Leading in Tough Times 4 – Problem into Opportunity – Graffiti or Art?


Challenging times.  Somber stuff.  I was going to write about three types of folks challenged by layoffs:  the one receiving the bad news, the one delivering the bad news, and the workers left behind.  A core message was to be this:  stay open to rebirth and deep purpose.  Then I came to Philly.

We’re here for the National Governors Association meeting and I was fortunate to land on a tour of some of Philadelphia’s 2,800 – yes, two thousand eight hundred – murals.  The project began in 1984, when Mayor Wilson Goode created the Anti-Graffiti Network and hired Jane Golden, a muralist, to run it.  Golden began taking graffiti artists (not called artists by many at the time) and directing them in a project to learn about and produce murals.  Twelve years later, Mayor Rendell created a public-private partnership called the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program and it is now known around the world.

Think of all the people complaining, or to put it kindly, expressing righteous indignation about the messy graffiti.  And think of all the people bemoaning urban decay, the decline of an industrial city, the hopelessness of a once-great revolutionary city.  There was plenty of challenge, fear, depression, anger, scapegoating, etc.  Someone(s) saw opportunity.  No one could have imagined 2,800 murals – and 100 more every year; 5,000 people annually touring the sites; 3,000 kids served through 56 sites every year; a prisoner art program and prison re-entry initiative; 100 Philadelphia schools involved in teaching and creating murals to uplift older buildings and playgrounds.  And perhaps most importantly, prior to those 100 new murals a year, 100 community groups discussing their stories of culture, of heroes, of values, of what they want to literally and figuratively uplift for themselves and those who pass through their neighborhoods.  And before those murals were even finished, they set off spontaneous sparks of pride, creativity, and expression on the block and in the surrounding neighborhood.  The vibrancy is palpable.

If there’s something that you are tired of tolerating, ask yourself:  where’s the possibility – the opportunity – for something altogether new and better?  What might you help bring into being, in life’s amazing cycles of death and resurrection, decay and revitalization.  Check out www.muralarts.org or check out the book Philadelphia Murals and the Stories They Tell to get inspired by some amazing examples of folks,

Leading with their best self!


  • Graffiti or Art? That term takes on different perspectives depending on locale. I am fortunate to live in the wonderfully beautiful and pristine Blue Ridge mountains of Virginia. NO graffiti evident in my ‘neighborhood’! In the autumn of last year, I flew to Lisbon, Portugal to attend the Moto-GP motorcycle race in Estoril. As we were driving on the highway upon departure from the airport, I conversed with my driver, as he spoke decent English. Only the two of us in the car; he was my brother-in-law’s personal assistant. I told him I was amazed at the “graffiti” on almost every wall along the highway. He said o me, “Oh no, Mr. Mark, that is ot graffiti. that is vandalism. Graffiti IS art!” It was at that moment that I realized, one’s own perspective of something is individually interpretive. I have always considered graffiti to be vandalism of someone else’s property, unless the “artist” was given permission/commission to render their work on a building, etc. I guess, as is the case of Philly, if you can’t beat them, join them. I personally think that encouraging this activity instead of redirecting these individuals to spend their time more productively is counterproductive to the society as a whole. How about job training, auto body repair and paint, house painting, etc.? Then the city could really look nice, instead of being known as the city that succombed to the graffiti “artists” insistance to ply their “trade” and bring that ghetto notoriety to the city. What a lousy legacy, as far as I’m concerned!!

    • Mark,
      I think Philadelphia is redirecting these people. They are encouraging them to do what they know and to take pride in their creations. Hopefully they’re off the streets, not committing crimes as they were before. It just may be that for the first time in some of these graffiti artists lives they’re being recognized and given credit for something positive and don’t we all need that from time to time.

  • Did you discuss my comments to you (last week)about leadership with the Governor? Do you think that she will do the right thing and get professionals to take over Corrections, Community Service and Education?
    Thank you

  • Transforming lemons into lemonade is happening in many ways in today’s environment. Here is another example, Dan, from BusinessWeek magazine back in January:

    With the stock market continuing to head south, is it time to consider a few money-making ideas created by the warming of our planet?

    The potential of climate change investing goes far beyond mere curiosities. A growing number of advisors to big institutional investors and high-net-worth types are sizing up companies based on how likely they are to benefit from rising energy prices, stricter regulations and changes to the natural world ranging from freshwater shortages to new disease patterns and more chaotic weather.

    A useful approach is to split the opportunities into two broad groups, explains Mark Fulton, climate change strategist at Deutsche Bank Asset Management: mitigation and adaptation. The first basket includes products and services that slow the flow of greenhouse gases by using less energy or by substituting clean energy for fossil fuels. That’s why so many renewables such as solar and wind show up in the new climate change funds and indices. Fulton’s second category includes opportunities to help the world adapt to the effects of the changing climate. This group may offer hidden values in some more obscure sectors.

    Since public opinion is increasingly driving U.S. policymakers to act, analysts’ climate predictions need not be perfectly prescient to pay off. “Perception drives valuations,” says Edward M. Kerschner, chief investment strategist for Citi Global Wealth Management, who recently made public a list of some 90 “climate consequences companies” he believes could excel as the climate changes and limits on carbon emissions multiply.

    Also, consider HSBC’s Global Climate Change Benchmark Index, which tracks 300 equities, spans 34 countries (11 of which are emerging markets), and includes small, medium and big companies. In November, HSBC launched a fund in Europe that focuses on a subset of about 60 companies from the index.

  • Ownership is a word that comes to mind. I contrast President Bush’ idea of an ownership society with the ownership that the mural program endows. The mural program creates and sustains a sense of ownership by the participants in their community. If a person owns something they take care of it. There is no greed in the mural program. This is community at its best.

    President Bush uses the ownership idea to promote self sufficiency, where sometimes self sufficiency does not work very well. This is where we find the ideas to privatize social security, and the prescription drug program D. This is where we find the Medicare advantage programs, which have no advantage, but to the private companies who sell the advantage programs. This is what brought us the securitizing of home loans.

    Self sufficiency is a good thing, if that is the true intent, but a system designed with full knowledge that many will fail, is a failed system. The mural program is a program where everyone succeed and benefits. If there is community pride and community ownership then there will be less crime and higher employment. And more tourists bring in money.

  • What an inspiring story, Dan! And, a great way to begin the week. I would LOVE to see this idea take off in Detroit. What are some ways to get the ball rolling?

  • A program like this is forming in Detroit. The College for Creative Studies is the lead in this effort that will target six neighborhoods. The Skillman, Kresge and Chase foundations have all invested to make it possible. It would be great if we could galvanize other corporate sponsors to grow this work.

  • In the context of RFL, I would add that imagination is a vital ‘tool’ of leadership. If we cannot imagine ourselves in other shoes, we walk on a dangerously narrow path. If we cannot imagine a creative proposal, we are doomed to plugging round holes with square pegs. If we cannot imagine the positive relationships that derive from a single creative idea, we remain stuck in antagonism. If we cannot imagine overcoming and exceeding our circumstances and expectations, we will languish. We might think that we are not creative, but in challenging environments, every day requires creativity. We draw creativity from what we imagine for future success. Now is a good time to imagine.

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