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A Confounding Experience of Heart

A Confounding Experience of Heart
Denise Davis (’16)

At the same time I began the Living School in 2014, my husband and I moved to Manhattan for a three-year job assignment. In seeking community, I did as I had always done: joined a progressive church and then engaged, advocating and working for social justice. One problem arose.

While others around me rallied with enthusiasm, I flat-lined. Nothing aroused the passion I once experienced as a high school theology teacher of social justice.

Confounding the issue was my increasing desire to spend time in Central Park. I even began taking tours, all of which presented this fact: The annual budget of Central Park Conservancy was $65 million. My old warrior-self couldn’t help but protest: “So much money doing what? Making a park pretty?”

But my heart refused to acknowledge such a challenge.

Within a few months, I trained to be a greeter in an information kiosk. A year later, I was a certified tour guide. Yes, I enjoyed the work, but I couldn’t help but wonder: Why had I—a once passionate advocate for justice—spent nearly 100 hours in training to lead wealthy tourists around an iconic park?

Actually, I knew the reason. It all hinged on one Saturday afternoon. Walking across the Great Lawn, I saw hundreds of people—Jewish families celebrating Sabbath, Muslim women sitting beside strollers, youth of all backgrounds playing softball. . . . The beauty astonished me. And so did the realization that none of that would exist if the Conservancy had not raised nearly one billion dollars since its founding in 1980. I was humbled—and proud to be part of it.

I saw that “justice” work takes many, many forms, including the creating of public space so beautiful, so accessible that everyone wants to be there—together.

And yet, I knew, back home in Louisville, all my training and experience would be for naught. Few tourists roam our city parks.

Upon moving back, I searched for some means of re-engaging with the community, but struggled. Nothing felt right. But then, at my favorite park, I was reminded of the Olmsted Parks Conservancy of Louisville. Immediately, I called the number posted on the flyer I had found and chatted with the volunteer coordinator. They had no tour guide program for me to join.

When I later met the coordinator, we discussed the three flagship parks in Louisville that Frederick Law Olmsted had designed in 1891. As she explained Olmsted’s vision—one that saw each park offering different gifts to all city residents—I immediately understood. Olmsted intended that each person would visit and enjoy every park.

As we continued discussing his philosophy that public parks enhance a city’s well-being by providing a place where all—regardless of social class, ethnicity, race—could mingle, we bemoaned the reality of Louisville, a place where the parks are as segregated today as they were during the era of red-lining and Jim Crow laws.

How wonderful it would be, we agreed, if all people could know the true intentions of our city’s park designer. And then the obvious became apparent:

I could create a tour program to communicate just that. For now, my tours will be offered as a members-only perk, with the goal of attracting new members and funding. And yet, my tours are so much more.

As a member of the 2016 Living School cohort, I never had to complete a solidarity project. But here it is.

In scripting and leading tours, I am weaving Olmsted’s vision into our contemporary lives, a vision that challenges structures and habits that obstruct our city’s ability to overcome our segregated past. I am also weaving my own experience from Manhattan into my life here—those hours I spent training now serve me well.

Clearly my heart knew all along what it desired: that my social justice warrior self should die. In its place, a new self is emerging, one who longs for union and integration of self, community, all. Passion, enthusiasm are mine again. I am home.

Denise Davis (’16) is creating that tour guide program with the hope of eventually training inner-city youth to be summer guides and hosting oral history nights at community gatherings.