Pickett Endowment Grantee Blog: Quakerism and Design: Creating community: By Julia Thompson
In April to mid-June, I was working with an organization called Youth Spirit Artworks (YSA) to support the design and build process of an outdoor art space referred to as an ArtLot. YSA is an organization that is committed to empowering homeless and low-income youth through art job training in Berkeley, California.
My personal passion is to explore the intersection of engineering and spirituality. I hold a Ph.D., and have researched extensively using service-learning as a way to teach engineering skills. The Pickett fellowship has allowed me to expand on this work, and to work directly with a community on a design project, one that was rooted in Quaker values.
Through this experience, I was able to work with youth, staff, community members, and architects to push forward the design and build of the ArtLot. We threw out rubbish that had been collecting in the area, weeded, stained benches, stabilized benches, and built trellises. We had a number of meetings to discuss the space, and volunteer days to get things built.
Personally, the experience has given me a lot of insight into my gifts and limitations. I experienced the chaos, mess, and love that are present through life. Below are three lessons: my problem-solving mindset, me as a community organizer, and a valuable lesson of homelessness and God.
My Problem-Solving Mindset
There were a number of things that needed to be figured out associated with building the ArtLot, and I loved putting on my brainstorming hat and can-do attitude to accomplish these tasks. For example, there were beautiful benches, which had been designed by an architect student, and there had been a series of volunteer days to build them before I got there. One of the first weeks I was there, a number of volunteers worked with youth to stain them. However, there were a number of structural issues with the benches. The benches were designed to fold up, yet the front legs would collapse if you leaned back, the bench was wobbly, and the front legs were shorter than the back – each one being different heights. One of the professional architects and I examined them closely and figured out a way to make them stable. First, we measured each front leg to determine how far off the ground it was. Based on this measurement, we cut off that height from the associated back leg. We also attached nylon webbing and made it taught to reduce the wobble and make sure the front legs would not collapse. Currently, all the benches are relatively flat and stable. This process of identifying an issue, figuring out a solution, and following through with it, was completely satisfying, and I recognize this as something that aligns well with my gifts and skill sets.
Me as a community organizer
This experience was a bit more than I expected. I put myself out there on a number of occasions and felt drained when things did not go as planned. Many times I felt like I was pushing the project too fast, and others were not as interested in being engaged. In the process, I learned a lot about myself; however, I often felt that I had jumped into the deep end.
I would like my next experience to be more in the terms of wading. I am opening myself to opportunities to assist in facilitation experiences, working under mentors who have gifts and experience of holding space. Also, I want to work with communities who have a desire and intention to be present.
My current goal is to run retreats in the next three to five years where artists, designers, architects, engineers, and others can reflect on what it means to build the world with integrity.
God and Homelessness
I would say the most profound lesson I learned about homelessness was talking to one young man. He arrived in Berkeley from New Jersey, following a meditation guru. He spoke of his love for this guru, and his devotion to meditation and yoga. Up until that point, there was a naïve and arrogant part of me that believed that it was only through my privilege in this world that I was able to seek God the way I have, and strive to live out my vocation. As I talked to this man, I was touched and I recognized how human is this urge which I have, and how it is not limited by wealth and privilege. We are all children of God.
Overall, I am extremely appreciative for this opportunity and the incredible support from various communities. Many people supported me in various ways throughout this journey, from holding me in the Light to giving me places to stay. I am deeply blessed and utterly grateful.