One of the key concepts revealed in the visits to 7 communities by the Walk Out Walk On authors is the power of small individual actions to radiate out and change large systems.
Starting anywhere and following it everywhere is illustrated best, I think, in the chapter on Joubert Park, South Africa – during apartheid, a lush, sequestered recreation area for whites. When apartheid ended, things changed.
After decades of being prohibited by apartheid from living in the city center, in the 1990s blacks from all over South Africa and beyond migrate to Johannesburg seeking opportunity. With the city’s train station nearby, Joubert Park is the first port of entry for new arrivals in Johannesburg.
The change is sudden and dramatic, bringing a surge of crime, homelessness, prostitution and drugs.
In this park, shootings, HIV and homelessness ruled. It is still a derelict area in many places, but not all. Here is what happened.
The first small act
Photographers, seeking their livelihood realized that people wouldn’t come to have their pictures taken if the park wasn’t safe. They formed a small band of neighbourhood crime watchers- nabbing muggers and sending photos of stabbings to the police. Their efforts led to a reduction of crime and the possibility of children being able to play safely in certain areas of the park.
Day care centre
Most of the preschool children in this area, for safety, spend their days in the inner spaces of the tenements. Several women took the initiative to create a day care centre in the park- Lapeng Day Care, the first ever child development centre for black children.
But caring for 65 children daily wasn’t sufficient to create a systemic shift in the welfare of local families. The Lapeng team started to invite parents to participate more actively in the care of the children, offering them courses in math, literacy, science etc. Teenagers began to drop by to teach the younger children simple math and art. This initiaive grew into the Lapeng Family and Childhood center.
Originating in the belief in the powerful effect the arts have in building self-esteem and in connecting youth to their culture, the Ziyabuya Festival, a celebration of indigenous culture and arts was born. And this was followed by the establishment in 2002 of the Creative Inner City Initiative (CICI) to give inner city youth the chance to express through the arts, to build the capacity of local artists, and to connect them in the trust that these networks would create a local web of support. This has been successful.
Mathibedi Nthite, one of the Lapeng team who helped launch CICI noticed how many parents at Lapeng had arrived from rural areas and yearned to be able to grow their own food to feed their families. This need was recognised by others and the GreenHouse project was born.
The GreenHouse Project
Claiming land on which to grow crops, repurposing derelict structures- this project , too began with small hands on actions. It was started with the conviction that people once knew how to grow their own food, build their own houses, deal with their own waste. It is based on an holistic approach to environmentally friendly city living. The aim is to empower people so they know they already have the knowledge they need to survive and thrive. Food is grown which also feeds the day care centre and school, there are learning projects in sustainable building and agriculture, there are compost toilets in the buildings, as well as a recycling centre.
Thriving network of organisations
Now in Joubert park there is a thriving network of organisations, including what we have just named as well as a Youth Empowerment Network, Neighborhood network, a Public Art Project.
It started with the small act of photographers figuring out how to secure their livelihood. As the park became more secure, people’s attention turned toward the children; with day care established, people could focus on the parents; as the parents learned to read and obtain employment, attention shifted toward the youth. And so on. No one planned this process. The professional problem solvers would hardly have recommended that a start up child care centre begin teaching adults mathematics, or that a ragtag band of entrepreneurial photographers become the catalyst for system wide transformation.
Nonetheless, a conversation that began among a few men led to a level of collective engagement that would transform Joubert Park from resignation and despair to hope and possibility.
This is the pattern of systems change: We act locally, inside the intricacies of a place. We achieve success in one area, and then we notice where to pay attention next.
Sorry this is so long, I didn’t want to break it up into parts. This story is such an inspiring example of how to approach a situation, even as dire as this, in terms of possibility rather than problem solving.
My next questions will concern how I/we, in our own comparatively well off lives, can apply the wisdom gained from this story.