SEE POTENTIAL uses messaging to rally community

Community action through text messages

Photo-journalist Emily Schiffer set out to document the food scarcity epidemic on Chicago’s South Side. But, the more she photographed the neighborhood’s blight, the more she became inspired by its perseverance. By the end of her project, Emily saw the community through a whole new lens, and got to work on her next photo-project– revitalizing the neighborhood.

Emily used historic photographs of Chicagoans in the midst of World War II’s industrial boom to remind the neighborhood of their past, and set their sights on a brighter future. By adding communication technology to her photo campaign, Emily gave the South Side a way to revitalize their neighborhood and renew their sense of community.

Capturing the old, seeing the new

In the South Side, it’s hard to recall the neighborhood’s past glory days and harder to see any sign that things will get better in the future. Emily wanted to find a way to capture the excitement of Chicago’s wonder years and use those images to rally the community to help rebuild their neighborhood.

Emily worked with Orrin Williams, a longtime Chicago resident, community leader and Director of the Center For Urban Transformation to launch SEE POTENTIAL, a large scale public art project to inspire and empower the South Side community using historic photographs and Twilio Programmable SMS.

Emily then turned to the Magnum Foundation, an organization dedicated to supporting independent photographers using their work for social change, for help getting SEE POTENTIAL off the ground. With the guidance and financial support of the Magnum Foundation, Emily, Orrin, and the Center For Urban Transformation got to work plastering large scale photographs all over abandoned buildings.

Each site represents a campaign to restore an abandoned building, and each photograph SEE POTENTIAL displays is unique to that campaign. Emily selected works from Wayne Miller’s photo archive depicting the lives of Chicagoans during the WWII industrial boom to match each site’s past.

SEE POTENTIAL transformed The Forum Hall, a historic jazz club which is now a dilapidated building, into a rallying point for the community. They put up regal images of famous musicians performing in The Forum, reminding residents of the days when jazz royalty such as Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, and Milt Hinton played there. Below the photographs is a call to action encouraging the community to text in their support for rebuilding The Forum.

The message behind the text

When a community member sends a text to SEE POTENTIAL’s Twilio number, Twilio registers their support of that site, and replies via text message with details about how they can stay updated on the site’s development. Community leaders within the neighborhood use these messaging records to rally supporters for fundraising, charity drives and community demonstrations.

“With Twilio, we are also able to source metrics, giving us insight on how we might continue to improve and scale our platform,” says Emma Raynes, Director of Emergency Fund, Magnum Foundation.

SEE POTENTIAL helps gauge community sentiment and spark change by looking at their messaging stats. They log the neighborhood activity in support of each of their sites, tally the messages received and present this data to developers, city officials and donors as evidence of the need for help and for change.

Setting up an installation

SEE POTENTIAL has expanded greatly since their launch and now has four active sites in Chicago displaying the work of over 16 photographers.

Emily hopes that the SEE POTENTIAL project lives up to the promise of its photographs, and revitalizes the South Side neighborhood.

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