“I don’t think it belongs to anyone,” I said.
“But what if someone needs it?” countered my partner-in-crime.
“If they needed it, don’t you think they’d have taken it by now?”
“Maybe it’s like, on someone's property!”
“It’s just sitting there on the side of the road. Besides, there are plants growing up through it. I don’t think it would have been sitting there that long if someone needed it.”
The object of our discussion sat, tranquil and clearly long-undisturbed, a few meters away, blissfully unaware that it was the subject of a nearby heated debate.
I laughed suddenly, breaking through our pensiveness. “Can we just pause for a second and reflect on the fact that we’re sitting in our car by the side of the road, at 7pm on a Monday on some random street in Cape Town, arguing about an abandoned tire?”
It had all started a few days before when, sleep deprived, I arrived in South Africa after 37 hours of grueling travel from San Diego. Our organization, Imagine More, had recently received funding to get me to Cape Town, South Africa; I was here to work on Youth Design Studio, the project that my best friend and colleague, Julie Goodness, and I had been putting together at a furious pace since we were accepted into the Cape Town 2014 World Design Capital last November.
Despite my sleep deprivation, we got straight to work. There was a LOT to accomplish in the month before we both left, and things were getting busy right away. “We need to get our Thundafund campaign up,” Julie said, referring to the South African online crowd-funding platform that had partnered with WDC2014, “so that when we give our pitch to the World Design Capital people and other possible collaborators in a couple days, it’s already up and running.”
“We can definitely do Thundafund, but what is the pitch supposed to be?” I asked. Julie had attended a “grooming session” several days earlier, where World Design Capital representatives had given advice to project organizers on what to expect from the pitch session, and how to go about forming their pitch.
“We’ll be…performing, I think?” Julie said, still a bit puzzled. “We’re supposed to be entertaining.”
“…Perform?” I asked, skeptical. “Like….what? Sing and dance? I don’t think I understand. So we’re….not talking about Youth Design Studio?”
“No, we are, we just have to do it in a way that’s entertaining. I’m not sure. I don’t think I completely understand either. Let’s go back over my notes.”
A half hour later we still had very little idea of what we were supposed to put together for our “pitch;” we just knew we would be up in front of 200 people from organizations all over Cape Town, with 4 minutes in which to explain our project (ok, cool) and ask for money (ugh). Hmm.
We focused on getting our Thundafund campaign running; we wrote our script, tenaciously memorized, filmed, re-memorized, re-filmed, and tried to keep from losing our cool and laughing hysterically when the cat would wander into the shot and jump on our laps. We filmed praise-worthy design locales in Cape Town, taking touristy photos to keep the security guards from baselessly harassing our resident cameraman and tech guru (aka Julie’s boyfriend, Andy) while he took shots of the scenery. Things were exhausting, but going well.
Thanks to a last minute push by the fantastic Thundafund crew, we eventually got our Thundafund campaign up and running! But the pitch session loomed. We still had no idea how to sing/dance/entertain our crowd into not falling asleep while we talked earnestly and beseechingly about Youth Design Studio. It was the afternoon before our pitch session, and things were looking bleak.
How do you get up in front of a room full of people and do a whole bunch of things that are wildly unlike you (occupy a stage, perform to a crowd, ask for money) while still remaining fundamentally yourselves?
We went back to the drawing board. What are we good at? Having fun, hahahaha! Ok ok, no, just kidding. Well actually…yeah but, seriously…we are REALLY good at having fun, like superpower level. Anywhere and everywhere and at all times, no matter what we’re doing. Maybe this is something we can work with. And what is Youth Design Studio about? Well, it’s about creativity. It’s about EVERYONE being able to access design, and creativity they might not even know they have, with resources they might not even see around them, but that are there. Where can we go with this?
An idea started to emerge. Youth Design Studio is all about making, and building…What if we MADE something on stage, over the course of those 4 minutes? But what would we make? Well…what about the words “YOUTH DESIGN STUDIO” themselves? WE could the beginning “Y” and finishing “O”, YMCA style! But what will we make the rest of the letters out of? Um…How about…..trash??? And anything we can buy for under 10 Rand ($1)?
A frantic scavenger hunt began. By the time we’d come up with our idea, it was already evening and shops were closing, so we had only visited one destination before being greeted at the next with iron bars and a CLOSED sign. Crushed, we pulled over to the side of the road to regroup. We revisited our plan, trying to rework our idea and figure out where we would get the remaining materials, with no idea where they might be and no time to spare.
That’s when I saw it. A few meters from the road. I mentally assessed. Could we use it? Put something in it? Build something with it? No…it’s too big. The way we had conceived our letters so far, it would be 2-3 times as large as the rest, and incongruous. No. Sigh. I returned to our brainstorming.
But I had momentarily forgotten that my partner on this project also happened to be my best friend. I remembered when she, completely independently and after I had already considered and disregarded it, suddenly interjected: “Hey….so….do you see that tire over there….?” Hahahaha! I told her I had had the exact same thought, but figured it wouldn’t work. She was more adamant. If we did the letters this way, instead of that way, it would only be a little bigger…we could roll it on stage. It could be the “O” in “Youth.” It would be HYSTERICAL. I gave in.
I darted out and, after asking some men sitting on the sidewalk if it belonged to them, picked it up and delivered it to the trunk of our waiting vehicle.
I jumped back into car, arrested by a sudden thought. “But what if it rolls? How will we keep it from moving? We need something heavy. Do we have….I don’t know…a brick?”
Julie pondered until, abruptly, her face lit up in delight and disbelief. “You mean like…THAT brick??” She pointed. And indeed the universe, having blessed us with our letter O, had further graced us with a way to keep it steady. Miracles. I sprinted across the road, grabbed the lone brick, and tossed it in the back with the tire. We pealed out, onto more adventures. This alley had been MORE than productive!
Not being familiar enough with South Africa to know where to locate the one or two obscure items on our list, we decided the best place to try (with shops we knew would be open) would be the nearby mall. But we hit another snag: lost at night in the complicated mall entry, we accidentally wandered into the loading dock. We had no idea how to get into the mall proper. The parking lot was deserted and the entrance to the loading dock gaped, abandoned, dimly lit like the green-tinged maw of a great cavernous beast. It was a little unnerving, to say the least.
But as we peered in, we struck gold. HEAPS and PILES – MOUNTAINS of discarded cardboard!! Mounded next to a dumpster ten feet high and thirty feet long, packed to the gills with more cardboard. One solitary member of the cleaning staff swept quietly several feet away, her steps echoing in the huge room. “Is it ok if we take some of this?” we asked. She smiled and nodded, and pointed out another pile we hadn’t seen.
We went wild.
Julie grew very deeply attached to a giant cardboard picture of Nutella. I tried to dissuade her from bringing it – we couldn’t use it in the presentation – but I could tell her heart would be broken if she left it behind. It came home with us. Abandoned milk crates and broken shipping palettes from the loading dock joined our pile of booty. The back seat bulged with our pilfered plunder.
In the end, we found most of the things we needed, but had to painfully let go of some things that just don’t happen here in Cape Town (glitter and pipe cleaners, for example). But we adapted and improvised, and made it work. We wrote the accompanying speech the morning of, and I frantically tried to memorize it.
Our pitch came. We took the stage. I talked to the room while Julie assembled letters.
She cut, pasted, screw-gunned, penned and pinned. I forgot my lines, laughed, remembered, laughed, continued. Some brave and enterprising volunteers created works of art while we spoke, and won prizes for their ingenuity.
In the end, we didn’t win the prize for best pitch. But we finger painted and threw confetti. We laughed and loved life. We were thoroughly ourselves, and the wonderful responses we received that night – and in the days that followed – were, and continue to be, an incredible and humbling delight. People have volunteered to speak to the Youth Design Studio class, offered us materials, and connected us to other groups and projects conducting amazing work all over Cape Town. Every day Youth Design Studio comes closer and closer to reality.
So what’s the lesson here? I guess there are a few. Work with your bestie, if at all humanly possible. Accept miracles from the universe that come when you’re at a loss by the side of the road. Have new experiences, even if they’re terrifying. And above all: have fun, and create. Because that’s what it’s all about, right?