In South LA, urban blight isn’t just a symptom of a poor, disengaged, and marginalized community; it’s also a perpetrator of the problem. Think of the feelings this kind of blight brings up in our own minds. Now think of the impact those feelings can have on children who see it every day on their way to and from school.
How can we ask them to be excited about going to school and learning and becoming more empowered individuals if the physical condition of their environment is teaching them to be apathetic and disengaged? If no one else cares about the trash, graffiti, empty lots, or blight, why should they?
This is a problem Kendra Okonkwo, an educator who founded the Wisdom Academy for Young Scientist (WAYS) elementary, and Refugio Mata, a Project Coordinator for Heal the Bay, were trying to address when they came up with the WAYS Literacy and Fitness Park project.
Together they came up with a plan to redesign an empty lot next to the WAYS school into a park that would reduce blight, beautify the neighborhood, and be a real asset to the surrounding community and school students. With help from the neighbors and local residents, the two groups built wooden planter boxes and benches around two trees on the lot to begin fostering a use of the space as a park.
But it didn’t stop there.
Simply because you suddenly create something good and new in a community does not mean it suddenly has value to the community. So in the WAYS park project, Heal the Bay has been organizing a series of events in an effort to promote a beneficial use of the space and to get neighbors together talking to each other.
In September we organized a cleanup of the site as part of Coastal Cleanup Day and had a group of neighborhood students come out and paint the planter boxes and benches. Some of the kids happily painted “Keep the City Clean” signs by their own choice.
In October, we hosted a Fall Festival with over thirty families attending to carve pumpkins, get their faces painted, create holiday masks, learn about the WAYS park project, and discuss their visions of the park.
In December we had twenty neighborhood families join us for a winter holiday-themed festival, with activities like creating ornaments and picture frames from everyday materials to hang as decorations. We also continued to reach out to residents about the park project.
Now, on April 27th, as part of GOOD’s Neighborday, we’ll be hosting an Earth Month “Re-Paint & Re-Plant” community cleanup where local students will help replant some of our planter boxes, paint over graffiti and put up some art of their own. In addition, to help address illegal dumping in their community we are having a neighborhood bulky-item drop off.
Sometimes all that is needed is the opportunity to work and collaborate together as a community to get residents to meet one another and talk.
If you’re in the Los Angeles area, I’ll hope you’ll come out to join our neighbors on April 27th for Neighborday this year.