Getting to Know a Place

For the A Team, as our fellowship team is affectionately known as our names start with A, February was about getting to know Kansas City (Kan. + Mo.). How do you learn about a place? Walk its streets? Meet its people? Attend its events?

In early February, the directors of a new play about Kansas City emailed Code for America looking for introductions to the fellows. They were still in the process of writing the play and wanted to find out more about our work and partnership with the local government. The play is called Waiting for You On the Corner Of (13th and Walnut) and was created by the Sojourn Theatre* and the TEAM in partnership with the Kansas City Repertory Theater Company. It’s a highly participatory work and includes moments that ask audience members to respond to questions and draw on a map where they’re from in Kansas City—places they know, where they’re welcome-not welcome. This type of interaction begins to flip the theater as the audience becomes performers.

We were only in our first week in Kansas City when we saw the play—very much still outsiders and just beginning to know the lay of the land. The theater companies, however, had spent months in Kansas City doing research, talking to locals, meeting reporters, going to church, and digging deep into what makes Kansas City what it is today. They brought the historic segregation, corporations, urban planning projects, and just the general feeling of the city to life on stage. The piece was eye-opening and reflective on the current state of the city. We strongly identified with two characters—one who is an outside consultant working on a marketing campaign for the city called “I am KC” and another younger character who is building a utopian virtual model of the city. Both creating visions for the city: one as an outsider, one as a local.

After the play, there was a “talk back” session where audience members shared their views and recommendations on how to continue to improve the script. Locals corrected names of places and moments in history. Even with the research and immersion by the playwrights, there was still a local knowledge that was needed to polish the details.

As Andrew and I drove to the airport on our last day in Kansas City in early March, we reflected on the experience we’d just had in the past month. We had a shared feeling that we knew Kansas City, but the process felt unlike the way we’d gotten to know other places. I’m an intrepid traveler and I get to know places by walking their streets. As fellows in Kansas City, we instantly got to know some of the most powerful people, from the Mayors, to successful business people, to educators, and neighborhood advocates. We had instant access to them, their knowledge, and their events. This is something that takes much more time in many places. Although I have a strong network in New York City, where I have lived for the past nine years, I would not say I have nearly the same access to this level of people, but I know the city intimately. Waiting for You opened our eyes to a lot of Kansas City issues that we couldn’t immediately see by going to meetings, and allowed us to dive deeper to reveal more in our research.

Kansas City is familiar now—people, icons, successes, challenges, history. I hope to spend more time walking her streets, the way I like to get to know cities, but I hope the locals will still fill in a few details too.

*I’ve been fortunate enough to collaborate with a member of Sojourn Theatre, Shannon Scrofano, on Sandy Storyline at the Tribeca Film Festival. Hopefully the first of many collaborations.

Questions? Comments? Hit us up @codeforamerica.

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