Cincinnati’s Wave Pool adapts its Welcome Project to neighborhood needs

By Ashley Caudill/Kent State NewsLab

Over 100 family-filled cars line Colerain Avenue in Cincinnati on the second Tuesday of every month, all waiting their turn to stop in front of Wave Pool’s doors to receive bags of fresh produce. 

Wave Pool, a “socially engaged” arts center, started The Welcome Project in 2018 in response to the needs that it saw outside its doors. The organization is located in Camp Washington, one of Cincinnati’s lowest-income neighborhoods and one of the city’s food deserts. 

“I don’t know what will happen if we cancel one,” The Welcome Project Manager Olivia Nava said. “People expect it, they have it on their calendars.”

Bags of food at a Produce Pop-Up event. (Photo: Used with permission from Olivia Nava.)

The Welcome Project was created with the intent of working with immigrants and refugees in the Cincinnati area. Within the last couple years, they have expanded to serve a larger portion of the Camp Washington community. They provide a community space and support through art and food. 

“The demographic that we’re working with is a sizable unhoused community and then many of them are suffering from addiction and substance abuse issues,” Nava said. “And because we do have a free food and a mutual aid corner, we open the space up and have very consistent hours and a non-judgmental approach.” 

Feeding America estimated in 2021 the food insecurity rate in Hamilton County was 10.9%, with 90,250 people in the food insecurity population. According to that organization, the county would need around $58.5 million to combat food insecurity.

Nava said the project has seen a rise in this pattern since the pandemic. Since Wave Pool expanded their services to the entire community, they have kept up with the community’s requests in the ways that they are able to.

“The initiatives that we have here and being in a position where we can address certain things right away, like that free pantry, you know, why not put a fridge up?” Nava said. “People are opening up and say, ‘Hey, I need this, I need this.’ But we’re an art center. And we care about you, but this is how we can show up right now.” 

The Wave Pool storefront is an old fire station converted to be an open, bright and airy art gallery. It serves as the meeting place for many of their events and programs, like Welcome (M)Art and Soup & Stories. The soup-centered event hosts a paid chef, and they cook a meal to serve for free to 60-80 community members who gather to learn about various topics all relating to ways to help people, ranging from adjusting to a new home or navigating addiction and substance abuse. 

“It has worked very well in moving from a traditional transactional service organization to getting to know the individuals that come in,” Nava said. 

But now, The Welcome Project is trying to return to its original mission while still helping those who have depended on them in recent years.

In 2023, Ohio welcomed 2,818 refugees, including 186 in Cincinnati, according to the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services.

That same year, Wave Pool opened their doors to 2,864 people for their Welcome programs and saw a total of 71,063 people over the entire year for events, gallery hours and fundraisers.

Bryan Wright, executive director of Cincinnati Compass, said that services like what The Welcome Project offers to the immigrant community are important in many different ways, starting with the feeling of understanding. 

The Wave Pool building in Cincinnati. (Photo: Used with permission from Olivia Nava.)

“When they’re [immigrants] asked to come in and share their traumatic story of migration to the US, and are only seen as that migratory story and not seen as a human being that is a doctor or can help be a part of the solution to address some of these systemic challenges, we always come from a position of power and assets,” Wright said. “And yes, someone might be in need, but they also have skills, dreams, aspirations, clever ideas that can be leveraged to address the challenges.”

Today, the Welcome Project team is focused on deciding what projects to take on. 

“2024 is a time for reflection, reconstruction, and building a kind of backup and not chasing everything that is aligned with us,” Nava said.

The Welcome Project is still hopeful that they will maintain the relationships they have built in the community and still hope to serve as a safe space for them. They plan on continuing the Produce Pop-Ups and artist-centered events. Next is an artist talk on May 30, where their current curator-in-residence, Lindsey Cummins, and her two “Kith and Kin” participating artists, Rachael Banks and Kacey Slone, will share their work. 

“It’s so important to show up for the community that we occupy and to be a part of it,” Nava said. “W are really trying to do something and do it ethically and to do it right.”

This story was originally published by the Kent State NewsLab, a collaborative news outlet publishing journalism by Kent State students.

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