Business Lexington, July 25, 2010
Latitude connects disenfranchised through art and activism
by Ide Bouldin
A bold descriptor, and one that most would hope to seldom use in reference to their occupational efforts. Rarer still is such pointed, connotative language used to describe an entire decade of business.
But one person's "disaster" is another's teaching moment. And so it has been for the founders of this for-profit enterprise, which has built a reputation in the community for helping people with disabilities to engage in artistic pursuits.
As an accredited Kentucky Medicaid SLC (Support for Community Living) and Michelle P. Waiver Provider, medical benefits generate 98 percent of Latitude's revenue. Although the services rendered may superficially resemble those provided by social services — in the way pomegranates resemble pineapples — Latitude provides members with individualized considerations and civic activism opportunities that are peerless among private businesses, nonprofits and similar governmental agencies alike.
"Per the amount of work we've had to do to create those supports, in almost any other (business) environment, these results would not be acceptable. But in this field, not only do we have acceptable results, we have (exceptional) results … That's why I'm telling you that what we've done … is … a disaster still," Burris said with a smile.
The 1979 federal deinstitutionalization mandate initiated the relocation of many individuals considered developmentally disabled from group homes into art programs. Burris, then a young Oakland-based artist, became involved with one of these programs. But as time progressed, he witnessed an increasing disconnectedness between businesses and their immediate environment.
Dissatisfied with this engagement deficit, and the limitations inherent to the nonprofit organizational structure, Bader and Burris ultimately crafted an amalgamated business model, infusing the superlative qualities of nonprofits with those of the private sector.
Today, Latitude's mission, methods and results resemble those of a charitable establishment, as they provide their clientele — currently composed entirely of artists who suffer from physical and/or developmental disabilities — with materials, studio space and artistic guidance.
While "art therapy" might suggestively allude to Latitude's services, considering Burris' artistic career and Bader's recreational therapy degree, it scarcely encapsulates their scope. They don't offer psychology's characteristic pat on the head. They supply disenfranchised citizens real opportunities to fulfill their individualized creative potential on local, national and global levels. They consistently enhance the life of each artist through social integration and affect tangible change within the community.
"When I met Crystal years ago, that's what we talked about. It was initially the arts emphasis, because that was easier (to present) … As that became more established, we were able to create this dual program, where we spent as much time creating advocacy programs for people to support themselves, their ideas, their culture, as we did to create creative opportunities in the community."
"In fact, after 10 years of business, we're just now starting to put our energy into the arts in a more focused way; advocacy has really been our focus," Bader added.
Four years ago, local artist Belinda Sellers planted seeds which flowered into Latitude's prominent civic engagement vehicle. During a customary downtown excursion, the group stopped off at a nearby Starbucks. Although the coffee shop's entrance doesn't violate ADA guidelines, the establishment's doors pose a virtually insurmountable obstacle to many with disabilities. After realizing the mocha mogul was ill-equipped to accommodate them, they returned to the studio, where Sellers declared something must be done. Thus, Project Easy Access Lexington (PEAL) was born and quickly began raising awareness concerning urban accessibility deficiencies.
"This is what I'm most proud of," Burris said, referring to the creation of advocacy opportunities for those once excluded.
Subsequently, PEAL has sponsored annual public rallies promoting disability awareness, including Lexington's first in 2007. They provide downtown inaccessibility tours to hundreds of conscientious citizens. PEAL lobbied LFUCG to create the Commission for Citizens with Disabilities and successfully campaigned for the inclusion of an adequate wheelchair lift within LFUCG's downtown Government Center. Furthermore, for over two years, they've formed "BrickSquads" to fill dangerous downtown sidewalk gaps with paving bricks before sealing them with sand. All of this was achieved through front-end advocacy by members and supporters.
"If we hadn't been a for-profit, we wouldn't have progressed the way we have," Bader explained. "Bruce talks about disaster, and yes, it is a disaster, but … it's been a rather beautiful disaster … In the 10 years we've been in business, we've had four or five business plans, but that's the way it should be. It should be changing."
"I would prefer to say we're not a social services program. We structured this business to intentionally keep those two things separate. Community is community, and social services is social services," Bader stressed.
Nonetheless, from an outside perspective, it appears the two are cyclically linked. Communities are only truly served when each citizen becomes a socially integrated, valued member. Likewise, striving for improvement in the community at large, you approach the pinnacle of social service. Consequently, an attempt to improve an aspect of the community indirectly enhances the self, and with Latitude fighting on both fronts, their studio will undoubtedly be full for the next decade as well.
Reviewing this formidable, incomplete list of accomplishments, one failure surfaces — however, it isn't Latitude's. Despite tireless efforts, including avid letter writing campaigns by Bader and the artists, the Starbucks that catalyzed this noteworthy social mobilization has yet to embrace this potential demographic.
Unfettered by conventional operational restrictions, and despite the "disasters," Latitude's use of art to engage disenfranchised citizens in civic betterment epitomizes art's potential as a bridge to productivity, accomplishment and a sense of self-worth.
To be kept up to date on the multitude of Latitude initiatives, exhibitions and events, or if you would like to schedule an "inaccessibility tour," please look them up on Facebook or visit their website: http://latitudeart.blogspot.com/.