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Placemaking 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.

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MVP Families: Family Highlight

barbaraBarbara and her daughter are one of our core MVP Families. They look forward to every meeting and haven’t missed a single one. Last week, when Barbara didn’t get the reminder text for the upcoming meeting when she expected it, she called our Family Engagement Coordinator, Shawn, to make sure everything was on track and to see if he needed any help.

To these core families, MVP Families is becoming a very important part of life. In the past two sessions, families have built goals together beginning with academic goals for the children. They have also worked on two family goals – a health and wellness goal and a financial stability goal. Barbara is focused on reading more with her daughter so that she “learns the right words and is ready for school.” She has also set goals to eat healthier and to secure more hours at her job at Vacation Lodge.

 

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Helping Residents Pursue Their Own Goals

One of the most important aspects of a life well-lived is the discovery and pursuit of one’s own goals and aspirations. For those of us who practice Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD), this is a fundamental part of the work – helping residents of a small geographic area leverage their skills and networks to realize their dreams. Connecting the dreams of particular residents to one another and those shared dreams to the overall transformation of a community is where the work gets exciting.

As straightforward as this sounds, this type of emphasis is quite rare. There are a few reasons for this, most of which are not bad. First, funding sources for programs tend to want to know what you plan to do before they give you the money. Makes sense. But then, that’s what you have to do. And if your grant was written to improve health outcomes in a community whose stated priority is jobs, then you have a conflict on your hands. The solution to this is to simply include a discovery phase for grants and to allow some ability to adjust to what is discovered.

Similarly, non-profits tend to get started to address a single, specific issue like homelessness, employability, school grades, or blindness to name a few. They then scale their work as they successfully help their clients address the issue. When the potential client-base is a city of over 200,000 people or a county of over a million people, a non-profit can continue its march towards excellence and success because it can and will focus its attention on those clients most amenable to what they have to offer. When the client-base is the residents of a particular neighborhood of 1,500 people, everything changes. And the business model of most non-profits simply will not survive that scale.

The solution to this is quite simple. Simply create a program whose sole purpose is to help the neighborhood residents establish and meet their goals while bringing in specialist partners who can help the residents succeed in particular areas. The biggest challenge to this is establishing sufficient trust to allow people to share their goals in the first place. Asking people what they are hoping to achieve in life is way more personal that asking them to show up to a cooking class. And this is one of the reasons that organizations don’t tend to do this type of work – it takes a very long time to build trusting relationships. But that is what we all need and desire in life.

We call this a Resident and Community Support Program after a program run by the East Lake Foundation in Atlanta. We are implementing a similar program on behalf of LIFT Orlando called MVP Families. Pictured above is Porcha, one of the core members of the program. The other day she took me aside to tell me how grateful she was for the program. She has now established her own goals for her family and is getting to connected to the best practices and some programs to help achieve these goals.

Here’s some of the numbers (as of Oct. 2016):

Total MVP Families:           55

Children:                                98

Avg. GPA:                               3.192

Over 2.0 GPA:                       93.3%

Established Goals:

  • Children’s Academic Success  100%
  • Family Relationships               90%
  • Health & Wellness
    • Eat Healthier 37%
    • Exercise More 41%
    • Reduce Stress 26%
  • Family Stability
    • Improve Finances 74%
    • Stabilize Housing 22%
    • Improve Transport. 15%

 

 

 

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Introducing MVP Families

For the past 21 years, Florida Citrus Sports (FCS), has been investing in youth enrichment in Orlando through a program called “MVP Summer Camp.” This year the camp is being extended to a year-round program called “MVP Families.”

Through the combined efforts of FCS in partnership with Lift Orlando, Florida Blue, and the Polis Institute, the program is seeking to engage families in the 32805 neighborhood. Program objectives include assisting students with college acceptance and scholarships, developing community leaders, strengthening the bonds between parents and children, connecting families with other families, and setting and achieving family goals.

Once a the month, leading up to the MVP summer camp next summer, a dinner will be prepared for and by MVP Families program participants. Child care will be provided, allowing space and opportunity for meaningful discussion among the adults in a holistic approach to community transformation. The first of these meetings will be on Tuesday, September 6, 2016 at the Frontline Outreach Youth and Family Community Center (3000 C.R Smith St. Orlando, FL 32805) from 6:30-8:30pm. 

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Using Art to Visualize Community Assets

Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD) involves leveraging what a community has to offer so that it can move itself towards a desired future. A first step in the process is typically some kind of inventory of what is there – talents of individuals, programs and facilities, informal groups, property – the whole nine yards. This information is captured, analyzed, and visualized so that connections can be made and initiatives can be created that benefit the community. The product of this inventory is often called an asset map.

Art is a great way to visualize these assets and can serve as a nice complement to the more common options of a tabular list or a map. The most useful asset maps include all three – artwork, a database, and on dynamic online map. All three can depict the same information but are just displayed in different formats, each with its own appeal. The tabular data gives you just the facts, the map shows you where assets are, and artwork provides emotional and narrative content.

This video describes an art project that POLIS led as part of the LIFT Orlando project:

 

The project described in the video above was fairly complex. POLIS was contracted by LIFT Orlando to do the asset mapping project and hired ArtWorks to do the creative process with the children. There was a lot of planning to conduct the sessions in four different locations that included a school and three community centers. There were expenses to pay and significant expertise from the ArtWorks staff to guide the students through the process. But the end result was amazing. The art from the kids was inspirational and aligned very closely with what over 1,500 adults had said in door-to-door surveys.

The survey information was entered into a database which was also loaded into a GIS (Geographic Information System). But the information was also visualized in a more artistic way, or at least a graphic way. This involved loading the responses into an online word cloud generator called WordItOut (there are several) that produced a graphic of all of the recorded words of responses to the survey questions. The more frequent the word, the larger the word in the graphic.

Three of the questions that POLIS asks during its asset surveys are depicted below followed by example word clouds from the LIFT project.

What is your favorite thing about the neighborhood?

likemost

 

What would you do to make the community a better place?

makebetter

 

What is something that other people say you are good at?

goodat

 

These representations of what people say or imagine invoke much more of an emotive response than merely hearing a statistic or seeing a dot on a map. Data and maps are very helpful but less structured graphic and artistic representations of community assets can be especially helpful for unlocking ideas and vision – which are essential to making positive change. These images are presented at community meetings, along with stats and maps, to help build initiatives that are most likely to engage community interest and provide a tangibel community benefit.

 

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Monthly Learning/Networking Opportunity

POLIS is excited to announce “Third Wednesdays,” a monthly series for people in Orlando involved or interested in community development. Beginning Feb 18th, 2015 you will have the opportunity to learn best practices and meet others working in this important field. Together, we will improve our efforts to alleviate poverty related distress in the City Beautiful.

Each Third Wednesday from Sept. to May will start with an Executive Learning Session followed by a more in depth Volunteer Training. Then at noon, the Metro Orlando Neighborhoods Co-op will meet – a group of professional practitioners actively engaged in community development efforts across the city.

  • 7:30am – 9:00am: Learning Sessions. POLIS and LIFT Orlando will co-facilitate these sessions focused on the big ideas in community development such as Collective Impact and how the ideas are being implemented with the Communities of West Lakes which are located near Orlando’s Citrus Bowl.
  • 9:30am – 11:30am: Volunteer Training. POLIS and other partners will offer a training session each month such as Dignity Serves that will help volunteers and others serve more effectively.
  • 12:00pm – 1:30pm: MO COOP. The Co-op is an existing group that is working to improve quality of life in the 100 distressed neighborhoods of Orlando as identified in the initial POLIS research. The co-op began meeting in the spring of 2014 and has proven to be extremely valuable to its members – which currently include POLIS, St. Luke’s United Methodist Church, South Street Ministry, Kaley Square, 306 Foundation, and LIFT Orlando. The success of the co-op led to the formation of Third Wednesdays.
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Collaboration in Human Centered Design – The Lake Lorna Doone Park Initiative

Lake Lorna Doone Park, which is owned and managed by the City of Orlando, is being redesigned. Improving this historic park, which sits in the shadow of the Orlando Citrus Bowl, is a top priority for area residents as reported in surveys completed by Polis Institute in early 2014. As the year progressed, an action plan was created, initial funding was secured, and the design process got underway. In January of 2015, the first formal design plans will be unveiled for additional comment.

The redesign process was initiated and funded by LIFT Orlando. Florida Citrus Sports has pledged an additional one million dollars towards the project and is providing leadership as it progresses. It is being facilitated by Polis Institute. Jacobs Global Buildings is drafting the physical and architectural plans. Key contributors include residents who live near the park, regular users of the park, and the City of Orlando.

The truly collaborative effort makes this redesign unique. The partners are working together at the same table. This is rare. Collaboration is one of those words that everyone likes to say but no one likes to actually do. It takes more time. You hear more complaints. You entertain more ideas. You include more voices.

More voices means more opinions. Different opinions. Each time a new opinion is voiced it represents another person that is not going to get exactly what they want. But it’s these very differences of opinion, when voiced in the context of a healthy design process, that become integral strands of a strong and sustainable solution.

Dan Kirby and Kevin Kuehn move the design process forward with City of Orlando, residents of West Lakes, Polis Institute, and LIFT Orlando

Dan Kirby (back left) and Kevin Kuehn (fourth from the right) from Jacobs Global Buildings move the design process forward with City of Orlando, residents of West Lakes, Polis Institute, and LIFT Orlando

Human Centered Design (HCD) is just such a healthy design process. HCD sets a stage where these myriad voices converge at the harmonious intersection of desirability, feasibility, and viability. What do people really want? What is technically and organizationally feasible? What is financially viable? (Human Centered Design Toolkit)

The bulk of the work thus far has been centered on answering the desirability question. In many ways, that’s the fun part. The work is now transitioning into the feasibility phase and will conclude with viability. Answering these questions is not strictly linear but it does help to allow each question to take center stage for a season. Maintaining focus and making steady progress keeps collaborators more engaged.

Long-term resident Tangia Smikle hopes that her teenage daughter will get to really enjoy the park like she did in her youth and that the park will be fully accessible to people with disabilities. Thomas Frazier, who walks the perimeter of the park several times a week, hopes that a paved walking path will one day undergird his trek. The five walking clubs in the immediate area share his interest.

Eugene Leach, a lifelong advocate for youth recreation, longs to see a first-class playground and well-maintained sports amenities like basketball courts. Margaret Hill envisions a beautiful fountain on this historic lake. Many others share her vision. Doug Head wants people to be able to learn about the ecology of the lake and the rich cultural history of the neighborhood as they enjoy the park.

Volunteers from Polis Institute and Collins Recreation talk with people in the park during a Family Fun Day

Volunteers from Polis Institute and Collins Recreation talk with people in the park during a Family Fun Day

Amidst these hopes for the future, there are also concerns. Many current regular users of the park, who range from organized athletic teams to pickup basketball groups to the ever-present dominoes crew, fear that their interests won’t be preserved in an updated park. The City wants to make sure that anything that is put in place is sustainable, safe, and helps them meet demands from across the region for park amenities. Many people who do not currently use the park but would like to, express concerns about safety and not feeling welcome.

The greatest uses of the park currently are large, informal social gatherings that happen each week. The park is a regional gathering place for the African American community. Most of these regional visitors have a very personal, local, connection to the park. Many share stories of running through the park during football practice when they were at Jones High School or recall playing in little league games on the currently absent baseball fields. Still others go way back and talk about swimming in the lake that is now only suitable for fishing.

The common denominator of these stories is connection. “This is where I can always catch up with my family and friends,” said Rod Faulk. “That’s important.” He wants to see a nice fountain in the lake too. He’d love it if the there was another basketball court. But most of all he wants that sense of connection to the place itself, and the people who have woven their story with it, to remain regardless of any changes.

Allowing all of these voices to inform the design for the park will result in the best park possible for this place at this time in its history. That is the benefit of collaboration. We are far better together than we are alone.

Additional info:

Lake Lorna Doone Park – Desirability Sessions Report (9/15/14 – provides detail for each session held over the summer)

Lake Lorna Doone Park – Action Plan (10/22/14 – summarizes the initial design work and drafts a plan)

If you would like to stay informed of the progress of this effort, please sign up for the Polis Institute e-newsletter.