laura c. ciocia

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Just Say Yes

Inspired by a Holstee piece  on getting curious about where you are, I recently visited a neighborhood art gallery located just a few blocks from my apartment. But this wasn’t just any gallery. It happened to be located inside of one of Atlanta’s most notorious homeless shelters.  

I’d driven by countless times, and was always curious about it’s contents, but never had the nerve to go in.  How did this creative refuge spring up from what many considered to be an inconvenient symbol of the city’s lingering disparities?

Finally one Thursday afternoon, I scrapped my obligatory errands and decided to devote my lunch break to whatever I found inside.

As I walked through the door, I was warmly greeted by the gallery’s only occupant, an energetic woman named *Paula.  She introduced herself as the curator, and asked what brought me in.

I’m not sure who was more intrigued – me as to how this 70-something, southern lady wound up curating art inside a homeless men’s shelter or her at what was obviously a rare and random midweek visitor.

She gave me a tour of the bright and open space which housed the work of resident artists (who also happened to be homeless) alongside a series of portraits she herself had painted. The portraits featured the names, faces and stories of many of the people who the shelter served.  Her goal was to use art to “humanize” the formerly nameless & voiceless members of the local homeless community.  Midway thru our tour, a gentlemen walked in from the street and proudly pointed out his face on one of the portraits.

When I asked Paula how she became involved, she told me that she had recently retired as an art teacher and realized after a few months painting from home, she was running out of subject matter.  She then got the idea to volunteer with a local shelter.  Her pitch went something like this:  She would teach art to the residents free of charge and in return she would gain access to a whole new community of interesting subjects to paint. 

As a sidenote, Georgia happens to have one of the nation’s highest homeless rates, much of it concentrated right here in Atlanta.  But after a series of “No thank you's” from multiple prospects, Paula began to doubt if her idea would ever find a home.

I wondered why any agency would refuse the donated resources of a seasoned artist with decades of teaching experience.  Paula couldn’t say for sure but reported hearing some variation of “we don’t do that kind of thing here” on more than few occasions.

Ultimately, Paula got her “yes” and the rest is local art history.  But the  early challenges she faced  got me thinking about our tendency to reject ideas and opportunities simply because the originate from “the outside” or feel unfamiliar. And how the guidelines that govern most organizations can, without consistent checks and balances, restrict the very things they were designed to protect.  

Despite her wealth of experience, when it came to teaching art to homeless populations, Roberta was just another outsider.  She wasn’t ushered in through any special connections and had no professional experience working inside a social service agency.   She simply had an idea and a willingness to make it happen.   And by most standards, that’s a pretty good place to start.

But as organizations mature,  their reliance on bureaucracy deepens.  Standardized, template driven solutions might help ensure scalability and protection, but they can be an equally effective antidote to creativity and experimentation.  And the more emphatically we work to maintain those lines of division and regulation, the faster we close ourselves off from the very people we hope to matter to.  Until our reflex response to outsiders and outsider thinking alike, is to just say "No, thank you".

For even the most selfish reasons, we need outsiders.  They have the optimism and objectivity to see what insiders often can’t.  What we’ve sworn off as hopeless, they have the capacity to view with fresh enthusiasm and possibility.

And while not every new idea can or should be implemented, any organization can enable and nurture a culture of YES.   We can adjust our policies to build bridges and not walls.  And we can cultivate the kinds of partnerships and programs that embrace outsiders while encouraging outsider thinking from our own.  Because saying yes to that one small thing just might be the catalyst for something extraordinary.

...like an art gallery inside a homeless shelter.  

Laura CiociaComment