We live in a world of complex problems – perhaps more complex than ever before – but we also live in an age of immense possibility. We often take this reality far too lightly. Not too long ago, we feared as the swine flu virus began spreading rapidly around the world; less than a year later, and the dread of a major global outbreak has largely subsided due to the marvels of modern medicine. Amidst the Black Death of the 1300s, no one would have dreamed that such a thing was possible.
The global warming doomsayers report that glaciers are melting at an alarming rate, and “Bombs Over Baghdad” is hardly just the name of a song. With tremendous problems looming, it can be easy to grow cynical, depressed, or disenchanted. And yet, there is much to be hopeful for, and there are many things that the average person can do. In his 2009 commencement address at The University of Portland, Paul Hawken said, “Inspiration is not garnered from the litanies of what may befall us; it resides in humanity’s willingness to restore, redress, reform, rebuild, recover, reimagine, and reconsider.” What follows is an account of my own journey in coming to understand and appreciate the words of men like Hawken.
Not too many years ago, a college professor kicked off my college senior-year Public Policy practicum course with a single book and a simple objective. The book: Design Like You Give a Damn, an inspiration source for those thinking up innovative ways to address humanitarian crises. The objective: It is time to take your ideas out of the classroom and into the real world; we have talked public policy for quite some time, and now it is time to live it. Fingers tingling with anticipation after hearing what waited ahead, I never could have imagined what might result from such a curriculum, and perhaps neither could my classmates. Sparking an endless curiosity for the concept of public innovation, a simple class planted the seeds for a drastic re-shifting of my own priorities.
Prior to this course, my two great interests – the public good and the arts – had always seemed at odds. Two loves (it appeared then) that ne’er the twain should meet. At the time, I was finishing up dual majors in political science and public policy. My political inclinations were clearly winning out. The logic seemed simple enough: “If you want to make a difference, you go into politics.” And there was little surrounding me in a twenty-first century liberal arts university to dispute this claim, particularly as my studies focused upon reading, essay-writing, and honing my understanding of the democratic process.
But, as someone who was just as likely to have her head in an interior design magazine as in Plato’s Republic – and perhaps not one more than the other – I often wondered why I had been so unfortunately gifted with competing interests. It seemed that if I went the art/design route, I would be giving up my concern for issues related to the common good and settling for a more materialistic way of life. Seeping with an overdose of asceticism, my train of thought went something like this: planning outfits, decorating for events, drawing pictures, how can these be good? Meanwhile, as I pushed off in the other direction, my soul hungered to be plugged into the creative arts despite my misguided ideals.
Later, during that odd semester spent regularly commuting from the classroom to Durham’s public housing neighborhoods, I began to dream with my classmates and local community members about what could be through the implementation of community gardens in local neighborhoods. In the process, I discovered that my two chief passions were not opposed, but could coexist quite happily.
My four months of practicum led me on a rather curious adventure where I learned of things like Food From the Hood, a public gardens project developed by students in Los Angeles to rebuild a downtrodden part of their community. Food From the Hood launched in the aftermath of L.A.’s race riots, as an attempt to empower youth and provide an educational resource for non-traditional learners. Once envisioned as a community-building exercise, the garden has morphed well beyond its original aims. With ingredients from the garden, students now produce and market salad dressing, learning business management skills in a real-world context. Today, the fruits of the students’ labors sell at high-end grocers like Whole Foods and have landed them in quite a few news media reports. Perhaps more significantly, though, the program has given inner city youth the tools and the courage to step out in the marketplace and their own community to have an impact.
A few years later, my head still spins with ideas as I browse the pages of Studio At Large, a book documenting the journey of several University of Washington architecture students using their craft to make a difference in the Pacific Northwest and around the globe. Students and faculty at UW’s Building Sustainable Communities (BASIC) Initiative are responsible for reimagining and re-envisioning place and space with the input of community members. They have built schools in rural areas with no transportation access, developed innovative migrant housing solutions in Eastern Washington on a minimal budget, and improved access to a community garden for a Seattle neighborhood’s elderly Asian population. Like Food From the Hood and my own hands-on learning experience, UW’s program encourages students to see themselves as global actors as they realize the impact that their work can have in creating a better world. These architects, artists, and planners work with whatever tools and resources they are given, within the context in which they are placed, to produce lasting results. Consequently, their lessons remind us all that social change does not start in Washington – it starts in our neighborhoods, our communities, our places of business.
While once upon a time my dreams made little sense, today they come together with ever-increasing clarity. Making a difference does not necessarily mean lobbying for the next act of Congress, although that too is important. Instead, it means living uniquely into the talents, opportunities, and needs placed before us day by day. I now realize that design is about so much more than coveted objects and high-end labels. Things like advertising, fashion, and fine arts are, in fact, professions that can be used for the public good; and many design-minded folk like urban designers are living that reality day by day. And furthermore, changing the world does not start over there; it starts here in our own backyards.