In our Citizen Placemaker series, we chat with amazing and inspiring people from outside the architecture, planning, and government worlds (the more traditional haunts of Placemakers) whose work exemplifies how creating great places goes far beyond the physical spaces that make up our cities.
Candice Davenport is a nurse who works on improving public health in the Township of Maplewood, New Jersey, and who understands deeply the importance of place in creating healthy communities. One of her recent initiatives, the Gratitude Graffiti Project, turned dozens of storefronts along several of the town's commercial streets into a place where neighbors could share things that they were grateful for by writing them directly on store windows. Simultaneously they collaborated with their local library system to create a library themed gratitude graffiti wall to also collect thoughts of gratitude. The project started shortly before Hurricane Sandy last fall; after the storm, it proved to be an important part of the community's recovery process, as it gave everyone a way to work through the storm's aftermath together while maintaining a positive, forward-thinking outlook in a very tough time. We spoke with Candice recently about how she bridges health and place in her work.
Why it is that you are interested in Placemaking, as a public health nurse and health educator?
My background is in nursing. My mom was a nurse, and I read about Florence Nightingale and how a person's environment affects their recovery, and how a healthy environment creates a healthy person and vice versa. The importance of where we live, work, play—that’s a big mantra of public health, and a huge mantra for nursing if you look at the person from a holistic perspective.
I have a bachelors degree in nursing from UPenn, and a masters degree in public health and community health education from NYU. I’m a first generation American; talk about place! My parents both immigrated to the US from the Philippines, became citizens, and raised me and my siblings here, so there was a very clear definition early on: this is your place. How are you going to define your place and make your mark? Those were things we grew up understanding.
And now you're making that mark through the Gratitude Graffiti Project. What was the inspiration for that project?
I work as a nurse for the health department in my town, Maplewood. I wanted to focus on wellness at our adult health clinics, and approach it in a positive way. I met up with another mom from my kids' school, Lucila McElroy, a wellness coach and a dharma practitioner, to brainstorm. We hadn't met before, but we hit it off brilliantly. Right as she was about to leave, she said “You know, I’ve always wanted to do something about gratitude. We all talk about happiness, but we don’t know how to get there, and gratitude is the first step, and an easy step, to get to a place of happiness. No matter what happens around you can still always be grateful and therefore always be happy with your circumstance.”
A quick sidebar: I’m originally from Flushing, Queens, and I grew up with a lot of graffiti around me. A lot of people look at it negatively, as just tagging. From a child’s eye, I always looked at it as art. Now, as an adult, I lead a children’s group at my church, and I lead a stained glass window tour for kids, and I tell them ‘look at how the windows affect us, and how light shines through it.’ These windows are not just works of art, they were originally created as instructional pieces back when most people couldn’t read biblical text. So the use of natural light and color and graphics on windows to express something has always been inspiring to me.
So when Lucila was talking about doing something to encourage more gratitude, and doing it in a way that would reach a lot of people, I threw out using windows. I said, "We could do graffiti!" As an artist, when you have a thought that you have to get out, you have to face that inspiration and get it out of your system and physically move it. I figured, if people have these thoughts of gratitude trapped inside of them or they just have never manifested it before, why don’t we give them a way to express that, in a way that allows them to be really present, physically, in the community?
I’ve lived in Maplewood for about twelve years now, and she’s lived here for six, so it was easy for us to go into the stores that we frequent most often, talk to a store owner that we knew, and say look, you’ve got these great windows, and we’ve got this great idea, and it’s only going to be up for 40 days. Any of your patrons can write down one thing that makes them happy that they can be grateful for.
Did you have to do any convincing, or were the store owners pretty receptive to your idea?
Many people were receptive. We said just let us use your window; we’ll even provide the marker. Just put up a little sign explaining that this is the Gratitude Graffiti Project, which we printed out on our printer. It was so bare-bones. We had no supplies. Everything we did, we paid for out of pocket. We didn’t mind doing it because we thought how many stores could this be, four, five? It turned out 25 stores participated. Not only did it increase foot traffic into the participating stores, it increased foot traffic around the town; most importantly, it increased the feeling of community connectedness among the stores, our libraries, and the residents. People who have watched the video have come up to us and said “We love Maplewood because this is the kind of community we have, where people do stuff like this.”
People really like the interactivity of it; you are both the artist and the spectator. Not only did everyone feel cool that someone’s reading what they wrote…everyone loves to tweet, so this is sort of like an old-school way of doing that, right? And you get to be in the present moment and write down something that you are truly grateful for, that you might not otherwise have acknowledged about your day. You walk away happier with your life. Likewise, writing on a public window allows for other people to be changed by what another person wrote. One of our store owners told me a story of a woman, whom she didn’t even know, who called her store one day. The woman was riding a bus that stopped in front of her hair salon and read what people wrote on the store windows. She called just to tell her that reading the notes of gratitude from so many people changed her perspective for the rest of the day. It’s the biggest gift that we could give to anybody, and that they can give to other people.
There was a difference between what was written before and after Hurricane Sandy. People started off writing things like I’m thankful for my kids, for my coffee, whatever. Then afterward it became I’m thankful that my house didn’t fall down, grateful for electricity, thankful for a neighbor, or I’m thankful that I can call my mom. It really put things in perspective for people. Many of us had no power for nine days, and yet we were still able to be grateful.
You’re also working on getting a walking school bus started in your town with Camilla Zelevansky (who’s been working with us at PPS on our image database).
Maplewood is a very walkable community. Tuscan Elementary School, where my kids go, was built to be a walkable school, but we’re finding that a lot of kids are driven—mine included, but we stop and walk from a couple of blocks away. I think it’s just a mindset in our culture now, to think that kids need to be dropped off right in front of school, because it’s not safe to walk. So in addition to kids having so many issues relating to obesity and lack of exercise, we’re also getting kids who are not confident in their environment. They don’t know basic place markers, they don’t know directions, they don’t know basic street crossing safety guidelines and they don’t know who their neighbors are. That’s something we need to change, because the only way you get to know your environment is by being in it, and when you’re in a car you’re not really engaging with your environment or with your own body.
When you walk, you create the opportunity for these moments where a child can dream, and learn, and notice and think about that blossoming flower that yesterday didn’t have a bloom and now does. It’s an opportunity to create wonder. I’m inspired by opportunities to create places of wonder, because every day is a gift, and every day is wonderful, but only if we engage in it. Only if we allow for the beauty of the community to come out and for us as individuals to soak it in.
As a public health nurse, do you think there’s an actual effect on peoples’ health when they get involved in their communities?
We’re human beings who are, by nature, social creatures. We’ll always be that way. No matter what technology bridges communities within the online spectrum, we'll still need to engage in sunlight, with eye contact, and touch, and smell, and with our senses. How a person looks at and thinks about their environment, subconsciously is a reflection on how an individual thinks about themselves and their health condition. A healthy community is a thriving community and people are drawn to environments where they can be productive citizens and grow; to be able to make change and to be changed for the better. This, I think, is what we as human beings all seek in a community to live in and call home.
What advice would you give to people who aren't happy with the current state of things in their community, and are trying to change it?
One thing that both the Gratitude Graffiti Project and the walking school bus have taught me is that you can’t do it alone. You need a group of people who also believe in what you're doing, and believe that this is true and possible. You need that momentum behind you, and that’s where the power of people comes in.
Another thing is that you actually do have to have a vision. You have to have the self worth to know that you and others like you deserve a clean and healthy environment to thrive, and deserve to be inspired by that environment. In my experience, even in the least desirable of conditions, we can still be moved by inspiration if we always have a sense of appreciation and wonder about the world around us, if we imagine the creative possibilities and if we commit to being mindful of our place. But we must be engaged and present in our relationship with our environment and surroundings if we want to be moved and take action on its behalf.
Because in the end, I believe that the relationship between a person and their environment is a symbiotic one. If the environment is a positive, healthy one, the person will grow to have the healthy belief that they have the power to change or protect their environment and be stewards of positive change in how they live their life. I suppose that is the lesson I would like to pass down to my children; so hopefully, I'm doing my part.
Don't miss this great video about the Gratitude Graffiti Project!