Jul 29, 2016

Listening to Listening School

by: Sarah Schultz, Guest Blogger

Listening School is a mobile structure for learning and sharing ideas about healing and the meaning of the places we inhabit and make home.  It was conceived by artist Katie Bachler for Southwest Roots, a creative placemaking initiative led by Mural Arts Philadelphia and Bartram’s Garden.  Since May 2016, Katie and a team of eight high school students from John Bartram’s High School have been moving around this Southwest Philadelphia neighborhood listening and learning about what matters to people. As the Southwest Roots curator, I spent time talking with Katie about the project.

Sarah:  Katie, how would you describe the Listening School?

Katie:  The Listening School is a platform for local ideas to emerge, for collecting shared needs and desires in the place, and revealing truths about how people relate to the Schuylkill River and Bartram’s Garden, each other, and the land they are living on. The Listening School is a rolling cart, much like a peddler’s cart, that functions as a mobile recording studio, plant apothecary, and art and map making studio – a place for knowledge production and exchange. It’s run by a group of local high school students who ask people to share their stories and desires for the neighborhood.

Sarah: Why a “Listening” School?

Katie: The idea for the Listening School grew out of conversations about some upcoming changes that were happening in and around the neighborhood near Bartram’s Garden.   A new trail called Bartram’s Mile is slated to open at the end of 2016, bringing in visitors from around Philadelphia to the area via this bike and pedestrian trail. The Listening School came out of a desire to know the intricacies of this neighborhood at this moment, the multiplicities, the people, the special places, the healing plants growing in vacant lots, the local business owners, the students, and the elders who have been here for 40 years, who have seen the neighborhood change from a white neighborhood to a predominately African American neighborhood and from a manufacturing district to a post-industrial landscape.

Sarah:  Tell me about some of the young people who are leading the project.  Who are they and what are they doing?

Katie: Eight high school students were recommended by Mr. Thomas, a teacher at Bartram’s High School, to work at the Listening School as listeners and askers of questions. The students are paid for their work with the Listening School, and they are shaping what it is, how it works, and how it can generate ideas for new creative projects in both the garden and community, all the while learning interview skills, how to approach people, how to make space for real conversations to emerge.


  • Listening School. Photo by Steve Weinik.

  • Photo by Steve Weinik.

Sarah: The plant mugwort plays an important role in the Listening School.   Why is that?

Katie: Mugwort grows in forgotten places in the neighborhood: out of the cracks in the sidewalk, through piles of trash by the trolley, in vacant lots, by the river where concrete has been dumped. It is the first thing I noticed when I got off the trolley.

Mugwort grows where it is needed: it helps with anxiety and depression, which many people we meet say they experience. Mugwort also promotes healthy dreaming and sleep – it is the great protector of the herbs and the great connector to the plant world. As a part of the Listening School, students provide information about local healing plants, and give participants a small handmade dream bag with mugwort inside in exchange for stories.

Sarah: Where has the Listening School travelled and what are some of the things you’ve heard?  Or what does a typical week in the Listening School look like?

Katie: We set up under a sycamore tree in Bartram’s Village, the public housing development adjacent to Bartram’s Garden, for a week where we met a cookie baker and a smoothie expert and many people sang and shared. We went to an empty lot on Woodland Avenue, the oldest street in the area, where there was a tavern and stone schoolhouse, and a place to buy feed for the horses. We took the cart in front of Esteves Mini Market on 54th and Grays Avenue, where people who work at Bartash Printing across the street come for coffee and steak sandwiches, and wings – they stopped to talk to us about how togetherness is the most important, with ink on their hands from the printing press. We went near Woodland Academy, where we made art with 2-year-olds and teachers, and finally, we set up at Bartram’s Garden by the Schuylkill River, where people shared stories of water experiences, painted river feelings, saw leeches, and wandered and thought.

Participants have been sharing songs and poetry, paintings and maps, words of wisdom about the places they live and love. Conversation is healing as is listening and being open and vulnerable to other truths. We are practicing being present in a place. We are listening.

Sarah: What is next for the Listening School?

Katie: After an initial tour of the neighborhood, the students asked if they could spend more time at Bartram’s Garden. They want to share the specialness of the river, their secret places, and the wonder of this park with their community.

We are planning a Listening Trail to connect Woodland Avenue with the River, along 54th street where the water would flow during a rainstorm. Many people we meet do not know that there is a river very near, a place to clear the mind, to fish, and to be. This is all the same landscape, once a forest, then John Bartram’s farm, and now urban with shops and smells of hot dogs and fried chicken, and fences and block parties. The water still runs downhill to the river, and we share the watershed.

We want to make the listening permanent, some of the unknowns into knowns, to open up ways to be and walk and see a little bit differently in Southwest Philly. So much is real, and so much is healing.


  • Neighborhood residents at the 2016 Art@Bartram's Riverfest. Photo by Steve Weinik.

  • BG Bed at Southwest Roots. Photo by Steve Weinik.

About Southwest RootsSouthwest Roots is a creative placemaking collaboration between Mural Arts Philadelphia and Bartram’s Garden that works to engage neighbors in shaping the future of both the garden and the surrounding river neighborhood. The Listening School is one of several artist residencies and community-based projects taking place in and around Bartram’s Garden over the next two years.

Katie Bachler is an artist and educator interested in connections to the world around us and to each other. Her work takes the form of maps, meals, walks, parks, schools, gardens, conversations, and moments. She is a fellow at the Baltimore Museum of Art mapping the idea of home in the city, and helping to create spaces of learning and love in the museum. She has worked with young people for over 10 years, at such organizations as LACMA, Slanguage, and High Desert Test Sites. She dreams of running a healing general store in Vermont.

Sarah Schultz is an independent curator and public engagement consultant whose work focuses on developing collaborative projects between artists and the public She was previously the Director of Education and Curator of Public Practice at the Walker Art Center where she led Open Field, an experimental platform for social interaction, collective action, and socially-engaged art. In addition to working on Southwest Roots, she spends time on her own research project, Herbarium for the Anthropocene, to document stories about people and plants in a time of global climate change.

Last updated: Aug 1, 2016

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