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DSI thesis project: Race in America, solving what’s close to home

By Rachel Dixon

“Birmingham is probably the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States.”

Although much has changed and great progress has been made in the 50 years since Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote these words from inside Birmingham Jail, there is still much work left to do. Despite the advances that have been made, my hometown remains the most residentially segregated city in the state of Alabama, and the 26th most segregated in the country.

Though segregation does perpetuate social stigmas and prejudice, and racism is still an ongoing issue, intentional discrimination is not always the cause for the lack of diversity. Birmingham’s status quo of separation acts as a negative feedback loop by maintaining a culture of exclusion that is passed down from generation to generation. Inclusion is also difficult when one’s existing network does not encompass those who are different from them. Knowing how to take those first steps outside of one’s network and into an entirely new one can be both intimidating and difficult. My thesis, Come Together Birmingham, seeks to bridge this gap and explores how healing and reconciliation can be achieved through open dialogue and creativity.

In the beginning of March I held two workshops, Come Together Birmingham: Co-­Creation Workshop, in partnership with AIGA Birmingham, Desert Island Supply Company and Bib & Tucker Sew­Op. These interactive workshops invited diverse Birmingham community members to explore conceptual ideas for the development of a social justice art and design residency that will tackle the issue of improving race relations. Together we discussed what barriers currently exist that are keeping Birmingham residents of different races from living and socializing together. We examined the contexts of these barriers and possible solutions to overcome them. In the second half of the workshops, I asked the participants (many of them designers and artists themselves) to ideate innovative community projects harnessing the solutions they had put forth. Their final ideas can be seen here, on Come Together Birmingham’s website.

The primary insight that came out of both workshops, the one that sticks with me everyday and pushes me to full steam ahead, is the old adage that good ideas are easy to come by; execution is everything. It’s goes deeper than that though. In marginalized communities, where outsiders’ good intentions and broken promises are commonplace, ideas with no follow­ through are more than disappointing. They are detrimental. It breeds apathy and disengagement. It hardens mistrust, one of the leading integration barriers that was discussed in the workshops. Just showing up isn’t enough.

Now back in New York, I am working towards turning these learnings and community generated ideas into action. I am in the process of building out the social justice art and design residency that was examined in the workshops. This residency Red Mountain Collective, is an initiative of Come Together Birmingham. It’s vision is to catalyze Birmingham, Alabama as a hub for diversity and creativity in the South. In service of this goal, the residency is dedicated to improving race relations in my hometown, and to breaking down it’s long held social and economic barriers. The impact created will be two­fold. The first point of impact will occur within Red Mountain Collective itself, as the social practice artists and social innovation designers live, work and collaborate together throughout the duration of the residency session. The second point of impact will happen within the community, as Birmingham residents of different races and socioeconomic backgrounds are engaged in a wide array of creative social interventions initiated by the artists and designers. A full proposal for the residency will be presented in May 2015.

A special thanks for the encouragement and guidance of my thesis advisor, Despina Papadopoulos, and for the support of Sharon Duckworth of AIGA Birmingham, Liz Hughey of Desert Island Supply Company and Lillis Taylor of Bib & Tucker Sew­Op, and to all of the amazing participants of the co­creation workshops, without whom the invaluable and beautifully honest conversations would not have been possible. Now let’s get to work, Birmingham.

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