A Favorite Moment at Place Lab: Isis Ferguson

Place Lab has been featuring favorite moments of our team members to highlight our work over the past three years. Visit our Facebook page for favorite moments by Mejay Gula, Carson Poole, and Naomi Miller.


The performance hall in the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts seats 474 people. On June 22, 2016, the house was almost at capacity for a public event. Place Lab had extended an invitation to anyone interested in community development­—artists, entrepreneurs, community residents, funders, organizers, activists, architects, developers, growers, designers, and planners.

The topic at hand: Ethical Redevelopment.

A friend who attended the Public Convening told me afterward that someone sitting next to him was perplexed by the format. He overhead the person (who left early) saying, “What is this? I thought this was a conference.” It wasn’t. “I thought Theaster Gates was presenting.” The entire event was an extension of Theaster’s artistic practice and his neighborhood pursuits to reimagine space and “freak” spatial governance. A collaborative artistic unfurling, establishing a relationship between development and equity.

We can utilize nontraditional styles of delivery and still be impactful and informative. Everything doesn’t have to be conveyed via panel discussion, moderator, and breakout session.  

The Public Convening wasn’t a reading of the 9 Principles of Ethical Redevelopment. Poets interpreted the Principles with original prose. I was in the Policy Chorus that read dry zoning codes on a stage to a delighted audience. A real estate developer explained the necessity of having a flexible development model that stacks, leverages, and accesses diverse funding sources while a yoga instructor demonstrated physical flexibility through stretches and sun salutations.

Nor was the Public Convening a one-man show (i.e. a Theaster Gates show.) The program had three acts with a constant rotation of professions, perspectives, and personalities. The run of show reflected the character of a city like Chicago. Charismatic leaders—Theaster Gates and Steve Edwards—shared the stage with equally compelling individuals­ who are passionate, talented, and committed to their respective crafts. The audience member referenced earlier may have been confused because, like cities, the Public Convening wasn’t formulaic. Cities are organized with explicit municipal procedure and they have parts that are illegible, messy, and surprising. We tried to present that spectrum of experience in the Public Convening.

One moment that has stayed with me was the participation of Charlene Carruthers, National Director of BYP 100. Charlene gave remarks on the role of black, feminist, queer movement building in the process of the ethical redevelopment of a city. She talked of the long and fraught relationship we’ve (black folks) had with land.

Behind Charlene was a projection of her singular slide image, a black-and-white photo of Fannie Lou Hamer. For some in the audience, this was an unfamiliar image and an unknown woman. For others, this was a welcome, knowing inclusion. Charlene had invoked the spirit of a tenacious, black Southern woman with a 6th-grade education, a daughter of sharecroppers in Mississippi. Hamer also worked the land and was a significant force in the Civil Rights Movement—organizing for black voter registration, instrumental in organizing the Mississippi Freedom Summer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). She was the vice-chair of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which she represented at the 1964 Democratic National Convention. She was grassroots and an effective strategist.

More than 450 people listened to Charlene’s thoughtful remarks, while Hamer looked on, fist raised in the air. Chicago has deep roots in Mississippi, a by-product of the Great Migration. Hamer is relevant to contemporary conversations about mindful city building, hundreds of miles from her home state and more than half a century since she was organizing, marching, protesting, and mobilizing. Hamer and folks like her aren’t marginal to current conversations on neighborhood redevelopment. As evidenced by the 25-by-45-foot screen showing Hamer, everyday folks should be front and center in the transformation of their communities.

While challenging us to think about self-determined communities, Charlene also reminded us that we have historic models to study. Problems (and the possibilities) of space and its relationship to race and gender aren’t new. Like Hamer, the architects of change won’t always occupy traditional seats of power. Reimagining spaces and ethically redeveloping our cities requires involvement and investment from seemingly unlikely people and partnerships.

“It was too ‘queer,’” another attendee of the Public Convening on Ethical Redevelopment shared. I thought to myself with a smirk, “Good. We did our job.”