Believe 2 Become

1167 Madison Avenue
Grand Rapids, Michigan 49507

Hugo Claudin: An educated connector with Believe 2 Become

Outside Hugo Claudin's studio, a merciless wind pelts Division Avenue with snow and sleet. But inside, the studio exudes a warm, hospitable chaos. As a part of Dwelling Place, it functions as his home, his art studio, and a venue for avant garde and underground musicians.
Vibrant paintings of luchadors in neon greens, pinks, oranges and purples blend right into walls of the same color. Dozens of disheveled potted plants inhabit the bookcases, floor, and tables.
Judging by the art and the arrangement of his studio, Claudin has a taste for the subversive and provocative. For the past three years, however, he's spent most of his workweek in the most wholesome of places: elementary schools and family homes.
In 2012, The Grand Rapids Public School system reported a four-year graduation rate of 44.6 for 2012, meaning fewer than half of all students attending GRPS high schools graduate within the expected four years. Causes of this 'achievement gap' as outlined by the National Education Association are complicated and vary from community to community. Key factors in experiencing this gap include ethnicity and income, and often the two go hand in hand.
An awareness of the obstacles brings opportunity for change. LINC Community Revitalization started a program called Believe 2 Become to do just that.
This educational initiative seeks to help children succeed through summer enrichment, after-school experiences for students, and workshops and mentoring for parents. Claudin's role as a Natural Helper is to connect families with these opportunities.
"A lot of what I do is knocking on doors, and doing a survey with these families to track what their obstacles are,” Claudin said. “We always seek the wisdom of the community, so we ask people what is missing, and the community itself comes up with solutions through a series of meetings."
On the subject of poor attendance, Claudin recounts a community meeting in which parents developed strategies to address the problem. These included setting up the kitchen a certain way, coaxing kids out of bed with the promise of cartoons, or walking with the kids to school as a group.
Parental involvement in everything from a child's education to their health, Claudin said, is crucial.
"When moms and dads come to the meetings, kids feel like, 'Oh, this is important stuff,’” Claudin said. “When the parents sit at home and would rather watch TV, the kid thinks, 'Well Dad doesn't care, so why should I?'"
Ana Doonan, director of LINC's neighborhood engagement program, describes the difficulty of organizing residents four or five years ago because there was so much distrust, and what she calls a "legacy of disconnection among people." Fortunately, things look much different now.
"We used to work on behalf of the community; now we work with the community. Residents need to be at the table, and they need to be viewed as partners," Doonan said.
In the last three and a half years, LINC has built a network of more than fifteen thousand people throughout Kent County. In the four specific neighborhoods they've focused on, they have connections with almost 92 percent of all households in those areas: close to eleven hundred people.
However, the work is far from over. According to Claudin, it is a constant process of engaging with families who, until now, have been very private, and have assumed they are alone in their struggles.
"A lot of times when I go to houses everybody has their curtains drawn and they're glued to the TV. They don't even know who their neighbors are. A lot of the neighborhoods I work in have very similar problems, but they see them as pertaining to their own ethnicity or social status," Claudin said.
Letting people know they aren't alone is one of the most empowering things they can do. While each neighborhood does have its specific issues—violence in black communities, and documentation issues in Latino—often those in the community are all struggling with the same things. Bringing people together to solve these, Claudin said, is invaluable.
In addition to his work with Believe 2 Become, Claudin now curates the LINC Gallery on Madison and Hall, where he will start to spend more of his time. LINC Gallery will bring the community together, but do it through the arts.
"I want the community to feel like it's their space. I'm not going to be the gallery curator who picks all the shiny, bright stuff – I'll work with what I have," Claudin said.
The gallery is still seeking funding. In March, they will put on a show called “Chroma,” which will deal with design and feature furniture by Josh McVety, among others.
Claudin wants to use the gallery to spotlight local talent, and open up opportunities for the artists, to give them a gentle push. They won't do consulting exactly, but they will serve as a place for artists to go to find resources. If an artist needs to stretch a canvas, or write a bio, LINC staff will help them get it done.
"Finally, both of my worlds are coming together," remarked Claudin. "In the past, I lived in two completely separate worlds: wild animal bohemian at night, and quiet community worker by day. Working with LINC is different, because they tell me to use my creative connections to achieve these ends, and it had never even occurred to me. My artwork was more personal."
Claudin wonders what role the artist has to play in this new world. People are realizing that art has a place in community revitalization, and starting to sync things together.
"I see my role as a connector. I tell people they should meet 'this filmmaker,' or 'this guitarist,' or 'this booking agent.' It's what I do all day—not just at LINC but at my house, and on weekends. There are so many things going on, but if you don't ask, then you don't know," Claudin said.
One such thing is LINC's First Friday event. Held on the first Friday of each month, it's a chance to network, listen to live music, poetry, and view local art inside the LINC Gallery. The next First Friday is on March 7.
If you'd like to stay updated, you can follow LINC, Believe 2 Become, and Mexicains Sans Frontieres on Facebook. 

Katie Jones is a professional idealist, film enthusiast, and freelancer for UIX Grand Rapids.