How art challenges life

My husband started taking pictures of and picking up empty Newport cartons. Not just once. As in All.The. Time. And not just when he was alone. He would ask me to pull the car over and then spend the next 10 minutes walking back and picking up the few he saw on our drive home from work. They were in our car, in the kitchen, the garage. We started carrying plastic bags to carry them when we would take bike rides. He called it “The Newport Trail” and Gatherhaus covered the story. (Go over and read it real quick. It’s good. Then come back.)

He was convinced that highlighting this one specific item of trash would be a way to bring awareness to our neighborhood’s chronic littering problem. And it is a huge problem. On my street alone, I can fill a tall kitchen trash bag with the garbage I find just on one side. One half of one block fills one trash bag. I would call that a serious problem. More than the littering though are all the large pieces of furniture, toilets, cars, and mattresses that get dumped here. On our neighborhood Facebook page, people take photos of soiled mattresses and claim, “St. Mattress visited us again today!”

It’s out of control.

So out of control that by living here, it becomes apart of the landscape. Something you don’t notice or is so chronic that you fall into the mindset that you can’t really do anything about it anyway. It’s just the way it is. This is exactly the mentality that Paul set out to change.

Recently I went for a run and without even realizing it, halfway through I started scanning the ground. I passed up bags of garbage and a few of the highly noticeable teal Newport's and the awareness kicked in and guilt took over. With Paul highlighting the discarded Newport cartons, I unintentionally started looking for them. The catch is though, by looking for and noticing the Newport's, you became keenly aware of the other trash around. Once I started noticing the amount of trash on the ground, I was faced with a choice. Continue to actively ignore it, or do my part in helping eradicate this social and environmental problem.

Two things weighed heavy on my heart.

  1. Can picking up trash really affect and change a culture?

  2. Can one person really make a difference against such a vast and large issue?

Malcolm Gladwell’s book, “The Tipping Point” addresses the first issue in a very poignant way. It is the idea of “The broken window” theory where when a neighborhood has a home with broken windows, it lowers the expectation and quality of life for its residence. When windows are broken, people have less respect for the space, so who cares if you break another one?

“Minor, seemingly insignificant quality-of-life crimes, were Tipping points for violent crimes. Address the smaller issue, and you can change of the culture of the larger issue.” pg. 114

In chapter four he address the power of context wherein you start picking up trash and planting community gardens, (cleaning up the broken windows) the atmosphere of the culture shifts for the positive. According to Glawell and New York mayor Giuliani this theory proved to be true. So then the issue becomes, can we start a movement of cleaning up and shifting a violent culture of North Mpls by cleaning up the trash?

This begs the question, can one person create this kind of awareness and change with an art project? To that I am inspired by Tyree Guyton of “The Heidelberg Project”. One man who started an art movement on a street in Detroit by using the trash he found to create art. It started small, but over three decades later, it has become a key player in the culture of art and awareness.

Each movement must start somewhere.

Each movement must start with someone.

If we deeply and inherently believe that one person can make a difference, then it takes the courage of one to start speaking up. It is up to the rest of us to make up our minds and stand with them. When we stand together, then no one is alone. When we stand together, act together, speak up together, then change is possible.

I want a neighborhood that has respect for ourselves, each other and our streets. I want a neighborhood free of needles and condoms and broken glass.  I want a neighborhood safe from violent crimes. I want a neighborhood that believes we are better than what we currently are. I don’t want to be the city dumping ground anymore. I want our children to grow up with compassion for the environment. I want to believe that we can make a difference. I want to believe that art can inspire life and be the catalyst for change. If I want it, then I will stand with Paul and write about it. I will pick up trash. I will teach my children and the other kids on my block to pick up trash. I will carry garbage bags with me to continue picking up garbage wherever I go. I will raise my voice in this fight. I will do my part to raise awareness.

I want in on the movement.

I am inspired by my husband’s effort to call attention to an issue that is often overlooked. While the call to action to change the culture of garbage in North Minneapolis seems almost impossible, a change must start somewhere. It must start with someone, so why not start with Newport's.


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What going to the pool looks like now...

I used to be the mom that would meet other moms at a splash pad.

I used to be the mom that would pack one bag for snacks and juice boxes, one with sunscreen, towels, extra clothes, extra bathing suits (for the kid who always has an accident), a bag with toys, water bottles, wet wipes, water guns, sunglasses, sand toys, garbage bags, and of course sweaters in case it got cold. Don't forget my purse and my other small bag that housed the small first aid kit I needed, and emergency kit of Chapstick, essential oils, lotion, tweezers and other small random things that I never thought I could leave home without. You know library books and sewing supplies that somehow just in case I am gifted with 23 seconds of no one needing me, I can get some "Me time". (Cause that totally happens when you are out at a splash pad with three kids.) Then I would stuff the stroller, piling it high so our need to have everything covered was taken care of. I didn't just plan. I over planned. (I think I just stressed myself out reading this.)

But now?

Now we have traded our half day trip to a special splash pad for our public wading pool at the end of our block. 

We traded our 20 minute car ride for a 3 minute walk.

We traded our one hour of prep time to actually just heading out in our clothes, suits long forgotten and optional at best. (I love how all the kids in the hood just come and swim in whatever they are wearing, no one has towels and empty water bottles are the toy of choice.)

We learned to swim with our mouths closed tight because who know's whats in that inner city pool water.

(Actually I have seen some things in that water I wish I could un-see.)

We don't bring towels with us, choosing instead to drip dry on the cement or on the walk home. Instead of packing sunscreen and googles, we bring trash bags to pick up all the garbage that litters our streets. 

We traded conversations about cartoon characters for big beautiful questions like, "What causes someone to start doing drugs? Do they use these needles or are there other ways to take drugs?" or "Why do people throw their trash on the ground? Don't they want to keep our neighborhood clean?" or "Why are there so many police sirens and shootings here?" 

Right? Big. Hard. Questions about culture, about crime, about hurt and what we do with it and why it's here all the time. Questions that don't have easy answers. Questions that I can either answer with prejudice or judgement, or we can talk it through giving small insights and things to ponder. Mostly I answer with more questions urging my kids to think for themselves. Then at night we pray for what we do not know and ask God in all of his mercy and goodness to reveal himself to those who are hurting and grant us trust to live and love.

We traded planned play dates to walking down the street and kids running out of their houses to join us at the pool. As soon as we say park, it somehow sends a virtual message to other mothers I have never met that send their kids out doors and we all go to the park with the pool together. 

I traded a suburban mindset for the inner city lifestyle.

I traded a host of expectations for the simple act of just living. Not planning, just experiencing.

I love watching the kids at the pool now. I love not being burden down with so much stuff.

I traded my preconceived ideas of necessity for a healthy dose of reality.

I traded mom's regulating everything their kids did with being helicopter parents to being the only parent at the pool and having my kids learn every bad word in the American language.

I traded the simple struggle of stuff with deeper struggles of fairness, culture, neglect, and a different set of rules. Rules that seem to apply to the hood and not in other areas of the city. Rules that shift and change and demand you pay attention so you know how to play the game. Struggles that leave kids that aren't yours in your care. Struggles that have kids stealing from you and playing with your kids and eating your food. Struggles to find a way to respect each other when language stands as a barrier between you. 

I traded a perceived idea of safety with always feeling exposed and vulnerable. 

I traded my false idea that I was in control with the harsh consciousness that my kids are exposed to all sorts of things I don't want for them on a daily basis. Yet, that demands my attention, and our conversations and processing about life means and what respect means and how prayer and faith fit into it all.

I traded what I once knew which was easy with what we understand now which is by far much more complex and tangled and messy. It's harder, but I like it a whole lot. 

So now we swim. I bring my key and my phone and we walk out the door ready to embrace whatever adventure meets us on the way. It's our own inner city neighborhood swim club.

The thing you must realize is that I understand full well the privilege we have as college educated whites. We weren't living in great means and decided to move here. It's all we could afford, and being a one income family keeps us living here. However, we do have privileges and opportunities that many in my community don't have. I understand that we often choose to live simply, but for others, limited means is not a choice. My hood is a really mixed bag of folks. Race, culture, expectations, histories and stories. We are so incredibly diverse and that is the piece I love. Maybe some don't have a towel to bring. Others like our neighbors don't have a mother to bring them to the pool because they were left on the door step over a year ago. But others do have means and still they come to the pool with nothing but the clothes on their back just like us. So I don't sit here and make assumptions and judgements on others and what their story is. I am simply put, just thankful for the constant daily reminder that there is another way than the way I understood things before.


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