Olney Culture Lab: Reflections from The Olney Embrace Project

Catherine Reed Holochwost

January 5, 2023

“Olney Culture Lab was blessed to have started from the seeds of collaboration. It blossomed from nothing but the joy of camaraderie and community in 2014. Since then, it has grown more robust and yet is still grounded in that joy. We are excited to share a window into our work through this report. It is especially heartwarming to know that others will learn about the Olney, Philadelphia neighborhood – an under-appreciated place that many diverse peoples call home and whose cultural expressions and lived experiences inspire what we do.”

Ambrose Liu, founder and director of Olney Culture Lab
Graphic border from WolfBrown branded image

The Olney Embrace Project (TOEP) was an ambitious project that commissioned twelve multidisciplinary artists and musicians to create work that would celebrate the rich, pluralistic identity of the Olney neighborhood of Philadelphia. In an era where identity seems to polarize more than it unites, the project offers valuable lessons for communities and nonprofit organizations on their journeys toward fostering more inclusive, generous, and resilient connections, namely:

Image of Dancers
Images from previous Olney Youth Arts Festivals.

Photo Credit: Joe Ryan

Steward the “common wealth”

  • Our indigenous and premodern ancestors would have found the idea of one individual hoarding wealth completely alien, not to mention unsustainable. Before the rise of modern capitalism, gift economies were the norm. In this model, abundance was periodically shared in order to strengthen a community’s interdependence.
  • With environmental and sociopolitical crises threatening collective well-being, redefining the “common wealth” more broadly and inclusively must be a priority. Potential indicators include the strength and rootedness of social networks, as well as gifts of culture, food, time, and mutual aid. Through TOEP, Olney Culture Lab (OCL) has embodied this spirit of generosity.

Share the space

  • Placemaking has a history of drawing lessons about cooperation from the natural world, and one such ideal is the symbiotic relationship. Not all relationships are created equal, however, and only the relationships that evolve together slowly become mutually beneficial.
  • Space in the human world is always connected to politics and power. In Olney, land had been stolen from the Lenni Lenape in the 1600s and 1700s, exploited by developers in the 1800s and early 1900s, and threatened by racist policies of urban renewal leading to white flight in the second half of the 1900s. OCL was keenly aware of these colonialist histories, and worked hard to show that their commitment to the residents of Olney was mutually respectful.

Know your roots

  • Olney is one of the most diverse neighborhoods in Philadelphia, so it is a place where sharing and connecting cultural traditions (“roots”) is key. 
  • Instead of seeing these cultures as being in competition, OCL leaders adopted a decolonial lens for their work. Decolonization can be complex, but at its core, it emphasizes “relation and interdependence in search of balance and harmony of life in the planet.”
  • These ideas are inherent in many indigenous cultures across the world. Many TOEP artists drew inspiration from African diasporic practices, but they also noted that similar ideas could be found in native North American and Southeast Asian cultures, for example. 
  • Connecting with land through an indigenous and decolonial praxis offers spiritual and emotional connection to people from all walks of life. Animals and trees can be seen as ancestors or fellow beings, not just as resources to extract or specimens to analyze, as is common in western industrial and scientific practice.

Read the full report.

Screenshot of Olney Embrace Project Report


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