Earlier this week, the city of Providence hosted the Resilient Providence Lab, inviting experts in sustainable design, city planning and urban policy to listen to Providence residents (referred to as “stakeholders”), look at the city’s streets and trees and ground and buildings, and make some recommendations to make the city more “sustainable”, “adaptable” or “resilient.” (Sorry about all the fingerquotes.) I went to a “stakeholders’ meeting” on Monday where the visiting experts served as moderators, asking people, essentially, about the city’s strengths and weaknesses in the face of climate change and its effects.
“Resilience” has limits and misdirections that I’ll talk about in another post (building on Melissa Chadburn’s and Lynda Barry’s ideas about it), but at this meeting what struck me more was the intensity and length with which the people in attendance, often there to represent a group, spoke about the thing they had come there to speak about, sometimes to the side of the moderator’s question. People sometimes challenged, or defended against, what others said; building on another person’s response was less common.
These were mainly urgent things: nourishing food and safe shelter, health and dignity and quality of life. All things that deserve time, thought, and swift response guided by both time and thought. More than one person pointed out the rarity of “a seat at the table”–the city’s table–for organizations attempting to serve and defend the Providence residents who are injured most by the city’s policies, social structures and economic systems. Experience, then, has taught them that opportunities to state what they need the city–the people in charge of the city–to hear are few, that they must seize the moment and hold it as long as they can.
I sat in the “neighborhod/community” group the whole time, as distinct from the “buildings” group and the “infrastructure” group, so I don’t know how other people were speaking and listening to each other. One person in our group posited that in other groups, they weren’t having this conversation or stating these needs; another noted that the people who were at this table are often together, hearing each other, and that they wanted to introduce these needs into the two discussions that might be ignoring them.
Our home city had trained us well in scarcity. As advocates, as representatives, we had learned that we were at odds with each other for the attention of those whose help (and resources, and skills) we need in order to change what needs changing. People were respectful, self-aware, restrained; we were also fighting people who weren’t in the room, on behalf of other people who weren’t in the room, in an effort to get from one what we needed for the other. It seemed like this made it hard for us to hear each other, to note and emphasize the overlap of what we wanted, to insist together.