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Building Community Through Art: A Student Perspective

Building American Riad in Detroit Building American Riad in Detroit

Study Away in Detroit

As part of Purchase College’s summer study away program, Making Community: Art and Urban Renewal, Leo Hodson, ’20 (Visual Arts and Art History), 23, looked forward to creating a new community space in downtown Detroit in the summer of 2017. The American Riad project in the North End neighborhood of the city, one of Ghana ThinkTank’s many projects worldwide, provided a perfect opportunity for Hodson, a visual arts and art history double major, to marry his passion for art through community outreach.

The American Riad project is a courtyard that will eventually be a public space for gatherings, workshops, gardening, performances, and the display of local and international art. The project, which works in close collaboration with Oakland Avenue Artists’ Coalition and North End Woodward Community Organization, two local non-profits, will also create roughly nine units of attractive affordable housing and help renovate six local businesses that have been in disrepair.

“Ghana ThinkTank’s goal is to create projects that help create a stronger sense of community in certain areas,” Hodson, who grew up in Connecticut​, says. “In Detroit I helped build the Riad and when it was finished, an event was organized where people from the neighborhood gathered for a barbeque.”

Ghana ThinkTank

In 2006, Associate Professor of Sculpture Christopher Robbins, John Ewing, and Matey Odonkor founded Ghana ThinkTank, which is a public art project with think tanks all over the globe ranging from Cuba, Serbia, Mexico, El Salvador, and across the United States. Ghana ThinkTank is a global network as well as a public service organization that creates projects that allow community members and the students that volunteer with them to learn from the foundation’s core values. Fundamentally the organization works to make a difference in a community in collaboration with the people that live there.


Theater of the Oppressed in Detroit Theater of the Oppressed in Detroit

Travel for Good

As Director at Purchase’s School of Art+Design, Robbins works diligently to get students involved beyond merely traveling; he wants them to be part of something bigger. And at the American Riad site, the study away program activities are about more than just creating an outdoor structure. Hodson participated in the Theater of the Oppressed workshops that required him to do activities that felt outside of his comfort zone like sharing personal stories and meeting new people every day. The experience was challenging and eye-opening for Hodson because he normally he would have never put himself out there, but this trip expanded his horizons.

Over the course of the two-week study away program, Hodson learned about a place that he normally wouldn’t have visited if it weren’t for Ghana ThinkTank’s project. He not only met new people and tried new things, but he ignited a passion for service and learned about the vital role that art can play in building community. Hodson plans to stay in touch with Ghana ThinkTank and to pursue more opportunities to do outreach through the arts.

“I am someone who loves to experience new things, so the trip seemed perfect for me because I didn’t know what to expect,” says Hodson. “I left the trip with different idea[s] than at the beginning of the trip.”

Students interested in participating in the Detroit Study Away program through Purchase can find more information here.

Students interested in volunteering or interning for credit with Ghana ThinkTank, can write Chris Robbins at: or

-Sabrina Acerra ’21 (journalism)