Mid-America Arts Alliance (M-AAA) is celebrating its 50th year of ensuring more art for more people—strengthening and supporting artists, cultural organizations, and communities throughout our region and beyond. Founded in 1972, M-AAA has awarded grants to artists and arts organizations, helped to bring cultural programs to communities urban and rural, andempowered creatives throughout Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Texas; across the nation; and internationally. As part of its anniversary recognition, M-AAA is pleased to share 50 Stories | 50 Years, a weekly series of stories and statements submitted by colleagues, program participants, and others that speak to M-AAA’s profound impact on their lives, creativity, communities, and the region.
Aisha Siddiqui is founder and Executive Director of the Houston, Texas-based nonprofit organization Culture of Health-Advancing Together (CHAT). She credits M-AAA’s professional development program Engage Houston with changing the trajectory of her work and significantly contributing to CHAT’s start-up success:
I am passionate about equity and equality in health and healthcare. When I was a doctoral student at the University of Texas School of Public Health, I sought out South Asian women to better understand the challenges they faced in staying healthy. Documenting their stories allowed me to complete my studies, but I knew I couldn’t stop there. I founded CHAT in 2015, with an aspiration to help immigrants and refugees get accustomed to American culture through education, arts, advocacy, and access to care. CHAT targets specific needs and creates programs focused on modifying the social determinants of health.
However, I was not fully equipped to run a nonprofit organization, and that’s when a collaborator introduced me to [M-AAA’s professional development program] Engage Houston. In its first year, CHAT was selected to participate in Engage Houston’s training. We did not have a strong board or a solid operational framework; in fact, we did not even have an office. Coaches Brian Crockett and Carla Patterson drove all the way to my home for our first meeting. Carla literally held my hand during those early years in finding new board members, providing board training, professional development, capacity building, creating collaborations, reviewing documents, and so much more.
Community engagement is CHAT’s biggest focus, and we incorporate art into everything we do. From arts classes and programs for kids and adults to museum field trips and public art projects in our community, CHAT makes art accessible to families that may not otherwise have access to it. We remove the hurdle of cost for these families, so they are able to enjoy and participate in arts activities.
In 2021, CHAT produced a book featuring artwork from our students from around the world, ranging in ages from 10 to 14 years old. Reflections from Refuge includes quotes from the students about their memories of their home countries, what they miss, and what they enjoy about Houston. The book gives a unique look into the experiences of Houston’s immigrant and refugee youth.
CHAT also created a series of murals called the Gulfton Story Trail. The murals, painted by local artists of immigrant or refugee background, reflect Houston’s diversity and attract tourists. Several of our murals are on school walls—equivalent to bringing the art gallery to the children in our underserved community.
Engage Houston peer learning and collaborations were helpful in conceptualizing the Gulfton Story Trail and other CHAT work. The support we receive from Mid-America Arts Alliance has been vital to ensuring that we can continue to provide arts programming to the often-underserved immigrant and refugee population in the Greater Houston area. Engage Houston has impacted our work throughout the years and is an ongoing relationship which is only strengthening; Carla is still my advisor after all these years and is always just a phone call away.
M-AAA Impact Fact
Over ten years, Engage Houston provided focused professional and organizational development training using a combination of peer learning, coach consultations, and workshops. The Engage program is designed to strengthen participants’ organizational effectiveness and sustainability, amplifying an arts ecosystem that supports the wider community.