It’s nearly impossible to talk about Queens without evoking that perhaps overused, but true, aphorism that Queens is the crossroads of the world. Over half of Queens’ population speaks a mother tongue other than English—over 130 languages—and it even holds an entry in Guinness for “most ethnically diverse urban area on the planet.”
“My parents migrated [from the Philippines] before I was born,” Cecilia Lim, a 20-year resident of Queens, says. “There’s a big Filipino community in Woodside, and I love getting to hear Tagalog almost every day, and hear all the other languages, and see people practicing their cultural ways of living: the way they dress, the food they prepare and offer to the community.”
Here amidst the hustle and bustle of this vast metropolis-within-a-metropolis, beneath the click-clack of the subway and the clamor of people, is where Cecilia thinks a key part of the solution to the climate crisis lives.
The Philippines is among a group of nations, that have faced and will continue to face the brunt of the climate crisis as it wreaks havoc on their economies and intensifies global economic inequality. To say nothing of the uniquely existential threat that rising sea levels pose to the coastal Philippines, as well as hundreds of millions of other coastal denizens across the world (including New Yorkers).
Cecilia saw the knowledge everyday people have to help confront and explore solutions to the climate crisis, and the potential to draw connections from places that seem far away, but really is close to home. “[My] project uplifts the wisdom of Filipino migrants in relation to the climate emergency that we’re facing, recognizing that people who are the most impacted by a situation are the ones who have the most knowledge to offer and can lead us to solutions,” Cecilia says. “Because of the conditions in the Philippines, there are a lot of Filipinos who had to leave their home country and migrate elsewhere to earn a living. These individuals still have a deep connection to both people and places back home. I wanted to elevate what they know around how we stay connected to people and places that we care about, how we love and protect them, and how we can inspire other people to take action to end the climate crisis.”
To do that, she created and led a public participatory art project with a core project team of Filipinx-heritage artists: AL Caballes, Marin Watts, Luce Capco Lincoln, and Adriene Lara, to center some of the climate conversation on immigrant Filipinos/as/xs and their expertise: Remember Y(our) Connection or Tandaan Ang Ating Ugnayan in Tagalog. Like many other ioby leaders, the project was a natural transition for her. Cecilia had built relationships in the Filipino community through grassroots organizing and managed several big projects as part of her work in the nonprofit and government sectors. But this project was the first time she would strike it out as a working artist. Seeing the climate crisis come to a dramatic head though inspired her to take the plunge, though it wasn’t without challenges.
“I think what I had to come up against is this feeling that this is not the most critical work that I could be doing right now,” she says. “I have had to do a lot of reflection and processing myself with support from my community to see and value cultural work as valid, important work, maybe some of the most important work. Certainly, as important as the nuts and bolts on the ground organizing that I also do in order to stay connected and committed and aware of what’s going on.”
Remember Y(our) Connection/Tandaan Ang Ating Ugnayan draws a clear connection between the everyday struggles of Filipino/a/x migrants in Queens, organizing to resolve those struggles, and the practice of art. The first component of the project was interviewing 21 Filipino/a/x migrants—some selected from Cecilia’s and her collaborators’ community, others that were invited at random in public—about their connection to people and place in the Philippines, and how they believe that we can move people towards further action for environmental justice. Listening and sharing, a key component of community organizing, was paired with an art practice.
“As we interviewed the community members, we created a live drawing of their story, which they got to keep,” Cecilia says. “We had a pre-printed, hand-silkscreened drawing template. On the reverse of the drawing template, we had information about what we believe is true about ourselves as people, as Filipino people. A little bit about what’s happening with the environment and the current crisis we find ourselves in, and then an invitation for them to work, not only with us but with a broader group of community members to solve the problems of the climate crisis.”
The interviews were also recorded, which contributed to the second component of the participatory art project—an exhibition in the Queens Public Library in Woodside, Queens. Cecilia and her collaborators shared a brief documentary film made of the interviews, along with a photo exhibit of interviewees. Then, attendees participated in a game called ‘Tao Bahay Bagyo’ or ‘People House Storm.’ “It’s a game that mimics different levels of storms and gives people the opportunity to move through some of the emotions that we feel when we think about our changing climate. A lot of us get stuck around feeling immobilized and terrified because so many things are happening at once,” Cecilia says. “This game allowed people to move through some of those emotions and start to think about how to actually take action together.”
It was a powerful experience, for art makers and participants. “Being able to connect the struggles of frontline communities in the Philippines with the struggles of Filipino migrants here in Queens could be a model for other community members who can’t quite figure out or haven’t quite figured out how to do that for themselves,” Cecilia says.
In the interviews, in the drawings, in gathering together to draw and share, Cecilia’s project is in many ways beginning to envision a new future. It’s a future rooted in historical knowledge rooted in a utopian vision, but equally so, it is a future rooted in our present reality.
By its very nature, this project was a community project. That made ioby a natural fit for Cecilia. “This is my absolute first grant funding and personal crowdfunding campaign to fund a cultural project that I was doing,” Cecilia says. “Prior to this, I had worked and done cultural projects as part of my unpaid community work, and this was my first time doing it and trying to be a working artist, and actually pay myself some amount of money to do this work. It was a big deal for me.”
She was aware of grant opportunities and had identified one that she felt confident she could secure. But she knew that even with that grant she would still be short roughly half of the total project budget. Having been a part of other community fundraising campaigns, Cecilia also knew that a crowdfunding campaign could be a powerful opportunity, for her community to support her work materially, and be a part of it. So she created a campaign on ioby and worked the phones.
She made a list of people to reach out to that she thought might be interested in giving, and then reached out to them directly to give. “I would reach out via text, or if I saw them in person I would say, ‘Hey no pressure, but just seeing if you’re interested in supporting my project. The fundraising campaign is about to close and this is where we’re at,’” Cecilia says. “That definitely moved people. People appreciated those personal follow-ups.”
She ultimately raised over $3,000, enough to match her grant and bring her project to life. But even beyond the funds, she found that the act of giving and receiving to bring this project to life had a profound impact. “There is a way that you are validated when people are making a material contribution to the work you’re doing,” Cecilia says. “It is a way of validating and supporting. I definitely felt, and still feel, very honored to be able to do the work that I do and to do it with community support. It’s what it’s all about!”
As the project continues to grow, it has its vision clearly in sight. It isn’t to come up with a new way of harnessing renewable energy or to sequester a certain amount of carbon. Instead, it ultimately aims for something equally important but far more rudimentary, and seemingly even more elusive: connection.
“The fundamental idea of this project is that only from a place of connection are we really going to have a chance to end the climate crisis and create a world where everyone has a chance to live well,” Cecilia says. “If we feel disconnected, if we are operating from a sense of isolation, separatism, or division, we’re not going to be effective in achieving this goal. We’re not going to realize this different society that we want.”
Cecilia is crowdfunding again for the next phase of her project Remember Y(our) Connection! She’s crowdfunding to host a series of workshops to create art with neighbors, exchange plant wisdom, and inspire connections across cultures and organizations to tackle the climate crisis.
Have your own idea to strengthen your own community through the arts? We want to help! If you’re an artist with an idea unique to your community that makes positive change with your neighbors, you could get your donations matched up to $15,000 with the Artists Lead! match opportunity. Share your idea with us. Not an artist? We can still help!