Photo courtesy of Josh McManus
Josh McManus—Podcast Transcript
Josh McManus: Rather than sitting back and waiting on big bets to work, what I try to help build a culture of is that everyone is responsible for collective destiny, and that everyone has an ability, if properly mobilized, to make some difference.
Jo Reed: That is Josh McManus Curator of Little Things, an independent innovation laboratory. Welcome to Art Works the program that goes behind the scenes to with some of the nation's great artists to explore how art works. I'm your host Josephine Reed.
Since 2009, NEA Chairman Rocco Landesman has fostered a robust national conversation about the concept of creative placemaking. In its simplest form, creative placemaking recognizes the significance of the arts in shaping the social, physical, and economic characters of communities.
But placemaking can’t work without creative people and those people need to connect not just to each but to places they can invest in and work that they’re passionate about. Enter Josh McManus, who is the founder of Little Things Labs. Josh has a track record of identifying emerging opportunities in mid-sized and post-industrial cities. He's developed successful projects that focuses on place-based talent retention; bringing together people together to generate new ideas about business, entrepreneurship, and uses of existing infrastructure. I jumped at the chance to speak with Josh McManus during one of his trips to Washington D.C. and I began our conversation with the obvious. What is an innovation laboratory?
Josh McManus: Well, an innovation laboratory is an external space where we investigate problems for partners who are interested in social, economic, and cultural issues. So, we're basically problem-solvers.
Jo Reed: And you're problem-solvers for cities, correct?
Josh McManus: For cities. Usually, our client is not the city; it's someone who cares deeply about the city: private family foundations; larger non-profit organizations; and sometimes for-profit corporations, even.
Jo Reed: The name of your company?
Josh McManus: Yeah, it's Little Things Labs.
Jo Reed: And that really displays your philosophy, doesn't it?
Josh McManus: Yeah, it does, it does. It comes from a couple of serendipitous moments in my life. One was from a letter that my grandfather wrote to my brother and I when we were 11 and 8, respectively. And, in that letter that he's writing to two children, but treating us like adults, he said, "Sometimes the little things you do in life turn out to be the really big things." And, some 20 years later, when I was building a cultural organization in Chattanooga, Tennessee, we would go out and meet with the leaders of the community. And they all wanted to know: what's the next big thing for the city? And we finally came across this idea that the next big thing was a million little things. So, we sort of proved that out over the following five years and it's become integral to our philosophy of change.
Jo Reed: Well, I wanted you to actually talk about that in a little bit more detail; and how that actually manifests itself in a city like Chattanooga, where you were the co-founder of CreateHere, which I think preceded Little Things Lab.
Josh McManus: It did, it did. So, CreateHere was a five-year project in talent-retention/attraction; economic, cultural, and social engagement. It was really an experiment between my co-founder and I, with the incredible support of a private family foundation, name of Lindhurst Foundation, to see what we could do to answer some questions about loss of talent; of establishing a foothold in the creative economy; and, genuinely increasing the vibrancy of place. And we attacked that work using a number of little ideas. So, for example, we met with a couple of hundred individual artists, artisans, and genuinely creative people. They were expressing the need for money. But, as we listened to that need for money, more times than not, it came from a lack of business acumen, business skill. So, one of the first projects that we created was an eight-week business-planning class for artists, artisans, and what we called "creative entrepreneurs," which was the catch-all for everyone else. The program's now graduated north of 500 people, and has replicated itself in several other cities. But, what's come from that is these individuals who have unlocked their individual potential. And we see them create more than we could have ever imagined, more than we could have ever done for the small amount of money invested in their educational process. And we see them starting to develop a pole system of economic development, which means they create opportunity for other people, rather than use sort of getting to the bottom of Maslow's Hierarchy---which is where I spent the first ten years of my career-- trying to shove people up from basic needs into some level of individual actualization.
Jo Reed: Your background is with the United Way.
Josh McManus: Nineteen years old, I started as an administrative assistant at the United Way.
Jo Reed: And you ended up working for the national office.
Josh McManus: I did; I worked my way up in the system at a young age. If you know how to ask for money, it's a system you move up in pretty quickly. And so, I left the system as a vice president when I was 26 years old and that's a four billion-dollar-a-year entity, so I cut my teeth there, and have tremendous respect for what that organization has done over time, but also saw a gravitation away from that type giving by my generation. And I had deep concerns about the ability to make change when we were dealing with basic needs even though their model has pulled some in new directions, still a lot of emphasis on basic community needs.
Jo Reed: What was the take-away for you from the United Way?
Josh McManus: There's a lot of take-aways. I think the biggest would be that there's incredible power in pooling resources to make a difference but that, when layered with too much bureaucracy, that funding can become just as demobilized. So, third-sector funding--if you consider that the non-profit world--can become just as demobilized as second-sector government, when bureaucracy is layered in, or too much measuring outcomes: all the things that you think would increase the productivity of the dollars but, in fact, actually begin to kill creativity, and therefore lead to very unproductive uses of money.
Jo Reed: So, you took what you learned over those years at United Way. What made you decide you really had a passion for a more down-home community organizing, where you were activating people?
Josh McManus: Well, it was a unique and unintentional convergence. So, I guess I should add into the story. I ended up getting two business degrees--undergraduate and graduate degrees--while I was at United Way. So, sort of working full-time and going to school. My professors were very good to me, in that they let me sort of customize my education around the business of the non-profit world. So, I ended up being kind of a strange beast, from an educational standpoint. And then, I had this upbringing where my father was a CEO, and my mother was an artist. And I met an artist, who I partnered up with on CreateHere. She was classically trained, BFA, painting and drawing.
Jo Reed: And that's Helen Johnson.
Josh McManus: Yeah, that's Helen Johnson. And we intersected our two skill sets to kind of explore that friction and opportunity that exist between the creative and economic realms.
Jo Reed: And CreateHere, is it fair to say, is kind of a template for Little Things Lab?
Josh McManus: Yeah, CreateHere informed what could happen at the local, community level, and how we ended up working at the local, community level; whereas, I had been all the way up to a national organization, with the United Way system. And just the frustration that I felt, that I think Helen felt, that a number of people in our age group who are bumping up against a gray ceiling right now, and who are seeing communities not change, not become the type places that we wanted to live. And so instead of just sitting back and complaining about it, we decided that we wanted to do something. And the easiest place to get a foothold and actually do something was in a city where there were not a lot of other people in our age group raising their hands, saying, "We want to do something." So we became translators between an existing leadership class and existing pools of resources, and an emerging class that was waiting to be called to action.
Jo Reed: And how did you call them to action?
Josh McManus: In a million little ways. So tons of animation: we started with events that were unexpected. So, we would put people together in an abandoned church with local food, local music. And, usually, there was what we called "edutainment" component to it; we were teaching them something. Maybe by getting you to show up at a graphic design show in the south side of the city, it was a gentle reminder that it was a safe enough place to be, and that it was a neighborhood that was worthy of additional investment. Or getting you to come to a sculptor's house to a Halloween party that art that costs $350,000 for a single piece was still approachable, and that the people who produce it are actually approachable. So, we looked for those unique intersections to bring a group of people who had the inclination, but not necessarily the formal training or the interest in the traditional arts world. We sort of brought them in through a backdoor induction mechanism. And then, we'd listen quite a bit to say, "What do you need?" And that's where so many of our programs came from, in that the small grants for individual creativity; the business classes; what became a whole host of entrepreneurial services, our work in creating gallery space, until that market corrected itself. Even to the point of planting trees and doing community-visioning process, it was listening to what our peers wanted, and trying to help deliver that.
Jo Reed: Isn't that what STAND was, or is? Explain STAND, and the concept for that.
Josh McManus: So STAND was the world's largest community-visioning survey. And it was four questions that we asked people about the future of the city. We had 26,263 responses to that. And Chattanooga had a long history of public community-visioning. The last one has been done more than 25 years before, and it was updated about seven or eight years after that. But we were overdue to start talking about what was next for the community. The physical infrastructure of the community had been revitalized, and I think there were a lot of human-capital questions. And so we used that survey to start conversations that seem to be going on 'til this day about things like public education, safety, crime, jobs--and, specifically, job equity. But it was one more vehicle for the youth to think about their future, to sort of take control of their own destiny, and to begin to engage with a post-industrial place that they were starting to care very deeply about.
Jo Reed: And are all your projects pretty much directed at youth?
Josh McManus: We learned this really interesting thing. We certainly don't have a bias, my work doesn't have a bias against different age groups. In fact, my best decisions have been made because of intergenerational knowledge transfer, and that's something that Helen and I both share. We've had lots of wise counsel from incredible people. But we learned something that I think-- the example I like to use is the American Honda Motor Corporation. I brought one of the first Honda Elements that they released in the United States. And they designed that for a driver that--if I remember right-- was supposed to be, on average, 23 to 25 years old. And when you now look at the demographics of who bought those cars, I think it ended up being more like 55-years-old. So, we found that the boomers would trend down when you market to younger folks; but, if you exclusively market to the boomers, the younger folks won't trend up. So we aim, from a graphic-design aesthetic, to the 18-35-year-olds; but we saw incredible diversity. If you look at the participation in the STAND survey, it almost identically mirrored the last census tract. So we had representation from across all ethnicities and age groups.
Jo Reed: So how did you process all of that information that you got from STAND?
Josh McManus: That was a great example of collaboration, and just finding what you had available at home. So, there is a thing called the Center for Applied Social Research at the University of Tennessee, Chattanooga; and then, another organization called the Ochs Center for Metropolitan Studies. So, the CASR hired a bunch of students to take these handwritten forms. And 80% of those came in paper, which was interesting, in a digital world. So they turned that paper into digital feedback, and then the Ochs Center developed a coding rubric so that you could turn this sort of subjective feedback into something that had mathematical associations with it. And then, we gave the entire dataset back to the community so that other folks could use it to their advantage.
Jo Reed: You built CreateHere with a five-year lifespan. Why?
Josh McManus: Well, it goes back to growing up in the United Way system. I saw too many institutions that were sort of chasing their own relevance. Their capital raises were way more about preserving people's jobs than about ending particular social conditions. And we also had wise counsel of my adoptive grandmother, May Bell Hurley, who was kind of the godmother of Chattanooga's renaissance. And she had talked about an original visioning project in Chattanooga that had a great five-year run and then, over time, sort of was not as needed as it had been in the past. So, pairing those two things together, we decided to plan our own obsolescence. In that we felt like five years was enough time to do as much work as possible, and then it would be our time to get out of the way. And, instead of calling it a sunset, we called it a supernova. Because we studied supernovas, and they have this amazing ability to create either black holes or new stars and galaxies. And we knew that we had done so much, had created so much activity over a short period of time, that we could leave a gaping hole of engagement, or we could create new stars and galaxies. And the fact that we shut down, and the next day a ton of projects that had rolled out of us that were powered by those LeadHere fellows came back online--I think 19 projects in some way, shape, or form came back online--we deemed it an incredible success. And we were able to at that time, because we had not held our own intellectual property sacred, see the things that were not necessary or not working well go away. We eliminated the infrastructure, or the major costs of the initiative.
The fellows were, to me, the real-- so, these are the individuals in the LeadHere program-- the lasting impact of CreateHere will, in small part, be the businesses form, the trees planted, the grants made, the places that are better than we found them. But the biggest part of the impact-- and, when I go back to Chattanooga in 20 years, and look at it, and determine whether my five years of work was successful-- will be whether we created a next generation of leadership. So, we had nearly 100 young people-- 18 to 22 years old, typically-- come to us and work for sometimes for free, sometimes 8 to 10 dollars an hour. They became sort of like a Peace Corps for your city where you work for small amounts of money. You work very hard. You build an incredible portfolio. We've now got 23-year-olds that have done the world's largest community-visioning process or 27-, 28-year-olds who've helped create 500 small enterprises. So, they've now got credentials that exceed people that have had careers that lasted much longer than theirs. But the change that I expect, and I am seeing them create in the city now that's the real outcome. The work was to create the next generation of leadership. And that was learned from looking 30 years before at what had happened in Chattanooga when the city started to turn itself around. There were great projects that happened; there was--
Jo Reed: This was in the 1980s.
Josh McManus: Yeah. Late '70s, early '80s there was an aquarium, there was street-scaping, there was a river walk. There were all these projects that are now looked at as the turning point for the city. But if you trace them back, they all came from a network of individuals that came together to solve problems and then, that network functioned well for the entire career of the involved individuals. So you've got 30 years of good decisions that happened, based upon these formative moments, these problem-solving session that happened side-by-side in the late '70s and early '80s. So, we wanted to put a group of 18- to 25-year-olds in that same situation. So, in 2025, there will be somebody who picks up a phone and says, "Hey, you remember when we did that community-visioning process together? Well, now we need to eradicate poverty from our community, and it's time, and we know each other, and we trust each other, and we respect each other. So, that's the headfake of the work. To me, it was about indoctrinating a group of people into the history, and challenging them to be a part of determining the future.
Jo Reed: And, from there, you went on to form Little Things Lab. And let's talk about some of the projects that you're doing now, with Little Things. And one of them is D:hive.
Josh McManus: Yeah, so what was interesting is we didn't have a national platform, but we kept getting called by interesting people like Carol Coletta, who was at CEOs for Cities, and now she's at ArtPlace--and asked to talk about our work. And every time we'd go talk about our work, people would say, "Oh, we need to have you to our city." And we didn't do anything with that for the first four and a half years, but once we got to a point that we were confident and comfortable in the progress in Chattanooga, we did go start sharing with other cities. And Detroit was one of the first cities to invite us to visit, Cincinnati followed pretty quickly. And they just wanted to transfer information. So, "We have lots of energy, we have lots of people in your age group. We haven't had a similar platform for them to use." And I was asked by the Hudson Webber Foundation in Detroit to look at a problem that they were having, which was fascinating, one that most post-industrial cities don't have, which is: "We called people to come to the city, we created this initiative called '15 by 15,' which is 15,000 bright, innovative college-educated, entrepreneurial people coming to our city by the yea 2015. And now, they're actually showing up."
Jo Reed: Twenty five-oh, or twenty-one-five?
Josh McManus: Twenty-one-five.
Jo Reed: Okay.
Josh McManus: Then, they found that the people were actually showing up. What was perplexing is that foundations aren't really equipped to help people find apartments. So, what we've done with the D:hive is built, physically built, a front door for living, working, and engaging in the city, right in the heart of downtown Detroit. So, now people are walking in, and asking for help on, "Where do I live? How do I get connected to a job? What social networks should I plug into? How can I be a part of the huge work of bringing Detroit to its next place in its development?" And so, that's been an amazing project with an ambition on my part of hopefully helping to bring tens of thousands of new people into the urban core, because there's plenty of room for them; and new people always bring fresh ideas and a friction that influences community improvement, which that friction is something that is necessary and healthy in a place like Detroit.
Jo Reed: And affordable housing.
Josh McManus: <laughs>
Jo Reed: Which is also has <laughs>. Now, here's the question I have for you. You developed CreateHere in Chattanooga, a city in which you were living. What's the particular challenges of being called to another city where you're not a resident?
Josh McManus: Sure. It's unique, but I love the position that I’m in now because I get to go search for the people that remind me of me: the sort of agitated and enterprising and doggedly determined individuals who are going to make change in the place that they are. And then in this sort of translator's role that I end up in, I get to help folks that are concerned about their place identify those people. And I encourage tem to invest in those individuals. You know, I was very lucky, incredibly lucky, that this foundation, led by a leader who had been at the helm for 30 years, who had made unprecedented change in a post-industrial city, if you look at it dollar for dollar. That board and that leader invested not quite, but nearly five million dollars over five years in our work. And that type of resource is transformative, in both the ability to make change and the sort of teaching everything that you can learn, because you're working at such a pace. So, now I take it on not as I need to be the guy at the epicenter of change in the communities that I work in, but I need to help identify those folks, and help them build tools that enhance their work, rather than hinder their work. Because cash can be crippling to these entrepreneurial, cultural activities, if not managed correctly.
Jo Reed: So how did you find people like you?
Josh McManus: It's funny; it's the Kevin Bacon/"Six Degrees of Separation" thing. So, if you'll just sit down and start having a conversation with someone, tell him what you've done in the past, and I've always been bashful about self-promotion, but I've now had to create a bio. So, I end up using the bio quite a bit. But if I slide that bio, or have a conversation with somebody, they invariably go, "Oh, you need to meet this person." And then I go to that person, and they say, "Oh, you need to meet this person." So, within a matter of a few conversations, you can find the people that are the epicenter of change in a given community: that have the energy for it, that have the ideas, and that are willing to invest their own time in making things happen. It's amazing in cities, you know, the Detroit metropolitan area has five million people in it, but it took 300 interviews before being able to identify an incredible network of people oriented to change.
Jo Reed: You wrote that "life is not a game of 'Hail Mary' passes, and good community is not built from stadiums and skyscrapers." I want you to say a little more about that.
Josh McManus: Sure. Well, the cities that I go to, all too often that have abandoned their hope for change, have always oriented their change to both big vision and big projects. And what I've learned over time is you have to have big vision and small projects. So, tons of small, individual interventions that add up to this shared value set that is the larger vision for the community. And having come of age in Chattanooga, a place that did make that turn-- and the numbers are behind it; Chattanooga is the one post-industrial city over 100,000 that lost population '70s, '80s, regained it over the '90s and 2000s. They really are the comeback kid. It was because there was this commonly held vision, this belief that a rising tide would lift all boats; that there was a belief in a culture of abundance, even when resources were fairly scarce, if you look at the sort of balance sheet that goes alongside of it. But what came from that shared value set was everyone taking on the project that they could handle. So, the billionaire, Jack Lupton, his project might be a $45 million aquarium. But the doctor who set out to make sure that polluted air in the valley was eradicated mattered just as much as Mr. Lupton. It was everyone doing what was in their ability. So, rather than sitting back and waiting on big bets to work, what I try to help build a culture of is that everyone is responsible for collective destiny, and that everyone has an ability, if properly mobilized, to make some difference.
Jo Reed: Okay. Josh McManus, thank you so much. I really appreciate it.
Josh McManus: My pleasure.
Jo Reed: That was Josh McManus Curator of Little Things Labs.
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Excerpt from “Foreric: piano study” from the album Metascapes, composed and performed by Todd Barton, used courtesy of Valley Productions.
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Next week, founder of Imagination Stage Bonnie Fogel talks about theater, creativity, and children.
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Josh McManus talks about the thousand little things that make up creative placemaking. [27:17]