Wednesday, January 15, 2014

The power of chalk.

I was going through some of my pictures from 2013 and I ran across these taken by Chris Suspect for the LUMEN8ANACOSTIA festival. These photos highlight community chalkboards that were made by Beth (Creative Director) and Piper (Creative Assistant) of Honfleur Gallery and The Gallery at Vivid Solutions in Anacostia. Beth and Piper built these two chalkboards so residents and visitors alike would share what they loved about the Anacostia neighborhood  and what they would like to see more of in Anacostia. For our organization, when we plan events like LUMEN8 it is important that they are connected to the community.  We've gotten all of our best programming ideas from Anacostia and Ward 8 residents, business owners, and community organizations. They are the real experts on east of the river's needs and wants because they are on the front lines everyday.

The chalk is mightier than the sword
(photo: Chris Suspect for LUMEN8ANACOSTIA)
I am happy to say that Piper and Beth's chalkboards were a big hit at LUMEN8. By the end of the festival there wasn't a square inch of blank space. Each chalkboard was covered with so many expressions of love and hope.  People from all types of backgrounds contributed to those chalkboards. It was so simple, yet so, powerful. It worked because it was organic. It wasn't forced, it wasn't contrived, it just was.  Sometimes I really hate the term "community outreach" because something about it feels so forced. The very term brings to mind a feeling that you have to reach from where you are to somewhere else to connect. It implies an inherent "separateness" and a hierarchy of knowledge (I know more than you) that I am not sure works.

I think for community organizations -- including those like the nonprofit I am lucky to work for --  you can't do "community" from the outside in. It's called "commUNITY" for a reason. You have to be "in" it already and that takes time. Communities evolve, they aren't manufactured. Your success has to be tied into the success of that community. Its challenges have to challenge you. You have to accept the good, the bad, and the sacrifices. I don't think it is something you can teach or mimic. It comes over time -- you can't use short-cuts. It comes with trust, it comes with skin in the game, and most importantly it comes with a sense of humility. You have to be willing to say, "I want to help but I may not really know what is going on here" or "I want to help but I need to know how." In particular you may have to say, "what I thought I knew I really don't know but I am willing to invest the time to learn." And lastly but most importantly, "I have to have a sense of integrity about what I'm doing. I have to be brave."

(photo: Chris Suspect for LUMEN8ANACOSTIA)

Sometimes I am skeptical of organizations and institutions (I am looking at you DC government) hiring "outside" consultants to do the core of community outreach or marketing east of the river. Perhaps it can work in other communities that are more closely connected to the fabric of DC but I don't think that works for east of the river. In many ways there is "over there" and there is "over here." The economic and information gulf has been so wide for so long it is almost like there are two separate and distinct District of Columbias. What might work in Eckington isn't going to always work in Anacostia. What was successful in Columbia Heights may fall flat in Congress Heights. DuPont is in an entirely different place than Deanwood. Sometimes two miles is a world away.

I get particularly annoyed when those outside "experts" get paid big fat consulting fees to do east of the river consulting while our Ward 7 and Ward 8 consultants (who have skin and experience in the game) are expected to volunteer their time and services for the greater good. I can't count how many times a hired gun would request a meeting with me to pick my brain (and contacts) -- for free -- for work I know they were getting paid thousands (and I mean thousands) of dollars to do. Not only was it insulting it just wasn't practical. When you spend the bulk of a marketing contract getting up to speed how can you move forward? How can you help others when you need basic help yourself?

You can't. At least not in a meaningful way.  Not in a way that matters.

(BTW: I'm a Ward 8 small business owner. It is one thing for me to do free marketing and advertising for community projects, nonprofits, and small businesses. It is an entirely different thing for me to do free work for projects that I know have healthy marketing/advertising budgets and that are paying outside consultants a tidy sum to do "community outreach."  I stand with my fellow EotR small business owners, consultants, and nonprofits. If our work isn't deemed worthy of compensation then you must not need our charity. I think it is the responsibility of those of us who are more visible to take a stand and change the game for all of us. So if there is something big going on in my neighborhood and I am not talking about it that may be the reason. )

(photo: Chris Suspect for LUMEN8ANACOSTIA) 
Don't get me wrong. I think you do have to have some outside perspective to craft a good plan and execute it. You need a lot of different tools in the toolbox and sometimes those tools have to come from places you aren't so familiar.  Sometimes you have to try something different. Sometimes you have to take a chance.

So just as I think that some groups look too far afield for resources;  sometimes I think know we here east of the river can be a bit afraid of asking and/or accepting help. I understand the hesitation and the skepticism but isolating ourselves is not the answer. I think when we feel that we are a meaningful and valued part of "the plan" we aren't so suspicious of the players.

My colleague (and BFF)  Beth and I posing in front of the community chalkboards at LUMEN8ANACOSTIA
(photo: Chris Suspect for LUMEN8ANACOSTIA)
Not only do we have to find a better way to communicate with each other we have to learn to hear one another.  We have to have a dialogue, a meaningful exchange of ideas. That can be hard when our message is filtered through the lens of race, economics, geography and perception. As much as I started Congress Heights on the Rise as a way to get the word out about east of the river I do it so that you (all of you) have a place to share your thoughts and feelings about what is going on in our patch. We don't always have to agree but I do want to hear from you. We all want to hear from you.

So while I appreciate all of you that read the blog (and my traffic numbers show me there are a lot of you).  I would appreciate it more when/if you leave a comment (or guest blog!). It is about the dialogue.  CHotR may be free to read but I hope you feel it has value.  I don't want to feel like I am investing all this time, effort, and money in this forum just to read my own words. I already know what I think (typos and all).  This isn't community outreach. This is community inreach. I want us to REACH each other. Sometimes we may want to pat each other on the back, other times we may want to throttle each other but we are here, together.

One of my favorite Councilmembers,  Tommy Wells sharing his hopes for Anacostia
(photo: Chris Suspect for LUMEN8ANACOSTIA)
And for our elected officials this goes for you too. I know it is campaign season and everyone is about getting their picture taken everywhere but people are smart. They know who was present before it was time to collect nominating petitions. We know who accepted that invite to that small community gathering, who answered that call, who made that call way before election season started. It's about more than ribbon cuttings and speeches. Its about doing things when no one is there to see you. It is about the people whom you swore to serve.

It's about yesterday, today, and tomorrow. It's about honesty and service. It's about humility. It's about integrity.

And that doesn't have to cost you more than a piece of chalk.

FYI: If you want to see the community chalkboards from LUMEN8ANACOSTIA they are currently hanging in The Gallery at Vivid Solutions, 1241 Good Hope Rd SE. The gallery is open Tuesday - Saturday. Free admission. 

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Yes, it's like this. Exactly so. And...yeah, I'm tearing up a little bit, because, Advocate, (typos or no), 'You Said That!' powerfully...beautifully.... To echo a previous comment,"Thank you so much for your blog and all that you do!" ~May your heart's wishes be fulfilled in 2014!