Suburban Living and Civic Ritual: An Interview with Citizen Artist jesikah maria ross

Last month, Chief Policy Wonk Arlene Goldbard talked with Citizen Artist jesikah maria ross, a longtime community media activist and documentary producer based in Davis, California. It’s been ten months since jesikah and her neighbors took part in the USDAC’s #DareToImagine national action last October. She wanted to share the impact that arts-based organizing has had in her community and talk about some of the larger questions it raises.

jesikah maria ross: I moved to a neighborhood called Davis Manor in 1998. My husband and I bought our first house here. There were some very big issues rocking the neighborhood, and as an artist-activist I immediately organized a neighborhood association.  Over the next 15 or 20 years we have done an amazing amount of projects from redeveloping our shopping center to planting new street trees and labeling storm drains, installing a traffic circle, all sorts of things.

Over the last few years we’ve not been as active. It occurred to me that we always come together when there’s a problem, and I thought maybe we should do something differently to build our connections and relationships. So two years ago I started these neighborhood happy hours once a month, first Friday. Hanging out with neighbors, we started talking about our shared desire to do some neighborhood projects. We had all these ideas, a lot of them having to do with art and beautification.

We started calling ourselves the Creative Action Team, the CATs. I was getting emails from the USDAC talking about the #DareToImagine event in October, 2015. At the eleventh hour—it was like mid-September for an October event—I came back to the CATs and said, “What do you think if we have this #DareToImagine event?” There was a Neighbors Night Out event planned then for the city of Davis, inviting neighbors to come together and share a meal. The CATs said “Sure, let’s do it for the city event.”

Arlene Goldbard: It sounds as if it was fairly catalytic for you.

jesikah: Yes. This is the first time that I’ve done a participatory art project in my own neighborhood. I’ve spent the past 25 years doing civic storytelling projects all over the world, but never in my own backyard. And I’d also not done a project that wasn’t in response to a problem. Most of my projects are issue-based, a lot of them social-justice oriented.

This is not like some spectacular neighborhood. This is the first suburb of Davis, built in the ‘50s with cookie cutter tract homes, it doesn’t have amenities like the rest of Davis. But we think it’s fabulous and so our frame was “how do we make it more fabulous?”

I also realized the sheer power of doing something delightful. I was invested in a very different way. We basically put it together in three weeks. We all pulled it off and had a good time. There was some aspect of joy and delight and like “let’s put on a show!” That has really captured my own imagination: how do I do that more?

Arlene: Describe some of what happened.

jesikah: We transformed a street into a festival space. From 4-8 pm greeters welcomed people and invited them to roam through five Imagination Stations. The first was a giant neighborhood map, where they could add their names and some skills or interests. There was Curious Corner, where people could talk about how we might improve our neighborhood. We had an Intersection Imagination Station where we printed out copies of the different intersections in our neighborhood and invited people to draw what they’d like to see in those spaces. The one people loved the most was the Time Travel Cabana, a guided journey to the future to see how we had made the Davis Manor this amazing place. We had a circle of hay bales with a Moroccan tea table in the middle, a parklet with a giant seesaw. Then we had a big potluck and let people know that we were going to gather all of the information and have a community meeting as a next step, report back and figure out what we wanted to do. Most people came early and stayed the whole time—about 100 at the peak.

Davis Manor Imagination Station layout

Davis Manor Imagination Station layout

Arlene: What emerged from that?

jesikah: the CATs got very energized. We all kept looking around and thinking “We did this!” And it gave us that lift to say, “Okay, we can carry this forward.” We took the massive amount of data that was generated and compiled and distilled it. About 60 neighbors came to the follow-up meeting. We presented what we’d learned, asked for any clarifications and additions, and then got into affinity groups by different categories, like social events: people wanted to do yoga in the driveway and salsa lessons and a samba parade and movie night.

A lot of people wanted to do something with our very challenged minipark—in terms of who uses it and how they use it and not being a safe place. So there was category about parks and trees and green infrastructure. There was one about a beautification project of some sort like a mural, maybe a street mural, because we don’t have any available walls. We formed workgroups with point people and made plans to call everybody back in a couple months.

In the interim, we found out that there was a grant from our city’s Civic Arts Commission for public art and there was a lot of interest in a street mural. So we wrote a grant and got that.

We’ve continued the monthly happy hours and have been moving towards some of the social events and other workgroup ideas. But our main focus is the street mural—the community designing and painting a mural on asphalt.

We did a whole community design process, an online survey of our neighbors to see what intersections they would prefer, a walking tour to evaluate the sites. In the end, it was the place we had the #DareToImagine event, which had better infrastructure around it for things like a parklet and benches to make it more of a plaza.

#DareToImagine follow-up meeting in Davis Manor.

#DareToImagine follow-up meeting in Davis Manor.

Arlene: You told me you find yourself feeling some unease about how agreeable and supportive this has been. Can you say more?

jesikah: I recognize that it’s a luxury to bring people together absent a problem, for the sake of just making your place better. And I realize it’s a luxury to have such a great group to work with. It’s just I come from a background of working on issues of inequity and justice with diverse groups who are pretty challenged who have pretty immediate needs, and this project has none of that. The work I’ve done in the past feels hard, sometimes unsustainable, often slow. And this went fast. It was a total success. It feels great and we just want to do more.

I think, “Wow, I want to work with fun people who have energy and motivation and are smart in my own backyard to do non-issue-based creative place making.” It’s hard to reconcile that new impulse with my core values and work history.

Arlene: Yet I see what you are doing as trying to create social fabric in response to a real problem: what is life like when social fabric doesn’t really exist and every relationship is ad hoc? You go next door to complain about the noise or discuss where to put your garbage cans on trash collection day. But we have this big dilemma of weaving social fabric in this nation.

Most neighborhoods—especially like where you are, small apartment buildings, single-family houses—are pretty culturally homogeneous usually unless they’re on the cutting edge of gentrification. So those experiences are potentially transferable to different ethnicities, age groups, income levels, and so forth.

They can also build a foundation. This multi-year process of weaving social fabric can create a ground you can come to and layer on other conversations which may not be so congenial and convivial but which people in the neighborhood need to have. Right now in the United States of America it’s really good for white people to talk about what white supremacy is and what we can do to disrupt that. Mostly we don’t sit down with our neighbors and start that conversation. But what would happen if you did? What if you said we’re having a discussion group after happy hour about what’s happening in society right now and how we each feel about it, how we feel implicated and if there’s anything constructive we can do and do you want to come to that too?

jesikah: My personal hope for the whole #DareToImagine event that segued into this amazing community design process is for us to be building our sense of community so that we can have whatever conversations people want to have and see each other as allies, even if we don’t agree or even like each other. It’s about fellowship and complicity.

We had Mark Lakeman from The City Repair Project in Portland who does these street murals come down and do a kickoff party to show examples to get our ideas flowing for our first community design meeting. He used the term re-village. How do you re-village your neighborhood? How do you create a shared sense of terrain and history and a shared future? Not just know your neighbors but come do things with your neighbors. I hope that as we go forward we scaffold these levels of neighborliness.

There’s another term the USDAC introduced me to, the idea of a civic ritual. If I had to draw a through-line from the work I did to form the Davis Manor Neighborhood Council and the work of the CATs to do creative placemaking projects, I feel like it’s about making space for civic ritual. I hadn’t really framed up the problem addressed by that activity. And I think you’re right: it addresses the isolation in suburban living.