Christopher Robbins, a veteran of the Peace Corps, was disappointed when he didn’t see a modern-day WPA emerge from the financial crisis. So he took matters into his own hands, starting WPA2010. I got a chance to speak with him about what inspired him to create this project, the ways the WPA brings people together, and his remade patriotism.
Bryce Covert: Why did you decide to make a modern-day WPA program?
Christoper Robbins: It came out of frustration with the recovery effort that was happening. When the economy tanked in 2008 it seemed like the logical next step was that a WPA program would come back. I was heartened to see the national dialogue turn toward recovery and that power was put toward positive things, when the conversation is usually based on more negative things we can do with our power. Then the programs that rolled out felt like they were ignoring the lessons of the Great Depression in terms of bailouts for bankers. It also worked on an infrastructure level, but looking around there weren’t any programs focusing on employing people. And then even a lot of Recovery and Reinvestment Act people were talking about shovel-ready projects, which would have happened anyway. People were not looking for new projects. So it came out of being frustrated that this was happening and not knowing one person that was directly, tangibly affected in a more immediate way by the efforts. I wanted to create something more tangible and immediate, so I followed the WPA model.
I wanted to do it on a very small and easily replicable level. I don’t see my role as creating a long-term WPA alternative. I wanted to create a short-term functioning model that gives experience, then talk to politicians and use it to pressure them. It is more of an active protest than a long-term, alternative WPA.
BC: Why do you think this is important to do today?
CR: I’ve worked in a lot of quote unquote developing countries. When I come back to my own country I definitely feel less connected to how things run. This is an opportunity to give someone the right to work on their own neighborhood in direct ways. They complete the sentence: “How do you want to help your community”, and we say we’ll employ you to do that. We’re getting Americans hands-on involved in that process. And even where its not a huge new bridge employing tons of people or some large green energy initiative that will help us economically thirty years down the line, it’s a direct way we’re doing something where there’s physical evidence.
BC: What interest have you gotten in the project, both from government and the general public?
CR: The first office was in a rural community in Wassaic, New York, a really small place. The politics there are very right wing compared to me. But I purposely kept the language neutral. People were still frustrated with how the recovery was happening, they wanted to have a role in that, and just wanted to have work. It was amazing for me to create work groups where in some groups you have libertarians next to socialists on the same projects. Everyone feels frustrated by the recovery. There’s the simple hook of money and then the simple hook of the right to do positive work they want in their community. But then the question comes to the role of government in all of this, which is the part where there’s much more of a grey line. I definitely see this as a social program that the government should be involved in, but I know some of the people I work with see this as a wonderful project because it’s citizen driven. Some people see this as an example of citizens being able to do the work. Whereas the reality is this is not sustainable and more of a lever towards conversing with the government and getting this to happen in a more concerted way.
In Wassaic it’s already become a partnership with the government on a very local level. They were very appreciative of having help at all. I went door-to-door, bringing back the WPA, saying, “What kind of work would you like to see and who would you like to do it?” In the end it’s become a social work program where a lot of the work is given to people in difficult situations, people with family members who have been to prison and back, where we have to ask what would be their next step? The place is small enough that the local politicians saw kids last summer breaking things, then this summer making them. The support from that to do something with these particular people is amazing. There are no traffic lights in this town. People wanted crosswalks and we are going to put in crosswalks, and the highway department said if you do the crosswalks we can put in the signs. Local partnerships have come up.
It’s so visible and accessible and timely it makes it really easy to get into.
BC: How long will this project last? How is it funded, and do you hope to continue getting this funding?
CR: Currently I’m funded through Kickstarter, that’s how I funded the Wassaic and Jamaica [Queens] offices. It was from entirely private donations, from $1 to $400, but most around $50. To bring it to next level we would form an NGO. We’re basically running on a couple thousand dollars, not taking any money, making sure we don’t pay any rent for office space and that we get as much material donated as possible. We pay people an actual living wage of $12 per hour to do actual public works in their community under the auspices of the WPA. This approach has been a cheap and effective way to get people in need of financial support involved in their community’s and their own financial recovery.
Longer term, we would have a conversation with local politicians to show how inexpensively we are doing this and reach out to people who were overlooked. There is interest and especially when funders are contacting me it is a change, usually I’m having to hunt them down. I can’t do it alone and need other people involved in a dedicated way for it to continue. The other side is to keep the conversation going and try to use the people who worked with me the most in these two neighborhoods, point them to local government to see if they can keep it going in their own ways.
But there’s so much need for it. The impact in Wassaic on individuals was so amazing. In Jamaica, just putting up the sign brought so many people in. These weren’t people who wanted to take advantage of the system. They were people wanting to work. It made it clear how much this program is needed. They were building benches for a local bus stop because there weren’t any for the local bus stop. Young people who hadn’t worked before — it was amazing how psyched they were.
Because of the tremendous support I’ve been getting and because it’s such an amazing experience I know that I’m going to keep working with the WPA. And I do want it to become more than a symbolic gesture. Even if it is one that employs people I want to have more effects. It’s amazing how little we need from people, when I see how much gets spent on other things.
BC: How many people have you put to work?
CR: It’s pretty small scale, I’d say about 15 or so so far. In Jamaica I have a huge list that I’m going through, but we’re almost out of money and have to turn people away. In Wassaic there were so many more levels of mistrust, me being from New York City and this being the island of poverty in a sea of wealth. It’s one of the few hamlets that people’s families for generations have been living there. It hasn’t just become houses that New York City people use for summer or weekends. As I am ‘city people’ there was a lot of resistance in every conversation I had about what exactly my agenda was. When I told them that there is no project, I’ll propose everything that you decide with your ideas, that opened it up. There were less people so the people I worked with I was really able to accommodate. There were also so many less people in the town. I had more people walk past the office in Jamaica in a day than live in Wassaic. One bar, one church, no traffic lights. In Jamaica it is completely overwhelming. It immediately felt like a false promise as soon as I put up a sign and opened the door. Even though I’m doing what I’m saying, it’s nowhere near the level they expect. People on parole need to do social work and show that they have a job, but it’s not full time work, it’s project-based. There’s huge demand and I know I’m not meeting it.
I wanted it to be a scrappy development version where the point really was you can do this too. Look how little money it’s taking. Any of us can do this, improve our community if we want, be the change you want to see. It doesn’t have to be a huge dramatic thing. You can do it tangibly in a successful way. After the false promise experience of Jamaica I want to treat this as a development project and not an art project. If we go beyond this stage I won’t let any of the fuzziness that public art allows, saying “this is a sculpture” and giving a vision of how it can be and then taking it away and letting them fill in the hole. It’s a terrible development strategy, even if it’s a good art strategy.
BC: What would you say to Obama if you could talk to him?
CR: I’d say that there’s a huge amount of ideas, energy and drive at the street level in every community I’ve talked to. You can do the recovery in a much lighter way than is currently happening. I really think creating small, tens of thousand dollar projects in many different communities — it sounds like a bumper sticker when I say this but giving the average, random individual the right to create their neighborhood in recovery does make enormous change.
The age-old development problem is this top-down development where external solutions to local problems drive up costs but also end up being misguided. Also, the old WPA had the big idea of ‘make work’. Even if it might be a wasted effort in one specific project, make sure you’re making work and giving work. There’s a wonderful photo of someone fixing a street and then someone painting a picture of them fixing the street. It’s not an essential part of the project, but it made work for them and created a link between people who would never have met each other. It gets people involved in their country in a new way.
One aspect is the history lessons that come out of this for people who haven’t heard of this. It feels amazing to get them into it. In the office we have photos up of a historic WPA project and on the same corkboard as we finish projects we are branding them with the same logos. It makes it really vivid for people to be a part of this thing that was in the past. The approach I’ve taken in terms of selecting projects, which I think is different than the original WPA, I took from the Peace Corps’ techniques for getting ideas from the community itself and not relying on established power figures for a conversation about what a community needs. That’s been a huge part of this. The person who says ‘I don’t know why they don’t put any bus shelters up, it’s so hot’, is then going and building bus shelters. The WPA didn’t get the projects from the people building them but it’s important for me that people go from the idea of a project to building the project. That idea alone is probably the most powerful part for me.
Also, frankly, when I saw the American flag it seemed to have become a symbol of jingoism. But over the past couple of years for me, I’m embracing my flag as a symbol for more than power and jingoism and xenophobia. In this project I’m surrounding myself with red white and blue, I have business cards with it. I’m working in this office and using branding to make this wiry version of America that I want to have, which obviously we do have because Americans are working together to do it. The most amazing change I’ve noticed is stealing that brand and hijacking it for what I want and how I want my government to be.
Definitely on the individual basis I’ve noticed [change in people who work on projects]. I even remember this one crazy conversation I had working with this one guy. One time we were working and he said how he hates Obama and what he’s doing. He said I don’t see why a white person couldn’t do that. Then we stopped talking about race and started focusing on the BP oil spill and what he wasn’t doing. We talked about how yes, he is in charge and has to be held responsible, but we also talked about regulation and how a lack of it has to be changed as well. He was like huh, so it was Bush’s law too. Just in that one conversation it really felt like we were able to see more levels to something going on than what we’re getting from the media. Every day I paired workers so that people were together who would not normally be together. I do feel he’ll be more open-minded politically because of working with WPA2010 over the last months.
One amazing thing in Jamaica happened when I came there. I’m not a scholar of the WPA, I know about it from high school and Googling. A guy when I got there asked why I am interested. His knowledge was of how important the WPA was to black artists. He was talking about the WPA as something for black people and wondering why I was interested in it. For me who didn’t know that side of it, I was coming at the thing from a totally opposite side. In politics and race the WPA became a place where we could meet and really be invested in the exact same thing for totally different reasons.