Community Art Engagement
3:14 am
Wed July 30, 2014

STL Art Game-Changers: De Andrea Nichols Wants To Hook You Up For A Better City

De Andrea Nichols
De Andrea Nichols
Credit Stephanie Zimmerman | St. Louis Public Radio

When you attend an event involving De Andrea Nichols, be prepared to meet your match. Not your romantic soulmate, although that could happen. More likely, your partner in community engagement.

Nichols, 26, is a community arts organizer, designer and social worker who’s the Education and Outreach Coordinator at the Contemporary Art Museum. When she’s not working at CAM, she’s entrenched in one of the many projects of her own nonprofit, Catalysts by Design. Sometimes the twain does meet.

“CAM is very supportive of my zany and creative ideas,” Nichols laughed.

The names of projects Nichols works on are often quirky and pun-filled, like Yarning to Know St. Louis.

“Yes, yarning,” Nichols repeated, rolling her eyes. “Each participant used a string of yarn to map identities. As you add on layers of yarn, you see all the webs of connectedness each person has with each other and with the city.”

Sometimes, adding on to that web that may mean sharing a tiny, enclosed space with someone you’ve never met. Such was the case at a June event at the Pulitzer Arts Foundation’s and Washington University’s PXSTL tent space in Grand Center. The gathering was for the United Story project, a program of Catalysts by Design.

“We invited strangers to get inside a ball pit together,” Nichols said.

The balls had conversational topics written on them, to get the brainstorming started. The point was to foster collaboration among people with ideas for bettering St. Louis.

“Every idea builds a stronger next idea,” she said.

Potluck and Passions

Food can be an important ingredient when it comes to building on ideas. That’s the thought behind Catalysts’ FoodSpark. Participants bring a potluck dish along with their ideas for creating change.

FoodSpark at PXSTL
FoodSpark at PXSTL
Credit Stephanie Zimmerman | St. Louis Public Radio

A recent FoodSpark was responsible for bringing together the people behind a popular local photo project that now has more than 17,000 Facebook “likes.”

“Two participants who did not know each other found commonality amongst themselves for both storytelling and photography, and — voila! They started Humans of St. Louis,” Nichols said.

Earlier this month, Nichols and collaborators Emily Bornstein and Aaron McMullin held a Creative Soapbox FoodSpark event under PXSTL tent, which included recording ideas for future collaboration. Video by Stephanie Zimmerman (Story continues below.)

Foodspark: Creative Soapbox from St. Louis Public Radio on Vimeo.

A Slam-Dunk Solution

For her efforts, Nichols has twice been chosen to be involved in events of the Clinton Global Initiative University, which engages emerging leaders.

Still, not every idea spawned by Nichols' projects comes to fruition, of course. Some end up in the trash. Others are about trash, or at least getting rid of it.

One of Nichols' projects turns picking up trash into a game.
One of Nichols' projects turns picking up trash into a game.
Credit Rebuild Foundation

In cooperation with the ReBuild organization for revitalization through the arts and its Pink House community space, teenagers in Pagedale were asked to analyze a local litter problem. After realizing they, the youth, were doing most of the littering, they came up with a Trash Knock Out or T.K.O. machine in which litter is disposed of through a basketball hoop.

The idea is to help young people learn how to innovate. But that’s just the first step.

“We want to extend that, to help young people learn how to become entrepreneurs with those innovations,” Nichols said. “Like taking the idea of that T.K.O. machine and saying, ‘How can we earn revenue from this? How can we actually provide jobs to ourselves, as teenagers?’” 

Follow Nancy Fowler on Twitter: @NancyFowlerSTL