This art program in North Manchester helps rural Indiana Latino students express their voices

What does it mean to be a Midwesterner? How can rural communities make themselves more welcoming to immigrants, People of Color, and people who don’t speak English as their primary language?

These are the questions behind a national program by Arts Midwest called We the Many. Arts Midwest is a regional arts nonprofit that works to grow, gather, and invest in organizations across nine states “by a set of values that are rooted in equity, trust, and learning.” It’s We the Many program, which began in 2019, brings preforming artists of color to rural communities for an artist residency with a goal to expand the understanding of what it means to be a Midwesterner there through the creative exchange of voices, cultures, and ideas.

In 2021, Northeast Indiana’s own Wabash County was selected as one of three pilot communities for the We the Many program, alongside Perry, Iowa, and Sisseton, South Dakota. The connection to Wabash came via the Honeywell Foundation, which is one of the state’s largest nonprofit arts organizations based in Wabash County. It serves the region of North Central Indiana by working with teaching artists as well as Visual Thinking Strategy Facilitators, who use the arts as a springboard to teach English language arts, critical thinking skills, and history to schools through a variety of programs.

Cathy Gatchel, Chief Development officer at the Honeywell Foundation, says that as a part of We the Many, Honeywell received a $45,000 grant to connect their rural residents with immigrant artists and artists of color. They worked with their communities and stakeholders to determine how this goal would take shape.

Arts Midwest really challenged us to try to lean into the community to determine what kind of residency this would be,” Gatchel says. “The only requirements are that it would be a performing artist residency and that the artist we would work with would be a performing artist of color, so there were no other parameters placed upon us.”

Over the course of 16 weeks in the 2020-2021 school year, students participated in 42 activities and 10 rehearsals, which culminated in a final performance—all exploring experiences central to their cultural identity in a rural community.

While Honeywell has long been cognizant of the need for equity and inclusion in Northeast Indiana and is working ensure they provide spaces for voices from a variety of cultural backgrounds to be heard and grow, We the Many helped them and their stakeholders realize the power of listening in new ways.

“We learned that listening takes time,” Gatchel says in a reflection statement on We the Many’s website. “I think one could be naive in terms of what it really means to be welcoming because it takes quite a bit of initiative. I think those of us in the White community take so many things for granted in terms of our assumptions. We assume, “Why wouldn’t you feel welcome? We’re welcome. I’m welcoming. Why wouldn’t you feel that way?”

Kristi Unger, Director of Education at Honeywell, works with the foundation to bring arts programs into area schools. She says that as Honeywell collected feedback, they identified Manchester Community School’s Latino population as an underserved and growing community We the Many could support. About 7.4 percent of students at Manchester Community Schools identify as Latino.

“We see more of Northeast Indiana really embracing the work of diversity, equity, access and inclusion,” Unger says. “How do we create a stronger overall community for Northeast Indiana? For us, its arts and education. These areas provide such a great way to bridge gaps and to provide opportunities for kids and adults to come together and learn from each other.”

Over the course of 16 weeks in the 2020-2021 school year, students participated in 42 activities and 10 rehearsals, which culminated in a final performance—all exploring experiences central to their cultural identity in a rural community.

Honeywell developed its We the Many program to expose Latino students from Manchester Intermediate School (grades 4-6) as well as students from Manchester Junior-Senior High School to new opportunities and experiences in the world of arts through its artist residency program. As for the artist in residency, it selected Mexican American Chicago-based artist, Ana Velazquez, to work at these schools, helping students of color express themselves in theatre classes, public performances, and new outlets they had not previously explored.

Velazquez is a Theater Director and Teaching Artist by trade, but she says her credentials in the arts aren’t the focus of her relationship with students. Instead, the most important aspect of her time with students involves being open and honest with them on a personal level, through her own expressions of culture and language.

“I go in there, and I tell them where I'm from,” Velazquez says. “One of the very first things that I asked them is if they speak Spanish, and a lot of them, you know, their eyebrows raised because that's their first language, and they get super excited.”

Mexican American Chicago-based artist, Ana Velazquez, is the first artist in residency at Manchester Community Schools, helping students of color express themselves in theatre classes, public performances, and more.

Over the course of 16 weeks in the 2020-2021 school year, Velazquez led 42 activities and 10 rehearsals, which culminated in a final performance by the students—all exploring experiences central to their cultural identity in their rural Midwestern community. During the course of her time with students, Velazquez says she worked to break down barriers facing Latino students in North Manchester and to connect with the them on deeper levels, taking dual language approach to her lessons.

Gatchel says this approach resonated with students and allowed Velazquez to meet their needs in ways their English-speaking instructors could not.

“She would use Spanish, but then she would say things in English to kind of remind the students of the dual role they're playing in their own community… where, this may not be their first language, but they're still needing to navigate things in English,” Gatchel says. “She really connected so much with the students. I don't know if these students had really felt that way before.”

Mexican American Chicago-based artist, Ana Velazquez, is the first artist in residency at Manchester Community Schools, helping students of color express themselves in theatre classes, public performances, and more.


The We the Many program is now in its second year in North Manchester, with Velaquez back in residency for the 2021-2022 school year. Beginning in January, this year’s program focus will be Manchester Junior-Senior High School students, grades 7-12, and the program will conclude with a final performance mid-March.

As part of the residency program’s first year, Honeywell hired Fort Wayne-based filmmaker Hilaria Heredia to produce a documentary on Velazquez’s residency. The documentary provides an inside perspective on how We the Many has impacted students and the importance of its ongoing collaboration between artists and Wabash County’s rural Latino community.

Building trust with students and their parents, as well as working through a pandemic, has made Honeywell’s We the Many program a challenge, Velazquez says, but she has been able to span the gap. Along with addressing language barriers, she says becoming acquainted with and establishing the likes and dislikes of her students has been an important aspect in connecting with them. This includes not only talking about what types of food are everyone’s favorites, but also what holidays they celebrate and traditions share with their families.

Velazquez says establishing commonalties helps students to relax and allows them to transition into other conversations they may not regularly have in school. This ultimately contributes to their art and self-expression, too.

Over the course of 16 weeks in the 2020-2021 school year, students participated in 42 activities and 10 rehearsals, which culminated in a final performance—all exploring experiences central to their cultural identity in a rural community.

Having worked in various schools across the U.S. prior to her time in North Manchester, Velazquez has learned different ways of connecting with students, and she applies those experiences to build a foundation of trust with North Manchester students, helping them feel excited to engage in their classwork and discover the power of art.

Even so, she says it is still a process. Some days, walls come down. On others, she has to begin from scratch, as students are not quick to open up and engage in activities. Some of the challenges she has encountered so far extend to connecting with her students’ families and older siblings. Many Latino families have not been able to attend programs due to work or other obligations and setbacks, particularly during the pandemic. There is also a language barrier between many Mexican or Spanish-speaking families and their Manchester Community School’s faculty and the staff.

As We the Many continues, Velazquez is working with new and returning high school students alike, and her approach will be different this time around, she says. This year, she will focus on expanding who participates in We the Many and inviting allies and other community members to join the conversation, too.

“We're living in such a divided time,” Velazquez says. “Stress is super heightened, and I feel like students feel that more than anything because they're already living with people and households who have made up their mind, whether religiously or politically. Yet, these students are still developing, and they're still trying to figure out who they are. It's really stressful when you already have somebody who has a certain point of view; somebody they respect, like an elder, or a parent.”

Over the course of 16 weeks in the 2020-2021 school year, students participated in 42 activities and 10 rehearsals, which culminated in a final performance—all exploring experiences central to their cultural identity in a rural community.

Velazquez believes now is the time to have students who are likeminded and have things in common culturally, like the Mexican residents in Wabash County and others, to come together, not only for unity, but also to provide a sense of mutual support. She hopes these conversations and lessons from We the Many will snowball into in bigger rooms and bigger audiences in Indiana and across the U.S., so more people can see what changes need to be made.

In the future, Gatchel says Honeywell hopes to broaden the impact of the We the Many residency program and work with students outside of the Latino community, too. This will facilitate more growth among Wabash County’s students, encouraging youth voices to emerge and guiding them toward creative paths in the arts they may not otherwise discover.

Honeywell would also like to see their success used as a model for other organizations to bring similar artist residency programs to marginalized and underrepresented communities across the state and the Midwest. Unger says funding and ongoing support are critical to taking these next steps and keeping the program open to students in North Manchester.

At Honeywell, we provide this program to the schools with no cost…, but obviously, there are costs incurred because these are wonderful artists that we're bringing to our community, and we want to compensate them for their art and their work,” she says. “So for us to do more, it’d just be a matter of working with partners to make that happen. We'd love to expand it. It would just be a matter of making sure we have resources to be able to do so.”

In reflecting on her experience, Velazquez stresses the importance of the exchange of ideas We the Many offers, as well as the critical exposure to culturally diverse spaces for marginalized in rural communities—starting even younger than grade school.

She says the work in North Manchester has been rewarding and contributed to her own growth in wanting to continue her work in teaching artistry. She has appreciated the way students have opened up to her in finding their voices, too.

“Students are already empowered,” she says. "To be able to help them tap into that—that, to me, is joy.”


Wabash is the focus of a new Partner City series in Input Fort Wayne funded by Visit Wabash County and Honeywell Arts & Entertainment. This series will capture the story of talent, creativity, investment, innovation, and emerging assets shaping the future of Wabash County, about an hour Southwest of Fort Wayne.