The morning of our final full day in the beautiful state of peaches was spent in Decatur, GA, a city on the northeast side of Atlanta. While in Decatur we had the opportunity to meet with the city mayor, Patti Garrett, as well as several other city and non-profit leaders in the community.
One of Garrett’s main goals going into the position of mayor was to increase the arts and appreciation of arts in the city. In order to achieve this, they started a budget that allowed them to purchase art and place them in community buildings across the city.
Another major part of bringing the arts to Decatur was incorporating art in usually bland places. Soon following the shift of the arts, murals were painted on building walls, parking ramps, and electrical boxes scattered around the city (see photo to the left). The goal was to have the arts encourage people to get out into their community and be healthy. Garrett stated, that they wanted to create a “walkable. bikeable, and inviting” city. They achieved this by making events that appreciated the arts free and for all age groups.
The murals that can be found across the entire city are more than just a piece of art. They use them to tell a story of where the city has come from.
One major issue that they have historically faced was the lack of racial diversity. This was due to the building of the MARTA train right into the center of their city. While this helps increase the traffic and people in the direct downtown square it displaced numerous amounts of people. Of those affected by the building of the train included a large African American population. It split the African Americans to the south side of the city and the whites to the north. African Americans were further affected with the growth of roads that cut through their neighborhood as well. In order to honor those who lived in the area, Decatur Days was started by members of families who lost their neighborhoods. In recent years they were able to put a mural up on the side of the MARTA train. This allows the train to bring some light and art to the city.
As the city continued to grow, more and more buildings started to get abandoned and the city started lacking a place of home and community. Decatur turned into a city of commuters. Over the last 31 years, they’ve worked to create a community and a downtown square where residents can go at nights with family and friends. This was done by reconfiguring buildings and creating the town square where live music and other community events can be held. One large event that is held every year is the Decatur Book Festival. The Book Festival occurs every Labor Day weekend and attracts 60,000-80,000 people per year. The city of Decatur became a perfect place for this festival to happen because it brings the love of creativity and passion for literature and the arts. On top of the passion for literature they make it a large community gathering by offering fun games for kids and funnel cakes for all.
Still to this day despite the efforts that have been made to increase arts and the community, Decatur struggles with diversity. Though this struggle is now defined more by the lack of economic diversity and shifting racial demographics. Garrett and others hope to continue the growth of arts as well as the economic diversity in Decatur.
After several full days, we took a more leisurely approach to our itinerary today. Confident (?) in their urban navigational skills (or at least savvy with GPS on their phones), small groups spread out across the city to take in a few more sights on what turned out to be a beautiful spring day in Atlanta.
As the student blogs for the day attest, however, even on a free day, the course themes seemed to break into their thoughts and shape their reflections. Before the trip, students viewed a TEdTalk by Taiye Selasi that asked us to think about what a sense of place means in a globalizing and highly mobile world. Today Selasi’s provocative reframing of place seems appropriate: “Don’t ask me where I’m from, ask where I’m local.”
Key Questions for Our Class Themes Today:
How do places and their histories shape us and the way we imagine our relationships to others?
How do we create in our own unique and often unexpected ways a sense of place wherever we are, including our temporary home for the week at Villa International?
In the beginning of every long trip away from home, the first step is finding suitable lodging to rest after long days of learning, exploring, and adventuring. Certainly, the journey to Atlanta by Viterbo University students remains firmly in this belief, and, rightly so, the first stop on our travels in Atlanta was the Emory Conference Center. This conference center exhibited some excellent artistry, fine wood work, and accommodations fit for any man, woman, or child entering its chambers. However, the Conference Hotel was simply that: A conference hotel. While the employees did breathe some life into the area with their cheerful demeanor and swift accomplishment of our requests, they could not truly deliver an “at home” experience which many of us crave.
However, our fearless leader, Matthew Bersagel Braley, did not let us suffer in the superficial luxury of the Emory Conference Center for long. Only two days after arriving in Atlanta and two nights spent in the conference center, we moved to the Villa International a few blocks away from the conference center. This villa did not contain the lavish accommodations that the Conference Center did, but something much more valuable took its place.
We started off in the Villa getting our keys, finding our rooms, and settling down to the modest but more than adequate accommodations. Next, we were given packets explaining the “house rules” in a sense including but not limited to no eating in anywhere but the kitchen, no food in the rooms, no drink besides water in the rooms, and cooking spaces are available, but dishes must be done by the one who has dirtied them. While this list of rules may not differ from that of a normal household that many of us have lived through the majority of our lives, the distinction of the free range of the hotel and the moderately rule heavy transfer to the Villa was a shock to the system at the least. Nonetheless, we adapted quickly and fell into place in our new housing, hopeful and happy to see what adventures the rest of Atlanta would bring. I personally never expected that one of the greatest lessons of the trip would be taught at the Villa instead of the numerous sites which we would visit throughout the week.
The Villa offers a unique experience to any and all who have the privilege of staying under its roof. First and foremost, the Villa caters to a wide variety of people from all over the world; each and every one of them moving in a different direction at the CDC, Emory University, a plethora of other institutions. These people have a wide variety of life stories, and a wide variety of experiences to share. And share they did. Many students, myself included, engaged in conversations with many of the residents of the Villa, absorbing their life stories, their experiences, the way the view the world, and the future they wish to bring to America and their home countries. However, they rallied off of us as much as we rallied off of them.
One conversation I had with a resident from Pakistan exemplifies this phenomenon. He said that, normally, the villa remains quiet during most hours of the day, the guest speak with each other but not as much as they could and/or should, and little energy flows throughout the structure. However, the day we entered, he said he felt new life in the space. More people spoke to each other, we played games in the lounge, Andrew Wagner received some much-needed lessons in pool, and, overall, we shared in the camaraderie of open space.
The final benefit, but perhaps most important of all, was the bolstering of the Viterbo family which traveled together to Atlanta. On Wednesday night and this evening—Thursday night—separate groups were tasked with cooking a meal for the entire group as well as any members of the Villa who wished to join us. The first night cooked a phenomenal meal of pasta and garlic bread, while the second group cooked an incredible meal of pizza and fresh fruit.
Although this was a bit out of the ordinary for us as students, the incredible spirit and ambition we acquired when making these meals was something to be seen. Everyone seemed to work in perfect harmony with the goal in mind of impressing the other half of the group. We cooked together, we ate together, we washed dishes together, and most importantly, we were present in the moment together.
This trip to Atlanta has taught us a great deal about civil rights, public health, famous historical figures, the structure of a major city, and numerous other things, but one of the most significant themes of this trip—in my own opinion—is the acquirement of the ability to truly be were one is. The Villa acted as a vehicle to show me the power of this idea, and the benefits it brings to all parties involved. In the words of one of the workers of the Villa “To know about the Villa, one must experience the Villa”.
In order for one to truly enjoy the journey we all are a part of, we must be willing to experience life as it is, not while focusing on hundreds of things at a time, but truly being present in the moment, and truly engaging with the world around us. If nothing else, the journey to Atlanta has taught me the value of being in the moment.
Today was a free day. Many people spent the morning sleeping
in to catch up on the many hours of sleep we have lost during this trip. Others
chose to take advantage of the free time in order to keep up on trip journals
or to work on some of the never-ending homework of the semester. Still others
chose to hang out and play pool or checkers. The events of the day were varied
also. One group went to the Atlanta Botanical Garden, a couple people went to a
mall for shopping and a third group went to Ponce City Market. I was in the
group that went to the market so that is what I will be talking about.
Ponce City Market was opened in 2014 after fully renovating the Sears, Roebuck & Company building located in the Old Fourth Ward. The building was originally built in 1926 as a Sears, Roebuck & Co. retail store, warehouse, and regional office, and now it is a bustling market. The first floor is filled with a variety of food options. From dine-in restaurants to grab-and-go stands, there was a gourmet Italian market, Indian street food, a European café and farmstand, a sushi bar and many more. Even with the wide range of options, most of us went for the soul food from Hops Chicken which had “Honest, Clean” deep fried chicken. The second floor of the market, as well as a large outdoor area on the back of the building, contained many shops and boutiques to browse while taking in the city life all around us. The other eight floors contain offices, flats, and educational facilities. It was interesting to see a large community gathering place established from an old building in downtown Atlanta. The renovation of the Sears, Roebuck & Co. building is called gentrification. Gentrification is the process of renovating and improving a house or district so that it conforms to middle-class taste. Due to gentrification all around the neighborhood, the predominately black area of the Old Fourth Ward has seen an influx of whites. The question is, is this a good thing? Yes, whites are moving back into the city centers that they had left during the urban sprawl; however, the renovations they are making are often only benefiting themselves. The low-income, persons of color that have been living in this area of the city are now being pushed out, and the shops and markets that are being built are too expensive for them to shop at – a phenomenon referred to as the suburbanization of poverty. What is the balance between renewing and revitalizing areas in Atlanta that have been historically neglected and making it something that is beneficial to everyone?
A challenging experience we had throughout the day today was
navigating the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA). The MARTA
has been our primary mode of transportation throughout this entire trip;
however, Matthew usually figures out where to be and when. Today that feat was
up to the seven of us who decided to go to Ponce City Market. We went out to
the bus stop right outside the Villa expecting bus 816 would be there in two
minutes. Fifteen minutes later, bus 6 showed up so we hopped on seeing a bus 6 was
showing up as an alternate route to the same location. Well, when the bus
started taking us further from our final destination we realized we had gotten
on the northbound bus instead of the southbound bus so we got off a stop later.
The bus driver informed us to go across the intersection to a different bus
stop and wait for the 816. We sat there for a good 15 minutes waiting for the
bus which eventually flies past with “not in service” written across the front
where the route is usually shown. Another 10 minutes later the 816 finally
arrives. When on the bus we asked the bus driver where to get off for Ponce
City Market, and he informed us his bus route doesn’t go there so we need to
get off and catch the 102 or walk a mile to the market. At that point, we chose
to walk. Good thing it was a beautiful day today.
Trying to navigate public transportation having never been to Atlanta before was a difficult task. Most of us had downloaded the MARTA app on our phones and could see which buses to take and what routes they ran to get to where we were going, but it wasn’t always accurate on bus times and we don’t know the city well enough to master traveling on them. It made me understand the challenges people face when public transportation is their primary mode of transportation.
While navigating the MARTA system I have become aware of the fact that the majority of the drivers of the buses are African Americans, as well as the majority of the people who utilize the train and bus system during the middle of the day. This is likely due, in part, to the Atlanta city sprawl. During the urban sprawl, many of the white families in the city moved to the suburbs leaving the poor minority populations in the city. Those in the suburbs, along with having the ability to move out of the city also owned their own vehicles, where as those in the city did not have the financial ability to own any. This is why minority populations, historically, have often been the persons utilizing public transportation. You could also see the stigma around public transportation. People we met at the Villa or other places we visited who asked how we got around did not have the most positive response when our answer was the MARTA. It again shows disparity between people and a segregation of wealth.
This evening we had a visit from Rev. Dr. Theophus “Thee” Smith, but Matthew introduced him to us as Thee so that is what I will call him from here on out. Thee is recently retired from his position as a religion professor at Emory University for 31 years. He is an Atlanta native whose parents went to Spelman College, mentioned in another blog post as a historically black women’s college, and Morehouse college, a historically black men’s college. Matthew invited him to come and speak with us about the Southern Truth and Reconciliation organization (STAR). Thee was a co-founder of the organization, and Matthew worked for the organization during graduate school for 7 years. STAR was inspired by Bishop Desmond Tutu who was a visiting professor at Emory University from 1998-2000. Tutu challenged the U.S. to do their homework in order to have a successful truth commission in the United States. That background research is what prompted the organization of STAR.
After an initial presentation from Thee, we gathered in a
circle to have a question/discussion period. One question asked was about
implicit bias and how we go about combating it. His response was that it takes
practice. He talked about a workshop activity he facilitates in which people
say the first thing that comes to mind when presented with a person or group
that is traditionally discriminated against, e.g., Americans, the disabled
population, the LGBTQ population, etc. By exposing each person’s implicit bias
in a healthy way, the group can talk through the bias as a community in order
to combat it. These workshops require a huge amount of vulnerability and trust
between each individual.
Thee also talked about how diversity is in every community. Yes, even in the Midwest we have diversity. Traditionally people think of differences in race, ethnicity and religion as the sole categories that create diversity, however diversity is much more than that. There is diversity in the categories people either put themselves into or are put into by others. Categories such as addiction survivors, body type, age, sexual assault survivors, and income level. All of these categories deal with biases and being aware of them is the best way to combat those biases in order to appreciate the diversity around us. Thank you, Thee!
Today we stayed closed to “home.” The Clifton Road Corridor where the Villa is located includes the Centers for Disease Control and Emory University. As our student blogs for the day, we covered a wide range of topics today from pandemic disease responses to Pan-African dis-ease with racial violence. As we continue to examine the role of cities in promoting and prohibiting human flourishing, we were reminded again of how our short-term historical memories can leave us under-prepared to live into a better world.
Key Questions for Our Class Themes Today:
How are the tools of public health being deployed to understand threats to human well-being including violence and human trafficking?
How do communities organize themselves in order to effect practical, positive change?
What role do artists play in these social change efforts?
We also experimented with student-led meal preparation, which led to our last key question for the day:
How many packages of pasta does it take to feed 21 V-Hawks and several international guests?
Don’t worry, the CDC has not contacted us about any food-borne illnesses as a result of our experiment!
Our day began with us being able to sleep in until 9:00 this morning which I think was a highlight of our trip so far (we need some good rest). We left the Villa around 9:45 and took a short stroll across the street to tour the CDC. When you walk in, it is sort of like entering an airport. You need your driver’s license, you have to take all metal objects out and put them in a bin and walk through a security detector, and you definitely cannot make any jokes about an Ebola outbreak occurring or they will take you down (although one of the security dudes did ask for some gum).
After getting all checked in and getting our official visitor badges, we got to meet with John Besser, who has a Ph.D. in microbiology, biology, and was also actively involved in creating PulseNet. (Super cool dude. Everyone should look him up). When talking with him, we learned that the CDC deals with about 20-50 outbreaks every week and that some of the diseases we thought were extinct still exist and they have seen some cases recently. For example, John had talked about a case of polio that had been discovered recently in an immunocompromised patient. I think it is very interesting that diseases that the public thinks are totally gone do still exist and continue to change rapidly without us knowing. He also informed us about a big change that will be happening around the world on Friday: the CDC will change everything to genome sequencing.
After the CDC, we walked a couple of blocks to Emory University for lunch, a tour of the Carlos Museum, and a discussion with one of Matthew’s friends from graduate school, Dr. Letitia Campbell, about her work on human trafficking.
The Carlos has one of the largest collections from the 19 and 20th centuries of African art. The exhibit being featured at the moment is “Do or Die” by the African American artist Dr. Fahamu Pecou. One of the pieces that really intrigued me was a video that had water laying on top of it. (INSERT PICTURE OF VIDEO) The purpose of the water on top of the video was to represent the water in the beginning of life and then the tears that are shed later in life when one passes away and to welcome them to earth and heaven.
In our discussion with Letitia, she talked about a human trafficking advocate organizations called Solutions NOT Punishment for people just trying to survive. They are trying to close the city of Atlanta jail and turn it into a center for mental health, etc. They have gotten the police to start issuing tickets and use their discretion on locking people up instead of arresting everyone. They have also started the Atlanta/Fulton county pre-arrest diversion initiative which helps those at risk for being arrested before they get an arrest for non-violent crimes on their record and providing alternatives. This is like the programs we have for those who get arrested and have alternatives instead of going to jail, except this is before they get arrested.
UPDATE: The morning after we talked to Letitia, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Bottoms signaled her support for the re-purposing of the city jail while giving her State of the City address:
“In the spirit of One Atlanta, we look forward to converting our City jail from a building designed for mass incarceration to one that will provide access to opportunity for those who need it.”
The last part of our day, and my personal favorite, was making a pasta dinner from scratch for everyone. We first went to Kroger to get our supplies (and some cookie dough). Then we came back and cranked out homemade marinara and Alfredo sauce in a solid 30 minutes. We all had so much fun dancing and singing and were able to learn so much more about each other. I cannot wait for tomorrow!