2016 was a big year for the Los Angeles Poverty Department (LAPD). Now in its 30th year, the performance group—made up of members and former members of the city’s Skid Row community—created and performed multiple new works, put on an annual parade and festival, secured awards from the Mike Kelley Foundation for the Arts and the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, and continued to run the Skid Row History Museum and Archive, an important space that hosts films, performances, and exhibits of Skid Row history and figures like activist/artist General Dogon, whose tricked out lowrider bikes—pieces of art and tools for activism—were dynamically on display in a multimedia exhibit in 2015.

I learned all of this, and more, in the latest Artists & Communities conversation between LAPD founder and director John Malpede and L.A.-based social practice artist Christina Sanchez Juarez, who sat down together recently to connect over their tireless work using art to empower L.A.’s homeless and working poor.

Sanchez Juarez, with her collective Cocina Abierta made up of artists and restaurant workers, provides a platform for engaging restaurant workers and consumers in dialogue about the realities of food labor. They organize innovative food-based interventions such as communal cookouts, DIY cooking shows, and recipe swaps in collaboration with diverse community groups. She is also a founding member of the L.A. Tenants Union, advocating for affordable and safe housing for all, and was commissioned by the Los Angeles County Arts Commission and Los Angeles Parks and Recreation to lead a 2-year public engagement project investigating how food can deepen cross-cultural alliances in Victoria Park in Carson.

The essential cross-sector work of Malpede and Sanchez Juarez is changing the minds of developers, shaping policy, and giving a platform to communities at risk, driving home the fact that their voices and experiences matter.

I encourage you to dive into the rich exchange to learn about:

  • The power of arts and culture to document social issues and drive social change  
  • The dynamics of community-based work—making space for multiple leaders and multiple voices
  • The demands of balancing community-based work—how artists can both sustain their practice and know their limits  
  • How to embrace instability as part of the art-making and change-making process

Read the full conversation

John Malpede directs, performs, and engineers multi-event arts projects that have theatrical, installation, public art, and education components. In 1985, Malpede founded and continues to direct the Los Angeles Poverty Department (LAPD), the first performance group in the nation comprised primarily of homeless and formerly homeless people. LAPD creates performances that connect lived experience to the social forces that shape the lives and communities of people living in poverty. Malpede has produced projects working with communities throughout the United States and in the UK, France, The Netherlands, Belgium, and Bolivia. Currently, Malpede is curating the Skid Row History Museum and Archive, an exhibition/performance space exploring gentrification issues in Los Angeles.

Christina Sanchez Juarez is a socially and politically engaged artist working at the intersection of perfor­mance, community organizing, and popular education to investigate how collectivity and the arts can acknowledge the issues of the working poor and bring about social change. Since 2011, she has advocated for restaurant worker’s rights through a series of commu­nity engaged art projects—participatory performances, installations, dining experiences, and cooking demon­strations—that focus on archiving and disseminating restaurant worker histories. These projects have been presented in community colleges, cultural centers, farmer’s markets, and other public spaces. Christina is a recipient of the inaugural SPArt Los Angeles grant and recently completed a two-year public engagement project with the Los Angeles County Arts Commission.