Sunday, October 26, 2014 · 1:07 a.m.
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AIGA Chattanooga and The Public Library are offering a kind of reset for citizens' relationship with local government. (Photo: Staff)

The controversy over the adoption of a new Chattanooga city flag in April 2012 has led to a newly launched project looking to not only expand the voices in local government conversations, but also re-energize a population around the rights and the duties of citizenship.

Creative Citizenship, a partnership between The Public Library and the local chapter of the national professional design association AIGA Chattanooga, is composed of four events and backed by a much larger, civically inclusive proposal.

The canary in the coalmine
In thinking about the program’s indirect spark of inspiration, DJ Trischler, head designer for D+J, a local brand consulting firm, and events and program director of AIGA Chattanooga, explained that objections to the city flag were twofold.

Those in the design community felt the flag’s aesthetics did not best represent a city that has its own typeface, and many other Chattanoogans were surprised the flag was adopted without what they saw as an opportunity to have a say.

“What it showed was that there was a major disconnect between the creative community and the government in Chattanooga,” Trischler said. “We realize we didn't know how to connect with them, and we want to learn how to and be more participatory in the government process, not just as designers, but as citizens.”

Trischler was quick to emphasize that the Creative Citizenship project is not an avenue for simply demanding more of local government. 

Rather, it is a vehicle for exploring the ways in which citizens can contribute to and participate with City Council, the city’s various departments and agencies, and the mayor’s office.

In the course of defining the project’s fundamental idea, AIGA Chattanooga connected with former Knoxville City Councilman Chris Woodhall—who became a kind of adviser with his valuable experience in city government—and Corinne Hill, the director of The Public Library.

The 4th Floor of The Public Library is growing into more than just an event space. (Photo: Staff)

The focus turned to voting and how to increase the number of those Chattanoogans younger than 40 years old registered to vote and how to overcome the apathy or anger preventing citizens from voting. This particular demographic, Trischler said, has bottomed out at 3 percent.

Simultaneously, The Public Library was undergoing a kind of revamp to demonstrate its continued relevance in residents’ lives. Its collection development process is completely reader-driven with interactive input. The 4th Floor, once used strictly for storage and closed to the public, is morphing into an unusual, unexpected community space.

“What is natural about the partnership between The Public Library and AIGA is that we’re both working on transformation,” Hill said. “This isn't a one-time project. We’re in it for the long haul.”

No one’s and everyone’s
The Creative Citizenship Program is similar to the Red Campaign in terms of AIDS awareness efforts' ability to transcend typical ownership barriers and allow multiple companies and individuals to participate and effect meaningful change.

Instead of envisioning more apps and creating one-time use posters, AIGA Chattanooga hopes the program will result in building processes that can impact change in practical ways, such as involving designers in the conversations of where a new bus line will be routed rather than simply what the bus maps will look like. 

“The idea of Creative Citizenship is a godsend,” City Councilman Andraé McGary said. “Chattanooga is a smart city, but we could be even smarter if we reach critical mass. Imagine what that would look like.”

McGary will also soon be joining AIGA Chattanooga’s membership roster. He said he is interested in being a cheerleader for the project as much as a part of the solution in his role as a member of local government.

Last Friday marked the first of the project’s event lineup with Register This!. Chris Woodhall introduced the concept of Creative Citizenship. Members of the Andy Berke campaign spoke about the importance of registering to vote, and members of the crowd designed and created register-to-vote posters, which North Shore’s WonderPress will print and distribute to local businesses and The Public Library.

We Helped Obama Win, scheduled for Jan. 23 at 5:30 p.m., will spotlight Chattanoogan Daniel Ryan and his colleague Josh Ryan, who together served as the masterminds behind the Obama for America campaign. 

Beyond sharing the insights of working alongside President Barack Obama and the techniques the pair employed from a design perspective, the talk will discuss what it means to be a citizen applying creative energy toward a great civil goal.

Finally, on the weekend of Jan. 25 and 26, the project will culminate in the candidate forum and DesignFest. Each candidate for Chattanooga City Council has been invited to speak in a conversation moderated by Woodhall. Instead of shaping the event as a debate in which candidates compare records and platforms, the forum is intended to be more of a discussion between the candidates and the crowd, revolving around the issues of participation and inclusion in local government.

The design component of the weekend fest was originally conceived as an app development workshop. Now, the more applicable and timely endeavor will be processes and events that seek to reorient the way the creative and younger than 40-year-old communities and government interact. The DesignFest could, in fact, lay the foundations for the long-term change for which Chattanoogans, Trischler, Hill and McGary are looking.

A view from the top—Creative Citizenship seeks to involve more Chattanooga residents in more than just Election Day. (Photo: Staff)

The Creative Citizenship events will all take place at the downtown branch of The Public Library.

“This is one of the last government buildings you can enter without having to show an ID,” Hill said. “It is a true community space. There are no barriers, and in that regard, this is a true civic space where communities can come and work out issues. This is a perfect place to run a program like [Creative Citizenship].”

In the long run 
With the flurry of activity and the well-intentioned ideas, the question remains—will this produce lasting results?

Trischler noted that it was not the first initiative of its kind, but McGary pointed out that the timing with the January election could be right to introduce a new conceptualization of how citywide decisions, like the flag, are discussed.

“There is a shift in leadership coming up. We should be asking who is the leader in Chattanooga,” McGary said. “Traditionally, leadership has rested solely with the mayor and then City Council and then the citizens, but the true leaders are the citizens.”

Getting the inertia moving to reach voters, to energize them about issues beyond those they hold most dear, to demonstrate the links between issues and to sustain the first steps will be the key.

The success of AIGA Chattanooga’s partnership with The Public Library could also pave the way for collaborations between other government agencies and officials and the creative community. 

On the personal level, Trischler said, the Creative Citizenship Program is about illustrating the balance between the privileges associated with the rights that Americans enjoy and the duties that support those rights: the right to vote, to be governed by elected officials chosen by the very people they are governing, should be accompanied by a consistent interest in participating in that election process.

“We have habits, and we need to form better ones,” Trischler said. “This is a handshake. It’s nice to meet you.”

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