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Words bloom in community through local poetry project

Artist Carter Hubbard created natural art on sidewalks in Chapel Hill. Photo Courtesy of Carter Hubbard.

Artist Carter Hubbard created natural art on sidewalks in Chapel Hill. Photo Courtesy of Carter Hubbard.

Words are sprouting between sidewalks and under trees across Chapel Hill and Carrboro.  

In early March, the annual multimedia project Floraffiti planted seeds in the shape of words like "choice," "aware" and "safe" in mulched areas, combining plants and words to ignite curiosity about this year's theme: environmental justice.

The project began in 2013 when a group of friends decided to plant anonymous words around the community, unsure as to how the messages would be received. Over a decade later, Floraffiti is sponsored by both the Town of Carrboro and the Orange County Visitors Bureau.

This year, Carter Hubbard, the founder and current project manager of Floraffiti, worked with two local poet laureates — Cortland Gilliam and Liza Wolff-Francis — to design poetry workshops as precursors to the plantings. In the workshops, participants were asked to write about this year’s theme of environmental justice and choose words that correlated with their writing to be displayed.

Next to each planted word, Floraffiti set up QR codes, which passing observers can scan on their phones to listen to recordings of community members reading their poetry. 

“It functions as a creative way that is surprising, opens dialogue, creates connection and amplifies community members' voices in a way that is novel,” Hubbard said

The plantings, she said, are an accessible way to engage with the topic of environmental justice, which aims to address the disproportionate impacts of climate change on marginalized identities. 

“Poor communities of color are at most risk of having the harshest effects of the climate crisis,” Wolff-Francis, the Carrboro poet laureate, said.

In the past, Floraffiti has worked with community organizations such as the Refugee Community Partnership and the youth mentorship program Boomerang, as well as nonprofits that have since closed, the Sacrificial Poets and North Carolina Art Therapy.

The environmental justice movement was sparked in the 80s by protests against a hazardous waste landfill in a predominantly African American community in Warren County, North Carolina. The Rogers-Eubanks neighborhood in Chapel Hill has been similarly involved since 1972, when a landfill was moved to the area, and continues to advocate for environmental justice within the community.

At the poetry workshop, community members learned about the pivotal Warren County protests and their influence, as well as other histories of injustice. Groups were asked to reflect and discuss what they might do in those situations, Francis said.

Marina Rozova, a workshop participant and poet based in Raleigh, found the workshop with Cortland Gilliam, the Chapel Hill poet laureate, to be simultaneously powerful and gentle.

Before moving to North Carolina from New York City, Rozova experienced climate anxiety, which often leaves people feeling overwhelmed, sad and guilty about climate related issues. Spending more time walking outside, interacting with greenery and attending community events related to climate change calmed her and alleviated some of her unease.

Rozova said seeing the words planted as “literal life” in isolation of their poems helped her interact with the topic in a new way.

“I feel very lucky that I get to live in a place where things like this are taken seriously and encouraged and just shown love,” she said

In the future, Hubbard said that she wants to design a manual for other cities and organizations to replicate the Florafitti concept.

On May 9, from 6-8 p.m., the Carrboro Bicycle Coalition will host a bike ride starting at the Carrboro Town Hall and tour around the area to showcase the full-grown art.

“I don't think that if we all write poems everything will be fixed,” Wolff-Francis said.  "It's not that but it's a way to alleviate some of the anxiety, to draw attention to what's happening, to encourage people to be hopeful, to also take action and make change."

@dthlifestyle | lifestyle@dailytarheel.com

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