I’m from Dayton, Ohio, go to school in Nashville, Tennessee, and came to City Repair through a program at the University of Washington called Doris Duke Conservation Scholars Program (DDCSP). I am writing this blog to share my experiences working with City Repair this summer, but first, I’ll describe what DDCSP is and how that led to my time here!
DDCSP is a two-summer program that focuses on biodiversity conservation and environmental justice, and emphasizes diversity, equity, and inclusion within the conservation field. The second summer of the program involves a summer-long internship in which scholars are placed in an organization and they complete a project related to biodiversity conservation and environmental justice that benefits the organization. That is how I ended up at City Repair this summer with my fellow DDCSP scholar, Mari! The whole experience has been a whirlwind of learning and getting to know Portland and its many communities. We’ve gotten to meet so many amazing activists and organizations, and I have taken away so much.
Going into my internship with City Repair, I had a few learning goals in mind. They definitely developed and changed as the summer progressed, but I was open to these changes as I learned more about the organization and the community. For this blog, I will be going more into my takeaways for each of my learning goals.
Learn more about the functions and roles of nonprofits
Through my time at City Repair, I hoped to better understand the roles that a nonprofit can have within a community-- particularly marginalized communities. City Repair offered a unique perspective as an extremely relationship-based organization that works face-to-face with the community.
I think one of the biggest takeaways from my time at City Repair was a more refined understanding of the meaning of community agency. I was able to see how City Repair works to respect the agency of communities by allowing neighbors to come to them for assistance, and only provide assistance in ways that are needed by the community, rather than imposing a certain agenda.
Another aspect of City Repair that was different from any other nonprofit I have worked with is the organization’s structure-- it has three co-executive directors. Two of these were what would formally be considered my “supervisors,” but they both cringed when I called them that at the beginning. Rather than being seen as inferior in my position as an intern, I felt like my voice was actually heard and I had a say in my own internship experience, which was amazing!
What is placemaking?
My biggest question going into this internship was: What even is placemaking? I know, this is something I should have known before going into a summer-long commitment. After all, it is one of the central aspects of City Repair’s work.
After my time at City Repair, I have realized that place, and placemaking, do not have just one definition. Even between individuals, the definition changes. One thing that became clear to me was that place is usually centered around community, and this is true for the act of placemaking as well.
One event that was helpful in developing my understanding of placemaking was the repainting of the Woodlawn Farmers Market street painting. By the time I arrived, the repainting was already about halfway finished. I could already tell that the design was beautiful, but the aspect that struck me most was the atmosphere of the event. The street was filled by the spoken word of a local artist and drums played by a talented boy from the neighborhood. Kids squatted on the ground sweeping their brushes of red, blue, green, and yellow across the asphalt. Sometimes the green changed colors depending on how much blue and yellow was mixed in, and once a young kid painted red on a yellow triangle, but that was okay. The goal wasn’t to create the perfect piece of art. I could tell that it was more about bringing the neighborhood together.
I realized as I watched that the repainting event itself was an act of placemaking-- with the music filling the air and the smell of fresh paint drying on the pavement and the last piece of pizza next to a pile of empty pizza boxes.
I attended the Woodlawn Farmers Market street painting toward the beginning of my time in Portland, and it gave me a glimpse of place and placemaking. Throughout the rest of the summer, Mari, Lily, and I helped Ridhi facilitate the creation of a community art piece in Rockwood with the Multnomah Youth Commission’s (MYC) Youth Against Violence committee through a STRYVE (Striving to Reduce Youth Violence Everywhere) funded project. This helped me to see what the actual, extensive process of placemaking actually entails-- all of the community outreach, thinking of community assets, and creative brainstorming that is involved with the process. I’ll go into that more in the next section.
What is DEI?
Before working with City Repair, I understood the meaning of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in a broad sense, but it is never something that I had actively worked with. For our main project, Mari and I helped to further develop City Repair’s DEI program. This involved looking at the past DEI statement created in 2016 and building off of that to help City Repair in more effectively implementing it. We wanted to get a better idea of how community members who are connected with the organization view DEI, so we interviewed community members connected to two organizations-- Mudbone Grown Unity Farm and Greeley Food Forest.
One thing that became clear to me during this project was that there is a huge difference between creating a DEI statement and actually actively doing DEI actions within the organization’s work. We’ve read a lot of DEI statements that on the surface sounded good, but didn’t include any specifics on how it would be carried out.
A definition that stuck out to me during our interviews with community members was DEI as
“making sure people have what they need to be self-sufficient.”
Although it seems so short and simple, I feel like this definition really encompasses a main point in DEI-- the community itself should have agency in making decisions that affect it.
I think I saw the most clear representation of this in City Repair’s work with the MYC. We met with them weekly to help them get ready for their community art nights and the big event that will happen this month. City Repair contributed only in ways that the Youth Commissioners and interns needed, as Ridhi asked what would be most beneficial to the group at the beginning of each meeting. We mostly helped with navigating policies and outreach to the community. Most of the work and decision-making was done by the Youth Commissioners. After attending one of the community art nights, it was amazing to see what could come out of such an amazing youth-led initiative.
Another aspect of Mari and my project was incorporating the representation of non-human species into the DEI statement. Since it is a conservation-focused program, it was important to remain conscious of how conservation connects with the work we did at City Repair. While the inclusion of non-human species is extremely important, it can be tricky to include non-human species in a way that doesn’t overshadow the experiences of the human communities that City Repair works with, so I think that is something that will definitely need to be constantly reflected on and adjusted as needed.
One thing that still concerns me is the barriers that likely exist for communities in terms of awareness about City Repair and the services it has to offer. For example, since many people learn about City Repair through word of mouth, there could be some language barriers as well. While the STRYVE project was a great example of how DEI can actually be incorporated into an organization’s interactions with the community, this is only one example. Different communities have access to different amounts of resources and connections. Going back to the definition of DEI that I mentioned earlier, making sure that communities have what they need to be self-sufficient could include making sure they have awareness about what is available to them. Right now, I don’t have many ideas on how this could be addressed, but I think it is important to think about when considering DEI and accessibility.
Going into the Future
Even though I wasn’t sure what to expect going into this internship with City Repair, I feel so fulfilled by everything I have learned and the relationships I have created this summer. I don’t expect myself to specifically be doing placemaking work in the future, but I will definitely be able to take away some of the things I learned here. Going into the nonprofit and social justice world, I know that I will be working with diverse communities. Understanding and respecting the agency of communities is crucial when it comes to disrupting the systems that marginalize them, as communities can use their own voice rather than being spoken for by others.
The work that we did with DEI is another aspect of this summer that I plan to take with me as I continue in the nonprofit field. I have worked with nonprofits that did not even have a DEI statement, even though they worked with marginalized communities on a regular basis. Working with City Repair has helped me see how DEI has the potential to be implemented in other nonprofit organizations.
On an individual level, working with City Repair has helped me to better understand what my role can be in this work. I know that this is a journey and I will always be learning and growing from my experiences.
Overall I am so thankful for the experience I have had this summer. If only it could have been longer! I am excited to see where I find placemaking and other things I learned from City Repair in future places of my life.
Thanks again for reading! I just want to thank Kirk, Ridhi, the staff at DDCSP for giving me this opportunity, and my fellow interns Mari and Lily for learning and laughing along with me this summer.