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Place-Making Through Artistic Expression

Back in 2006, I started an open mic in Orlando, FL called “Diverse Word.” I was a 23-year-old idealist who thought my city could use some diversity within the art of spoken word poetry. It became a success in terms of vision actualized, attendance, and the profit it brought to the local café that hosted it. I heard story after story of how meaningful this open mic was to patrons outside of the obvious enjoyment of free entertainment.

At the ten-year mark last year, I sought to document some of those stories and realized how important it was for forums like this to exist. I heard things like, “I was diagnosed with cancer and I came to the open mic to see how other people dealt with their issues. It was therapeutic for me and I have since been cancer-free.” I’m not saying that poetry cures cancer, but creating a safe space for expression does allow for the sacred spaces of human dreams and desires to be heard and tapped into. The positive outcomes from that expression were a byproduct of the original intent.

Something unique happens when people regularly gather together and express their dreams and desires. I noticed it at my open mic nights. And I learned it while working in communities for Polis Institute. It led me to initiate an open mic arts night that includes music at Lake Lorna Doone Park. We are interested in seeing how this and other opportunities for community art and dialogue will transform this public city space and hopefully create a more welcoming environment for children and families. We’ve collaborated with ArtReach Orlando, and on the Southwest corner of the park, under the broad shade of a tree, set up a blank canvas with paint. What effect will this have on the nearby schools and residents in 10 years?

Amanda Burden is a former NYC city commissioner who now consults globally to improve urban public spaces. She believes that cities must have enjoyable accessible public space to thrive, and has described them as “the glue that holds a city together, and…make[s] people want to live in a city and stay in a city.” In a Ted Talk on the subject, she summed up her philosophy with the thought that “a successful city is like a fabulous party. People stay because they are having a great time.”

As the community of Orlando develops and strengthens all parts of our city, it seems to me that our direction should be to help people have a great time! At a truly fabulous party, everyone gets a turn on the dance floor and the DJ takes all requests. Intentional opportunities for artistic expression can invite in people that don’t always have a voice in the life of the city.

Join us on any given Tuesday for the fabulous party of expression known as Diverse Word: from 4 to 6pm at Lake Lorna Doone Park and from 7:30 to 10pm at Dandelion Communitea Café.

 

 

For more of Amanda Burden’s thoughts on public space, you can watch her 2014 Ted talk or read up on a 2016 NPR interview.

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Curb Cutting: How Solving Problems for One Group Helps us All

The Polis Institute is a non-profit organization that aims to remove the barriers that prevent experiencing long, healthy, fruitful and dignified lives. Many of these barriers stem from concentrated poverty, but there are additional barriers, both physical and metaphoric, that manifest in a variety of ways. We at POLIS use and develop research around the best practical ways to engage with people living in areas of high distress, and help design long-term solutions for the well-being of their community.

Approaching global systemic issues very locally, over a long range of time, is not a popular model in our fast-paced, instant gratification society. But taking time to get to know people, and deeply considering their expressed desires and visions of what could be, can be effective on a grander scale than imagined.

Conventionally, city sidewalks and city streets met at the right angle of a curb. No harm in that, right? You just step on and off. However, for Edward Roberts, confined to a wheelchair and iron lung after contracting polio, that six inch curb was a major hurdle. As a student at UC Berkeley in the 1960s, he became a disability rights activist, and led a movement to create curb cuts, or ramps, to allow sidewalk access to people with wheelchairs. Curb cuts had existed since the 1940s when they were created to assist disabled WWII vets, but were not in common use or well known until Roberts and his classmates worked to design solutions for a local, small, underserved group of people with limited mobility.

With decades of effort, and the benefit of national attention to the accomplishments of this growing movement, the 1990 ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) was passed, mandating curb cuts everywhere – removing barriers to wheelchair access to city sidewalks and the cities themselves.

My point, however is not that a small group won a victory that serves them alone. It is that a much larger and unanticipated group of people also benefitted from the well-designed solution of curb cuts. Anyone pushing a baby stroller or a grocery cart, riding a skateboard or bicycle, can use a curb cut. Curb cuts help call attention to an intersection’s crosswalk which increases pedestrian safety, are easier to shovel clear in the snow, and are more navigable for the very young and old. When people concentrate their efforts in assisting the overlooked, and solving just a single problem, it can open a whole new world of opportunities for all of society. The Polis Institute desires to be an Ed Roberts in the world, who in slowly serving and designing solutions for the one, would benefit the many in cities across the United States and the world.

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Stanley Needs a Job

I know a guy named Stanley who needs a job. He’s in his forties and does not have a great resume or work ethic. He has some health problems. He seems to get hurt on the job a lot and has tried to sue more than one employer. He quit high school in the 10th grade but eventually earned a GED and joined the military. He characterizes his time in the military as the best time in his life. Since then, he has been out of work just as often as he has been employed.

Stanley has tried out some job training programs but none have helped him get or keep a job. “There are just certain types of people we are not equipped to help,” said the director of one such program. I was a little surprised to hear him say that since I knew the program was started some years ago to help people exactly like Stanley. The director went on to explain how his organization had made a conscious decision to focus on people with fewer issues than Stanley seemed to have before adding, “and we have been expanding rapidly ever since.”

I have heard explanations like this before. A non-profit starts out trying to reach the most hurting and marginalized in our midst but as the frustrations of dealing with the harder cases collide with the desire to grow the organization, they raise the bar on who they are willing to help. In some ways, it makes sense. Why spend 90% of your effort to help 50% of your clients achieve 10% of the desired outcomes? Focus on those who are ready and equipped to move forward and you will see the fruit of your hard work pay off more quickly while watching your programs grow and funding increase. Seems like a rational choice.

But what about Stanley?

There is a big difference between helping people get a job and helping a particular person get a job. When you help people get a job, you weed out the Stanleys until you find someone easier to work with. But when you try to help Stanley get a job, everything changes because he continues to matter to you whether he gets a job or not. If Stanley is more to you than a client – if he’s a friend, a family member, or a neighbor – you continue to invite him to social gatherings while he’s looking for work and after he gets fired from another job. You celebrate successes with him and empathize with his frustrations. You share your story with him and listen to his story. You laugh with him and cry with him. If Stanley is just a client, your relationship with him ends when his progress in your program ends.

We all need more friends in our life than we need program directors. We need more neighbors than case workers. And we need more family than we need professional care givers. That doesn’t mean that we never need professionals in our life or that it is somehow wrong to secure their help. What we all need is someone who will love us and encourage us even when we don’t make the best choices. It’s just harder for professionals to continue to be that loving person when we don’t get with the program or make our payments.

Neighborhood focused, place-based work ascribes higher value to neighborly kindness and familial care than professional help because it is more in line with our long-term interests and basic needs. There is certainly room for professionals to help but that help should be temporary and leveraged in ways that clearly support one’s long-term interests. It also means that one should expect limits to what professionals will be willing to endure.

I’ve known Stanley for a few years now. He needs a job. Although his wife is working, they are not quite making it and they may have to move out of the neighborhood they love so much. Their neighbors love them too. He and his wife regularly help their elderly neighbors with shopping and yard work. They participate in community meetings and helped start a community garden and newsletter. If they moved, it would really be a loss for the community.

Stanley also really wants to work. He says he feels better about himself when he’s doing something productive and actively contributing to the family’s finances. He hasn’t done well in the manual labor jobs that he typically gets and thinks if he tries another route things will improve. His self-confidence is really low and he’s not convinced that he can do other, non-labor-intensive jobs but he is willing to try. In sum, he could use professional help to learn some new skills and he might benefit from some professional counseling as well. But Stanley, like all of us, is most in need of unconditional love and support that only family, friends, and neighbors provide.

POLIS began piloting a program called Job Support Services earlier this year to help Stanley and 190 other people in his community who are out of work but looking for a job. The program helps residents apply to one of six employer partners who have agreed to give hiring priority to participants. Employers are willing to do that because we have assembled a team of volunteer residents and supportive partners who will help these applicants become great employees – child care, transportation, and encouragement will be provided.

We have also partnered with larger training and job support programs like the one mentioned at the beginning of this article. They can still focus on specialized services that help people get jobs – resume writing, job interviewing skills, technical skills – while the resident volunteers provide the type of emotional and tactical support that will eventually help Stanley secure and keep a job. POLIS is providing professional design and support services during the pilot phase. When this phase concludes, our support will transition toward a resident-run program that helps ensure that everyone in the community that wants a job, has a job, and that when particular people like Stanley lose jobs or struggle to find work, friends and neighbors will be there to offer encouragement and connections.