The Unexpected

Now that you are on the ground doing this work, what are you finding most challenging or most unexpected about Creative CityMaking?

ASHLEY HANSON: Over the winter months, Wing and I spent time reaching out to and meeting with community organizations, creating our website, and starting our street engagement. It truly felt like the work had begun! As we started meeting with the organizers and individuals that make up this stretch of the Northside, there are two key themes that surfaced that I am grappling with.

The first has to do with sustainability – that big, jargony word that seems to remain elusive in the arts community.  Watching the days change on the calendar, I was reminded of how short of a time that we have to fully immerse ourselves in the community and attempt to build trust and make change. There is so much to learn, so many individuals and organizations to meet, and so many conversations to be had. As we move forward with this journey, I want to keep the idea of how this work can be sustained after we are gone at the forefront of our exploration. We have looked at addressing this issue in two ways:

1) in meetings with the different neighborhood organizations, we have asked how our work can dovetail and support their community engagement efforts. We have been asked to record the names and contact information of the people that we are meeting during our street engagements, pop-up galleries, and other events and to pass this information on to the community organizations for follow-up. The idea being that now that the individual has participated in a planning process (most likely for the first time), they might be interested in continuing to be a part of the conversation. The community organizations are a great way to continue communication with those that we are reaching in our efforts.

2) the creation of a “toolkit” that we can pass off to the City Department in hopes that they will find the community engagement strategies we have created and tested of use to their process. In one of the meetings we recently had, we were provided a provocative invitation, when the person we were meeting with said: “how great would it be if your work resulted in a complete culture shift – where it would actually become frowned upon to hold a “typical” community meeting.” The dreamer that I am, I instantly envisioned this world where organizers, planners, educators, etc. were all trying to out-creative each other in their meeting formats and engagement strategies. I am not sure how realistic this dream is, but it sure did make me smile and seem like a fun world to be a part of… We will see what we can do!

The second has to do with deep and meaningful connections with the community. How is this achieved in such a short amount of time? We introduced two engagement strategies this month: The Traveling Chalkboard and The Pen(n) Project.

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Ashley Hanson and The Pen(n) Project participants. Hanson and Wing Young Huie are pairing up with planner Jim Voll to work on the Penn Avenue North Small Area Plan.

They work like this: Wing and I approach people who are walking down the street, waiting for the bus, hanging out in public places, and ask them if they would like to participate either by taking their photo with a chalkboard that they have written on or by writing in the Pen(n) Project notebook. We have questions that we ask and a format that we follow, but this is the basic structure. With people that we meet, we have a very limited amount of time to engage with them. We put them on the spot and ask them deep and provocative questions about their neighborhood. The response that we often get is one that is very philosophical or broad – but for those that we have more time with, we are able to get deeper into what they really think / feel / want for their community, but it is only after several minutes of one-on-one conversation that we start to scratch the surface of what is really going on.

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Wing Young Huie and Traveling Chalkboard participant. Huie and Ashley Hanson are pairing up with planner Jim Voll to work on the Penn Avenue North Small Area Plan.

Thinking about how much time planners and organizers have, this one-on-one, deep interaction with every person in the area they are working in, is simply not possible. So, how do we gain access to this information in way that is quantifiable, feasible, and accessible? That is our challenge. So far, we have gotten wonderful responses and made some great connections, but are just beginning our deep exploration and experimentation with these different models to get us there. I have a feeling we will strike gold, but it will take time, testing of many strategies, creativity and patience. Back to work!

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