As we continue to explore the transformative power of art and creativity, I am reminded of the city of Detroit's latest woes. I'll be brief. They are here and they exist--on that we can all agree. But hope and vision exist, equally! This is not a utopian, rose colored glasses way of thinking. It is reality. It's possible, just possible, that it has to become really, really dark before the dawn. I believe the reason that there is an international spotlight on Detroit is because most of us, around the world, realize that what has happened in Detroit can happen anywhere and at any time. We're all just one step away from blight, economic ruin or any number of catastrophes for that matter.
If you stop and reflect for a moment, you will find that most of us are lost in our own cognitive conditioning. We think primarily from that which we already know. When our way of life and systems break down, we want the problems fixed immediately so that our comfort levels are not disturbed. When we rush to fix, the results are usually band-aid solutions or the new trend of the day (think "Cool Cities"). Is there something to be learned from Detroit? You betcha! We've hosted 100 years of industry and have now come full circle at this particular time in history. Now what? Now, it's time for change! Authentic change, however, begins with changing the mind. Yes, it is possible that in the heart of dark and bleak chaos, new possibilities are waiting to be discovered.
This is one of the most basic yet compelling principles of the Heidelberg Project (HP). Hardship and challenges have taught us not to take our mission--changing lives and communities through art--casually. Before I get into a concrete example, I feel it's important to make a disclaimer: It's not that we are so smart, have found a magic bullet or studied at some major academic institution that has lead to such gripping outcomes. Over the years--27 to be exact--we had to learn patience and allow ourselves to be taught. After all, we were at ground zero; there was no place to go but up. In the midst of all our trials and challenges, there was always a flicker of hope--something or someone waiting to be discovered--that kept us forging ahead.
Below is a real story of a man whose life changed as a result of his experience with the HP. Due to the sensitive nature, we will call him James:
James is a middle-aged man who lived around the block from the HP nearly his entire adult life. He often watched the activities taking place on Heidelberg Street, but didn't understand or think much about what he saw. Over a period of time, James lost his job, his family and became homeless. Sometime in 2009, James and Tyree had a conversation. Soon after, James began carving canes, something he'd always done as a hobby. After a few months, James became a regular on Heidelberg Street, working with Tyree and working on his canes. A few years later, James became part of the staff and today is one of the HP's most loyal employees. One of his greatest moments was when he sold one of his canes on Heidelberg Street. I asked him how much he sold it for and he said $50. "Man," I replied, "Next time, let me do the negotiations. I could have gotten you at least $200." We still laugh about it today.
Great story, right? It's heartwarming, and no doubt similar to many stories you have heard before. But here is the clincher: When asked by a local reporter why he was so loyal to the HP, James replied, "The Heidelberg Project taught me that I have the power to change my situation, my circumstances, my life." What's equally compelling is that James not only spoke those words, he consistently demonstrates his actions through his work and by becoming a donor.
Our stories don't stop with James. All people, whether they are rich or poor, black or white, educated or not, have shared stories of how the HP changed or touched their lives. To be sure, there is something to gain when we open our minds to creative possibilities. Art is not only transformative, art is life. It's food for the soul.