In my last post, I briefly mentioned having attended a Meetup at The Last Bookstore; the theme was “The City as a Canvas for Creative Envisioning,” and the event featured a panel of speakers from various nonprofits and community orgs discussing the challenges and rewards of the type of work they did. It was really exciting not just to hear from them, but to see the broad range of people who attended the Meetup. More than half were interested in urban gardening, as a way to promote green spaces, to improve community health and nutrition awareness, to reduce the carbon impact of food through hyperlocal sourcing and/or to help funnel fresh produce into food deserts.
After the panel, the audience counted off into five groups and had 45 minutes to come up with a proposal to improve the city, based on the earlier topics of conversation (financial improvement/investment downtown, increased bike access, urban gardens). Ro Kumar, one of the people in my group, shot and cut a video of the event:
Ro also co-founded localblu “an online community exchange” based on economist Gunter Pauli’s idea of the “blue economy,” which seeks to realize the full potential of small local economies. (Incidentally, Ro and his brother converted their home into a farm and learning center, and Ro’s brother now gets his entire income from produce sales. )
My group ended up discussing ways to improve Pershing Square to make it more of a central gathering point for downtown. We didn’t get to discuss the specifics in very much detail, because we had one woman in the group who kept hijacking the floor with lengthy non sequiturs, essentially every thought she’s ever had about Pershing Square.* One of the points she brought up, though, was that Pershing has no water fountains so that people who are homeless won’t gather there. (I haven’t verified this — she said a security guard told her that.) At the 10-minute warning, I suggested that we had discussed a lot of the issues of the park and could start brainstorming solutions, which of course meant that I was volunteered to represent our group in the presentation of proposals.
There were a few interesting ideas, although I can’t remember any of the specifics all that clearly because I was a) exhausted from being up really late the night before b) trying to assemble a proposal to cover for our group. One idea was to have an Art Walk-style event in the Warehouse District, especially if those spaces applied for mixed-use licenses and were able to host different types of events. (The Last Bookstore is already this type of space; have I mentioned that I love it? Read this article.**) Most of our conversation ended up being about intentional design for community spaces — figuring out what a neighborhood’s values are and bringing in businesses, organizations and individuals to achieve specific goals and a sense of community. (I spoke last, so I kind of piggybacked and pulled those ideas together — and you thought humanities discussion sections would never come in handy, psh.)
The next generation is better at everything
Even though the conversations could have used a bit more active moderation (the panels, too), I loved the intent of the Meetup, the people it drew in, and the atmosphere. Everyone was there because they wanted to be part of creating stronger community ties in LA.
Lorena and I were discussing the event a few days later, and we both realized we’ve been spoiled by working for City Year*** the last two years; if nothing else (and City Year does plenty, trust me), being part of that organization teaches you how to participate in a conversation and pull together diverse people and their ideas into a cohesive vision. I would love to have an event with the same people, with a few tweaks to how conversation was structured; the organizer wanted everything to be free-flowing, but I think it would have been helpful if people chose what group they were in based on a neighborhood or cause they were interested in, and to have more active moderation during presentations to promote more dialogue between panelists.
The group sessions reminded me of a workshop I ran on one of our last Young Heroes days. We started by brainstorming different issues they were interested in doing something about, then let them split into groups for half an hour to discuss why they cared about the issue and how they would address it. They then split into groups of 3 or 4, with a team leader assigned to each group, and had another 30 minutes to create their own non-profit and fill out a simplified logic model. The team leaders then acted as potential funders, circling among the groups to listen to speed pitches and ask questions.
The results were awesome — and mind you, it was the end of a long day, and we’d done two hours of community service outdoors, my team had been awake for more than 30 hours, the team leaders were exhausted. One of the groups I talked to proposed a mentorship program that would connect LGBT youth with adults to create anti-bullying presentations; and the group had decided not to open a physical office until they had piloted the program for a year with one school partner and could prove their success. Another group decided to take on drug and alcohol abuse, and wanted to offer family counseling and community service opportunities as a way to teach job skills to the addicts they treated. These were middle school students, mostly sixth graders, by the way.
If you had two wishes …
So on to the title of this post. One of the interview questions for City Year is “If you had two wishes to change the world, what would you wish for?” (Let’s hope I don’t get sued for this, or give some potential corps members an unfair advantage.) It’s also an interview question for Young Heroes and City Heroes (similar program, but for high school students), and over the last two years, I think I asked young people the question at least 50 times. A large majority of the middle school students wished for cleaner neighborhoods, less gang violence or that drugs and alcohol didn’t exist — issues that reflect some of the most noticeable problems in the areas from which we recruit students. I remember one boy wishing that money didn’t exist, so that everyone would be able to have the things they need and everyone would be equal.
If I remember correctly, when I answered the question in March 2009, I said that I wished that everyone would see others as they see themselves — that is to recognize each other as complex, complete human beings — and that everyone would have access to the resources they need to thrive (and I think I specifically mentioned education). After two years of service, I’m not sure those wishes would change: I think the first is what drives my passion for working to build community, as well as reflects the influences of CouchSurfers I met while abroad,**** and the second is the only ambiguous enough way I can think of addressing economic, educational, health and rights disparities.
In any case, it is always amazing to see how people open up and relate to one another when they know they’re in a space dedicated to creating community, and that the other people share their dreams of living in a more connected world.
How amazing would it be if we all felt like we always had permission to start these types of conversation? How amazing would it be if we all took on the responsibility to foster these conversations?
You should leave me comments. If you had two wishes to change the world, what would you wish for? Alternatively, what’s the best community-oriented nonprofit, idea or business you know of? (Also, it’s likely that some variation of these questions will be the theme of September’s Thoughtluck, so let me know if you’re interested.)
* This was actually really disappointing, because we had an interesting mix of people, including one woman from Finland (who left early because she forgot her bike lights, so moot point) and another from London, and people from different backgrounds and interests. We chose Pershing Square because Derailer started by talking about taking her dog there at night, and then over the course of the next half hour, talked about how Pershing Square is aesthetically displeasing (true), not a place where the community can meet (we decided this was not true), is not an effective dog park (true, but … irrelevant) and has no water fountains (true). I’m condensing and omitting a large portion of Derailer’s comments. In any case, we had a lot of promising starts to good conversation, but each time, we were Derailed by Derailer, since no one really stepped up to moderate,^ though at one point someone finally pointed out that she had interrupted Lorena.
^ I also tried to interject, or at least have a side conversation, especially once we hit the 10-minute mark and the woman started discussing her dog again, but I didn’t want to be an actual moderator, because I was worried I’d be volunteered to present, which is exactly what happened.
** Let’s be real; most of you never follow my links. Here’s an excerpt:
Located on the ground floor of the Spring Arts Tower downtown, the Last Bookstore is a mix of old and new. It has pillars stretching 25 feet up to a painted, vaulted ceiling; underfoot are intermittent mosaics, all part of the former Citizens National Bank, which opened in its grand location in 1915. The light fixtures are new, created from bicycle wheels by Brad Goldhorn, and high on the south wall flows a sculpture made of wire and old paperbacks. …
*** I no longer work for City Year. All views expressed in this post are mine and do not necessarily reflect the views of the organization.^^
^^ Disclaimers like these always confuse me: If someone is going to be offended by what you’re saying, they’re still going to run charging with pitchforks at whatever organization you’re associated with. It’s not like politicians can post a disclaimer on Twitter (or Grindr, lol) and say that the photos of their junk don’t reflect their political views or public office. Identity. What does it mean.
**** Believing in shared humanity and wanting others to share that further reinforced, of course, by all of the community organizers, nonprofit folk and fellow corps members over the past two years.