‘Hey Alex, Can We Start A Neighborhood Repair And Design Shop?’~Raheem + Tyree.

Posted on October 11th, 2012 at 6:31 pm by in Our Work

‘Hey Alex, Can We Start A Neighborhood Repair And Design Shop?’~Raheem + Tyree.

One would think that this question, coming just two weeks into launching our beta version of TinyWPA, would send me over the moon. Shoot, after just two weeks, a motley crop of uninitiated  #teendesignheroes in Philly ‘got it’ and wanted more. And they didn’t just want MORE, they were looking to initiate their own projects with their community to make the neighborhood better.

To be sure, I was pleased as punch but believe it or not, this hasn’t been the best thing about launching TinyWPA.

That moment came late in the afternoon, five days earlier, when Raheem, John, Thuy, and I were working diligently on the team’s benches (pictured above). Carefully chiseling notches, gluing the supporting struts, and designing as we went, a shared joyful intent of purpose descended over the group. For the first time, playful ‘smack talk’–a true sign of trust, mutual appreciation, and comfort–appeared. The value of this ‘smack talk’ when designing and building with teenagers cannot be understated. When this form of ‘play’ starts to appear, it typically means that the young adults not only feel a degree of general ‘safety’ with us (an important foundation for great things happening) but it translates into a larger confidence within the participatory design process to challenge our ideas and toss out their own. It represents a turning point. Indeed, for the first time we were a team–co-learning, designing, and building–and we were better individually and as a whole because of each person who was there. This is one key ‘snapshot’ of my vision not just for TinyWPA but also the future of learning and civic innovation.

To be frank, I didn’t expect this moment to come so soon and that afternoon I nearly had to step away from the building area and pinch myself to believe it was truly happening.

One of the most undervalued components of accomplishing fantastic things–and a cornerstone of growing TinyWPA and ensuring that it has great impact–is taking the time to build a culture of greatness. Cultures of greatness don’t come easily. One one hand they require a funder, city, or service provider to take the long view for impact–understanding the value of starting small and the tactic of eventually leveraging the talented team members that you take the time to grow and their successes to reach a much larger audience than you would be able to otherwise. Furthermore, developing a culture of greatness requires a distinct physical and/or mental space in which people believe they can accomplish things that others think are impossible; where there is a degree of social pressure and responsibility to one another that pushes everyone to do their very best; and a place in which people feel safe enough to ‘fail’.

That ‘pinch me’ moment with Raheem, Thuy, and John was the beginning of TinyWPA‘s culture of greatness and it shouldn’t have come so early because initially–given the constraints we were working with–the aforementioned pieces for creating one simply weren’t there. But there it was, a snapshot of the future of our work in Philadelphia (and other places too if TinyWPA expands to other cities and we create a movement, as I would like).

Then again, a lot of things surrounding the development of TinyWPA this summer have been surprising. Despite actually having little time to share the work, the response from potential collaborators, funders, and people I don’t even know has been incredible. People just seem to ‘get it’ and immediately recognize the potential on so many levels.

This fall we are excited to work with the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, our collaborators at the Department of Making + Doing, and others to develop the program and pursue funding to support a more comprehensive initiative. A proto-TinyWPA program in Chicago that we are creating for a client is going gangbusters and we are heading to Flint, MI in late October to do a micro-TinyWPA project with teens. Locally, Drexel University’s Office of University and Community Partnerships, the North 5th Revitalization Project, and community organizations surround Benson Park have all committed to doing TinyWPA projects in the coming year.

Perhaps most importantly, we are going to be working with the Village For Arts And Humanities to realize Tyree and Raheem’s desire to create a neighborhood repair and design shop , and launch a micro-enterprise around producing the benches pictured above. This is going to be a tremendous mechanism for growing our team and the culture of greatness around TinyWPA that will allow us to do amazing things, and ultimately make Philadelphia the national model for how we engage young adults in the design of their cities.

And while there are a lot of challenges ahead, this all means that pretty soon I will get to have ‘pinch me’ moments everyday and that makes smile more than you can possibly imagine.

Currently we are wrapping up the designing and building of phase one our main project, a market canopy for Philly Earth and community members who would like to sell things. We will be having an opening and celebration in late September. You should come!

Want to see more pictures from the project and learn about the process thus far? Click here.