Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Paulo Gregory Harris

I first heard about Paulo Gregory Harris from a mutual friend in the nonprofit world. In one of those moments of "Smalltimore" serendipity, the day after I received the call from my friend, I saw Harris talk about issues of race at the Stoop Storytelling series. His story was funny, touching, and nuanced, and I resolved then to profile him for this blog.

In conversation, Paulo projects a quiet intensity. He looks at you straight in the eye and chooses his words with care. He is also warm, genuine, and generous with his time. I spoke to him at Gutierrez Studios in Clipper Mill.

The bench moves just a little when you sit on it. That's only one of the distinctive properties of the appropriately named Bench That Gives.

The brainchild of artist Paulo Gregory Harris, the bench is produced through a partnership with Gutierrez Studios. Harris' vision encompasses not just form and function, but a plan to economically empower disadvantaged Baltimore residents through job skills training, cooperative ownership, and neighborhood improvement.

It's an ambitious idea. But Harris, the founder of the Ingoma Foundation (a project of nonprofit incubator Fusion Partnerships) has never been averse to going out on a limb.

"We all need to take more risks," he says matter-of-factly. "As we begin to drop hold of the things that we think give us security, the more security we discover we have."

For Harris, one early risk was moving to Baltimore from Pennsylvania in the late 1970's to study fine arts and education at the Maryland Institute College of Art. MICA was the only college he applied to, and getting in was no sure thing.

"I was not a very academic student," he says of his high school years. "I've always been creative, but it was a fluke that I got in," a stroke of luck that he wryly attributes to "Divine Providence and a brilliant father."

His time at MICA was instructive for Harris, and not just in the context of the classroom or the studio. "It was a very urban campus, with no dorms," he remembers. Having grown up in the Philadelphia suburbs, life in downtown Baltimore was a brand new experience. "I enjoyed getting to know the city." The two biggest gifts that MICA gave him, he says, were "the ability to take criticism and see it as an asset, and the ability to problem-solve."

In Baltimore, Harris found a number of problems that needed solving. He recalls his early impression of the city as "very blue collar, very segregated." While he has noticed "some signs of progress" on the race front over the past three decades, such as in the growth of the region's black middle class, Harris sees much more that still needs to be done.

"Structural [racism] is still huge," he says, shaking his head. "We still have the remnants of separate but equal. Separate is rarely equal, but the way we've chosen to do integration is a way of simply dispersing the problem."

For Harris, addressing the economic components of structural racism requires a new way of thinking about financial capital and human capital, one that includes approaches like cooperative ownership, pooled loan funds, and leadership development programs designed for people from historically disenfranchised communities.

He becomes animated when he speaks of the need to craft "pathways of opportunity" that move people from a place of "destitute poverty to being able create resources for their children." Developing these pathways requires "a comprehensive, asset-based strategy that looks at what people are good at," not just what they lack.

In talking about the economic potential of low-income residents, Harris outlines what he calls "The Three C's of Poverty:" creativity, community, and creator. He believes these "dividends of poverty" tend to arise out of necessity in areas without financial wealth.

"People in poverty are creative," he explains. "We need to tap into that creativity, to weave cultures together and connect people across the gulf of resources."

Regarding the second 'C' in his list, Harris asserts that people of means and privilege can learn much about community-building from their economically disadvantaged neighbors. "You rarely see poor people who aren't part of a community" of some sort, he says. He views our society's emphasis on individualism as one of the principal causes of poverty, since it leads to disconnection from the people around us. A sense of shared responsibility, he feels, is one of the crucial steps toward creating more equitable economic model.

The third 'C' is what Harris calls "access to the creator," a sense of being part of something larger than oneself. "However you define it, it's what makes you move beyond your capacity," he says, adding that the work of economic justice and community-building should be "permeated with a sense of spirit."

Harris describes society's prevailing economic model as a pyramid, with people of privilege at the top and a wide base of disfranchised persons at the bottom.

"We who have been raised in privilege need to understand that our privilege doesn't give us everything," he says. "There's a massive amount of learning we need to do, and the keys to that learning are held by people at the bottom of the pyramid. We need humility."

For their part, people at the bottom of the pyramid must be ready to risk "creating a compelling view of one's own future...from the top of the pyramid, the future looks good. From the bottom of the pyramid, the future is this afternoon."

Harris maintains that the biggest risk for people at the bottom "involves how often [they] have been disappointed, have had resources waved in front of their faces" only to be snatched away. "But we have the power to shift. We need to start engaging that power and pursuing vehicles -- for-profit, as well as not-for-profit -- to do that."

Which brings us back to the Bench That Gives. Working with Gutierrez Studios, the Baltimore design firm responsible for the remarkable staircase at the American Visionary Art Museum, Harris has designed an apprenticeship program to teach low-income job seekers in Baltimore's Old Town community wood- and metal-working skills, job readiness skills, and entrepreneurship.

The bench, known formally as the Nurture Form Community Bench, is the first product of Harris' program. Made from ipe (a weather- and insect-resistant hardwood native to South America) and framed by a single piece of recurved, half-inch steel, the bench can be found at the Miller's Court development on Howard Street. Benches have also been installed around the new labyrinth at Goucher College. In addition to Gutierrez Studios, Harris' partners in this endeavor include Sojourner-Douglass College and the Job Opportunities Task Force.

While Harris is encouraged by these partnerships and by the momentum gathering behind his project, he acknowledges that Baltimore can be a tough place to start new projects.

"Baltimore is the La Brea Tar Pits of getting things going," he chuckles ruefully. "It's difficult to get things seeded here." One reason for this, he says, is that "Baltimore doesn't really believe in itself."

"I think we have middle child syndrome," he muses. "We're stuck between the towers of New York and the monuments of D.C. We believe that the answers are going to come from outside Baltimore." This sense of civic self-denigration, he feels, causes Baltimore to "lose some of the best talent and commitment at the local level."

Despite these frustrations, Harris sees Baltimore's "beautiful sense of humility" and more modest scale as advantages.

"I love Baltimore," he says sincerely. "It's an incredibly quirky and open city to network in. Within a month one can know all the players in a given field. I also like the realness of the people. In D.C. it's who you know, in New York it's about the mystique, but Baltimore has a sense of truth. There's less hidden here."

As he talks, Harris' arms extend to rest along the back of the Bench That Gives. The seat moves ever so slightly as he shifts his weight. The bench is an exquisite fusion of design and functionality, of art and craft, of economic theory and real-world pragmatism. It is strong but flexible, elegant but unpretentious. In those respects, it is much like Baltimore.

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful story and brainchild about a gifted young artist and creator for the common good of the community! You go Paulo!