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2021 Workshop Video: Day 2 Welcome Remarks and James Rojas Keynote

Harnessing art and play for community engagement and improved communities

James Rojas is an urban planner, community activist, artist and founder of Place It! He has developed an innovative public engagement and community-visioning method that uses artmaking, storytelling and objects to help individuals and communities find core values.

His session is moderated by Mike Watson, Director of AARP Livable Communities (Programs)

Watch the video by clicking the play arrow. Read or download the transcript below.

September 23, 2021 — Day 2 Welcome and Keynote Address

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The presentation transcript was created by an automated transcription tool. Portions have been edited for clarity or length. Anyone looking to quote or use information from the event is advised to compare the text to the video recording.


LAURA ADARVE: Our newest program at the Latin American Community Center is Connexiones. It was originally designed to increase community engagement and especially in the local community and the neighborhood around the LACC so that folks that live in the neighborhood who are being affected most by the conditions that they live in can actually take ownership and demand what they deserve from their public officials and others.

However, coronavirus, of course, threw a curveball at us and so the project was redesigned to address the effects of coronavirus.

ALICIA DOMINGU: Most of our community are essential workers and so it has affected them greatly. We have clients who are positive in COVID and aren't able to work. We have recently started helping our community with crisis alleviation.

So, if a family has any difficulties of paying rent or mortgage or getting food or even paying any type of bill or able to help them get financial aid.

Areas that we've found that we can work with the community are through crisis alleviation, education about the risk of COVID and prevention and advocacy at the state and local level

LAURA ADARVE: The AARP Community Challenge Grant has allowed us to get that project off the ground and support all the operational needs, like answering questions, actually hosting pop-up testing sites, hosting pop-up vaccination events. People have been receptive. They're appreciating how convenient it is to have it right there, right down the street from their home, right down the street from their job and they just pop in real quick get it done and go on about their day.

A lot of times what happens is that there's people who are just walking by and they happen to see what's going on, and then they say, "Okay, let me just go ahead and get it done since I'm here."

KIM WHARTON: The Latin American Community Center has done a wonderful job of giving Latino residents in Delaware the information they need to keep their family, safe and healthy through this difficult time.

They've been a wonderful partner in communicating information about the pandemic, how to stay safe and how to get the vaccine.

We know there's a lot of multi-generational families in that community and so we've really enjoyed working with them throughout this year but also for quite a long time.

LAURA ADARVE: AARP has always been an active partner with us and to be able to partner with them on this particular program through this grant has been a new way to foster that relationship that we already have to make this impact in our community. We have done so much in such a small span of time that it's been a whirlwind but we're so glad that we are able to do this work that is so needed, especially right now.

MIKE WATSON: Welcome. We're so glad that you've joined us for the 2021 AARP Livable Communities Workshop: Engaging Older Adults: Why It's Good for the Community.

I'm Mike Watson, director of Livable Communities at AARP, and you'll see me periodically throughout the program just like yesterday, to help facilitate our speakers, and, more importantly, facilitate your engagement with our speakers, again just like yesterday.

If you joined a few minutes early, you had the chance to watch a video from one of the 2020 AARP Community Challenge grantees, the Latin American Community Center in Wilmington, Delaware as they engage the community during the COVID-19 pandemic.

We heard several similar stories and lessons shared throughout the day yesterday — from an incredible keynote from Lynn Ross, to innovation showcases featuring work from across the country, and two outstanding panel discussions.

In a moment, we'll be joined by a AARP California state director Nancy McPherson who will get us going with a Slido poll and introduce our keynote speaker, James Rojas, who will focus on innovative engagement.

But before we get started, I'd like to play another video of an AARP Community Challenge grantee from last year, LISC Western New York and the Buffalo Center for Health Equity. This video is about four minutes long.


BRITTANY PEREZ: Our livability program is focused on the neighborhoods that are located on the east side of Buffalo adjacent to Main Street. And this includes many diverse neighborhoods that are primarily African American neighborhoods that have experienced historic disinvestment. There is a strong desire to have more intergenerational connections and opportunities in the neighborhoods that we're working in, in the AARP Community Challenge Grant. There's such a rich African American history here in Buffalo and it's our older community that has so many stories and experiences to share about that history.

ALEXA WAJED: This is like the prime time for us to feed history, to feed stories, to feed pride and enlightenment and joy to our communities, as well as offering an opportunity for them to get other important information that's happening within their community.

BRITTANY PEREZ: We wanted to create ways in which people could, you know, connect together and save socially distant ways

ALEXA WAJED: A lot of the focus was definitely on our communities and the health disparities and how COVID and the pandemic are affecting our communities, but how hope brought about pride and light and lifting about how getting out and exercising and walkability was so important.

So, recognizing that our green spaces are safe spaces.

BRITTANY PEREZ: The AARP Community Challenge Grant has covered many activities for our Pride in Place Buffalo work. These activities have included a lot of neighborhood exploration programs so we've been able to build a website that maps out various arts and cultural institutions in the neighborhoods and communities that we're working in.

MARQUIS BURTON: It basically creates a home base, a virtual home base for communities that sometimes get forgotten, sometimes don't feel like their voices are being heard. It allows them to have a strong community foundation virtually, that they're welcome to explore and discover new parts about the community or educate new people about their community.

BRITTANY PEREZ: What we're looking forward to as this winter and spring progress, is a really cool opportunity. We have about 20 mailboxes that local artists in our community will be painting or, you know, creating their art on the mailboxes

ALEXA WAJED:  We have selected designated places for these mailboxes to be where they'll be prompts, so that community can literally engage with us and tell us you know what they feel a walkable neighborhood looks like. What they need to feel safe and secure in their neighborhoods.

BRITTANY PEREZ: And all of this work contributes to creating more livable communities by really highlighting the assets of a neighborhood and focusing on health and wellness.

GAIL WELLS: One of the themes for this area is freedom, and so we have a freedom wall that's at Michigan and Ferry and this freedom wall has iconic figures from African American history, national figures like Harriet Tubman and Martin Luther King, but it also has local figures that are iconic.

BRITTANY PEREZ: We can not only preserve the history but look forward to a positive future, where we are creating healthy spaces for people to live and have intergenerational experiences and social opportunities together to grow and learn together.

MIKE WATSON: I hope you enjoyed that demonstration of intentional and innovative community engagement. Now I'd like to introduce AARP California State Director Nancy McPherson to share a bit about how AARP California approaches their livability work and to introduce our keynote speaker, James Rojas. Nancy.

NANCY McPHERSON: Thank you Mike. Hello everyone. AARP's founder Dr. Ethel Percy Andrus was also the first female principal of an urban multicultural high school in Los Angeles, Lincoln High. Under her direction, over the entrance to the school she installed the "opportunity gate," a reminder that still stands today that inside the walls of the school were opportunities for all.

Because of Dr. Andrus's legacy, for over 60 years AARP has been working with diverse communities to help them create opportunities for people of all ages, to drive change and advance solutions that result in communities that are livable for people of all ages and stages in life.

In California, currently 55 communities, representing over 22 million of the state's residents are enrolled in the AARP Network of Age-Friendly States and Communities. All have committed to a five-year process of developing and implementing an action plan, created to engage older adults and others in improving systems, services and structures that make communities more livable.

And exciting development finalized this year was Governor Newsom's California Master Plan for Aging or MPA. As part of the MPA commitment, the state of California was also the eighth state in the nation to join AARP's network, with a focus on building a California for all ages by 2030.

This year-long effort was led by the California Department of Aging and involved the appointment of a stakeholder advisory group, research from older Californians, every state agency, and numerous organizations that represent older adults and the disability community. In addition, to recognize the diversity of California 's population and lifelong disparities and inequities, an equity work group was formed to ensure that equity is fully baked into the MPA.

This is California's blueprint for age-friendly efforts, and I invite you to check out the full plan on the state's website.

Now I'd like to introduce our keynote speaker, James Rojas, who is an urban planner community activist, artist and founder of Place It!

He has developed an innovative public engagement and community visioning method that uses artmaking, storytelling and objects to help individuals and communities find core values.

James spent some time with us earlier and shared background on his work on innovative engagement and we were also lucky to have him previously facilitate a wonderful session with our California team.

Please note that during his presentation, he's going to ask you to respond to a poll question in Slido, so go ahead and get that up on your browser. And after his keynote presentation he'll also be here to answer your questions.

During the keynote please be ready to respond to that poll question and then ask your questions of James, and we'll address as many as we can. With that, please enjoy an incredible presentation by James Rojas, which lasts about 30 minutes.

JAMES ROJAS: My name is James Rojas and I'm going to be speaking about innovative community engagement, using artmaking, storytelling, objects and play to get people engaged in planning their communities.

I was born and raised in East Los Angeles and used to build model cities with my grandmother. This is where I learned this technique. And then after college, I joined the Army and went to Europe. I fell in love with cities and I wanted to study city planning.

I came back to the states and enrolled at MIT and studied city planning there.

After that, I worked at LA Metro for 12 years, planning bike trails and other things. And we worked on this project in East Los Angeles, the East LA Gold Line Project. You would have, you know, 50 or 60 Latinos in the room and they wouldn't say anything about the project, they'll just nod their head, and we didn't have any really in-depth meaningful community engagement.

Because at MIT I studied the way Latinos use space and transit, I knew they had a lot of great ideas, and we weren't seeing them at the meetings. So at the same time, I opened up an art gallery in downtown Los Angeles, and therefore learned how artists engaged people through their senses.

You know, artists, can provide a rich venue of how to use even their bodies and senses as a way to express their work and I thought, you know, as city planners, why can't we do the same. Cities are creative places that we create and build.

I collaborated with John Kamp to create Place It! So this whole movement started in the art world as social practice art, praxis, and we kind of expanded from there.

I took a class on design-based learning with Doreen Nelson at Art Center, where she teaches teachers how to teach core curriculum through building models. I thought, well, why can't we teach people how to see planning through building models? So I was kind of a rogue teacher there.

My first workshop was in 2007 with a group called "Taking the Reins." It's a nonprofit that helps young at-risk Latinos become responsible through horse training. And the group just got a few acres of land by the LA River and they wanted to plan a stable for the horses and girls, so I had to build an actual stable with the objects, and it was really, really successful.

After the first workshop, through word of mouth, we started working with a lot of nonprofits around the LA area on how to engage people on processes.

So the Place It! workshop is a pretty easy activity. It's usually one-hour-long. Part one is an icebreaker. Part two is a collaboration. For the part one, some people get really personal, individuals in reflection and validation. Part two is about collaboration, idea generation and collective community values.

What happens in most typical meetings that are very talk heavy, very, very word heavy. Yes, somebody does a PowerPoint and talks about the plan, and the people always talk about you know, well, they want more parking and less traffic. That's always kind of what they can resort to. But in Place It! we use our brains.

As children we're all about emotion, but then we learn how to talk. And that controls our emotions and seeing our parents are the guide for children. But by talking we become far from our emotions, So we have these talking barriers. So you ask people what they want, they always say, more parking and less traffic. Because they have a talking barrier up. When you remove that, you allow people to access the emotions creativity and joy at things differently, so that's what we do in Place It!

Some of these objects, we activate creativity, connections and we help people tell their story. A lot of people aren't good storytellers, but with objects. they have them tell a story. That's what Place It! is about. And you know city planning is, really, the way the way people relate to space is very individual and personal and not everybody has words to articulate what that means to them. But this helps us.

Most of our clients are women and people of color that have a feeling about a space and want to share that feeling. So artmaking creates the power to transform ideas, thoughts, emotions and really you know to negotiable realities. You know, you get people a chance to really think about you know what they want, and how to how to express it.

So this is an activity where a person built their, how to improve transit in Los Angeles, and she said, I wanted to bike through the forest every morning. You know, so she built this… the red is her home, the black is her office and the green, a forest. But she loves to have this kind of experience.

I think that's really critical in planning, because as planners, we tend to want to know things and not really feel things. But the community members talk about a feeling. So we need to really get the feeling right in our spaces.

Step one is a really simple process. Usually have people build their favorite childhood memory, as a starting point for the workshop. Because I tell people this memory your DNA to proceed to planning. And plus, you know you can do it in Spanish, and we could do it with different communities, such as the LGBT community, where we asked them, what is the first time you realized you were different? So we'll build it.

And I work with a lot of senior centers, and have them build a community for your family. And people understand, it affects the emotion. After 15 minutes of building or 10 minute of building, everybody shared a story for one minute. And everybody listens.

I think it's critical at public meetings everybody speaks, everybody listens. It's far too often, you know they don't listen to each other and that becomes a big problem.

And that's the takeaway from the workshops that we've hosted, everybody listens, and people like that.  You want to go to a meeting where you said something and people listened to you.

It is a simple story, and it's really critical to do that.

So the story building, how people discover their attachment to places and people. This is a workshop where he had a group of musicians build the first experience of sound.

And the person who builds the standard church bell in his community talks about the ringing sound and how it really reminded him of home. So if we want to capture all these intangible experiences people have on places that we didn't necessarily see you know, but people are bringing that space into their head.

This is a workshop we did with an African American woman. And she was telling us how her favorite childhood memory was doing hair with her elders. Doing hair was really important to her, and how do we take that story into a plan today? And having those tools, gave her a way to express herself.

You want to create place through these experiences.

When a woman walks down the street talking about her body and you sense that, she has with her body and how do we catch these experiences. These kinds of experiences aren't really captured in maps or words. You need to go deeper to kind of bring them out.

By doing this, people realize that they're their own experts when it comes to urban planning, that's their story, and they were to tell people after this, this is your DNA preceding planning. You can look for the feeling or emotion, the rest of your life in the environment.

So take ownership of it and really articulate it so you understand to really look for it, for the future.

Yes, after the first activity we synthesize all the memories. What are some of the common themes and values? And then people are ready to plan. For example, most common things people have are outdoors, public activity, family, safety and people are curious about the world. These are kind of common themes everybody has across the board, no matter where you come from in the world.

So the whole idea is through people's experiences through building. This is again at the Bakersfield Senior Center.

This is when I was working on a high-speed rail project. They're not particularly interested in high speed rail, but they're interested in their experience, intuitive knowledge and embracing their emotions and building relationships with each other.

If you really push beyond just infrastructure and kind of go deeper into what drives people and also, I think it's pretty critical to build empathy. You need empathy to build cities together. But everybody tells their story — and your story becomes my story and vice versa.  We all connect and now, at this point, we're ready to plan.

Now we're on the same page, so you really don't want people to come in, thinking that they have all the answers, planning is not about that, it's all collaboration.

Part two is collaboration, and that takes usually 20 to 30 minutes. It could be build your ideal community, build a gender-friendly city, build your ideal bus stops, whatever it is, but people are starting off this planning activity with their nurturing and caring and healing idea because they've just built their favorite child memory, the child memories are all these kind of spaces.

So people collaborate, you know and this is really important. This is working in Compton, I'm redesigning a Blue Line station down there. And we worked with a lot of senior citizens, and they told her story about even growing up in Compton and what it was like there and they wanted to see that reflected in the station. So for them a lot of it was about heritage, you know, how do we bring heritage and their story into the design.

They're really happy because it's probably the first time, that anybody has ever asked them, what's your favorite child memory — and build that into the future of Compton. You have to be excited for them.

And then also, what people learn is it's these processes, you know, how ideas impact each other.  I tell people there's no right or wrong answer it's our ideas impact each other and that's perfect solution.

And by doing this we're stronger together. We need to work together this way. But the objects and these prompts, how people collaborate and think about their ideas with each other

And sometimes we'll use the model to pick a day and time in the future and tell us what they're doing in the model. You know, picking up my kid after school. And after that we're going to go to farmers market. So I'd want the model to be a living document. Rather than produce a plan, or a document, I want to them to have this kind of visual and audio story about future. Now their planning exercise rests in their vision and not in a planning document that sits on the shelf.

So after the team builds, synthesizes what was built, what was said, and what wasn't said. People don't ever build cars or parking, and even though they might want that they don't build it, because they start realizing that that's not a core value and that's not what they want to see in their city.

Then people list the ideas, with people have 30 or 40 ideas, and maybe 40 ideas, maybe 10 of them are pie in the sky ideas like building a park in the sky, or something that's fantastical.

You know, maybe, maybe 10 are doable, but I think the whole idea is to allow people to imagine, to think about these fantastical ideas, and say them as a way to embrace people. I think there's nothing worse than having people having to not align as to who gets to express their imaginations.

That's a truly important part of our lives. We need to express it, and artmaking, I think, does it.

You can start establishing collective values, you know, what do we value, how do we build relationships and how we how we collaborate. And, like any meeting, this is just a meeting and you can document it with pictures, notes and video. And, you know, it helps people develop plans and projects.

We've worked on many projects across the country on this issue, and it's a really good way to start the planning process or design process; or just have community members articulate their relationship to space. And how they're respecting each other.

So it's also by using these models, this is another technique, where we use models to show people they can redesign spaces.

And also with artists, you have more leeway. Here they built a model of Santa Monica, California, a couple years ago. I turned it into a half circle, with a focus on transit. You know you can throw out ideas and people can say yay or nay, but you have to give people, you know, the avenue to be creative, imaginative, because that's where people really thrive.

So this is working with the LA Metro and mayor and the department. So this is LA 2050, or you know, thirty years from now. And you might draw out a map, but of course people like the model because you can touch it, they can see it, they can feel it, they can move it.

You know, and they want to be part of this change. You know so the models are really fun. This is the city of Baltimore and you know just a simple model and then have people you know populate the model with buildings, and then people can just have fun with it and change it around you know and really, really think about it in different ways.

But people up here again they're using their hands. By using their hands, you released your emotions. That's what's critical.

This is working in Eugene you know and how to get more Latinos to use city parks. I collaborated with the planning department and the University of Oregon. Through workshops, and we've built a model, with a little store, and we had it on the weekend, and people just went there and talked about how they want to see parks.

At the end of this engagement, we developed a document that then is codified by the city and now they're working on these ideas that people had it, you know, and these ideas to be from a 12-year-old girl to an adult but the whole idea is to really, in itself, it creates a transparency. In the design process they build something with their hands and they get excited about it and see it.

This is how to design Leimert Park, an African American neighborhood in south LA.

So this is the work we do in South Colton, where we had a walking tour in the neighborhood. Just how this plays, feels.  How does it feel to walk on the street, and how do you articulate that feeling and how you make it better. Because people know their feelings. And that's been driving really to change the world.

I've taken people to a parking lot and asked them to "Find a spot you like this in this parking lot and tell us why you like it." The parking lots are the worst places in the world for human beings. But people do find a space that they like you know, a weed growing through a crack. A piece of shade. A nice view. And they talk about it. And we do that in the parking lot. They're designing with their bodies. And this one guy, he found a cigarette butt -  and said "This place is history, someone was here before me."

Our bodies are so much more capable of looking at these really complex environments, I think it's really important that you give people the opportunity to look at things that way.

This is working in San Francisco on the model of Columbus Avenue, and how would you we redesign Columbus Avenue. This is during the moon festival in Chinatown. And built this 40-foot model and people were just really engaged in how to rethink this place and we know people build beer gardens, waterfalls, zoos on the street, and then we had a survey attached to it and we asked people, the same question and they wrote down more street trees, more crosswalks, more benches, really conventional stuff because, when people write, they write what you want to be built. But in play like this, there's no limit to what you can create.

Another big area I work on a lot, most of my clients are women, they have a really intuitive sense about the city, and relationship to space.

So you know we do a lot of workshops on how do you make safe space, safe passageways for women, they'll say, I walk this way, with my cell phone that way.

And we'll say, how would you redesign the space to make you more comfortable? Working with Latina women in in LA where we said, how would you redesign your street. And before the workshop started, they told me, "We're not architects or engineers, we can't do this." But, they designed a beautiful street with street trees, benches, bike lanes, public art, plazas, street vendors, all the things we want in a street.

They designed it themselves, and now they know how to design these things. The whole process of design. And this is where it all begins, you know, a lot of people tell their story, tell us your life, tell us your story and then, how do we figure out, how do we plan the best way to make your life happen.

This is working again with women and how do you decrease traveling time in your life. And this woman built the border between Mexico and the US and the popsicle sticks are the border and the buttons just are traffic. And she was saying that people who lived in Mexico, spend an hour and a half, every morning they're trying to get to work to San Diego. They have a FastPass, they can prove it. But for this woman, this was a physical way to really articulate what this all means to her. What it represents.

And it's a different way of kind of expressing yourself.

And this is women in a workshop, and women, they wanted to build a restroom on every corner of the bike path. I thought, you know, that's really cool and actually needed for them, but so many bike paths are built without restrooms. So, who are we asking, and what are we missing? Where, using inclusive tools we capture a lot of data or information that we can't capture in a map or through other techniques.

For a lot of youth, they'll tell me, I don't know until I've built it, you know, because you know they have all these ideas, all these senses, experiences in their bodies and their minds. And words, maybe can't bring it out, but when you build it, they can express it, articulate it. So, for them it's really, really important to get people to articulate their ideas.

You know, these are students in East Los Angeles working on the Gold Line station, where we had them build models out of candy for them. They built these models, and they had a reflective, you know had a meeting with the school, telling everybody that they built it — they built the model, and you start thinking about architecture. How does that make you feel? I want to have an environment where I you take it to the next level and learn from filling up these spaces.

So, working with women, it was working, working with African American women in Minneapolis. And having them develop a bike plan for the river, the Mississippi River.

We built a model for them, and they went out there in the community with this model, and gave people this model. So you give them the tools to really engage. And for them that's a really easy way to engage with the public.

So this is a project that I worked on a couple of years ago, in Phoenix. Did a workshop out there with the disability center. And the city of Phoenix had just built a really beautiful recreation center for them.

The cross street was a light rail line, but no station. And most people with disabilities use public transportation. So the station was a mile away and it was really hard for them to get there. I did a workshop where people built their ideal station, based on a disability, you know hearing loss or not being able to walk, you know, using wheelchairs. They were so excited about what they did that for five years, they lobbied the City of Phoenix to get the station built. So finally, in 2019 they got the station built, and the station incorporates a lot of the ideas and elements came out of the workshop: shade, water, smooth surfaces, wide surfaces. And now they have this level of independence they didn't have before. But, again, they were the ones that were in charge, because they were so excited with what the built, they were really able to tap into their emotions, and really create self-determination.

City planning is half about the city and half about you. And how you can create your own city on your own but, but giving people ways to really share their ideas on their own and to really think about city planning in a more holistic way.

I do workshops now, virtual workshops, where people do it in the comfort of their own room, where they can build their ideal memory, with their own objects. At home memory. So it's been interesting exploring this level of connection to place, to objects, to places through Zoom.

Yes, some people use stuff like this. Somebody used their shoes, to create a walkable street.  They wanted shading and a plaza.

Thank you for your time. I thank you for your time and for listening to my presentation. In the fall of 2021 we have a new book out from Island Press called Dream, Play, Build by James Rojas and John Kamp.

I hope you learned a lot from this presentation and take it with you when you go out to your communities.

MIKE WATSON:  Well, that was really inspiring and we're also lucky to have James actually here with us now live to answer your questions. Welcome, James.

We already have some great questions coming in, I was looking at them earlier but before we get to them, I want to give James a moment to reflect on the results to the poll question, he asked during his keynote.

You asked people to share their favorite childhood memory, we should see the results of that on the screen now. Could you react to what you see?

JAMES ROJAS: Yeah it's pretty universal. People think about family play, you know outdoor spaces, you know. It's always kind of simple experiences that we have as children that really guide us through life and really our guiding principles and how to create better cities.

I just did a workshop yesterday in Flint, Michigan, where you had the same reactions. Physical activity, family playing outdoors, interaction, curiosity. Always just same thing. It's universal. So we have the solutions in ourselves already. We just have to articulate and bring them out and apply them to our cities today.

Thank you, thank you for participating.

MIKE WATSON: Thanks to everybody for sharing your experiences and it looks like we have a lot of great questions reacting to those experiences and your presentation. So I'm going to go ahead and get started and read the first one.

You talked about the power of art-making. What about people who are very uncomfortable with their artistic skills? How do you put people at ease and help them freely engage?

JAMES ROJAS: Well, materials themselves put people at ease, because it's just everyday objects, and so it's really casual kind of low-barrier entry points. We're using "art-making" in a very general way, but we're not using it in a fine art way. We're not trying to produce fine art, we're just using it as a really simple way of communication.

By using everyday objects, people are really comfortable. Hair rollers, popsicle sticks, bottle tops. They're really comfortable with these objects. And so yeah so people might be intimidated by speaking, they're intimidated by drawing, but just kind of stuff it's pretty simple and people just aren't intimidated by it. It's a very easy entry point

MIKE WATSON: Yeah so it sounds like it's not as much about putting something that's going to be up in a fine art gallery and more about the process of engaging with it, that it's all about. We have a lot of questions coming in, about next steps, after a Place It! workshop so I'm going to go ahead and read this one:

What are the tangible next steps after a placemaking gathering like this, from community members to city staff to reality?

JAMES ROJAS: Well, the tangible measures, because you'll have you know 50 ideas from the participants and you just write them down. You know some of the ideas might be pie-in-the-sky and some might be ideal to implement tomorrow, but you will have tangible ideas. But for me it's like creating a vision for the community that will rest in people's minds. 

It might not happen tomorrow, but there'll be thinking about this next week, a year later or, you know, a couple years later. So it's really creating a vision process that will guide people and have them think about their actions, in the future. It's good way to get people thinking. Instead of creating a vision document that's paper, just resting in people's minds and imagination and it kind of follows them around, just like the childhood memory does.

MIKE WATSON: That's a great answer and I think you really connect the dots between looking forward and also harnessing some of those experiences you've had and, on that note, I think our next question is right in that line:

How do we harness residents' negative feelings about a place in a productive forward looking way?

JAMES ROJAS: Well, you know, there's a lot of negative places in the world, but I don't focus on that because if we focus on the negative it's hard to turn into positive.

We're having people build their solutions to a problem without talking about the problem, but the solution to the problem. Then they're in a positive mode. Otherwise, you know, I do a lot of local communities that live in very substandard environments, but I don't focus on that. They already know where they live and what it feels like, but how do you make it a positive change right.

Like we do the workshop for people with disabilities, and you know that there's disabilities, but what's your solution to this problem. They build the solution and we can focus on the solutions and that, what moves them forward is a solution. So sometimes we get into this, when we talk, we can take them as problems, then it's hard to lift ourselves up from a dark space.

So I don't really go to that dark space, otherwise you're lost it. You can't get positive from there. The people will build with their hands automatically and apply their framework.

MIKE WATSON: That's great, and you know the last year with the COVID pandemic, it's been a pretty dark space for our country, so one of these questions that we have coming in around how to adapt this type of activity for COVID-19. So this question:

How would you adapt this tactile, hands-on approach during this time of social distancing due to COVID?

JAMES ROJAS: Well there's two ways. First of all, what we did during COVID is that we transitioned from face to face to the virtual. People built different child memory from objects from around their home. And what was amazing is that people actually had objects from their childhood. They'll pull out baby blankets, a picture of their pet, a rock they got when they were five years old. So it was really amazing.

People learn that you know objects, whole memories and in our space at home is a collection of these memories. Then how you how these memories impact the city, and how can we be bringing these memories out into the public space and understand our cities as a safe space of memories and creating memories.

And because COVID is a virus not a bacteria, we can host these workshops in person in a safe space outside. I've been doing a lot of workshops outside in gardens and parks, where people can be safe, distanced.

MIKE WATSON: That's great and another great way, I think, to probably connect people to the real experiences and the real things that they're actually trying to change in their community, so thank you for that answer.

I'm going to shift a little bit to more of the implementation and engagement process here. There's several questions around different types of partners, and one of this one that's really bubbling up is around local government:

How do you get local government to engage in this process? In your experience have you worked with local government as the initiator? And what has that been like? And what has it been like from the other side, where you're maybe working with a group of committed residents who are trying to nudge local government into action?

JAMES ROJAS: I've done maybe 1,000 workshops and probably 75 percent or 80 percent of my workshops have been with citizens and community groups, 20 to 25 percent have been with local government.

I think, as local government, they want to know the community, but not necessarily feel the community. And for people in the community, it's all about feeling an emotion it's really trying to get these two ideas merge together. I'm kind of creating a whole different platform that citizens can use to challenge local government or enhance local government.

Local government doesn't really have time to do on the ground, in depth types of workshops where community members do. So I build in the capacity of community members to articulate and kind of challenge local government to work with them.

We did a workshop in Long Beach on zoning for Habitat for Humanity. We did like maybe 10 workshops just to get people up to speed on their lives and zoning. Whereas the city would probably just have one workshop. It's important for us to really build that capacity for citizens to really be able to articulate their lives and their story to get the right kind of zoning in communities.

MIKE WATSON: Great, and I think that's something we heard really loud and clear from our discussions yesterday around building trust and taking the time to build those relationships and build that capacity. On that, I think the one of the things we saw on the response to your poll James was around family and grandparents and one of the questions here is, I think, especially around that:

Do you do Place It! workshops that are an intergenerational pairing with a senior and a child and what does that been like?

JAMES ROJAS: That's really fun. I do and in fact encourage intergenerational workshops, because I like it when family members can play together it kind of brings together and they all learn from each other.

You know there are questions that you never really ask each other but they kind of drive our lives. For example, I did a workshop and this Latina woman shared her child memory in Mexico City, where she would make necklaces out of rose petals and sell them on the street. Her daughter went for her childhood memory and her child memory was about roses. We’re looking at roses. And again you have this connection between two generation and had these really different ideas about roses.

It's really important to get people to think about. And I think for a lot of immigrants you'd like to see their kids engaged in the civic process. I did a workshop one time with a museum and this little boy presented his ideal city and he was like seven years old, and his mother stood up and said, "Oh, you know, five years ago my son could not speak English. Now look at him. He speaks perfect English." That's a really good way to get enough parents and kids, or all family members, to understand each other. To understand who you are, where you come from, what drives us. It’s a really fun workshop. It's a really fun family activity.

MIKE WATSON: Well, James, your answer there, I think, sets us up really well for what's going to be our final question, and this is around memory:

Memory is so subjective. How do you navigate when residents recount memories and experiences that are at odds with each other or even contradict each other?

JAMES ROJAS: You know, childhood memories that we saw were very similar. I think when you start from that childhood memory, you start from a nurturing, caring place. And that memory can really kind of shape the process of planning, because you are starting from a nurturing, caring kind of selfless position. And that's when you create the collaboration. I think yeah people are going to have different memories, a lot of them are going to be kind of similar, but a lot of them are going to be focused on nurturing and caring and that's going to create the compassion and empathy to work together and help us really iron out our differences.

I think people have different memories, men and women, it's a way to put a value to everybody's memory, by understanding these memories as a value to our lives.

Have people have more compassion for each other despite the differences they have, so most memories like you say, nobody ever builds technology, toys or stuff, they are always building experiences, then we can all relate to the experiences and we can all work on making better experiences for everybody.

MIKE WATSON: Very well said and I couldn't really think of a better way for us to wrap up this conversation. Unfortunately, we do have to move along with the program we have so many great more questions to get to. James we want to thank you so much for joining us today and sharing your insights.

JAMES ROJAS: Thank you, thank you for having me

Page published October 2021

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