Divine Providence: Engaging Community

This month, GQ Magazine proclaimed Providence the “coolest city” in America. If you live here, this probably doesn’t surprise you. We’ve got awesome restaurants! Great institutions of higher learning (including an Ivy and one of the nation’s premier art schools)! Art installations like Waterfire! Free summer concerts! Dozens of beaches within a 45-minute drive!

Angelique Kidjo and kids

How often do you take advantage of all the things our city has to offer? How often do you take your children to the numerous cultural events and family-friendly activities offered each week?

The inaugural Providence International Arts Festival took place during the weekend of June 11th – 14th. There were street performers, Grammy-winning musicians, breathtaking works of art, food trucks galore – even the Superman building became part of the Earth Harp, the largest string instrument in the world. According to Mayor Jorge Elorza, the festival was “a way​​ to connect the world-class talent we have here in Providence with artists and performers from around the world.”

And the festival did feature local artists a​​nd performers alongside those who had been brought in from far and wide. Photographer Mary Beth Meehan’s work was displayed both at City Hall and in oversize photos around the city. While Kinky Boots was playing at the Providence Performing Arts Center, the Everett Company ​​performed Freedom Project at the Roger Williams National Memorial.

The Providence Preservation Society held its annual Festival of Historic Houses in Fox Point, while the West Side held a block party. The Arcade, America’s oldest indoor mall, had a style and art show, where local jewelers and other artists sold their work. Down the street, a pop-up shop featuring vintage items and refinished furniture by Mint and That Guy appeared outside the Dean Hotel, while a DJ provided the soundtrack for boarders trying their hand at an outdoor skatepark.

There were musical performances onstage at Kennedy Plaza, on Washington Street, and in the Alex & Ani City Center. There was even a concert called One Providence Experience, organized in the ruins of the old Providence National Bank on Weybosset Street and featuring ten local bands. And, to cap the whole evening off, Saturday night was a Waterfire night.

As I wandered around Providence on Saturday enjoying both the gorgeous weather and the festivities, I was excited to see the variety of people who came out to celebrate. They represented all ages, ethnicities, and backgrounds. There were many parents who chose to bring their children, and it was wonderful to see them having so much fun.

Many kids stopped to watch the Tape Art creations take shape. The artists don’t draw on the walls or sketch out their ideas ahead of time; they just quickly apply the green and blue tape to the wall, forming people, catfish, or other fabrications. Squonk Opera’s Pneumatica and Wise Fool’s Flexion also engaged and entertained children and their parents as they performed in and around Kennedy Plaza.

A group of middle schoolers sat swaying in the front row while Mad Satta performed. A toddler banged on his chair along with Pedrito Martinez’s drums, pounding out an Afro-Cuban beat. A little girl on her father’s shoulders marveled at the size of the Earth Harp, staring open-mouthed at the strings soaring over her head. Angelique Kidjo had the entire crowd on their feet, bringing at least 20 children up on stage with her at the end of her show.

Children are constantly learning. Enriching experiences like musical performances, visually stimulating environments, and an electric, celebratory atmosphere help a child to build neural connections. Parents who talk to their children about what they’ve seen and the way it made them feel encourage strong vocabulary development and positive social emotional growth.

And let’s not forget that there are lots of other opportunities to engage children that happen throughout the year: activities at Roger Williams Park, the RISD Museum, and the Providence Children’s Museum; hikes with RI Families in Nature; and countless other community events featured on KidoInfo.com. On the third Thursday of every month, art galleries open their doors for Gallery Night.

As pleased as I was to see so many families at the International Arts Festival with their children, I wondered where all the others were. According to the 2010 census, there are approximately 41,000 children under the age of 18 living in the city of Providence. Even if 4,000 children attended the festival, that would only represent 10% of our young population.

Having a vibrant, engaged community is critical to a city’s success. Kudos to FirstWorks, the City of Providence, and the many sponsors for making the International Arts Festival a reality; and to the thousands of citizens who came out to support the arts and to enjoy a lovely weekend in our capital. We need to continue to spread the word about the importance of bringing children out into the community and sharing meaningful experiences that connect us all to culture, society, and one another.

This post also appeared at GoLocalProv.

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