This summer, a small team at Openfields initiated an effort under the leadership of Kathryn Ervin – an artist, educator, and entrepreneur – to learn more about the community where we work, West Greenville, and to share what we learned with others.

Immediately after Openfields relocated to the Village of West Greenville in early 2017, we became conscious of the way the community is changing. We caught the buzz of new restaurants and retail shops. We worried that some people were being pushed out and didn’t feel welcome in the neighborhood. We felt the awkward tension caused by the sharp disparities of class and race meeting in close proximity.

What we saw raised a lot of questions. What is the history and character of this community? How is our work affecting others? Who understands what West Greenville is all about? I met a lot of interesting people in Village Grind and wondered how they would answer these same questions. We imagined there was a way for all of us to gain a deeper appreciation for what West Greenville has been, and is now, so we might see more clearly the role we should play in the future.

With the support of Furman University interns Kali Llano and Jay Watson and youth from Mill Village Farms and Legacy Charter School, we took a step to open up a conversation.

Kathryn and the team conducted interviews and photo shoots with over 20 members of the community and consulted with experts on the history of Greenville. Some people were new to West Greenville. Some grew up here and have watched the community change. Neighborhood youth expressed their experiences through a series of art projects.

In this Greenville Journal feature, we share several of those stories. More stories, along with a visual history of West Greenville, images of student artwork, and facts about how the community is developing, are available on our website, newmedianewsouth.com. We’re especially proud that many of the people featured on our site joined us at an exhibit hosted during The Warehouse Theatre’s production of “Clybourne Park” to express their appreciation for the project.

So what do we hope is the outcome? When any community changes, our culture is quick to identify the winners and losers. Stories are often written to evoke sympathy for someone who is suffering or elation for someone who is succeeding. In both cases, the complexities of the lives of the people involved are flattened to either promote social justice or celebrate economic progress. Most people I know want both justice and progress, but as a society we struggle to imagine how they can be realized together.

Fortunately, what we read, and what we see, isn’t the full story.

In his essay “Imagination in Place,” Wendell Berry writes:

“[If] you want to write a whole story about whole people – living souls … you must reach for a reality that is inaccessible merely to observation or perception but that also requires imagination, for imagination knows more than the eye sees…”

How can we reach beyond what we see? It is the work of artists and storytellers to challenge our social imagination, to help us perceive deeper realities and envision possible futures currently beyond our grasp. Without these experiences, it will be hard to see anything but an “inevitable” future for West Greenville in which winners and losers fight it out, but are powerless to create something new.

In 2018, Openfields will work with Greenville’s Network for Southern Economic Mobility (NSEM) and Community Journals to empower artists, photographers, and designers to broaden our imagination to the current realities and the yet-to-be-imagined possibilities of communities throughout Greenville County. If you are interested in contributing to the project, or joining us for a community dinner, we would love to hear from you.

Grady Powell is the founder and CEO of Openfields, a social innovation consulting firm based in Greenville. Openfields currently helps facilitate Greenville’s Network for Southern Economic Mobility (NSEM) team, a group working to improve education and employment outcomes for youth throughout Greenville County. Grady is a graduate of Furman University, where he studied economics and ran cross-country. He is married to Sarah (a Greenville native), the father of three young children, and a member of Village Church. He can be reached at grady@openfields.com.

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