Resilient Roads and Community Visions
Posted by Nov 04, 2015 0 comments
In 1995, as you surely know, Oklahoma City was the site of a bombing. A man drove a truck up one of the streets in downtown, pulled into a parking lot, went into a church and prayed, left, drove another block and parked in front of a federal building. Then he got out and blew the truck up, killing over 140 people including a bunch of children who were in a daycare in the building.
I got to see the memorial that was built on the site of the bombing. That road is now a glassy slip of water bounded on each end by gates. Where the building was, there are now ornamental chairs—smaller for children, larger for adults—to commemorate each life lost. Across the street, a gigantic, swooning tree that survived the blast stands guard. And throughout the city, at all of the street intersections that became makeshift helipads when responders rushed to the scene, there are deep red and tan bricks laid in resonating circles that pulsate out. The tragedy and the resilience of the place have literally been embedded in the roads, and the vision and perseverance of the people has been memorialized through art.
I’m traveling a lot these days, as we begin our conversations with various groups of arts and non-arts stakeholders around the country for the New Community Visions Initiative. In 8 cities between September and May, we’re running cross-sector thinktanks designed to surface new knowledge and identify existing and new ways that arts and culture can be a part of moving towards healthier, more vibrant, more equitable communities throughout the United States over the next 10-15 years.
It’s funny, the things you notice when you travel – for me, it’s recently been a lot of noticing the roads, the sidewalks, the various ways that people have figured out how to get from one place to another.
In Oklahoma City, where we just finished up the second Forum, they have a temperature problem. The summer can get to 120 degrees and the streetlights melt. The winter brings ice storms and biting bursts of cold. So there, the roads are made of concrete instead of asphalt and they’ve created a set of underground, air conditioned tunnels so that people can avoid the outside.
Oklahoma City, also, is expansive, like the sky and the land in Oklahoma—the sidewalks, the hallways, the roads, the city itself (at 620 square miles). Everything exists in a permanent wide stance, open and welcoming, present and persistent. And it’s a malleable city, too, and stubborn—they created a lake large enough to have waves and manufactured a river (and Riverwalk) to rival San Antonio’s.
In these ways of moving and making, I see humans reacting with resilience to not only where they are, but where they want to be. In the construction of these places, I see ingenuity, design, deliberation, and a persistent belief in a better tomorrow.
In a very real way, then, what I saw in the roads and pathways of Oklahoma City is what I hope we’ll see in the New Community Visions project. Our theory of change is pretty simple. We’ve identified a variety of contributors to healthy, vibrant, equitable communities—contributors related to social justice, the environment, faith, culture and heritage, the economy and workforce, innovation, education, health and wellness, the military, and infrastructure that strongly inform the life and experiences of individuals and the communities in which they move. When integrated fully, the arts can:
- Transform systems by working at the intersection of different sectors, individuals, and communities
- Amplify positive impacts and mitigate negative impact
- Increase participation, opportunity, and access to the arts
Encouraging the “Arts and…” integration of the arts into the vital work of all of these contributing components of a community, we believe that we can help transform America’s communities through the arts over time.
But we can’t do that if we don’t know a couple fundamental things, like (1) where we are, (2) where we’re going, and (3) how to get there. And that’s where these regional Forums come in. What does the (more metaphorical) road here look like? What’s the state of the road? If we’re all attempting to move together towards the bright end point, what innovative, unique, or surprising ways might the arts be a part of that movement?
At one point in Oklahoma City, the 80 or so people in the room split into groups, and I sat in a circle of 12 people from a variety of sectors and talked about the future of incarceration and rehabilitation in this country, and the role of the arts. We talked about the rising rates of incarceration in the city, particularly of black men, and of the new reality of longer, harsher sentences, waning public interest in rehabilitation, and the realities of the generational cycle of incarceration, particularly in historically marginalized communities.
We talked about using the arts to help those in the prisons (both inmates and guards) to remember the world outside, to envision alternatives where their skills could be put to more positive use. We talked about deepening the bond between inmates and their children through story and performance. We talked about raising awareness about the prison system and the possible impact of the arts among the general public and other stakeholders. We talked about imagining arts-based bridging and collaboration between guards and inmates, between families of those incarcerated.
We talked about the obstacles in the way of those visions. We talked about burnout and funding and time and political and personal will. We talked about what we might, together, do to mitigate those obstacles. We dreamed up plans, filling in the road and gaining a clearer view of the other end.
The road is long, and challenging, as roads can sometimes be. It is scarred in places. But we are innovative animals, aren’t we? And we can make our plans, and take our steps, and react to what is needed, and remember what has happened, and dream of what is to come. We are all, in that way, artists, working with old tools in new ways, inviting new players to take the stage, new painters to take up the brush. How exciting, this time we’re in. How magical to be here, now.