Alley. Designed and painted by Lily Yeh; mosaics by James Maxton.
Yeh's Art of Transformation,
We talked not just
about the standard angels in church, she adds, but angel figures from
all cultures, Assyrian, Mesopotamian and Buddhist. Once we excited their
imaginations they began creating their own angels. Before that, the children
were afraid to speak and learn because their creativity was all bottled
up. But in talking about their personal angels they came up with all these
wonderful lines. Before this, the children had trouble writing, but we
told them to just speak and then we recorded their talk, transcribed it
and gave it back to them. Pretty soon it becomes much easier for them
to write and read because its their own words.
Dr. Michael Kolakowski, principal of the Hartranft
School, says both the children and teachers were impressed. You can measure
the difference The Village has made, he explains, by the fact that year
after year, for seven years now, the kids always ask when Miss Lily will
be back. More generally, Kolakowski observes, The Village has given the
area a dramatic physical and emotional makeover. When all youve known
is blight you get used to seeing only blight. Lily teaches the children
that you dont have to only see blight. Shes taken a whole city block
between 10th and 11th on Cumberland, where before there was only decay,
and turned it into something not only beautiful but [which] we now use
as an outdoor classroom.
In addition to educational partnerships, The Village
also has launched initiatives in nutrition and preventive health care,
neighborhood-based craft industries and urban gardening. Over the next
few years Yeh also plans to establish a Village on the Move program
in which ongoing workshops will be held in tents set up at five locations
around North Philadelphia.
Though all observers seem to agree The Village has
made a difference in the physical look and spirit of the neighborhood,
skeptics do question how much such inspirational projects can accomplish
without more fundamental economic changes. Yeh acknowledges that The Village
alone cant solve the deep economic and political problems of the area.
What we can do, she insists, is change perception, and through that
change the condition of hopelessness which has prevailed.
Another key unanswered question is whether The Village,
as the singular vision of a charismatic founder, can be sustained when
shes no longer around. Im still as excited about the work were doing
as I was when I arrived here 14 years ago, and theres so much more to
do, says Yeh. At the same time, she adds, I have other places to go
as well, referring in particular to Korogocho, a village in Kenya where
she has initiated a pilot project modeled on her work in Philadelphia.
Though she intends to stay closely associated with
The Village, Yeh is considering stepping aside as executive director in
about three years or so to make way for a new generation of organizers
whom she has trained. Theyre motivated, sophisticated people who are
bringing in a serious professionalism and talents for order and efficiency
I never had, she says. With them, Yeh looks forward to expanding The
Villages range and scope, as well as putting it on more solid financial
footing. In order to fulfill that goal she is, as she puts it, trying
to learn some new languages, new ways of defining and achieving our goals.
One new means is high technology,
specifically the World Wide Web, through which the possibility exists
for the first time to link kindred grass-roots efforts around the world,
allowing them to find ways of joining forces. Yeh is also trying to learn
new ways of economically maintaining The Village without relying on grants,
by developing self-sustaining non-profit and for-profit community-based
businesses, an approach known as social entrepreneurialism.
She is currently seeking the advice of sympathetic,
socially responsible corporate leaders such as Con Kenney W80, director
of re-engineering at Fannie Mae, on how to adapt some of the planning
tools, strategies and intellectual disciplines of the corporate sector
to advance the Villages cause. Successful grass-roots projects like The
Village should be seen as crucial incubators of social innovation, Kenney
says. Theres an emerging consensus that technocratic interventions from
afar have failed to really impact social problems in a deep and abiding
Without planning it, Yeh believes, weve actually
been doing, in the shadows, what governments and corporations want to
see done. They need skilled people and strong, stable communities, but
they dont know how to bring that about.
Soon after his election, the transition team of Philadelphias
new mayor, John Street, visited The Village to study its approaches to
neighborhood revitalization. Mayor Street himself professes to be a fan,
saying that Yehs work clearly demonstrates the power of community development,
and adding, I think Lily is one of our citys great treasures.
Intellectual and political capital will be important
in making the kinds of innovation unleashed at The Village thrive, but
even more important in the long run, Yeh concludes, will be a resource
which, though theoretically unlimited, is often hard to come by: humility.
Professionals need to go out to the field, not with
the attitude that theyre going to come in and take things over because
they know more. They need to learn the art of listening. Community speaks
eloquently if you give it a chance, and if you can do that, magic can
Phil Leggiere C79 is a freelance writer based
in Hoboken, N.J. He last wrote for the Gazette on Internet entrepreneur
Elon Musk C/W95.