The public picnic proposal considers the sharing of food as a vehicle for solidarity building and cross-cultural appreciation among diverse communities. We chose our local community of Somerville as our space of research and intervention and completed a series of mapping studies to understand the city’s composition and resources.
By Miriam Alexandroff and Alexandru Vilcu, Harvard GSD
The public picnic proposal considers the sharing of food as a vehicle for solidarity building and cross-cultural appreciation among diverse communities. We chose our local community of Somerville as our space of research and intervention and completed a series of mapping studies to understand the city’s composition and resources. The “Somerville Community Food System Assessment” from July 2018 was a particularly revealing source as it studied the economic, social and environmental implications of the city’s food system and provided quantitative data to understand opportunities and challenges of the current paradigm. Our mapping studies allowed us to understand and visualize the dynamic composition of the Somerville community and the extent of services available to those experiencing food insecurity.
Somerville is home to people of diverse socioeconomic, ethnic and linguistic backgrounds all living in close proximity around Union Square. Nibble, an organization initiated by the Somerville Arts Council, understood the opportunity for the diverse community to express their culture to others through food. They began organizing international food market tours and a social entrepreneurship program around food businesses. We interviewed Rachel Strutt, the program director at the Somerville Arts Council, to learn more about Nibble’s mission and how they use food to build solidarity and opportunity among Somerville’s different communities. In particular, we were interested in learning how this program engages women, largely from immigrant backgrounds, who have begun businesses selling food from their culture. Community members have been excited to engage in this cross-cultural exchange through food entrepreneurship with Nibble program participants selling meals at local markets and soon at a permanent restaurant with a rotating menu. We also spoke with Rachel about marketing these events to community members in order to effectively engage people from different backgrounds and age-groups.
This research, conducted through our mapping and case study on Nibble, revealed a situation that is not uncommon in gentrifying communities such as Somerville. Despite the diversity of people from different culture and socioeconomic backgrounds living in close proximity to each other, inequality persists. We acknowledge that our proposal cannot solve the broader structural issues of rising rents or unequal access to food; however, we have proposed a tool to reassert inclusivity of public space and encourage dialogue on these divisive issues between different groups despite linguistic and cultural barriers.
In our Public Picnic proposal, the artifacts of a picnic are reimagined as tools to facilitate discussion and build solidarity among diverse Somerville residents. These items are fairly universal, so their design conventions can be subverted or rescaled, allowing for a repurposing of these everyday objects. The articles in this picnic toolkit include the oversized picnic blanket that delineates the space of intervention and indicates the public, welcoming nature of the gathering. The structure of a menu is appropriated to facilitate a conversation among strangers around a previously announced theme relating to food, community or inclusion. For instance, the public picnic could encourage participants to discuss the personal challenges of gentrification or how they are working to reassert “place” into the food system. The place settings at our picnic are a set of oversized emojis. The placemats work as a conversation piece as participants are welcomed to select emoji to build their place setting that communicate their feelings on the chosen theme. The use of emojis was deliberate as their pictorial nature is universally understood, cutting through linguistic and cultural barriers.
We intend for the invitation to picnic to be posted on our Public Picnic Instagram page along with upcoming conversation topics and a selected academic reading. Harnessing social media to communicate the invitation allows it to reach a wide audience. In addition, the curation of academic readings and topics through the visual means of Instagram encourages accessibility of these significant texts to the general public. These facilitation tools fit within a picnic basket that can be shared and easily set-up in both private and public spaces. It is our intention that the picnic would be accessible to any member of the community interested in engaging with the chosen topic. The picnic is intended as a potluck and participants would be encouraged to bring food that represents their cultural background or other interests to share with fellow participants.
After developing the Public Picnic scheme, we tested our method of intervention by facilitating a dinner party to understand how people who are unfamiliar with the project would interact with our artifacts. We crafted a menu specifically for the event and brought emoji placemats, allowing people to pick images with which to introduce themselves and begin a conversation about diversity and inclusion in the architecture field. We facilitated a second public picnic at our course final review allowing for further feedback and refinement of the proposal.
The public picnic proposal is a specific approach to a broad problem. With a singular intervention we cannot solve structural issues such as food access, or displacement due to gentrification, yet we can encourage understanding between diverse groups. By creating tools to facilitate open discussion we aspire to create empathy and build relationships among members of a community. We also desire to reassert the public realm as a space of inclusion and informed public debate among different groups living in close proximity. In proposing a toolkit, our intervention is mobile, and the process can be replicated for different communities facing a myriad of challenges. It can also be deployed in different scenarios such as in a school or to protest the privatization of public space, allowing for this framework to remain relevant in multiple contexts.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF NIBBLEInterview with Rachel Strutt, program director at the Somerville Arts Council
Alex: If you could just share with us a brief history of Nibble.
Rachel: A decade ago we received a grant from Mass. Cultural Council to spur economic development through cultural programming in Union Square…We started by looking at what we thought were existing assets in the Square…We started doing walking tours of the International markets and then we started learning really great stories from the market owners and also the people who came on these tours and we saw firsthand how food can be such a great common denominator and a portal for cultural interchange…For the past five or six years, we’ve offered cooking classes to the public predominately taught by members of our immigrant communities and again another great opportunity not only to support and pay people from our immigrant communities but also to offer cultural interchange. And then we learned that a lot of people teaching these cooking classes were interested in pursuing culinary careers, so we decided to start an entrepreneurship program.
Alex: I want to go back to where you said that Nibble is a really good fit in the Somerville area because of the population being young and well educated. Do you think that food being a common denominator between people of different backgrounds would only work in a situation like Somerville’s or do you think other places could also try and solve some of these issues using food?
Rachel: I think Somerville may have a head start as we have some people who probably have some disposable income and are well traveled and are excited about authentic food experiences. But having said that, I think what it comes down to ultimately is good food. We just had a staff meeting this morning and we were talking about how we need to get some more Haitian people into our program, and then someone was saying: ‘ya but who wants to eat Haitian food.’ I would make the argument if it's cooked well, people would eat Haitian food. Good food is good food regardless of where it’s from.
Miriam: We were doing research on Somerville before we started looking at Nibble. For instance, we understood that food deserts and food access are big problems in parts of Somerville because the grocery stores are mainly located in the Southern part of the city. Do you see that becoming part of Nibble’s efforts or do want to be mainly focused on social entrepreneurship?
Rachel: I think more about social entrepreneurship and cultural programming. I think what we’re doing as an arts council is very unusual. It’s a fair amount of task force development. Now essentially, we’re opening a kitchen. I think we have our hands full with that. We’re at capacity. We would love to open up some satellite kitchen in Winter Hill, or someplace that really needs it, but I don’t think it’s realistic. I will say that the Shape Up Somerville now does the mobile market which vends at different locations, underserved locations across Somerville. We have once or twice had our Nibble entrepreneurs go out and do demos and on how to use local produce to make dishes.
Alex: Is staffing done in a particular way? I think I read somewhere that Nibble tries to focus on staffing mostly women and people in need of social justice.
Rachel: Yes, I would say 80% of our entrepreneurs are lower economic status. And again, I would say 80% are women. And what’s interesting, in terms of doing outreach for our program, we have reached out through different channels that serve immigrant communities like the Welcome Project or SCALE which teaches ESL for example. But we haven’t necessarily gone after low-income people or women buts it's interesting that’s who has come to us. And that’s whose looking at using food to propel their economic situation.
Miriam Alexandroff is originally from Toronto, Canada. She received her Bachelor of Science in architecture with a minor in urban design from Washington University in St. Louis graduating summa cum laude. She has worked in architecture and urbanism offices across North America and Europe. She is currently pursuing a Masters in Architecture at the Harvard GSD (M.Arch 1 candidate, expected 2019).
Alexandru Vilcu is originally from Timișoara, Romania and an immigrant to Canada. He received his Bachelor of Architectural Studies with Distinction from the University of Waterloo in Canada. During his undergraduate education, he has worked for architecture offices in both North America and Europe, including Robert A. M. Stern Architects and the Office for Metropolitan Architecture. He is currently pursuing a Masters in Architecture at the Harvard GSD (M.Arch 1 candidate, expected 2019).