George Abbott: Everyone can be engaged in improving their community

communities / Article

George Abbott recently joined Knight Foundation as special assistant to Carol Coletta, vice president for community and national initiatives. Below, Coletta interviews Abbott about the transition to Knight from his previous role with ArtPlace, a Chicago-based funding collaborative, and his other work.

Carol Coletta: You worked as a field organizer on the recent presidential campaign. What did you learn about engagement on the campaign that you can put to work on behalf of Knight and our communities?

George Abbott: The campaign was really all about engaging voters. Our ultimate goal was to get people out to vote; that wouldn’t happen unless they were engaged in the race. So everything we did focused on engaging voters and motivating them to take action in their community. Similarly when recruiting volunteers it was crucial to engage them by connecting over the issues they cared about.

One of the biggest takeaways for me is that everyone can be engaged in improving their community. We hear a lot these days about how technology has killed neighborhood cohesion, and that the younger generation is ambivalent, lazy and doesn’t care about their communities. I can tell you that that’s categorically not true. Every day in my campaign office we had new volunteers of all ages and races come together to work on issues they cared about that had wide-ranging consequences for the future of their communities. Seeing people take ownership of the campaign and work to rally their friends and neighbors together was very instructive.

You also worked as a mail carrier in England. What did you learn from public service that may inform your work at Knight? 

G.A.: Working as a postman was definitely an interesting experience. It was great to be the first person awake and travel round my route delivering mail while the world woke up around me. Traveling a relatively broad route every day for the whole summer I learned a lot about communities and how people interact with one another. 

In addition, the Royal Mail in England was—and still is—undergoing a huge transformation with significant changes in the structure of the organization and the tasks workers were asked to do. It was interesting to witness the effort by both the union and management to engage the workers and rally their support behind a particular plan. I wrote an opinion piece about my experience relating to one of the issues that divided the two camps here.

Just before coming to Knight, you worked at ArtPlace America, a Knight grantee. The aim of its work, creative placemaking, seemed to have captured the imagination of mayors, artists and community activists across the country. What is it about creative placemaking that is so compelling? Why has interest ignited?

G.A.: Creative placemaking means using art and culture as one of a set of strategies to drive vibrancy and diversity in communities. It’s unique in that it builds upon the cultural assets already in place to produce visible improvements in neighborhoods, inspiring a deeper connection between people and place.

Interest in creative placemaking has ignited as cities come to realize the importance of ideas and innovation in the 21st century economy. It’s more important than ever to attract new, innovative talent to your city. Art and culture make cities and neighborhoods places where people want to be. They can amplify the unique and distinctive elements already present in every neighborhood across the country. This inspires residents of the place to think of their neighborhood in a new and unexpected way, and those outside the neighborhood recognize that something cool is happening there.

Furthermore art inspires and provokes. There’s nothing else that can inspire new thinking and ideas the same way that provocative art can. And, it’s relatively cheap. A small investment in art can produce benefits far in excess of the money spent.

What are your first impressions of Miami?

G.A.: I’m really excited to be in Miami; my immediate impression was that it’s a lot warmer than Chicago at this time of year! It’s a really exciting time for Miami; there seems to be more and more happening around the city, and I'm excited to take some time and really explore some of the different neighborhoods. And, of course, there’s a beach where—unlike Chicago—the water is warm!

What are your last impressions of Chicago, the city you just left?

G.A.: I was very sad to leave Chicago. It’s a city that just seems to do everything right. There’s a great transit system, fantastic public institutions, excellent restaurants, and I love the people. Of course, Chicago clearly has excellent sports teams too!

Which brings me to my next question: Will you become a Heat fan? Or are you sticking with the Bulls?

G.A.: I am definitely sticking with the Bulls! I loved Jimmy Butler’s answer to a recent interview question. When they asked him for one thing he would never wear his response was: “a Miami Heat jersey”! I’m looking forward to Derrick Rose’s return in Miami and him putting a dampener on their title celebrations by dropping 40 points on LBJ.

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