Imagine being 7 years old and forced to walk alone or only with other children through a community with broken or missing sidewalks, past lots so overgrown with weeds and trees that you were forced to walk in the street, knowing that your safety as a child was constantly under threat from attacks by stray dogs, unscrupulous adults, and other hurdles that greeted you on your way to and from school each day.
These are the conditions that activated myself, LaShawnda Crowe Storm, and my artistic compeer Phyllis Viola Boyd. We simply asked the question, “What can we do to at least make this better for our children?”
Safe streets are possible . . . step-by-step and with a little ingenuity. Or, that is the goal we’ve set out to showcase in our hometown of Indianapolis through our project RECLAIM 46208.
We started this journey nearly 4 years ago while working on a Safe Routes to School Plan for the Northwest Area community. Safe Routes to School is an international effort that focuses on making the routes to and from school safe for children. Solutions are varied across the globe, but are localized to take into account the unique terrain faced by children in their home communities.
Working with area elementary-age children to complete a route assessment, we found that there were nearly 72 vacant properties and lots within a 3-block radius of the piloted school and that the primary routes to the community school were over 70% vacant. There were incidents were children began to drop out of after-school programs due to the fear of walking home through those dark corridors alone, especially in winter when the sun goes down early and it is dark by 5 pm.
Traditional community economic development models had failed our community. So, we thought about how to use our gift, skills, and talents in the creative industries to change the situation. Our solution was The House Poems Project, which looks at ways to activate vacant properties and lots with murals, community gardens and community building activities and events.
The ethos of “Do No Harm” is the guiding principles of how we work within our community. As such, we utilize a variety of methodologies and frameworks such as Trauma Informed Community Building to ground our work. Resources are tight and we needed to examine how those we acquire could be maximized to address multiple issues at once. With a little deep thinking, understanding our community and tweaks to the process, we were able to take the initial funding of a $10K grant through a 5x5 competition and adapt this project to address literacy, abandoned properties, adult education / skill building, community safety, and peacebuilding, as well as a people-centered approach to community development - meaning how do our dollars get into the hands of local community members as opposed to contractors from outside the community.
If our efforts could build community and address some of the economic issues in the community, we felt we could get the community to “reclaim” this corridor as their own. More eyes on places means more safety. And if we can focus on how to make spaces safe for children, then everyone is made safer in the entire community.
It has taken nearly 4 years for us to start to see some results for what began as an answer to a question about walking to school. We’ve jumped many hurdles including the conversion of two area schools to charter schools, as well as a new mayor and municipal administration, which resulted in scrapping 1.5 years of coordination work and starting at square one again.
However, persistence has begun to pay off. Two years ago, we began working with an area owner to incorporate simple murals on their property to help mitigate the vandalism of the property. The effort worked and the old fire station built in the late 1800’s has been embraced by the community and is in the process of becoming a community arts space.
This year, as a result of our coordination with the city’s Department of Public Works and the community’s Councilman, new sidewalks were installed along the corridor where sidewalks had either never been built or had been in a horrible state from decades of neglect and deterioration. A large community work day and planning resulted in more than 300 health care workers spilling into the community to paint intersection murals by the area school. Murals were developed by the children in the school through collaboration with a local artist. Murals were developed by the children in the school through collaboration with a local artist.
As of today, our first 5 House Poem Art Houses were constructed throughout vacant lots in the community. We are working with area artists to design the murals that will go on these spaces. Come spring, we will begin executing community-building activities informed and driven by our engagement with area residents and school children. Drumming, spoken word, food, music and block parties are just a few of the activities planned for 2018.
While this effort may not stop the crime rooted in poverty or the gang violence in the community, at the minimum, this small corridor where children have to walk to and from school can and is being made safer. And that little bit of goodness in the world, has the opportunity to change the lives of the children in our community for the better.
To learn more about RECLAIM 46208 and The House Poem Project, please visit www.HousePoem.com.