’t do anything alone. Everything that is happening around us should influence the decisions we are making. Through future collaborations, partnerships and having thoughtful communications with those around us, we can become a stronger community partner. Community engagement takes a long time and is built on trust and creating mutually beneficial relationships. There is a spectrum to creating community engagement, beginning with successful outreach and communications. Letting the surrounding community know what you’re up to is just the beginning. The next step is then figuring out how to involve the community in what you are doing and creating things that people want, in a space where they feel comfortable – which may or may not be in our physical spaces. It’s all about building with versus building alone.
Madison Stout: Why does Community Engagement matter?
Laura Morales: More and more, businesses and organizations are realizing they need to engage their community. We aren’t isolated. We are a part of a community. Artists don’t produce amazing pieces of art just to be seen by a small group of people. People don’t often sit down and write their stories only to be heard by a limited group of people with the same views. We want everyone to experience the stories we share; we want all people to benefit from what is offered at the DCPA. In order to do that, we need to know and hear from our community. Also, we have to be in touch with the current growth in Denver. The continuing demographic changes are impacting our communities, and we can’t act in isolation from that. We need to know and understand the other organizations and neighborhoods around us.
Madison Stout: What does that look like?
Laura Morales: It’s a lot of conversations. Establishing common ground with different individuals and organizations, hearing the things they are excited about, nervous about, and see if there is possibly an inspiration for us to work together. It’s also about being present both in the nonprofit community in Denver and in the theatre community and supporting what other organizations are doing. We have to build new relationships organically, and continually work on the relationships we already have. So right now I’m going to people’s shows, having a lot of coffee meetings, understanding what is happening and being present. We are letting other organizations know we are here to listen and create consistent long-term relationships. My role here is to create a vision of how we are genuinely able to interact with our community in the long-term. That includes asking questions internally, too. What works well for us? What are potential opportunities? It’s bringing our current amazing relationships and programming to light and looking for new opportunities. Everyone here is so ready and willing to make those changes that are necessary for the next step.
Madison Stout: What are some of your goals?
Laura Morales: We have a few guiding principles for this work, and flexibility is primary. We want to listen, to look at our community and connect to their assets. We want to be embedded and supportive in our communities, and this work has to be focused on the long-term. Along with so many others at DCPA, I want the people who come here, who see our shows and take our classes, to be as diverse as our city. I also want more people to know they don’t have to visit the DCPA to access our resources. To get there, we have to be an organization that is accessible to everyone, on-site and off-site. This starts with deliberate listening and transparent actions that strive to put community voice into our practice.
Madison Stout is a receptionist and member of the security team as well as a contributing writer for the Communications Department at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts. After graduating from Grove City College, where she was an editor and staff writer for The Collegian, she continues to pursue writing as an Education and Community Engagement journalist at the DCPA. She also acts and recently performed in Phamaly Theatre Company’s production of “Come to Your Senses.”