What is a library? Or better yet, what could a library be? You might want to ask Joal Stein. He’d likely tell you a library can be much more than just a building. It could be an experience. A journey to walk through. A safe public place. An accessible space where the available resources match community needs.
Joal wears many hats: designer, editor, urban ecologist, and poet, to name a few. His expertise in community engagement began during his undergraduate studies at Portland State University, and an interest in urban ecology took him to Parsons School of Design.
New York City, an exemplar of cultural diversity, was an eye-opening experience. Early in his career, Joal experienced a “checklist” approach to community engagement. But once in the Big Apple, he realized that the way many institutions apply community engagement practices is too dry and codified for the vibrancy and diversity of people’s lived experiences.
To bridge this gap, Joal began collaborating with socially-minded artists. He wondered how art could be used to move people on social issues, to connect them around emotion and identity, and to inspire new worldviews. Through this curiosity, he discovered a niche. Traditional organizations needed assistance to understand the value in giving artists a seat at the decision-making table, rather than making them an afterthought or valuing only certain technical skills.
“Art is something you live in everyday life, it adds value in our everyday lives, and builds identity, and gives people a sense of belonging,” Joal said. “By supporting artists and supporting cultural workers, you’re also supporting communities.”
Currently, one of the hats Joal wears is the Tualatin Valley Creates’ Art and Culture Leadership Incubator Coordinator. Part- leadership development, part- business incubator, the program aims to empower arts and culture leaders from traditionally underrepresented populations in Washington County. Led by a four-member faculty team, a central goal of the program is to help build a thriving, inclusive cultural and creative environment.
As Coordinator, Joal works to ensure the faculty and participants have what they need for meaningful exchanges and learning to happen. His experience in social innovation and cultural equity helps him guide conversations about power dynamics that exist between the faculty and participants.
“The Incubator faculty is really strong: different ages, different career stages, different practices,” he said. “It is a pilot and a little bit of an experiment. [Participants] can play around with ideas. You can vet things with mentors, you can get connected with resources.”
Joal is also an artist in his own right. He works in both the abstract, like poetry, and the physical, like architecture and urban planning projects.
“I notice little details and record them through photographs or writing down a scene that I saw or the way things are juxtaposed,” he said. “Words have an infinite number of combinations. Doing things in a 3D space, all the sudden friction and gravity and decay become very real constraints.”
Having grown up living in both Washington and Multnomah Counties, Joal has an especially deep appreciation for talent and culture in the Tualatin Valley. Although he travels among art and design hubs like New York and L.A., Joal says he always finds himself returning to Oregon. Here, he continues to pursue the questions that launched his career.
“There is a lot of rich cultural diversity in Washington County,” he said. “It’s always seen and defined in relationship to Portland, but in reality, it is its own thing. It has its own identity and wealth of creativity and artists. In this time when we’re re-affirming the role of art in public life and civic life, TVC wants to help support artists and create an ecosystem. How do we create this cultural ecosystem that has at the center of it the values of diversity and equity?”
You can find more information on TVC’s Arts and Culture Leadership Incubator on our website.
About the Author: Ashley Baker
After developing communication strategies and conducting research for sustainability non-profits in Washington, D.C. and Portland, OR, Ashley has turned her attention to multimedia storytelling and community engagement. She holds a B.Sc. in chemistry from Sweet Briar College and is currently pursuing her master’s degree in multimedia journalism at the University of Oregon in Portland.