Imagine Miami … Arts, Placemaking and Civic Engagement

In 2007, I was hired by Danielle Levine-Cava (now County Commissioner Levine-Cava) as director of the Imagine Miami initiative of Catalyst Miami, which was then called Human Services Coalition.

In my new role, I examined the results of a recent survey of Miami residents completed by the organization. Most of the Miamians who responded said no one else cared about Miami. At the same time, they said that they cared, however. Apparently, Miami residents with a civic spirit needed to find each other!

I realized that the initiative needed to build social capital and bring all these changemakers together, and it would take a lot of preliminary research on my part to find grassroots leaders who weren’t being included, invited or given a voice in gatherings of Miami’s “civic leaders.”

Gathered together, I figured, seasoned and aspiring changemakers could share and learn about local community-serving projects. They could exchange ideas and resources, embark on new collaborations, and built the capacity to deeper the impact of their efforts. Miamians could inspire each other.

I wrote a new mission for the initiative: “We build bridges between groups online and face-to-face through civic networking, fostering the creative collaboration that increases impact. We spark hope and civic spirit by helping people share ideas, tools and examples of how to get involved in communities and neighborhoods.”

Imagine Miami Summit on Arts, Culture & Civic Engagement

Building on my background in community arts, I launched Miami’s first Summit on Arts and Civic Engagement, partnering with the National Endowment for the Arts’ Animating Democracy initiative. In preparation for the event, I formed the organization’s first internship program, working in partnership with Miami Dade College’s Honors College. The young and talented students from the Honors College helped in the planning and implementation of the summit, as all festival staff besides the summit director (Jean Blackwell Font) and myself were volunteers.

Imagine Miami interns (from Miami Dade College’s Honors program) at their graduation; I was one of their invited speakers.

The Summit itself was an all-day event featuring a warm-up activity led by Cuban American theater and transdisciplinary artist Octavio Campos, a keynote presentation by Barbara Schafer-Bacon (co-director of Americans for the Arts’ Animating Democracy project); presentations/case studies by the organizers of 13 different local arts/eco/culture/civic projects, and an exhibit space highlighting additional arts/civic projects.

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Octavio Campos leading an arts activity related to equity.

We also held four hands-on workshops led by local and national experts (including how to develop an arts project with civic impact, and how to collaborate across sectors); a World Café dialogue among participants, which I facilitated; and a closing, community-building activity led by Miami performance artist Lela Lombardo.

World Cafe
World Cafe at the Summit

At two after-parties, local artists for social change help build awareness of local organizations like the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, which has an impressive track record of efforts to protect farmworkers in South Florida and beyond.

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Participatory arts activity at the summit, led by Lela Lombardo.

The Summit was an enormous success. (See a Flickr feed with photos from the Summit.)

Participants described it as “uplifting, connecting, energizing and transformative.” In a post-event survey, more than half of participants said they had met at least one potential collaborating partner and 95 percent said they were now interested in forming an arts and civic engagement project. Attendees, volunteers and presenters were very diverse in race, ethnicity, age, ability and sector.

One person wrote: “You wanted to create a network of collective voices with ‘making Miami-Dade a better place’ as the goal … you saw how many people were ready to the same. I think they all found new ways to realize those goals after your Summit.”

I felt inspired to develop additional participatory processes for expanding cross-sector, multiracial collective action. I decided to develop a series of Imagine Miami Changemaker Conferences, with each conference building on the previous event.

The Imagine Miami Changemaker Conferences (2008-2009)

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Volunteer at the conference. I hired an artist to create this mural “Wishing Tree” for participant wishes. Photo by Richard Benitez.

Thanks to the success of the Summit, I began planning the Imagine Miami Changemaker Conferences, which were funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Children’s Trust, and the Green Family Foundation. In-kind support was provided by Miami Dade College and the community video project of local public TV station and PBS-affiliate WPBT.

I began by forming a diverse and actively involved Advisory Council and recruiting a large team of additional volunteers. Core advisors and volunteers included Sam Van Leer, founder of the Urban Paradise Guild, Linda McGlathery of the Homeless Garden Project, Harold Silva of Miami Dade College’s Institute for Civic Engagement and Democracy, Roger Horne of Belafonte TACOLCY youth center (and now director of Urban GreenWorks) Brad Knoefler of the Omni/Park West Redevelopment Association; Luz Agudelo, a Public Ally who was working with Little Havana residents. Interns included Alexandra Torres (now a News Producer for Telemundo!) and Peace Corps alum Julia Atkinson.

Imagine Miami Changemaker Conference II Placemaking at Miami Dade ...

The first all-day conference (April 4, 2009) focused on asset-based approaches (leveraging community strengths); storytelling for social impact; and community dialogue techniques. At each conference, attendees learned from local and non-local case studies shared by community members themselves. I always facilitated a WorldCafe community dialogue, too.

The second conference, and the last conference I directed before leaving the organization, took place on July 18, 2009. It focused on placemaking and public spaces. More than 200 emerging and seasoned community leaders from across South Florida learned how to create and sustain public spaces, inspired by real-life examples of how residents are transforming local places. Exhibits showcased local place-focused community projects.

Cynthia Nikitin of the New York-based Project for Public Spaces delivered the keynote, and I led a World Café dialogue.

In hands-on workshops, participants learned to use innovative place-related tools and approaches for advocacy, resident engagement and community development, including community mapping and GIS, asset mapping, and placemaking tools developed by Project for Public Spaces (PPS). Dwayne Marsh of PolicyLink and community GIS-specialist Jacqueline Sartan of the University of Miami demonstrated online community mapping tools.

In her placemaking workshop, Nitikin had residents break into groups and use the PPS Place Evaluation tool to evaluate specific sites near the conference building, which was held in downtown Miami.

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Participants in a WorldCafe dialogue at the Imagine Miami Changemaker Conference. Photo by Richard Benitez.

I also created a “Pitch-Your-Project” activity, inspired by my involvement in a Pitch-It activity at We Media conferences in Miami.

For the Imagine Miami “Pitch-Your-Project,” conference attendees could win $500 for their local place-based project. To apply, local groups submitted a one-page proposal to create/improve a local public space. At the conference, we displayed project posters created by the ten semi-finalists. Conference attendees voted for their favorite projects using sticky dots and had a space below the posters to write comments and suggestions.

The three finalists (determined during the conference) had five minutes each to pitch their project to a panel of judges, with additional time to answer questions from the judges and conference attendees. Judges included representatives from The Children’s Trust and the Funders’ Network for Smart Growth and Livable Communities, as well as Cynthia Nikitin of Project for Public Spaces and myself.

For attendees with children, I made sure that kids had eco-educational activities all day, led by Kiki Mutis, director of the Community Science Workshop at Citizens for a Better South Florida, and environmental educator Sofie Geckler.

I hired a black-owned business to cater the event with healthy and sustainable food provided by local urban gardens, and asked Devyn Browne, then of the Overtown Cookbook project, to document the urban gardens where the food was sourced and the rest of the process of planning and preparing the meal. We screened the film during the lunch. I co-produced the film, which also highlighted the and the urban garden projects of the Urban Paradise Guild and Belafonte TACOLCY youth center. Unfortunately, I do not know what happened to this film after I left the organization.

Below is a video documenting the conference. Because I was going through year-long religious initiation as a priest of Regla de Ocha (Santería) at this time, I was not supposed to be videotaped or photographed, which is why I am absent from the film.

We incorporated the arts too, with aculminating drumming activity led by local artist/activist Lela Lombardo and drum educator Ras Mo Moses and spoken word by artist Rebecca “Butterfly” Vaughns. I had the idea to fill used plastic water bottles with seeds; participants used them like shakers/maracas. Later they were allowed to keep the seeds and plant them.

I’d like to think that this conference and the pitch competition inspired our main funder for the conference, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, to launch its Public Space Challenge four years later, in 2013.

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Concluding arts activity led by Lela Lombardo. Photo by Richard Benitez.

Conversation Cafes and the Imagine Miami Pledge

In the months that followed, I facilitated other community dialogues and launched a series of themed “Conversation Cafes”–small-scale discussions that took place in different neighborhoods. I also created an online community and resource-sharing site for Imagine Miami using the Ning platform.

Another favorite project I launched was the Imagine Miami Pledge. I gathered more than 100 pledges from Miami residents, who made a specific pledge for how they wanted to help Miami. Below is a screenshot from the site where we posted those pledges. I’m working on a digital project to share all of these pledges again.

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Unfortunately, the organization was running short of funds to pay for my position, and kept changing my job description. I was also feeling under-appreciated for my contributions and I did not want to take a pay cut.

My entrepreneurial spirit called, and I decided to return to running my own business.