Seven years ago, DeAnna Cummings took a hard look at the high-traffic, under-resourced intersection in North Minneapolis where she and her husband Roger had planted their business, Juxtaposition Arts (JXTA), and realized the view still needed some improvement.
“When we looked out the window at West Broadway and Emerson, we asked ourselves ‘is the community getting better?’ In some ways the answer was yes, but in lots of ways, it was no,” says Cummings.
Securing a permanent home for the once nomadic arts group had been a long-time dream the couple started in 1995 with their partner Peyton Russell (2012 Bush Fellow). But now the expanded programs they’d once imagined in their new three-building complex didn’t seem to be generating enough impact for people within their immediate community — or showing the big results that mattered to investors and partners. While the pair could point to plenty of success stories among the thousands of teens who’d taken part in their afterschool arts programs, they couldn’t ignore the growing joblessness, widening achievement gap and dwindling opportunities they saw for the youth of color outside their doors.
"I want people to say about me that everyone who’s worked for me and worked with me is better for it."
“I knew what I needed was to step away from the work and to see it from another angle,” says Cummings, who has served as JXTA’s executive director since its start, while Roger Cummings is the organization’s artistic director. But with two children in school and two incomes now tied to the organization’s survival, “The time was just never going to be there.”
That’s when Leah Lorraine Nelson, a 2006 Bush Fellow and friend, challenged her to think about applying for a Bush Leadership Fellowship, a program Cummings wasn’t sure she was qualified for, having discontinued her undergraduate studies to start Juxtaposition. She made a nervous call to Martha Lee, Bush Fellowship Program manager, and asked if the Foundation ever paid for Fellows to go back to college. Lee admitted it was a long shot, but then asked Cummings if she’d consider setting her sights a little higher.
“Martha said, ‘I suppose you could go back and finish that degree, but with the work you’ve done already, I bet you have bigger dreams for yourself,’” Cummings says. Lee suggested she learn more about one of the few graduate programs in the country willing to consider nontraditional students ike Cummings — Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. “The website had a splash page that said ‘Come Change the World,’ and I remember I just sucked in my breath and dove into every word, because it was like they were talking right to me.”
Today, DeAnna Cummings looks out the windows of Juxtaposition’s gallery space on Emerson Avenue and likes what she sees — a busy commercial corridor bustling with people and vibrant new businesses. Since JXTA put down roots, nearby blocks have benefited from nearly $47 million in new investments. The business itself has also been remodeled with the launch of JXTALab, a teen-run design firm viewed as a national model for everything from youth jobs training to creative place-making. The now four-building campus hums with activity, as students work on client projects that range from screenprinting to environmental design, and adult artists fill a new studio co-op on West Broadway.