Monday, June 15, 2015

how alexandria's "courage wall" helped me find courage

A chalkboard wall in Alexandria that recently got national attention for asking people to finish the thought "I wish I had the courage to ..." is coming down. For me, the Courage Wall represented a moment when I took a courageous jump of my own.

Looking at the Courage Wall
The Courage Wall in Alexandria. All photos by the author unless noted.

Resident and leadership coach Nancy Belmont set up the wall outside her friend's business in the Del Ray neighborhood last month. Inspired by artist Candy Change's "Before I Die" project in New Orleans, the Courage Wall is an interactive piece of public art, constantly changing as people add their thoughts to it.

Over the following weeks, thousands of people wrote their wishes: "Ask her out." "Start my own business." "Be in the present." The wall appeared everywhere from the Washington Post to ABC News. Even First Lady Michelle Obama tweeted about it. Last week, Belmont took the wall down but promises to return it to another location in Northern Virginia.

'Ask Her Out'
Some of the comments people wrote on the Courage Wall.

The Courage Wall's site, a vacant lot at Mount Vernon and East Del Ray avenues in Del Ray, is a particularly significant location for me. Seven years ago, I had a studio project here while in architecture school at the University of Maryland. Our professor, Mark Ramirez, told us to design something here, but unlike every other project I'd done before, he didn't say what it should be.

I was shocked: how would we know what to build? My classmates and I started researching the neighborhood for clues. We interviewed residents and shop owners and explored the local history. We hung out in shops and restaurants and watched people go about their lives. I started digging into Census data, eager to learn about the demographics of the people living in the area.

That's when I came onto something: despite having a diverse and very young population, Del Ray and surrounding neighborhoods lacked a central gathering space, especially one for teenagers. I ended up proposing a public space on the vacant lot, with structures around it that were small enough for intimate gatherings, but big enough for performances. The building (which in real life is a web design firm) became a retail incubator on the ground floor, and a teen center above.

Two renderings of my proposed design for the vacant lot.

What I didn't realize at the time is that I'd basically conducted a planning exercise: using input from the community, I'd analyzed its needs and developed a plan. But I did know I was inspired in a way I'd never been before, so I started to get involved more with the neighborhood.

Later that fall, I drove down to Northern Virginia Community College one rainy Friday night to participate in "We Are More Than What You See," a city-run campaign where local artists worked with teenagers to make posters decrying prejudice. Our work was shown in a gallery in Del Ray, then appeared in shop windows at businesses around Alexandria, including one across the street from the vacant lot.

The poster I made for Alexandria's "We Are More Than What You See" campaign.
My entire life I had dreamed of being an architect and had built an identity around it. But I struggled with math and physics, and I felt disconnected from the people and communities I was supposed to design for. My time in Del Ray taught me something new about myself, and it gave me the courage to take the leap and try a different path. Seven years later, I'm a urban planner.

But I find myself dealing with even bigger challenges. I've always been a really optimistic and driven person, hopeful that I could overcome any obstacle. Yet the past three years after I graduated planning school seemed to be one setback after another: a struggle to find full-time work, hospital bills from a foot injury, two car accidents, a stressful living situation, a five-year relationship that ended. I became overwhelmed with doubt and anxiety, unsure of myself and afraid that this time, I wasn't going to make it through.

Over the past few months, I've been able to pull myself out, slowly but surely. A few weeks ago, I stood in front of the Courage Wall, watching people walk up, admire it, and add something of their own.

This is a place where I'd shown myself courage once. Chalk in hand, I felt hopeful I could do it again. I added my words and I went on my way.


Deena said...

Dan, this is BEAUTIFUL. I recently walked by the Courage Wall in Del Rey and was moved to tears by some of the responses people posted. (Anonymously, we speak more freely, as in "Post Secret" another community "art" project.) I will take part of my response to you off-line, but I do want to say publicly, that I have known you for more than half your life, and think of you as one of the bravest, grittiest and most imaginative people I have ever met. I am proud to call you my friend, and assure you of this: The best is yet to come for you.

Anonymous said...

break ups sucks. so do foot injuries( i had one in 2005 and still my foot is 100%).
i am glad you did not give up and i wish you well.