Guest Blogger: Aaron Rose on Salon Session #2: Engaged Participation

Photo by Brandon Fields

Photo by Brandon Fields

Ethical Redevelopment Salon Series
Salon Session 2: 09.08.16
By Aaron Rose

principle: engaged participation
concepts: neighborliness, localism, access points

September marked the one-year anniversary of the opening of Stony Island Arts Bank, when Theaster Gates introduced this splendid new palace, a peoples’ palace of black space to hold the “highest imaginable culture.”

The former bank had been vacant for over 30 years, on the verge of being sold to the lowest bidder for demolition, when Theaster purchased the site from the City of Chicago for $1, along with a promise and proposal for transformation. Today, the Arts Bank, which houses the Johnson Publishing and Frankie Knuckles Archives, among others, a library and gallery spaces, garners international attention for its ambitious reimagining of unused space into an anchor of community redevelopment, rooted in that highest imaginable culture.

The Arts Bank, Theaster said that fall day, demonstrates an archetype of artist-run space. He talked about reshaping politics the way one molds clay, and asked whether city and state, philanthropic, housing, and cultural policies are reasonable forms that can be molded and shifted like paint, and like the clay he uses to imagine other forms.

With the launch of the Ethical Redevelopment Salon series, practitioners and thinkers from the region and across the country—community developers and community members, artists and architects, urban planners and program planners, administrators, educators, and philanthropy partners—are collectively engaging in this creative, alchemical process.

The first Salon Session addressed strategies that employ artistic vision to repurpose and re-propose existing structures and space. During the second Salon, with selected readings and tours, during large- and small-group discussions, and social time, we explored the second Principle, Engaged Participation, with related concepts of neighborliness, localism, and access points.

In the Ethical Redevelopment handbook of the 9 Principles, Engaged Participation is, in part, described as follows: [m]aking changes to the physical and spiritual environment brings heat and activity to a neighborhood for its own benefit… Cultivate and build upon neighborliness as a way of relating—an informal relationship, a cultural practice of reciprocity and interdependence. Engender intimacy by the familiar nature of programming: discussions, performances, interactions, and shared experiences…The value of the relationship is in the intimacy, not in the duration. Engage for as long as it makes sense to engage. This intimacy sparks commitment to a vision, and the neighbors, staff, and visitors become participatory producers…

Jane Addams Hull House Museum
On a sunny September afternoon, two dozen or so Salon Members—from Detroit, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, Akron, Lexington, Kentucky, Minneapolis, and Chicago—gathered around a glass-enclosed case in one of the front parlors of the Jane Addams Hull House Museum. The vitrine holds a model of the turn-of-the-20th-century buildings that represented the Hull House settlement. The 13 buildings, 12 of them constructed between 1889 and 2011, included Chicago’s first public art gallery, a theater, coffee shop, gymnasium, children’s building, men’s and women’s clubs, and a labor museum. There was a music school, where “King of Swing” Benny Goodman took clarinet lessons; in the Residents Dining Hall, Upton Sinclair wrote his novel The Jungle, about the infamous Chicago stockyards.

More than 10,000 “neighbors,” mostly immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe, came through the settlement each week for activities from English language classes to traditional craft making to union organizing. Only the original Hull House mansion, where Jane Addams and her close associates lived, and the adjacent Residents Dining Hall remain, testaments to the efforts of a small cadre of women who pioneered radical social change that has left a deep imprint in Chicago, as well as a larger national and international legacy of social justice.

Jane Addams, the first woman to win a Nobel Peace Prize and for whom the University of Illinois Chicago College of Social Work is named, is known for advocating new policies in healthcare, immigrants rights, and education. But the vision of Addams and her college roommate and Hull House co-founder, Ellen Gates Starr, who was committed to “cross-cultural communication,” was to create arts, theatre, and other cultural space to help immigrants acclimate to a new country and urban living conditions, and to practice and celebrate their traditional crafts and other specialized skills. Hull House responded to urgent needs among the surrounding immigrant community, who lived in tenement conditions, by building public baths, offering child care, constructing the city’s first public playground, and arranging for trash removal. But Hull House was first and foremost “a cultural center with music, art, and theater offerings… a safe haven and a place where the immigrants living on Chicago's Near West Side could find companionship and support and the assistance they needed for coping with the modern city.”

We moved through rooms that had been parlors and bedrooms, reading about reformers such as journalist Ida B. Wells, who campaigned against lynching, sparred with Addams over the exclusion of African Americans from services at Hull House, and started her own settlement on Chicago’s South Side. Wells and Addams also collaborated to block segregated schools in Chicago and to establish the NAACP.

Photo by Naomi Miller

Photo by Naomi Miller

The meticulously curated exhibits we viewed showed the Hull House organizers’ painstaking attention to detail as they sought to learn about and reach out to the surrounding immigrant communities. An upstairs room displays photographs, surveys, and color-coded charts and graphs representing Hull House efforts to document, with great specificity and without the aid of computers, the demographics of the individuals and families they served and catalogue the challenges they faced. It was a humbling experience for this new cadre of activists, a century later, still discussing community engagement, inclusion, and coalition building, and how to transform what appear to be competing interests into confluent action. 

Photo by Naomi Miller

Photo by Naomi Miller

The Dorchester Art + Housing Collaborative
The Dorchester Art + Housing Collaborative in Greater Grand Crossing, a few blocks from Stony Island Arts Bank, was the second stop on our walking tour. Originally the Dante-Harper Townhouses, 36-units of public housing that wrapped around 70th Street and Dante and Harper Avenues, the building had become a magnet for drug activity and prostitution, and was closed by the City in 2007. With architects and a developer on board and a plan for mixed housing in hand, Theaster persuaded the City, and community residents who wanted the building demolished, to redevelop the two-story structure into one-third affordable and one-third market-rate housing, and one-third of the units designated for artist residencies. Landon Bone Baker Architects, Brinshore Development, and, site design group, who did the landscaping, transformed the site, accentuating its modern simplicity with bold colors and native plantings.

Photo by Aaron Rosse

Photo by Aaron Rosse

Four units in the center of the complex were replaced with a central community space, the Art Center, in response to neighbors requests for performance, especially dance, space, and an adjacent workshop area. The building’s backyard encourages relationship building within the peaceful landscape of a rock garden and prairie grasses. During the tour with John Veal, Communications Assistant for Rebuild Foundation, and Place Lab’s Building Strategist + Construction Manager, Mejay Gula, we learned about the organic process Rebuild allows for engaging area residents in their programs. John talked about the young boys who, at first, were paid to keep the area clean, and whose curiosity led them to participate in arts programming.

Photo by Aaron Rose

Photo by Aaron Rose

Inside one of the units for visiting artists, a compact but comfortable, light-filled two-bedroom apartment, Mejay and John told the story of saving this structurally sound housing, despite the community’s initial desire to have the building, and all it had come to symbolize, torn down. The story prompted questions from Salon Members from Detroit, where 4,000 properties are slated for demolition in the next year. They were able to engage in real-time discussion about strategies for reclaiming and rebuilding community fabric.

On the way to our next destination, we saw, in the small park across the street, new playground equipment, installed by the Chicago Park District since the Dorchester Art + Housing Collaborative was developed.

St. Laurence School
The next stop was St. Laurence School, a former Catholic primary school, and the only campus building that remains since the demolition, in 2014, of St. Laurence Church. During the first Salon walking tour, we stepped through hallways littered with fallen plaster to see the impressive space that served as the school auditorium and gymnasium, where plush burgundy velvet drapes still hang.

Since then, Place Lab has completed the St. Laurence School Board Up project. Using pattern-making as a lens for exploring identity and culture, students from South Shore Fine Arts Academy, across from Dorchester Art + Housing Collaborative, worked with artist Ruben Aguirre to design and paint bold, bright panels that now greet visitors from the building’s Art Deco-style, vertical windows.

Photo by Aaron Rose

Photo by Aaron Rose

Carson Poole, Project Specialist for Place Lab, related an encounter he had the day after the community celebration for the Board Up unveiling. A couple of young kids from the house next door, who attended and made Frankentoys at the event, were throwing them out the window at him. Poole approached the window and asked why they were throwing the toys. What followed was a 30-minute conversation about the kids’ frustrations and concerns. Was the school going to be torn down? Were they going to get a playground? How about a park? There are no parks in the area, they said, and they need one. This exchange, this spontaneous opportunity for the kids to express their fears about what was happening in their neighborhood, was, as Poole noted, only possible because he was there, because Rebuild Foundation has a presence in the community.

The most lasting image from that transformative day in September is the image of the new board ups at St. Laurence School. If eyes are windows to the soul, the brightly painted boards, with their bold shapes and colors, project a new power, new aspirations in a community too used to being looked at, to being examined and judged. The board ups display a community’s bold intention to design, shape, and color its own place and its own destiny. If we engage with respect, if we listen with compassion, and make a commitment rooted in trust, we can hope to be invited, yes, with love, to dance in that dance.

Evening Salon
During the evening Salon, on the third floor of the Arts Bank, moderator Steve Edwards facilitated conversation between Theaster and Camille Odeh, presentations of case studies by a Rebuild Foundation staff member and a Salon Member, and large- and small-group discussions.

Camille Odeh, a long-time community leader on Chicago’s Southwest Side, and currently on the faculty at Chicago State University School of Social Work, spoke movingly of her own experience conducting outreach as the former executive director of Southwest Youth Collaborative. Odeh spoke of “caring about, loving, and believing people in the community, because that’s where the change will come.” Our society is structured to separate individuals, she said, and it is imperative that activists structure projects and organizations to ensure inclusion and the diversity of viewpoints and participation that follows. From the beginning, during planning, with by-laws that dictate proportional representation, and when assembling board members, everyone—from the most to the least powerful stakeholders—must have a role and a voice. This, Camille insisted, is how we build consensus, how we achieve inclusion.

Theaster talked about the ways that engagement can be disingenuous, taking insidious forms that do not utilize resources of, or benefit communities they purport to serve. White, well-funded organizations with no black board members, for example, sometimes plant stakes in communities of color without creating the relationships that are at the core of any community engagement process or product.

Rebuild Foundation, Cast Study #1
Demecina Beehn, Outreach and Engagement Manager for Rebuild Foundation, described Rebuild Foundation strategies to engage area residents as resources to create programming for their community, foster community agency, and facilitate sharing of knowledge, interests, and vision. Artists and other creators are essential to facilitating this process. As was noted later in the evening, it can be difficult to imagine something beyond what one knows or has experienced. Showing up in a community and simply asking community residents what they want, without providing a creative platform or process for imagining something new and different, can cause frustration for everyone.

Rebuild and Place Lab use artistic intervention, bringing culturally attuned perspectives that spark imagination, tap inner resources of participants, and create cultural shifts. Demecina pointed to the “Myth of Me” mask-making project that engaged youth in creating masks painted with three positive words; and a group for young women that evolved from the self-named “Young Ladies of Chaos” to “Young Ladies of Class.” The group was guided by a community elder, who insisted members sign a contract that committed them to show up each week. The young women developed personal self-care rituals that they practiced outside of the dance classes they attended, and performed at the second annual Dorchester block party. An artist-in-residence also facilitates conversation with neighbors about changes to the South Side during the weekly Coffee, Tea + Chat at Dorchester Art + Housing Collaborative. As Theaster emphasized, a developer must be committed, not just to creating a building or structure, but to supporting ongoing programs essential to transforming a building into community space.

Historic West End, Case Study #2
Salon Member Alysia Osbourne, from Charlotte, North Carolina, an urban placemaker who serves as Director of Historic West End for the Charlotte Center City Partners, presented an almost dizzying array of projects that demonstrated her ability to identify and activate community engagement opportunities across multiple access points. She described getting sponsorship from local businesses for the Hip Hop University project, using Hip Hop to addresses digital literacy. Soul Junction, “where the city meets the village,” is a music festival that benefits local artists and vendors. Among the words of caution and wisdom Alysia shared was the advice to “host, not produce,” to facilitate what community members cannot do themselves, without micromanaging—assisting with economic development, marketing and branding, for example, and allowing community members to do what they can.

Alysia advised the group to: “Lose the capes (of assumption, privilege, baggage) and learn the landscape”; “Be visible” (“Show up”); “Find the talent within”; “Know the policies and politics”; and “Party with a purpose.” Osbourne also emphasized the primacy of trust in fostering community engagement, an issue we explored in discussions that followed.

Small Group Discussions
Salon Members and guests broke into small groups charged with responding to two questions: What are the inherent challenges to building trust? What are other pillars of engaging communities?

Photo by Brandon Fields

Photo by Brandon Fields

It seemed most of the groups riffed on the first question, and discussed how to build trust. Here are some of responses reported back:

Have heart-to-heart conversations between individuals to build trust. Speak to people in every day language, not the lexicon or jargon of the scholar or expert.

Trusting yourself, first, is important. Taking risks is important. Perception is important.

Is your concern for humanity? Are you willing to reach out to people emotionally, to touch and be touched by people who don’t have the experience of being touched?

Be honest about your intentions, beliefs, or assumptions. Establish understanding about what is being discussed, and how and why. Be open and ready to hear what others have to say.  

Learn the language of a community. Connect with a community member who serves as a bridge.

Serve as a facilitator rather than an expert.

Is there community benefit as well as community engagement? Is there flexibility and time for a community to be creative? Do you relinquish power to empower community?

Build momentum over time, rather than trying to hit ‘home runs.’ Celebrate the small moments, the small achievements along the way.

Pillars of engaged participation included:
Project Gravity Increase strength and potential through collaboration with multiple stakeholders.
Values Focus on what is of lasting importance, on the intended legacy of the process.
Respect A foundation for appreciating historic challenges and structural inequities.
Inclusivity Gender and racial balance within an organization and with other organizations.
Communication Talk in ways that everyone understands. Send culturally appropriate messaging.
Adaptive Patience Value organic process over efficiency.

Photo by Brandon Fields

Photo by Brandon Fields

As a finale to the working session of the Salon, we were introduced to artist-in-residence Arthur Wright. Wright documented the Session in a drawing he shared, which captured the synergy of the group and the robust exchange of ideas. We were then invited by Theaster to transition from our intellectual to our relational selves in the exhibition hall on the first floor of the Arts Bank.

Photo by Brandon Fields

Photo by Brandon Fields

After the first Salon, I thought about something Theaster said during an event, "Reimagine Our Region for 2050,” co-sponsored last June by CMAP (Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning) and Chicago Community Trust. In his opening remarks as one of the panelists, Theaster raised the question of how we learn about and think about development. One learns about development in business school. What if development was taught in divinity school? Along with conventional economic drivers, what if development was driven by beauty, and by faith? What if development was motivated by love?   

I think about this again remembering the woman I met when we gathered at the end of the Salon to socialize. The woman stood alone, smiling, with her eyes closed, her face radiant. She told me she lived in the neighborhood and said she had gone to the Dorchester block party in the summer. I don’t remember if she talked about it, or if I just intuited it: her deep pleasure at being present in this grand place; the magnificent, cavernous first floor of the Arts Bank, where a sense of mystery heightens a sense of anticipation, of what is possible. And I think of my own experience of the space, which reminds me, when entering through its portico and walking inside among the arched pillars, of a Greek Temple, built at a time when the art of cultivating fledgling, albeit deeply flawed, democracies flourished.

I think about this when I remember events in Charlotte following the shooting death by police of Keith Scott; and the work of Alysia Osbourne in Charlotte to create and heal community.

And I think about this when I remember the closing pages of James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, when he travels from Chicago’s South Side to the North Side, and writes about the light years of separation that existed, and that still exist, between those geographies. He closed the letter to his nephew, and to all Americans who would hear him, writing about the opportunity to forge something greater than these separate countries, and warning that, if we do not come together, we will surely perish together.

An image stays with me from that transformative day in September: the new board-ups at St. Laurence School. If eyes are windows to the soul, the brightly painted boards, with their bold shapes and colors, project a new power, new aspirations in a community too used to being looked at, to being examined and judged. The board-ups display a community’s bold intention to design, shape, and color its own place and its own destiny. If we engage with respect, if we listen with compassion, and make a commitment rooted in trust and, yes, in love, we can hope to be invited to dance in that dance.

For more information on the series and the author check out the series introduction