Cal Humanities

"The understanding of a culture comes from hearing the language, tasting the food, seeing personal interactions, experiencing the traditions, and so much more in context."

— Elizabeth Laval & Candice Pendergrass, Sikh Youth Public History Project

"The understanding of a culture comes from hearing the language, tasting the food, seeing personal interactions, experiencing the traditions, and so much more when it is in context."

— Elizabeth Laval & Candice Pendergrass, Sikh Youth Public History Project

California on the International Stage: Oakland/Saint-Denis Cooperation Project

Learning Expedition Blog, by Julie Fry

During the first week of October 2019, a small group of intrepid cultural champions—urbanists, artists, storytellers and funders—traveled from Oakland, California to Saint-Denis, France as part of a learning expedition to uncover the similarities and differences between these two cities that are close neighbors to two major metropolitan areas, San Francisco and Paris, respectively. With comparable issues of gentrification, displacement, deep and iconic histories, and rapidly changing urban landscapes, professionals from the two cities have been coming together to learn from each other.

This union is part of the Oakland/Saint-Denis Cooperative Project for more inclusive and creative cities, organized by the French American Cultural Society and the Cultural Services of the French Embassy of the United States.

Entrance to Le 6b, a cultural center in Saint-Denis.

The goals of the project? To compare urban and cultural innovations in both cities, promote international and interdisciplinary dialogue, and amplify the role of the cultural sector in urban development.

What do we hope comes out of this? There will be materials to distribute in the coming months, including a publication and a short documentary (funded by California Humanities) filmed in both cities. There will be ideas to share in other metro areas across the world. There will be models to develop of how we can better “imagine cities.”

As a representative of California Humanities, a statewide nonprofit that makes grants and delivers programs using the public humanities to connect us to each other, my main focus during the exchange has been in four areas:

  • What funding models exist for place-based arts and humanities?
  • How are community stories and voices amplified and shared?
  • How can the work be sustained over time?
  • How does equity play a role?
The Oakland delegation in Saint-Denis wearing their Oaklandish t-shirt designs.

During the week in France, we attended a day-long conference about the role of arts in urban planning, spent our time in cultural and historic places in Saint-Denis like the Basilica (the burial place of all but three French kings), saw public street art along the local canal, and toured innovative cultural spaces like Maison Jaune and Le 6b. We learned about different funding models for cultural centers, which depend to some degree on government tax and fiscal structures that are different than ours in the US. We spoke with local artists about how they engage residents in their art projects to better express community experiences. At La Fabrique de Métro, we learned about the 68 new subway lines and stations that are being constructed across Paris; some of the most critical will be finished in time for the 2024 Paris Olympics, which will actually take place in Saint-Denis.

The Saint-Denis delegation on a visit to the Oakland Museum of California.
    • Our counterparts from Saint-Denis arrived in Oakland in November 2019, and after a happy reunion between the participants from both countries, jumped into a week full of cultural and urban explorations that included artist studios, the City of Oakland, SPUR, Oakland Museum of California, the Burning Man Project, and a panel of California Humanities-funded filmmakers that we facilitated, showing clips from East Bay-based documentaries and talking about their impact. 
A presentation for the Saint-Denis delegation at SPUR (
San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research) in Oakland.

The overarching thread throughout the exchange has been the importance of increasing social cohesion by including local residents in communities undergoing change. This can be done in particular through storytelling and the arts and involving those voices early on in urban development projects. We all agreed that there are similarities in values, creativity, and resources between Oakland and Saint-Denis.

In light of all that we’ve learned so far, I’m thinking a lot about how critical it is that California Humanities continues to support projects and programs that connect the dots between the experiences provided by history, society, and culture, and also places and the people who live and work here.

The shirt designed by Oaklandish for the Oakland/Saint-Denis partnership.

You can find more information about all the Oakland and Saint-Denis partners at the French American Cultural Exchange website.

Thanks to Oaklandish for creating our graphic used in all the collaboration materials. T-shirts with the design will be for sale in early 2020.


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