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A Sense of Place

‘Beach’ experience seeded career direction

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been interested in how a space becomes a place. To me, a place is where people feel welcome to hang out, come and go as they please, and return repeatedly.

Growing up in rural Wisconsin, the closest thing we had to a “place” was the mall. Sure, we had a smattering of public parks, but private, fenced-in backyards were the norm, so no one ever seemed to visit the parks. For better or worse, townsfolk flocked to the mall, a fact I usually found depressing even though I frequented the mall myself. After all, the mall functioned as our town’s central gathering place.

I remember feeling a wave of excitement as I walked through Parrish Beach for the first time my freshman year. In its bucolic setting of verdant grass and trees, I saw groups of students hanging out, some eating, some throwing Frisbees, some rehearsing a four-part harmony, some sitting alone on white Adirondack chairs, reading quietly or dozing off. Here was the kind of place I had always longed for but had never found. I was smitten.

It was outdoors. A place for everyone.

Like many of my fellow classmates, I became a regular at the Beach, stopping between classes, before and after meals, on my way back to the dorm after hours at McCabe Library. It was a blank canvas, taking on the colors of those who were there. At times the Beach was a peaceful oasis; at other times, it was abuzz with the energy and excitement of planned festivities—movies like The Graduate, musical performances, student club activities, Earth Day celebrations. The Beach was Swarthmore’s central gathering spot—a place for all time.

Today, I look back on those years, that time spent on the Beach, combined with many other aspects of my Swarthmore experience, and realize that those moments planted the seeds for the direction my professional life has taken. My work resides at the intersection of social impact and creative activism—specifically centered on the idea of place. As senior director of communications and strategic initiatives at the national nonprofit Levitt Pavilions, I seek to transform America’s neglected or crime-ridden outdoor public spaces into beautiful, thriving places where all feel welcome. We use free, live music as the vehicle to bring together people of all socioeconomic backgrounds and to strengthen the social fabric of a community.

Traveling across the country to Levitt sites, I’ve witnessed the meaningful impact these revitalized spaces have on the psyche of a community and its people and seen how the arts can be harnessed to ignite positive change. Live music is a strong social connector, and when it’s presented for free in a welcoming outdoor setting, the entire community comes out, breaking barriers and building bridges.

While almost every college or university campus has an outdoor gathering place, I’m not certain I would have come to the same realization had I studied anywhere else. And that’s due to my education at Swarthmore. It was a time of big ideas and heated discussions with professors and fellow students; a time of being challenged to frame my worldview through the lens of social justice and equality; of being awakened to the role of politics and culture in art; of making art and performing on a frequent basis, experiencing the joy and rigor of creative expression. Being part of the Swarthmore community inspired me to make meaning in my life, pursue my passions, and improve the lives of others, knowing that, in the end, it’s people who make places.