This story is the final installment of a five-part series on women making a difference at Charlotte arts and cultural institutions.
A sunny Charlotte day beckons Tiera Swanson and her mother to take a stroll along the University City boardwalk. In the middle of their afternoon of mother-daughter quality time, their conversation is augmented by the deep, primal rhythms of a conga. Smiles spread across their faces and their heads bob along to each tap to the drum head.
A little farther down the path, Swanson and her mother stroll into another Charlotte art moment. A visual artist by the name of Freddy has set up shop with a line of affordably priced paintings. The two chat with him about his art and ask how often he turns this public space into his personal studio. As they discuss his art, he continues painting.
Tiera Swanson lives for organic art moments like these. The 30-year-old is the director of the Arts & Science Council's relatively new Culture Blocks program, which focuses on supporting arts and culture activities in six areas of Charlotte far from the Uptown cluster, including north, northwest, west, southwest, east and the Mallard Creek neighborhood near UNCC. Swanson's job is to listen to community members and find out what they want to see in terms of arts and culture at their local libraries and recreation centers. What she doesn't want to do is impose someone else's vision of what a community needs.
"We are really walking along the line of broadening experiences already happening in [these] communities," Swanson says. "Our support does not serve as a stamp of cultural validation."
The Arts & Science Council created the Culture Blocks program in 2015 when it saw a need for a new approach to serving Charlotte's multifarious communities. For decades, so-called high culture in Charlotte has been centered in Uptown, an area that often feels unwelcoming to some residents of other communities.
"Tiera developed an idea we had to respond more deeply to our community's desire for cultural activities closer to home into a robust program that has provided thousands of residents with arts, science and history experiences that speak to their interests," says Ryan Deal, vice president of the Cultural & Community Investment department at the ASC.
The Arts & Science Council, an organization that has positioned itself as the cultural resource hub for Charlotte since the late 1950s, wanted to find new ways to connect and support the arts across the Charlotte-Mecklenburg region. With Swamson at the helm, Culture Blocks looked to be a possible solution.
"When we talk about arts and culture at an intellectual level," Swanson says, "we think, 'Where do I go to experience arts and culture? Am I going to see a play? Am I going to a museum? Am I at a science program at a facility?' But that's not necessarily how we experience art and culture every day."
Swanson sees visits to arts institutions as special occasions. But since the area does not have big cultural institutions such as the Gantt Center or Mint Museum spread across the city, many residents associate arts and culture with the Uptown crowd only.
"The addition of Culture Blocks has made us more nimble in responding to the interests of [specific] neighborhoods," says Swanson's colleague Liz Fitzgerald, the Cultural & Community Investment program director. "Tiera and I are able to work in concert with each other to make sure we are providing excellent and relevant programming throughout the Mecklenburg community."
Culture Blocks' goal is to smash barriers that keep some Charlotteans from realizing they, too, deserve access to experiences they may think they are not allowed to explore. It's a feeling Swanson knows all too well.
"I am not the kind of person that can tell you about opera culture. I can't talk to you about symphony culture. I don't know all the fancy phrases for a lot of mixed media, or the technical nature of art from an elite kind of standpoint," she says. "I just can't do that, but I don't feel like that means that I am not as creative or as deserving of creative access as the person who can tell you all of the modern art history and all of the different. . . " She pauses. "Literally, I don't have the language."
Bringing Culture and arts to everyday people in everyday language has been a central part of Swanson's life journey. She spent her early childhood living in a military family on Long Island, N.Y., where her dad served alongside people of all different backgrounds.
"I was an Army brat. So connecting with multiple ethnic groups and cultures was commonplace," Swanson says. "To me, that is one of the many things that makes life sweet, and special, and exciting."
The excitement of living in such a diverse environment in New York came to an end when Swanson's parents separated and she and her mom moved in with her grandmother in the tiny town of Cleveland, in central North Carolina. The move south was a culture shock for the second grader.
"I just had this growing awareness that diversity is not commonplace for everyone," Swanson says. "And not this kind of buzzword 'diversity'; I am talking about genuine friends and family connectivity to individuals who just so happen to not have your same skin tone and who come from a different cultural dynamic than yours."
Swanson was living in Statesville when she reached high school, and she noticed a shift in the cultural landscape. It wasn't just black and white. "There were a lot of Indian families, a lot of Spanish-speaking families," she says. "I was part of a diverse high school, but everybody just hung out in their ethnic cliques. And that never sat well with me."
The lack of cultural connection was not the only thing that didn't sit well with Swanson — neither did the cruelty and disrespect that comes with classism. She got a particularly poignant crash course in that during her time as a homeless teen.
"I was in high school and my family and I were living in a public housing unit," Swanson remembers. "One of the rules in public housing is no one can be in your house that has a high-level misdemeanor or felony. My brother, who was around 18 or 19 at the time, would stay at our house. Which put us in violation of that rule." She pauses, and with a look of suppressed resentment, continues, "Our neighbor reported it. Why she felt the need to do that, I don't know." Swanson's mother just wanted to protect her son. "This is something that parents often have to do in public housing units, because where else is your 19-year-old going to stay?"
That neighbor's call led to the family losing their home. Swanson's mother moved back to Cleveland. Swanson and her sister ended up staying with a friend. "It was not like we were sleeping on benches, but we did not have a place to call our own," she says, and then goes deeper: "It was rough, because the friend that let us stay with her must have started seeing us as a burden."
That's when the classism hit Swanson in the gut. Her friend's aunt began demeaning the two girls. "I was 14 at the time, and her aunt just went off on me. She called me a 'homeless B-I-T-C-H'; she accused us of mooching off her niece," Swanson remembers. "It was crazy, because my sister was working; she was 17 at the time and was contributing. We would wash the dishes. We would clean. We did not use up a lot of supplies. We wanted to show that we were grateful.
"When you are in a position like that, without a space to call your own, you want to seem as small as possible," Swanson continues. "You don't want to take up space because you already feel like a burden."
Those tough early years provided Swanson with lessons on class and culture that would help her at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she majored in communications with a focus on performance studies and graduated at the height of the recession in 2008. She struggled to find a job in the arts. In 2010, Michelle Obama's childhood health initiative pulled then-23-year-old Swanson into a roll-up-your-selves grassroots campaign.
"One section of the health initiative was centered on obesity in children ages 9 to 13," Swanson says. She was part of an FDA outreach program that educated Latino and African-American communities on the importance of reading and understanding nutrition labels. But she had to be creative in how to connect with the community — how to capture peoples' attention with such dry information.
Swanson then took what she learned from her experience in that campaign into other community-services positions, including YWCA caseload manager and Safe Places coordinator for runaway and homeless kids at The Relatives youth crisis center.
In 2015 Swanson applied for her current position, and she remembers the delight she felt upon hearing the words, "You are hired." The road to her chosen career in the arts had been an arduous one, but she'd made it, gaining valuable experience along the way.
"When I got the call that I had been offered the job, I literally just screamed for like five minutes," Swanson remembers. "I called my sister while waiting at a Burger King drive-thru. She was like, 'Oh my gosh, that is so great!'"
Her feeling of career-bliss was fleeting. Swanson saw how much work needed to be done, so she rolled up her sleeves again and began reaching out to smaller arts organizations and the big Uptown institutions. The goal was to shift Charlotte's perspective of culture and arts. She went to work on chipping away at the "us vs. them" mentality that had shocked her as a youngster, and was now working to form simply an "us" culture.
"In my personal journey, and what I am experiencing through this program work that I get to be a part of, I am learning how to be OK in tension," Swanson says. "Look, I don't have to know the answer, you don't have to know the answer. [But] me not having the answer, and you maybe not having the answer, does not mean we are at odds with each other."
Take issues of race, for example. Swanson knows she can't speak for all black people in every part of Charlotte. "Because that is impossible," she says. She also knows she can't afford to look at others as enemies. "I have felt, 'Oh, you don't get it, white person. You can never understand.' Well if that is my belief, if that is my stance, how can I hold anyone accountable to understanding? I have already determined that you can't. To me, that is the same with programming that intersects and supports the cultural lives of individuals across our community. There has to be a level of: I can understand, or you can understand, and we can get to a place where we are in 'us' [mode]."
Under Swanson's stewardship, Culture Block has done a community arts project with the Lakewood neighborhood, coordinated entertainment pop-ups at polling places around the community for the presidential election, held African dance classes presented by the Charlotte Ballet at Sugaw Creek Recreation Center, put on semester-long photography classes for teens at the Southview Recreation Center, and the list goes on. For Swanson, bringing impactful and meaningful art experiences to the people is what her job as program director of the Culture Blocks program is all about.
"To understand the rhetoric of sculptures, poetry, plays and other forms of art is one thing," Swanson says. "But, how that art impacts people. To me that is culture — people. People are culture."