The Art of Hosting

I'll warn you in advance that this entry is lengthy. There's just so much to share.


Our AoH gathering came on the heels of my return from Congo. I'd been organizing annual fundraisers for years, which led to my big adventure. But that trip was so humbling as I realized that sending donations via paypal - even going to Congo to deliver funds and medical supplies - paled in comparison to the challenge of working on my own block, in my own community. Everything I'd been so sure of was abruptly re-set. You met me just as my identity had been wiped clean. It seemed my language was gone and my confidence had dissolved. Such timing! I entered the circle so timid, ready and hungry to absorb sacred possibility.

 

In Minneapolis, I live in a neighborhood next to a pedestrian bridge that crosses a freeway that was installed in the 60s, ripping apart a community that's never recovered. Neglected for decades, crime and hopelessness rule. I returned from AoH with my bridge song in my head...wondering what it is to be a bridge, to need a bridge, to leave what I’ve known behind, to walk courageously into the unknown with profound hopefulness. I had a vision of what could be. I'd stand on the bridge watching a brilliant sunset, imagining my dream. I held it quietly for months while I read books and entered into every conversation that was offered. I questioned every assumption. Thankfully, my relentless inquiry, surveys, info interviews, etc. were supported at my workplace because for months, I was utterly incapable of delivering on anything except more and more questions. Outside of work, I continued to hold my vision.

 

In late Dec, I at last invited activists and artists to explore my wish to enliven the space, first by enlisting every organization on both sides of the (currently ugly, dangerous) bridge to create mural panels that convey "what is a bridge?". They added to the vision and gave me courage to begin.

I sent out my idea and the local arts college quickly offered to pay 2 brilliant, experienced, energized mural artists to make it happen! In just a few weeks, we already have 8 organizations engaged to create mural panels to hang on each side of the freeway walls next to the bridge (16 panels so far). We're using Appreciative Inquiry in an ideation session with each group of participants. The freeway wall, designed to separate, is our forum for connection.

 

I'm working with a local mosaic project, creating planters to fill with flowers and place near the murals by the bridge entrance and I just received a message from the City Council VP. They've agreed to my request to install a dog run adjacent to the freeway wall and the Park Board will install and maintain it. This will be the only dog run among many neighborhoods so it is significant and it'll give people who've avoided our neighborhood a reason to visit. When they do, our well-lit outdoor gallery will welcome them. (Depending on how we divide up the space, I may have room to invite people to grow shade-loving vegetables and edible mushrooms in an enclosed space next to the dog run.)

 

I'm partnering with a local puppet theatre who asked the owner of the empty lot between my house and the bridge to let us use the land for free kids' arts programming. The lot has been seriously problematic for years. Last summer, we started using the hang-out space along the periphery for composting so we're seeing a lot less needles and broken bottles. This summer, music and happy kids will replace the arguments and violence.

 

Near the bridge, I’m going to grill corn on Friday eves to share with people passing by. (We have a new community garden around the corner and I'm hoping they'll grow the corn.) I'm hosting weekly collaborative performances on the bridge after theatre performances, so the director will encourage their audience to join us after the show to make music, play drums, recite poetry, do sun salutations, whatever. I started this last August and it was cool how people would stop and join us. One evening we were playing drums as the sunset colors mixed with fiery storm clouds overhead. Most of the spontaneous crowd that gathered grabbed an instrument but a man dressed in white - from his fedora to his shiny shoes – watched from the periphery. As the raindrops started to fall and we wrapped up our instruments to run for shelter, he slowly walked through the people, leaned into me and whispered in a soft, serious voice, “you are very brave” . Then he stepped back to look into my eyes as if to mark the moment before he turned and disappeared into the crowd. His blessing still stirs my heart. Yes! All of us who do this work are so very brave! And isn't it wonderful?

 

I want to create as many entry points to this project as possible, including asking knitters to do yarn graffiti on the bridge's chain link. I can’t wait to see people start doing this stuff on their own. It’s like coaxing evolution.

 

We're harvesting as we go and I'm videotaping interviews with long-time residents telling what the neighborhood was like before the freeway, how it disrupted their lives, what they loved about being here and what they want to see emerge. I'm conducting historical research too. Our neighborhood (Phillips) was named after an activist/abolitionist who encouraged people to tell their stories. I love continuing that vision.

 

I mentioned that this area is dangerous. My car's been broken into countless times, my house burglarized twice and my tenant was robbed at gunpoint on the bridge. Our international community could make for an incredibly vibrant neighborhood but we're all huddled in our homes, afraid. Not for long! Soon we’ll have wind-powered lighting, artwork and flowers and people and dogs inhabiting the space. We’ll announce our rebirth with a big celebration, press releases, a website, radio interviews and panel discussions.

 

The artists and I are creating a community mural toolkit for other groups to use and we'll continue to install this project in sites along the freeway wall, helping each community  visually convey their stories and dreams.

 

But that’s only the beginning. I had a vision about the pedestrian bridge when we/AoH walked together on Highline Park in Manhattan last spring. The projects I'm working on now are the precursor to my plan to replace the ugly pedestrian bridge over the freeway with a meandering green space with alternative energy, a bike path, art installations, yoga and martial arts, meeting space and free arts, horticulture and leadership programs. This is an impossible, crazy idea. But in important ways, it’s already happening. People are seeing the bridge as an opportunity and a connector instead of something to be avoided.

 

I’m building connections with Transition Town, urban farmers, artists, activists, nonprofits, journalists, theatres, museums, libraries, schools, historical societies and local and state gov’t in preparation for the big, juicy project to come. This fall, I’m bringing the Harvest to the statistics dep’t of a major European university because they've expressed interest in sending a data collection team here for the project. Oh and our state representative offered to add the bridge to the state's 2011 discussion agenda. (**catching my breath**)

 

I can't believe how quickly so much has happened. Yet it's taken a lifetime. Every step I've ever taken has led me here. I'm having crazy fun and my face is wet with tears every day. I'm reveling in the fertile ground each of you helped to cultivate.

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Replies to This Conversation

WOW DALLAS AND CONGRATULATIONS !!!!!

 

YOUR SPIRIT, ENERGY AND LOVE IS IN EVERY WORD OF THIS WONDERFUL PLACE YOU AND OTHERS HAVE CREATED. I AM PROUD TO KNOW YOU AND WISH YOU MANY MORE DAYS, WEEKS, MONTHS AND YEARS OF GROWTH IN THIS ENDEAVOR.

 

THE NEW YORK AOH WILL BE WAITING TO HEAR MORE AND TO HELP.

 

WARMEST REGARDS, LIZ LABOY

 

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