My Saturday morning at the Union Gospel Mission’s 118 Design Workshop was a morning of simple metaphors. Ricky Jordan sat me and my 15 DukeEngage companions down and pulled out two $1 bills. One was clean and crisp – the kind of dollar bill you’d be proud to pull out of your wallet. The other he crumpled between his fingers, and then stomped under his foot for good measure. Which one did we want? The clean one, fine. But which one had more value?
The Union Gospel Mission possesses the unique insight that people unfairly judge themselves based on the image society projects on them. The ministry targets youth heavily influenced by gangs in the Rainier Valley. After having future job prospects crumpled by gang affiliation and incarceration, many of the youth forget that a dollar bill is a dollar bill. I think after being metaphorically laminated and framed on the wall, my Duke friends and I needed the same reminder.
We put on our safety glasses and we got to work. The material at our disposal was not first-class lumber. It was discarded wood, punctured by rusting nails – dismissed as useless. The genius of the Mission’s 118 street outreach program is they saw opportunity in the unwanted wood. They saw the wood for its durable properties rather than its rough exterior.
We got to work trying to pry the nails out using the back end of hammers. This kind of labor-intensive work humbles. I felt embarrassed, using my entire body to pull a single nail from a block of wood and not getting a budge. The loud ringing from a dozen hammers reminded me that extracting these nails was a communal struggle. After endless swaying back and forth, just when all my physical abilities had been thrown into doubt, the nail slipped out from the wood as if it had never been stuck. At first slowly, and then faster as we developed proficiency, newly refurbished planks of wood piled up ready for use.
The 118 outreach program sees their youth through a parallel lens. The program doesn’t try to discard their members’ troubled pasts. The goal is to pry whatever challenges are preventing a stable future, and then use their difficult experiences as opportunities. For instance Ricky argues, what better qualifies a candidate for business or marketing than a history in drug dealing? Managing multiple clients, fostering trusting relationships, and networking a product are all drug peddling skills that within the right framework would translate well to a business setting.
Although we only spent a day prying nails, the members of the outreach program spend weeks using the wood to build furniture. They don’t paint over the finished product. They proudly showcase the wood for what it is now – durable and valuable – and for what it used to be – abandoned and useless. This urban style furniture fares well in the marketplace; 118 sold 62,000 dollars’ worth of furniture at their last annual fundraising event, Catalyst. Despite the furniture’s unfinished look, in fact because of its worn appearance, buyers have confidence that no amount of weight can break it.