November 3, 2022
Second Cohort of Arts and Culture ChangeMakers Graduate

By Michelle Xiarhos Curran

There’s a certain energy that’s generated when a group of artists and creatives come together in one room to talk, share ideas and support one another. It’s contagious. It’s almost electric.

It’s exactly the kind of energy that recently filled the Essex Art Center in Lawrence, where ECCF’s Creative County Initiative (CCI) ChangeMakers program wrapped up on Oct. 24 with an in-person gathering and “graduation” for the program’s second participating cohort.

For the last eight months, this group of 12 artists, nonprofit and municipal heads have been collectively immersed in learnings and trainings designed to support their roles as part of a new network of creative leaders with the skills to help build a more inclusive and sustainable arts and culture ecosystem in Essex County.

They have learned from one another, created long-lasting connections and relationships and developed local arts and cultural initiatives for which they each have received a $1,000 CCI grant to seed.

Together, these leaders are creating more opportunities for BIPOC artists, exploring how to make their organizations more welcoming and inclusive, beautifying their cities and towns, developing critical shared resources for artists and organizations, expanding arts and culture programming and so much more.

“My time with this group has been very special,” said Donna Keefe, holding back tears. Keefe heads the Salisbury Cultural Council’s arts and culture initiative. This summer, the group planted a sunflower garden near Salisbury Beach, a placemaking and beautification project that they plan to expand next year. “It gave me a lot of incentive and motivation to go forward and do this work.”

The afternoon was moving for many members of the cohort, as their work is not only personally meaningful, but their journeys were shared journeys, thanks to ChangeMakers. And with each graduating cohort, this process of collaboration is strengthened and expanded, creating a sustainable human infrastructure for today – and for years to come.

“That will be sort of this muscle that’s created across the county,” Stratton Lloyd, ECCF’s president and COO, told the group. “And that muscle is very important to what we’re doing. I’m so proud of the work you all have done.”

Participants in ChangeMakers describe the program as transformational.

“This has been such an amazing experience,” said Lisa Miller-Gillespie, co-founder and president of Lawrence Festival of the Arts.

The inaugural Lawrence Festival of the Arts was a huge success this past July, but as Miller-Gillespie was organizing and planning for the festival, she realized the community needed more. She hopes to create a robust brick and mortar community space filled with classrooms and studios, a place where people can come and share their talents with others.

“There’s so much going on and if it wasn’t for this cohort, I couldn’t have conceptualized it,” said Miller-Gillespie. “I’ve learned so much from people here. It’s unbelievable.”

“Thanks to this group for allowing me to get off of Rocky Neck and to be faced with a mirror to see what my organization looks like,” added Courtney Richardson, director of the Rocky Neck Art Colony. Richardson is exploring ways to make her organization more inclusive, including a potential name change. “It’s been really inspirational to be a part of this.”

Yaya Rodriguez, founder of Cultura Latina Dance Academy in Lynn, said connecting with other creators has been a refreshing change from the time she spends working in her office – alone.

“Sharing this journey has been very important to me,” she said.

Participants credit co-facilitators – CCI Program Director Karen Ristuben and Doneeca Thurston, executive director of the Lynn Museum – for creating an environment where their collaborative work could thrive.

Ristuben and Thurston say that watching arts and culture leaders connect, explore new ideas and work together has been equally rewarding.

“This has been a wonderful program,” said Thurston. “It’s been so wonderful to see everyone blossom and grow.”

The 2022 ChangeMakers are:

Kerrie Bates, Director, Ipswich ReCreation & Culture

Aliana de la Guardia, Founder and Director, Guerilla Opera, Haverhill

Donna Keefe, Salisbury Cultural Council Arts and Cultural Initiative, Town of Salisbury Cultural Council

Nathan Lewis, Head Curator, The Satanic Temple Salem/Salem Art Gallery

Monica Manoski, Executive Director, Essex Art Center, Lawrence

John Mayer, Director, Amesbury Carriage Museum

Lisa Miller Gillespie, Co-Founder/President, Lawrence Festival of the Arts

Courtney Richardson, Director, Rocky Neck Art Colony, Gloucester

Yaya Rodriguez, Founder/CEO, Cultura Latina Dance Academy Inc  Lynn

Jay Salois, Owner, VRtical Media, Salem

Sarah Slifer Swift, Director, Movement Arts Gloucester MA (MAGMA)

LaCrecia Thomson, Arts and Culture Planner, City of Lynn

Selections for the next ChangeMakers cohort will take place in January 2023. Anyone interested in learning more should contact Karen Ristuben at

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