Theaster Gates has proven to be quite the motivator.
I had never heard of him until today. After a somewhat long work day, I was looking for a productive way to relax, so I turned to my laptop and decided to do some TED browsing. I love TED talks – the amount of information I can gather over a 20 minute meal beats staring into space/listening to music/catching up on news and thinking of what’s next on my mental “today” list.
After listening to his talk, I was inspired. Where cities are concerned, problems such as poverty and blight can sometimes be overwhelming to those who want to be involved in positive change. Gates’ talk (with actions to back up his words – and incredibly clear diagrams, to boot!) showed me that it is possible for one to start where they are, to DO something, and to do it sacrificially. His talk demonstrated the beauty of creativity and collaboration. He was educated as both an urban planner and an artist, and has chosen to use his knowledge of art and urban renewal as a means to a collective end as well as a celebration of culture. In some ways, he reminds me of Diebedo Francis Kere who, throughout his education abroad, did not forget the village where he came from, and rallied fellow students to contribute towards a school he was designing for his people. Such examples are somewhat rare (to me, at least) in a world where personal wealth and individualism are encouraged.
That’s not to say that individualism doesn’t have its place, however. Boniface Mwangi’s The Day I Stood Up Alone proves that there is a time and place to take a stand for one’s beliefs, despite one’s fears. His talk was actually my segue into Gates.’ Mwangi has had a reputation for being quite the firebrand, and his almost revolutionist brand of activism, which yields mixed results, is the opposite of my quiet approach to bringing about change (an approach that has only been theoretical thus far). I am a firm believer in grassroots change, in a somewhat stealthy form of activism that demonstrates, through the choices I make, the kind of change I wish to see in my world. The Day I Stood Up Alone made me reconsider. While I am not sure if I will take part in street protests (just being honest), I do hope to be part of a group of city changers who sees what needs to be done and gets it done, without bothering to create a hashtag in the process. So Boniface, if you’re reading this, thank you.
And so, friends, my personal takeaway from my Citivism* 101 class today is the following note to self (and please forgive me if I sound like a broken record): Those [sometimes boring] urban planning books can take a backseat for now. Find what needs to be done and roll up your sleeves. Start where you are, with nary a thought as to the obstacles, for God will move the mountains if the end is in His will.
*Citivism: noun. Activism related to cities. I believe this to be a word of my own invention.
Featured image by Kevin J. Miyazaki.