I'm still at sleepover camp for writers and artists here in Vermont, and I've got to tell you about the world-changing project one of the artists here founded in Egypt.
In 2000, husband and wife team Sameh El Halawany and Aliaa El Gready wanted to find a way to use art to help one of their country's last fishing villages, El Max, lift itself out of poverty and save itself from being razed. With an initial grant of about $3,000 from the Ford Foundation, they formed Gudran and moved into the village.
First, they tried to pitch their ideas to the local fishermen, but that didn't go so well, Sameh says.
"Men in our culture, most of them are so closed. Not all, but some," he says. Sameh and Aliaa ran into the men's fear of government and fear of change. But they were not discouraged. "It's normal," Sameh says, giving a comforting shrug.
Next, they tried working with the town's children -- and that approach changed everything.
Today, Gudran runs art workshops in El Max for children and for adults, it helps townspeople repair streets and buildings, it runs literacy programs and trains craftspeople to market and sell their work, and it hosts international artists who work with residents to beautify the village. It is awarded tens of thousands of dollars in grants every year, and it's won praise from Egyptian and international politicians.
"When we start, it's small," Sameh says. "But now it's very big, more than we expected."
And now the project is moving into its next phase. This month and next, Sameh is recruiting artists from the Vermont Studio Center and the region -- he's already got someone from the Global Peace Tiles Project interested -- to contribute art and writing on themes such as community development, peaceful conflict resolution, and communication. He'll display these works in Johnson, Vermont, through October. All the artists become part of an international group, connected online, that works with villages like El Max to encourage pride of place, collaboration, education, entrepreneurship, and non-violence. Sameh hopes Gudran inspires artists to start similar projects in their own communities, too.
Sameh will be in New York City for a few days at the end of October. You can reach him at selhlawany(at)gmail.com.
Read more about Gudran in this great article by Michelle Chen in WIP, Women's International Perspective. If you don't have time to read the whole thing, at least scroll down to the before-and-after pictures of the town.
For a first-person account from an artist who participated in the project (including all kinds of real-world cultural misunderstandings), check out Sue Williamson's ArtThrob.
And if you want to read a very interesting but long report, featuring Gudran, that asks whether communities that succeed do so because they have confidence in their own abilities, bless your heart, here it is.