Empowering the Everyday Landscape

Empowering the Everyday Landscape

by SAMANTHA SOLANO

The people themselves are the future.
— Saul Alinsky, 1946

Empowerment is a highly contested concept. It can neither be fully measured nor defined. It can vary in scale and impact. It can be experienced as an individual and/or as a collective whole. Yet, in spite of such ambiguity, it can resonate with all of us. At its core, empowerment is guided by vision, responsibility, authenticity, empathy and love. It is a most sacred concept which invites the individual or group to experience the power of intention and prosper according to their own values. With the challenges we are faced with as a society—violent acts of terrorism and intolerance, racial, gender and religious bigotry, and socio-economic disparities—we must take responsibility if we are to evoke change. When we accept that something is bigger than us, that we cannot make a difference—that is when we fail. The questions we must ask become: what are we going to do about it?

The everyday landscape is where life happens. It, too, can neither be absolutely measured nor defined.  It is an experience. It is an interpretation. Yet—again—we all understand what it is, by placing emphasis on what it means to us personally, intimately. The quotidian impacts our quality of life and shapes us as we shape it. We are emotionally connected to it and it is connected to us. The human experience is attached to the implications of space, and fittingly with such importance, our experience of space is key in the empowerment process. The everyday landscape has the ability and opportunity to transform individuals and societies, through the powers of the aforementioned pillars: vision, responsibility, authenticity, empathy and love. Imagine a world that operated by these understandings! For some, it’s about reclaiming ownership of space. For others, it’s about creating opportunity. A truly empowered landscape is one that inspires—one that can create a ripple effect to magnify a local perspective into a global movement. One could say it starts with individual empowerment—only then is it translated outward, affecting and inspiring others into achieving the same empowerment. In other words, it starts with you!

The Power of the Individual

It starts with me, me being you. It starts with self-discovery. What is important to me? What makes me, me? What values do I respect and uphold? How do I see myself out in the world? What impact am I going to create for my future and the future of others? These are very important questions that only scratch the surface of self-actualization: the realization of your purpose, your vision.

How do you accomplish this? Try to remember that time in your life when you could do anything. There were no limits to the possibilities that you created. You were free of judgment and loved openly. Perhaps…when you were five. Now, ask yourself those same questions, but imagine that your five-year-old self is answering. What would s/he say? How would s/he say it? Remember how you had all the answers and didn’t doubt the reality of them. Notice the conviction and enthusiasm! Most likely, your answers would resonate with you and either align with your current visions or they can open the doors to possibilities that you had unwittingly shut out. Realize your vision, commit yourself to it, and spread it around. Understand that you have the ability to create if you are committed to that vision. You must accept that it is your responsibility to realize your dreams. You can be true to yourself and in touch with what you really want. You should aim to embrace and understand others without judgement. You can accept yourself and accept others.  Endeavor to share these gifts with others and greatness shall be on the horizon.

Furthermore, you have heard the saying “dream big;” empowerment exists when we “dream big together.” We must be able to think beyond ourselves and think collaboratively as well. Thinking and acting selfishly does not accomplish anything in the long term—such actions are mere impulses of instant gratification that result in emptiness because you can’t share it with anyone. In order to empower the everyday landscape, beyond empowering yourself, you must be open to sharing your empowerment and receiving the support of others in creating something larger than yourself. 

The Power of the Community

It takes an empowered village to change a village, and The Women’s Opportunity Center (WOC) in Kayonza, Rwanda (one hour from Kigali) stands as a unique example of an everyday landscape that is both empowered and inspiring. Sharon Davis, an architectural designer, visited the village in 2009 and found the community facing economic hardships and struggling with limited access to everyday needs. Approximately 15 years prior to Davis’ visit was the Rwandan Genocide, which left the country and its families torn, and left many women without their husbands or their ability to marry. Davis’s set out with her vision along with Women for Women International (WfWI) to create a community center “to help female survivors of war start businesses to support themselves and their families.” This center provides the women access to “life-changing skills that will empower them to move from crisis and poverty to stability and economic self-sufficiency.” It was designed as a meeting place that bridges the gap between urban buyers and rural farmers. The local women of Kayonza took responsibility in constructing the 450,000 bricks that were used to create the structures, and thus created ownership and pride in the very thing that will continue to empower. These women became empowered by finding that they were able to identify and act on a new possibility. And despite the assistance was catalyzed by an outside source, the positive impact is what matters. The ability to acknowledge that you need support and receive that support with full commitment to seeing it through enables an authentic empowerment experience—mutual assistance is crucial: No wo/man is an island.

In a different continent, a community is thriving with color. The residents of the Santa Maria informal settlement in Rio de Janeiro have transformed their community from a once resented and feared area into a living canvas that breathes life into the everyday. In these areas of Rio de Janeiro, “raw sewage trickles down the winding paths, shootouts between drug dealing gangs and police are a daily ritual,” creating a foreboding and undesirable landscape. The Favela Painting Project was envisioned by Dutch artists Dre Urhahn and Jeroen Koolhaas, who visited the Santa Maria favela and saw the opportunity to empower the local residents to create pride and ownership throughout their environment: “We wanted to do something that would give them an opportunity to become painters and that would call attention to the outside world to their situation,” Urhahan said. The project covers 34 buildings and has attracted tourists worldwide, boosting the morale and self-esteem of community and its surroundings. Although, crime has not abated much in these areas yet, the locals are now able to at least envision a community where they live differently. They have reason and a hope to believe in alternative outcomes and to believe that they can be the ones to make a change. A glimpse of potential was given to them and it is now their responsibility to act on that potential on a larger scale.

And back in the United States, approximately 49 million Americans suffer from food insecurity, with nearly one-third being children, according to the USDA.  The USDA defines food insecurity as a lack of access to enough food for an active, healthy life. Across such everyday landscapes however, there various organizations striving to engender a more sustainable and “equitable” food system.  In Seattle, Washington, Fare Start is a nonprofit working to address the food security issue by preparing meals for school lunches, childcare centers and homeless shelters using healthy, fresh and local food. The program uses the revenue generated from the school lunches and contracted meals to provide the disadvantaged, homeless men and women and at-risk teens with job training and placement programs. Since the program’s start in 1992, they have graduated more than 150 students –with eighty percent being able to find “living-wage” employment. What is important to note about Fare Start is its “full-circle” approach to changing our food system through creating an economy of empowerment.  They are creating that ripple by providing more than 6 million meals to men, women and children who are disadvantaged in their community. The program’s success has inspired the launch of Catalyst Kitchens, which is working to bring similar programming to other communities across the nation. By only sourcing local farmers for their food supply, they are able to support the local economy as well and aim to create a sustainable market that improves school lunch nutrition for more than 250,000 children. They are creating a landscape of legacy that benefits more than one demographic. When you want to empower, give people a reason to be empowered.

The Power of Global Civilization

The ripple effect is the most feasible way to enact widespread empowerment: one action that inspires and empowers another. Globally, we can achieve empowerment, although it may look different across various landscapes and take on many scales. The global milieu can become one in which people choose to act from love and not hate, responsibility and not blame, vision and not complacency. There is no singular answer on how to achieve this due to the world’s immensity, but in today’s age the world has the potential to see across borders and boundaries. We have the power to create “viral” movements. Instead of us “sharing” acts of hate, selfishness, and vanity, let us share acts of empowerment. Whatever we pay attention to, gets attention. It’s fascinating how fast trivialities can spread across the social landscape, so just imagine if we could spread inspiration and empowerment at the same scale and speed as the latest celebrity highlight!

We see it, we know it’s there, but we think it’s too big of an issue to handle, so we leave it alone –someone else will take care of it. And yet, imagining this speed, daunting causes doesn’t seem so out of reach. And, most of the time, nothing is solved because not enough of us are doing something about it, or if we are, deep-seated structural problems, global geo-politics, corporations “doing” something about poverty as an excuse to interfere with sovereignty, and other misguided ventures into neocolonialism actually antagonize the problem (a conversation for another time).

Nonetheless, the power of "going viral", so to speak, has incredible value. The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, for example, raised over $100 million through the viral migration of the simple act of dumping ice on your head. People do want to be a part of something and feel as if they are contributing to something greater, and this is testament to that. We just have to be aware and empathetic of the realities of everyone we share this planet with. We joke about “first-world problems” without true regard to more pressing concerns elsewhere. Is it really an issue your iPhone charger is too short to reach from your outlet to your nightstand? No. Global empowerment must stem from empathy, let’s drop the ignorance. And again, it starts with you, with us, to change the dialogue. This is an ambitious task to be sure, and may not be accomplished within our lifetime—yet planting the seeds and empowering others to reap, will be a major step in directing ourselves forward.

We do not occupy the everyday landscape alone. We share our homes, our neighborhoods, our places of work and play with others who are also shaped by this landscape. To combat the issues inherent in the modern landscape, it takes commitment. Taking the attributes of individual empowerment and reflecting them onto the collective whole takes inspiration. We must inspire others towards a vision that benefits the greater good. We need to focus on the individual gifts each person brings to the landscape, which will encourage in them commitment, generosity and pride. The citizens of the everyday get to reclaim their space and take ownership and responsibility for where they live. This, in turn, enables the group or community to become increasingly self-sufficient. We are a culture driven by consumerism—we rely on others and their services to accommodate our everyday needs. And as we become more dependent, we lose control and when we lose control we lose hope. Empowerment restores hope, and after that it only takes commitment and vision to realize an alternative possibility. We are the future, and whatever we decide to do today impacts our tomorrow. The question then remains: what are we going to do about it?

References

Block, Peter. Community: The Structure of Belonging. San Francisco. Berrett-Koehler, 2008. Print

Block, Peter. McKnight, John. The Abundant Community: Awakening the Power of Families and Neighborhoods. [Chicago]: American Planning Association, 2010. Print.

Darlington, Shasta. “Rio Slum Transformed into Canvas Bursting with Color” November 17, 2010. CNN. Accessed 16 Jul 2015. http://www.cnn.com/2010/WORLD/americas/11/17/brazil.beautiful.favela/

McKeough, Tim. "An Empowering Women’s Center in Rwanada" Nov 2013. Architectural Digest. Accessed 16 Jul 2015. http://www.architecturaldigest.com/architecture/2013-11/sharon-davis-architectural-design-womens-opportunity-center-kayonza-rwanda.

Melino, Cole. “4 Innovative Community Food Projects Empowering Low-Income Residents” 05 Jan 2015. EcoWatch. http://ecowatch.com/2015/01/05/food-projects-empower-residents/

Resnikoff, Ned. “Food Insercuity is at a Historic Highs and Getting Worse” 21 April 2014. MSNBC. Accessed 19 Jul 2015. http://www.msnbc.com/msnbc/hunger-the-us-historic-highs

"Women’s Opportunity Center / Sharon Davis Design" 03 Oct 2013. ArchDaily. Accessed 17 Jul 2015. <http://www.archdaily.com/433846/women-s-opportunity-center-sharon-davis-design/

 

Samantha Solano can be reached at solano@aesirlab.com.

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