Every month, one of MailChimp’s designers creates new art for our billboard at the corner of Krog Street and Dekalb Avenue here in Atlanta.
The location of the billboard isn’t the greatest. It’s too high if you’re driving. It’s too low if you’re riding the train. Pedestrian traffic is minimal.
But it’s directly across the street from the Krog St. tunnel, which has long been Atlanta’s most notable street art message board. Artists, vandals, and community organizers continually paint over each other’s work, with everything from intricately designed murals to hastily scrawled ads for the neighborhood wheelbarrow festival. It’s messy. To some people, the tunnel might be a little intimidating.
For as long as I can remember, the only constants at the Krog tunnel have been layers of paint, creativity, and change.
After our second Krog St. billboard design replaced the first one, a few of us wondered what to do with the discarded vinyl. Usually it would just sit in a warehouse and gather dust before getting thrown away. David, one of our designers, quickly reminded us of Plywood People, a nearby organization that upcycles old billboard material into handsome bags and wallets.
Plywood is a dozen miles east of the MailChimp offices in a community called Clarkston. In the 1990s the State Department identified Clarkston as one of a handful of places in the United States to resettle refugees. When I was growing up nearby, Clarkston was a sleepy, homogenous small town. Now it’s one of the most diverse communities in the world. The change has been remarkable and rocky. More than 45% of the people in Clarkston were born outside of the country, and each year brings several thousand more refugees to the area.
Displaced people who settle in Clarkston only receive 90 days of government assistance. Many don’t know a word of English. Most have fled traumatic conflicts. Once they arrive, a good number of the adults can only provide for their families with difficult, low-wage jobs in chicken factories more than an hour away. Not even 10 years ago, local government officials refused to let the kids play soccer.
The folks behind Plywood People knew they could serve their community better.
They began their Billboard Bags program to employ refugees in a valuable, sustainable trade. The women who work with Plywood People receive financial training, ESL classes, and a good job close to their families. The bags and wallets they make are excellent. They’re layered with meaning.
So every month after the folks at CBS install our latest billboard art, our accommodating sales executive delivers the old vinyl to our office. Then I drive the vinyl over to Plywood, and the women who work there turn it into something beautiful.
Finally, we take the bags to events we help sponsor. It’s a pleasure telling folks about our billboards at Krog St. and sharing the story of the women who transform them. People like receiving free stuff, sure. But when they find out that their new bag has been meaningfully made by inspired people in our community—that’s when they’re delighted.