CHB Interviews: Todd Lester of freeDimensional

I recently met Todd Lester (no relation) for coffee at Outpost, after a reader tipped me off to an interesting volunteer opportunity in the neighborhood. Todd heads freeDimensional, a non-profit group that provides assistance for exiled artists in danger. They also work with Bed-Stuy teenagers, providing lots of volunteer opportunities for those interested. From Todd:"The goal of freeDimensional is to partner socially progressive residential artist communities with human rights and freedom of expression organizations in order to facilitate rapid response, tactical placement of human rights defenders in exile. The network provides administrative support to art and media centers worldwide that seek to create a web of flexible, short-term safe havens for human rights defenders working at the intersection of arts and journalism. Residential Artist Communities benefit from this unique collaboration through enriched community, youth and environmental programs and by using their physical space to counter marginalizing issues at the local, regional and global levels."

1. How/when did you first conceive of the idea for FreeDimensional? In addition to being a student (and now a teacher) of community development and urban policy, I have been influenced by the dedication of – and obstacles faced by – individual artists, activists and citizen journalists during my work in more than 20 countries with a range of organizations and initiatives that include Reporters Without Borders, FilmAid International, International Rescue Committee, United Nations, Carter Center, CARE, Population Services International, World Social Forum, Rwanda Film Festival, Conflict Prevention in the Southern Caucasus, and Vera List Center for Art and Politics. Based on these experiences I began to convene a group of volunteer professionals to launch the freeDimensional network in 2005.

2. How did you come to establish the organization's HQ here in Clinton Hill? freeDimensional was searching for an office space at the same time that the Pratt Center for Community Development (in Clinton Hill) was helping the community of Bed-Stuy write its 197-A zoning plan to the city of New York (sort of a love letter or wish list for what it would like to see itself become in the ensuing years). The city had just reverted to the Pratt Center on the culture section asking them to make it more concrete. The Pratt Center then offered us an office space (incubation space) and targeted introductions in the community in exchange for us considering a location in Bed-Stuy for our second-phase office and artist workspace.

Our search for a suitable office and artist workspace has been complicated by the typical real estate constraints in a metropolitan area. However, in early 2006, we were introduced to the Magnolia Tree Earth Center. By joining hands with select community partners, we will be able to cover the rent to occupy the space starting sometime in 2007, but more importantly we will be able to create a public facility and equipment for use by local and international artists working in a variety of media. To date, the Daylight Community Arts Foundation has donated a complete darkroom set-up and we have been granted membership in Materials for the Arts, which provides a wide range of free supplies. This new artist resource will be called the Center for International Art & Community (CIAC).

Read more on the Magnolia Tree Earth Center here. freeDimensional responds to Bed-Stuy community interests by internalizing objectives of Community Board #3 in all aspects of program design. The 197(a) Zoning Plan highlights these objectives:

To provide the necessary supportive service facilities, cultural and recreation facilities... [To] build upon the already strong social, economic, and cultural based of Bedford-Stuyvesant through a sustainable agenda that would reinvigorate this ethnically and culturally diverse community... [To] make Bedford-Stuyvesant a Cultural Tourism Destination... [To] establish an ‘arts incubator’ in the district...[To] develop and support after-school programs, and... [To] promote Bedford-Stuyvesant’s cultural assets.

Our partner, the Pratt Center for Community Development serves as the facilitating agency for the 197-a Plan.

3. What about you personally? How did you come to settle in the neighborhood? My partner, Bethany, and I had been looking for a fixer-upper with another couple for some time. We had looked in Harlem and several Brooklyn neighborhoods when the building we live in now (near the intersection of Grand and Greene Avenues) came on the market. Having spent some years working in Africa we liked the proximity to a (then) new Senegalese restaurant called Le Grand Dakar as well as other great eating spots and neighborhood institutions, such as the Corridor Gallery.


4. Tell us about the programs your artists assist with at local schools? Syndicate 19 is the youth program of the Center for International Art & Community (CIAC), an artist residency initiative in Central Brooklyn and the administrative office of the freeDimensional Network.

Syndicate 19 is a civic digital journalism initiative that partners with the Bedford Academy - a public high school in Bedford-Stuyvesant (Brooklyn, NYC) - to create an outlet for community media managed by local youth.

5. How do you find artists to participate in the program? How long do they remain in residence, and what do they usually do after their time with the program has ended? CIAC is freeDimensional's office and the site from which we provide housing, workspace, and an exhibition area for visual, performing, literary and new media artists communicating on human rights issues for periods of 4-6 months. Resident selection is based on the urgency of individuals’ situations (need of temporary safe haven); achieving a diverse professional range (discipline/media); potential to contribute to a collaborative project; and achieving a diverse age, gender and regional make-up. As we plan for expansion of facilities, we are looking for ways to collaborate with the North American Network of Cities of Asylum, in hopes that Central Brooklyn can eventually join this important network.

See also

After their stay with us at CIAC or one of our other partner centers around the world (SEE MAP), artists may either return to their home country if the situation has calmed or be linked to longer term resources for artists in need of assistance.

6. It sounds like FreeDimensional offers some intriguing volunteer opportunities, and I know several readers are interested in offering their time and talents to the community. What types of assistance does your organization need, and how can people get involved? We are always needing volunteer assistance with our Bedford Academy youth program as well as for issues of artist accommodation and hospitality. More specifically, we are currently looking to fill the following crucial role:

Specifically seeking 1 committed volunteer/intern to contribute as a full team member to the holistic development of a social justice and critical arts organization. The applicant may be a graduate student seeking internship credit who wishes to apply innovative strategies for growth within an emerging non-profit organization. The position will be called ‘Outreach Coordinator’ and the person that fills it will assist in the scaling-up of freeDimensional’s model for creative safe haven across 20+ international partner sites.

7. Speaking in more general terms, can you provide some tips for finding the right organization to volunteer for? The options seem overwhelming! How can you increase your chances of finding a good match for your skills and time available? I personally like, but understand that it can be a bit overwhelming from both the volunteer and organizational perspectives. Also, try Community Connections, a service of NYU's Tisch School of the Arts.

8. Any tips on starting one's own nonprofit organization? What resources are available in Clinton Hill for nonprofits? That's a tough one. Well, you first need a supportive family and friends, b/c you will certainly have to ask a lot of the people you are close to. Let me give a shout out to Ashley French (a great friend, volunteer extraordinaire) who suggested this interview to both of us:-)

Make sure that the community is involved and that you are responding to a need that the community has expressed no matter if that is a geographic, demographic or otherwise defined group. That said, there are lots of resources that a dedicated individual can use to start an organization:

NonProfit Coordinating Committee of New York (

Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts (

New York NonProfit ( ... and its dynamic leader, Nancy Konipol

The Taproot Foundation (

9. FreeDimensional is based in Clinton Hill, but has close ties with organizations in Bed-Stuy. What do you feel these adjacent neighborhoods have in common, and how does FD bridge the gap between the two? Well, the two neighborhoods are right beside each other geographically speaking, but there are drastic differences in household income levels and education provision levels.

Our perspective is that international social justice and local community development have a strong relationship. This project seeks to better define that relationship by working with community members to create an arts and multi-media center in Bedford-Stuyvesant, an economically marginalized community in Central Brooklyn.

"The program for the development of Bedford-Stuyvesant will combine the best of community action with the best of the private enterprise system. Neither by itself is enough, but in their combination lies our hope for the future," stated Senator Robert F. Kennedy on December 10, 1966 as ground was broken for the nation’s first community development corporation, Restoration Plaza. It is precisely because of this rich history of community development - and the remaining need - in Bedford-Stuyvesant that we first looked to this community to host a new process for organizing by engaging youth media and artist residency as tools for social change.

Bedford-Stuyvesant, Central Brooklyn is a community of 300,000 residents, 70% of which are African American and Caribbean. Figures from the 2002 census show the population of central Brooklyn as approximately 84% Black, 9% Latino, 3% Caucasian, and 4% other. Youth make up one-third of the population. At least 33% of residents receive public assistance, while approximately 20% are dependent on Social Security income. Unemployment stands at 30% for men and woman, twice the national average. The poverty and disenfranchisement in this neighborhood has had severe ramifications on education in Bedford-Stuyvesant. According to the 2000 US Census, only 13% of Bedford-Stuyvesant residents have a college degree, and over 10% of youth between the ages of 16 and 19 have dropped out of high school and neither have nor are actively seeking a GED.

10. If you were a flavor of ice cream, what would you be and why? a sharp fruit sorbet – lemon, melon or raspberry – mixed with chocolate ice cream. It reminds me specifically of Vienna, which was the first place outside the US that I lived for more than a brief stint.

Interested in volunteering? Contact Todd: 917-952-4933