Notes on Words

for Writers, Readers, Logophiles and Logorrhetics

Freelance administration and community engagement — April 29, 2014

Freelance administration and community engagement

We the Weeds Story Elicitation event
Original artwork exhibited by community members at the Conestoga Recreation Center in West Philadelphia

Of the many hats I’ve been wearing lately, “freelance administrator” feels like it’s the weirdest.

It’s the latent romanticism of the word “freelance” that seems so out of place next to the grasping boredom inherent in the word “administrator.” I think that if you told dreamy eight year old me that I’d be making most of my paycheck in this way in – what – twenty years? – I’d not only be horrified, I’d be extremely skeptical.

“Administration” is an odd tangle of “in charge” and “subservient.” Obviously, the administrator is there to do things for other people. I kind of like it because of its position in the background; as an administrator, I get to help others, help in the operations of an event. Type A people make plans, and I make sure that there’s follow-through.

I enjoy follow-through. I hate to see a good plan go to waste because no one spent the time – or had the time – to implement it fully. Starting a project and then dropping it is way more disenchanting than never starting it at all.

The “freelancer” idea of course comes from the concept of the mercenary, the “free lance” – someone whose sword is free of commitments to any country or corporation. Don Quixote comes to mind. And goofy as he is, you just can’t see him sitting down and ensuring that the invoices are processed properly. You don’t imagine him with a typewriter nestled against his horse’s neck, as the two of them stand idiosyncratically on the open plain. No, he has a spear.

At Mural Arts, I’m now a four-days-per-week “administrator.” My title is actually “Project Coordinator,” which sounds way sexier. I work with two projects: journey2home (check out the blog, which I’m now running) and Restored Spaces.

I’m getting a chance to work within communities and try to engage people in Mural Arts’ efforts to improve the city. It’s not something I’ve ever focused on before, and it certainly isn’t the direction that my own art points in, but it’s interesting, the people are wonderful, the effects are glorious, and I’m learning a lot. Here’s a taste of the kind of community-based work we do, in my first article on the Mural Arts blog.

I may not have a horse or a spear, but I have a laptop, a bike, and no loyalties. And if you have room in your budget, I’ll administrate your arts business.

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70 x 7 The Meal, act XXXIV — October 7, 2013

70 x 7 The Meal, act XXXIV

By the time the federal government shutdown was made official, most people already knew it was going to happen. I was dreading it – it meant that 70 x 7 The Meal, act XXXIV, which I was working on with Philly’s outrageously well-known Mural Arts Program, wouldn’t be able to happen.

A 900-person meal featuring food designed by Philly’s top chef Marc Vetri, it was to be the 34th in a series of massive, all-inclusive, community-oriented dining experiences formulated by Paris-based artists Lucy + Jorge Orta; the coming-together of so many people, and the discussion focusing on specific issues important to Philadelphia’s community, is a work of art in and of itself. The plates and the table runner were designed specifically for this event, and everyone who sat at the table was to be part of a piece of visual and performative art. But it was meant to be set at Philly’s historic Independence Hall National Park – a manicured lawn spanning more than two blocks in front of Independence Hall, and also a federal park.

Luckily, at very much the last minute, a relocation was green-lighted: to the Thomas Paine Plaza at the Municipal Services Building overlooking City Hall. Few Philadelphians know the name of the space, but everyone knows the space, with its oversized statue of Frank Rizzo tripping down the stairs, and its even more memorable (and massive) Monopoly hat and wheelbarrow, Sorry pieces, toppling dominos, and bingo tokens scattered about. An odd space clustered somewhat fecklessly with public art gone to rust (beside the graffitied game pieces and Rizzo, there’s also an oddly-proportioned Ben Franklin at a Gutenberg press, as well as the blubbery Covenant of the People), it’s at least as eye-catching and Philly-centric as Love Park across the street, if less famous and well-loved.

Honestly, the Thomas Paine Plaza is the kind of space I adore: I have no idea how it was every green-lighted, it’s bizarrely accessible and yet not. It also makes for a pretty fantastic setting for a dinner on a sunny day:

The game pieces signify that Philly works hard, plays hard.
Dude named Michael brought me up in the scissor lift for a grand perspective.

My role in the project was to coordinate RSVPs and oversee recruitment and training of the 130 volunteers needed to make things run smoothly. All told, a successful event. Everyone seemed pretty pleased, and because of the considerable amount of support I had in that role, the volunteers were well-oriented and knew what they were doing.

Volunteers hard at work delivering bread
The tables while they were still partially empty

The tables took some time to fill up. They never did, not completely. Though every seat was RSVPed for, some didn’t show.

During the entire setup, these dudes were watching one-another fall off their skateboards and cheering.
Loved it.

Which was cool, because that meant that we got to invite the general public in – people who otherwise  would never have heard about the event, despite Mural Arts’ publicizing it pretty broadly, or may never have thought of themselves as the kinds of people who would sign up for it.

The goal was to have all types sitting together at the same table.
Those are volunteers, in the aprons.

Volunteers, too, all got to take places at the table and enjoy the beautiful food.

The beautiful food
was all made from heirloom vegetables and fruits.

And some people who wanted a more intimate dining experience could have it.

Rocking the end of the table.
Like these guys.

When the tables filled up, they made for gorgeous images.

Check out the gorgeous table runner, designed and produced in Paris.

In some cases, we were very successful:

And people seemed to really talk about the issues: heirloom fruits and vegetables, whether they are important, and how to save them from extinction.
People seemed to really talk about the issues: heirloom fruits and vegetables, whether they are important, and how to save them from extinction.

Then everyone went home, and City Hall presided over the breakdown:

Who can tell me what that building is in the background, with the pink lights?
Always brightly lit.

Coolest project I’ve worked on in a while. My bosses were talented and dedicated, my volunteers, particularly those from the staff at Mural Arts, were devoted, creative and straightforward about performing their tasks. Our partners were wonderful to work with. And as much as The Meal would have been gorgeous at Independence Mall, the gritty inner city setting, not to mention the last-minute scramble, added an extra layer of meaning which I would have been absent otherwise. After all, as a space that’s normally clustered with Philly’s homeless community, it was the site of a public memorial for homeless citizens last winter, and in 2011 was the site of a minor scuffle between police and Occupy Philadelphia.

Also, my girlfriend came in at the last minute and worked for nearly twenty hours on the project as a sort of Chief Volunteer, making mine and a lot of other people’s jobs a hell of a lot easier. So go her.

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