Millennial Trains Project: Common Grounds | Interview with Elizabeth Jarrett

Elizabeth Jarrett has been working on an idea to rejuvenate unused, uncultivated outdoor lots into creative performance and community spaces for neighborhoods and artists in Atlanta.

The project is called Common Ground and she needs our help. 

Elizabeth took her idea to The Millennial Trains Project, who lead crowd-funded transcontinental train journeys that empower diverse groups of creative, entrepreneurial, and civic-minded Millennials to explore America's new frontiers. She was accepted and now must raise $5,000 by June 1st to take a journey to 7 cities where I will gain the resources to make this project a reality in Atlanta.

BANG: For those who do not know, can you briefly describe what the Millennial Trains Project is?

Elizabeth: The Millennial Trains Project was started by Patrick Dowd after he helped lead a similar journey in India as a Fulbright Scholar in 2010. Millennial Trains Project (MTP) is a 501(c)3 non-profit that leads crowd-funded transcontinental train journeys that empower diverse groups of creative, entrepreneurial, and civic-minded Millennials to explore America's new frontiers. Over the course of ten days, I will participate in on-train seminars led by a crew of carefully selected mentors, workshops with local leaders, and projects in seven different communities. MTP's mission is “to enable passengers and virtual audiences to identify, evaluate, and explore emerging opportunities and challenges in communities where their trains stop while advancing a project that benefits, serves, and inspires others.”

BANG: Your goal, a project called Common Ground, is to rejuvenate unused, uncultivated outdoor lots into creative performance and community spaces for neighborhoods and artists in Atlanta. Where would these spaces be located and how would they be ‘transformed’?

Elizabeth: My goal is to bring this project to many different neighborhoods throughout the city. So, the location of the spaces will really differentiate from one to the next. Every day, I drive by an alarming amount of completely trashed, empty “green” spaces. It doesn't matter what route I take or where I'm going, every borough and every street has one. There are a lot of factors that determine which of these would be right for Common Ground. Ideally it is a space that is accessible, able to accommodate groups of people, and can be fixed up with some hard work and good, old-fashioned elbow grease. Sometimes, a space just has life. I'm looking for a space with heart. The transformation will also depend on the space itself. I don't want to alter the natural character of the land and hope to expound upon its natural beauty. Learning what the neighborhood needs will also be influential in how the space is changed. One example would be to build a small amphitheater for concerts, readings, presentations, or theatrical performances. Maybe another community needs a flat, open area for an artist market. This is a seed of an idea and can flux and grow with the participation of said community.

BANG: Can you expand on how the community would use these lots as creative performance spaces?

Elizabeth: Atlanta is currently a Mecca for young artists with so many wonderful ideas, but there are just not enough venues and spaces to house them. As a theatre performer/producer myself, I fully intend to use Common Ground for my own site-specific, outdoor performances, but I also want to afford the opportunity to other creators who have their own uses for such an environment. My hope is that people who might not have the resources to showcase their talents in permanent, free-standing large art facilities, would have a place to express themselves and share right in their own backyard. It's important that everyone has the chance to shape their own community and leave a cultural footprint. This builds a stronger sense of community and culture as a whole and creates a strong relationship with their surroundings.

BANG: Can you describe how these transformed spaces would ultimately be utilized by the community?

Elizabeth: There was a time when all forms of art served a social purpose. For centuries, patrons would go to the theatre or the ballet to eat, drink, socialize, etc. In some cases now, it seems a lot of the arts and tother cultural musings are far removed from the urban fabric. Now, I'm not saying there isn't absolutely a need for those large, wonderful institutions. There are many amazing museums, galleries, theatres, music venues, etc. in Atlanta. However some areas do not have easy access to such institutions and some people feel intimidated by all the rules of a theater or museum. I want to create a sovereign place where the audience/visitors become the creators by co-authoring meaning. I want these to be comfortable spaces that not only better the aesthetic appearance of Atlanta, but give its artists more opportunity to experiment and grow. In my dream world, the space would be beautifully kept with flowers and perhaps an instillation or two. There would be a place to take in a show, or meet with your favorite local organization. Everyone would contribute and the artists that live in the neighborhood would regularly curate things there that represent and shine a light on their 'hood and the people in it. Maybe there's a unicorn somewhere in there... but in all seriousness, this is going to be shaped largely by the citizens of Atlanta. It's all for them, so Common Ground will try to identify their needs within the model I'm creating, and then execute it using various resources.

BANG: The concept known as “Third Place” refers to a space where people congregate other than work or home. How will the Atlanta community benefit from the creation of these types of “Third Place” environments? 

Elizabeth: Third Place is something I only heard of recently, but it's a concept I immediately identified with. In a lot of cases, a good example of an active, well known Third Place is a local coffee shop. In this coffee shop, you have some people working; people in their own personal space enjoying a book or a thought. Mostly though, you have small groups of people sharing and discussing or catching up. That's their coffee shop, just as much a part of them as their home or their workplace. They feel comfortable they contribute to it in some way by using the space and they do! Those people- that sense of community- is what makes a Third Place. There are also a few other factors: the space should be neutral, level, a place where conversation is present, accessible, have regulars, is unpretentious, and the mood is playful. When creating great community spaces, the community is the expert. Whenever we all come together as a people, it really does create change. Unfortunately, it usually takes something negative to get a community working together but it doesn't have to be that way. By creating a space for people to start a dialogue, share opinions, experiment, and collaborate in, you also create a collective effervescence. I heard someone use that term...collective effervescence..that's nice, isn't it? Every place on Earth can benefit from that.

BANG: What do you hope to accomplish or learn if you were to succeed in your goal and take part in The Millennial Trains Project?

Elizabeth: The opportunity to take this train ride is once in a lifetime. I'm in a transitional place as an artist and a human. The Millennial Trains Project will give me the rare opportunity to travel (in style) while working with driven, wonderful people my age from all around the country. It's always been a dream of mine to travel by train, and if I make my goal for this trip, I can also do something to better my community. The mentors and people I meet in other cities will teach me a great deal about representing and speaking for myself and my cause and help me lay the groundwork for a sustainable project. I can ask questions and learn from people who have actually done similar projects and made notable changes in their own cities and the lives of others. I'm a big proponent of learning through action. The best way to take in knowledge is through experience, and The Millennial Trains Project will give create completely new experiences and challenges for me that I'm unlikely to face elsewhere. I'm excited for what awaits me on the rails!

BANG: What is your biggest obstacle as of this moment in accomplishing your goal?

Elizabeth: The biggest obstacle I'm facing at this moment is formulating and executing a large idea all by myself. I am a collaborative artist and have accomplished many things in the past, but when it comes to things like fundraising, I'm finding it more difficult to do as a solo entity because I'm having to put myself in a very vulnerable place. There is no company or team of artists for me to hide behind and the stakes aren't as high when the only person you're going to let down by not making your goal is yourself. This project comes right from my heart and I have to open myself up so it can flourish. I have a lot of great connections and am slowly putting together an “A-Team” of sorts to help Common Ground thrive when I come back from this trip, but getting on that train is my number one goal right now. I have supported the Atlanta arts scene for years now, as both a patron and a contributor, so now I have to trust that the city will repay my devotion and support me when I need it. Asking for help is a difficult thing, but I can't do this without a lot of it.

BANG: How do you purpose you will prolong the integrity of your project so that these spaces do not return to the unused, uncultivated outdoor lots they once were?

Elizabeth: Eventually, I hope that Common Ground will become a non-profit devoted to the care and management of each of its spaces but that's a long-term goal. One of the challenges I'll face is working with landlords or the city, depending on who owns the property. I plan to start small with pop-up events, but plan to leave the space better than when I found it. In an ideal world, everyone would want to work together to keep such a wonderful place alive and beautiful, but I know that's not realistic. I am inspired by the work that Dashboard Co-Op has done to revitalize run-down buildings throughout the city. Almost every building they have exhibited in was purchased and restored shortly after their presence. Edgewood Avenue would not be the destination it is today without the work Dashboard did there a few years ago. I don't think most people want those neglected, rough areas where they live. It's a dirty job, but someone has to be the one to take the first step towards change and I'm willing to go there.



-Kristen Perez