By Ryan Jones
There’s enough work in Reimagining the Civic Commons to keep each of the five cities occupied on a daily basis, with their heads down and constantly plowing ahead, deep in their respective agendas and ideas. Everyone is focused on keeping their momentum going while staying innovative and fresh. Twice a year however, we’re going to collectively step back and gather for a Civic Commons Studio convening. The first gathering was held in December in Philadelphia.
We’ve been so wrapped up in our own project at times that it’s a refreshing alternative to see what inspiring things are happening in Chicago, Detroit, Akron, and Philadelphia. Seeing other teams’ accomplishments, innovations, ideas, struggles, and dynamics was comforting, inspiring, and gave our team a chance to reflect and evaluate.
Memphis team at Studio #1; photo credit: Meredith Edlow
We left with a wealth of knowledge, but some key takeaways stand out above the rest:
Environmental sustainability goes so far beyond just nature and conservation
Our team started to think of what environmental sustainability meant in an entirely different light. Like most people, “environment” is a term that initially conjured images of nature, conservation and the natural elements of the world to our team. However, after some great discussions with individuals in Philadelphia, we’ve come to realize that Memphis and our team is in a unique position to positively influence the environment in a different way. Through various initiatives and partnerships such as the Green and Healthy Homes Partnership, the University of Memphis School of Law’s Health Law & Policy Lab focusing on Adverse Childhood Experiences, and the Medical-Legal Partnership with the law school, Memphis Area Legal Services, and Methodist Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital, our team is excited about exploring opportunities to use Memphis Civic Commons as a way to help improve the environments of Memphis youth, their homes, neighborhoods, and communities. Gaining this new perspective on how we can help improve “environments” in Memphis communities was really eye-opening for us and we’re very excited about how this will tie into our Civic Commons work in the Fourth Bluff.
Process is just as important as outcomes
We also came to realize the importance of our own processes with Memphis Civic Commons and how this is itself something new and different. We’ll be making an effort to show the process of our work in the Fourth Bluff in addition to showcasing the end product. Through writing, social media, video production, in-person interviews, photography, and other media we’re now looking at ways that we can share how we do our work. People are curious about the story of how something came about, not just the shiny end result, and we want to respect that.
photo credit: Meredith Edlow
During the Philly learning network we heard a lot from Theaster Gates, but what most stuck with us was his stressing of the importance of the “in-determinate.” It was freeing to hear that he placed so much importance on not having it “all together” when he’s starting or working on a project. Making room for the sparks of inspiration strike you throughout the project is important. Refine your vision, let inspiration happen, and go with it—with things not always being determined ahead of time.
Theaster Gates at Studio #1; photo credit: Meredith Edlow
Be the host, not the producer
Early on at the convening, someone mentioned the idea of being the host and not the producer. This was a good reminder that we need to concentrate on building something that others really want to utilize, access, and activate. Being a great host means being open to what people want to do and how they want to drive the conversation. But at the same time being a host does not mean abdicating all responsibility for creating a strong and compelling offering. Hosting the commons, like hosting a party, starts with a clear vision and leads to great experiences that no one could have planned in advance.
Winterfest hosted Studio #1 participants; photo credit: Meredith Edlow
Ryan Jones is director of communications at University of Memphis School of Law.