New York City’s housing court might not be the most obvious subject for a comic strip. But for tenants doing battle with landlords, the colorful, often whimsical illustrations contained in “Housing Court Help,” an animated booklet that educates renters on their rights, can mean the difference between staying in their homes and getting evicted. It’s just one of many creative projects developed by the Brooklyn-based (CUP), a nonprofit that uses art and design to increase civic engagement. Under the leadership of executive director Christine Gaspar, the small team works on roughly three dozen projects a year; most recently, a about trash infrastructure, a bilingual guide for immigrants buying health insurance and a about succession rights on apartment leases. NationSwell spoke with Gaspar at CUP’s offices in Brooklyn’s Gowanus neighborhood.
How have your views on leadership evolved over the course of your career?
I once had a colleague who went through an assertiveness training for women, where the tagline was “Die Before You Cry” — which is really intense! I thought about that during an emotional moment a while back, when I was talking to the staff. It was the day the ruling came down that there wouldn’t be an indictment in the Michael Brown case, and I just started crying. We ended up having a really powerful conversation. Afterward, two staff members emailed me saying how proud they are to be part of an organization where it’s okay to show you’re vulnerable, particularly around issues that are important to you. I realized then that there are other ways to show leadership. Namely, the ability to not just focus on the day’s workload, but also having the freedom to say, “You know, something really bad happened today, and we need to talk about it.”
What innovations happening in cities are you most excited about right now?
One cool thing that New York has been doing, and that CUP has been involved with, is participatory budgeting, where public funds are allotted according to how community members want to use them. Rather than representatives choosing for us, we’re voting ourselves, picking what the projects are and developing the proposals. New York City Council members have been doing this for the last two years, and it’s growing: more and more districts are doing it every year. It can be labor-intensive, but it really engages a lot of people, especially those who aren’t traditionally involved with political processes. There are more low-income individuals, people of color, undocumented people who normally have barriers to civic engagement, and younger people who aren’t old enough to vote. It’s broadening the scope of who gets to be civically engaged.
Where do you find your inner motivation?
The combination of getting to do things that are creative and visually expressive but that are also impactful and meaningful to people is so exciting. I feel really lucky to work with such an amazing group of people on the CUP staff. We also collaborate with a group of partners and many community organizers, all of whom represent different perspectives. Then there is our work with talented artists, designers and visual thinkers. It’s an interesting combination of people, fields and topics. There’s never a day where you feel like, “I got this. I already know everything that’s going on today.” It keeps things exciting.
What do you wish someone had told you when you started this job?
I wish someone had told me to go home more. When I first started working here, CUP was really small — a three-person staff at that time — and it was the first time I was running an organization. I felt this incredible sense of responsibility, which I still do, but also fear of doing something wrong. I worked a lot of hours, because I was so nervous about making sure that I wasn’t missing something. The truth is that you’re always going to miss something. At the same time, one of the things I contributed to CUP is making it an organization where we don’t all work crazy hours. We work really hard, people are incredibly committed to the organization, but they also have families and hobbies and outside lives. It took me a while to make it sustainable as a place for me to work.
What’s your proudest accomplishment?
When I started at CUP, there were only three of us on staff, and now there are nine. Every day, they go out and work on projects, and together, we continue to build this organization. That feels really good, that I played a big role in bringing us to where we are today.
What’s your favorite book?
If I’m being honest, I’d probably pick a children’s book, because I really like the illustrations in them. I feel like they speak to my work in that they use visual storytelling to achieve clarity and accessibility. Some of my favorites, which I think of often and now share with my child, are the Richard Scarry books, like “Busy, Busy World.”
What don’t most people know about you?
I’m from Waterbury, Conn., which used to be the brass capital of the world. When I was growing up there, the town was the brownfield, Superfund capital of the Northeast, with heavy-metal manufacturing and abandoned factories. I grew up in a fairly low-income, working-class family, and my parents are immigrants. I can relate on a personal level to a lot of the projects I work on today, because they’re consistent with my own experiences. These are qualities that aren’t visible to people, but I believe that my background has informed the way I work and the things I think about.