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How a Half Mile Long Dinner Table and One Word Manifestos are Defining Durham

STITCH asks: “Give us one word for what you’d like to see Durham become.”

When I was 16, I rode my bike to the Durham Athletic Park to catch a game of minor league baseball with my best friend. We left in the fifth inning to get back before dark. We loved the Bulls, but didn’t want to get flack from those who had warned us: “Don’t go to downtown Durham. It’s so not safe.”

Almost twenty years later, this place still hasn’t shaken that reputation completely. Yet those who live here are awake to the fact that the fabric is changing, as more people move from out of town looking for a new start in what seems from the outside to be a welcoming, creative area. The bumper sticker that reads “Keep Durham Dirty,” is still relevant, but this is just part of the process of figuring out what it wants to become.

To help with that question, my partner in life and business, Akira Morita, and I are teaming with a giant team of local people to run STITCH, which has a Kickstarter campaign underway.

We asked about 500 citizens in public places around downtown to answer a simple question: “Give us one word for what you’d like to see Durham become.”

As a build-up to Neighborday, we’re teaming with the local Build a Better Block Project, which will have a half mile-long dinner table set up on Mangum Street starting at what we call here in town the Old Five Points intersection.

STITCH will also have a popup art show of works in progress by artists poised to make pieces inspired by the top one word answers that we’ve gathered—if our Kickstarter is fully funded.

We brought our four year-old son, Kush, on outings for what people started to call their “one word manifesto,” compiling 276 words from people in public spaces like farmer’s market, the Hayti Heritage Center, and a few openings for galleries and theater spaces. Now those words are in a word cloud that shows the spread of everyone’s vision.

With STITCH Durham, we’re giving about 20 local artists a chance to make original pieces to show throughout Durham at a bunch of downtown storefronts as well as in private spaces.

One of those artists is Tamara Bagnell, who will make a piece from string, nails, wood and plexiglass inspired by “Durham” and “evolving,” two words from the pool we gathered. “I love getting involved in collaborative work that builds bonds between artist and community,” she said about why she’s joined STITCH. “I also like the way this particular project allows room for the artists to interpret the concept in their own way, in their own voice.”

She’s not the only one who’s behind the effort.

Wanona Satcher, the project manager for the Durham Urban Innovation Center, is working with STITCH, too, for the Better Block event on Neighborday. “Art is critical to any collaborative process,” she said. STITCH will not only add a creative atmosphere in a part of town where residents are underserved, it’ll show them that there are things like this that exist. “It's a celebration of grassroots neighborhood revitalization, creativity, innovation, and collaboration among residents who otherwise would've never met.”

I came home to Durham after a decade away because I missed something. The feeling of being where you know people, and where you belong because you’ve always been there. I love how you can walk around in the summer, wave to people on their porches, and exchange a “Hey, how y’all doin’?”

Like stitches in a large piece of fabric, each bit of dialogue contributes to the whole. The pattern isn’t what’s important, but participation is. Without adding to the fabric, individuals can’t be heard. STITCH is designed to bring the myriad of voices together, because only with color and texture can a city find its cohesive voice. The stronger the stitches, the longer they’ll last. And, as one person put it here in Durham, the more “Durhable” we’ll be.

After Durham, Akira and I plan to take STITCH to other communities looking for their voice, who are open to a playful approach to getting started. One of these is in Sikkim, India, where we’ve been invited to share what we’ve learned about dialogue at a school for K-12 students.

We’ll keep moving, asking people everywhere for their “one word manifesto.” The simplicity means language won’t be a barrier: even if we get a pictograph, we’ll still make a word cloud. People will be thinking, and talking to each other, and that’s how the best stitches get made.

This project was featured in GOOD's Saturday series Push for Good—our guide to crowdfunding creative progress.

Hang out with your neighbors on the last Saturday of April (a day we're calling "Neighborday"). Click here to say you'll Do It, and here to download GOOD's Neighborday Toolkit and a bunch of other fun stuff.

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