It’s easy, too easy, to think of the Polis Center as invisible. But Polis is here, in Cavanaugh Hall, on the increasingly crowded commuter campus of IUPUI. The Polis Center — its name is derived from the Greek word for city — serves a combination of purposes. It’s a think tank, a research center, a community building enterprise and an attempt to redefine how a university works in a modern society, especially in an urban setting.
David Bodenhamer is director of the Polis Center. Bodenhamer came to Indianapolis in the mid 1980s to help create an encyclopedia of Indianapolis. He took the job on the condition that a center be built around the encyclopedia project to use the accumulated knowledge of the city as a way to bring the university and the city closer together. How, Bodenhamer asked, does a university achieve excellence within a community context? “How do we grab hold of the expertise that people have gained from experience and how do we give that the respect that we need to give it? How do we place practical knowledge in concert with theoretical knowledge?”
What Bodenhamer saw in Polis was a unique opportunity to help a community come to an understanding of itself. “Why can’t a university work in concert with its constituencies to create a much better understanding of an environment and let that understanding help to guide its decisions — and from there, achieve a model of what university and community interaction should be?”
Since then, the Polis Center has developed a rich bank of data about Indianapolis, creating a resource like no other in the country. Polis defines its work in terms of four key signatures: First, to concentrate on a particular geographic area, in this case, Central Indiana; to work in partnership with other organizations and groups ; to focus on issues of mutual interest where Polis can bring some perspective; and finally, to develop knowledge that simultaneously informs both the community and the academy.
Of these signatures, Bodenhamer points to partnerships as key: “There are too few resources in any community to support in full expression all the initiatives that people would like — social services, the arts… Certainly in a community that is still as manageable as Indianapolis is, in a community where leaderships still accessible, as it is in this city, why can’t we find a way to work smarter?”
Partnerships must, says Bodenhamer, satisfy individual agendas but also provide opportunities to reach new audiences and issues. This idea of a partnership lies at the heart of “Spirit & Place: A Gathering of Voices” which Polis in partnership with an array of the city’s other educational and cultural institutions has produced for the past three years.
“Spiritual qualities define place,” says Bodenhamer, “and it’s from this observation we came to the notion of something that would bring those things out and make them subject to public discussion and reflection. This seems to be important for this community a this particular time… We have so many ways of escaping our environments today that the only communities we can imagine are associational — it’s what’s most comfortable to us. But, in truth, we do live in a certain geography and we do associate with each other through circumstance, by the fact we all share this common space. We have some obligation to that space and we have some obligation to those people. We often times don’t know what our obligations are, we don’t know what our responsibilities are, we don’t even know who those people are.”
In gathering voices for “Spirit & Place’s” public conversation, Polis and its partners have looked first to artists, including writers, choreographers, dramatists, musicians, and visual artists. “I’ve always recognized,” observes Bodenhamer, “that artists have a way of revealing things — sometimes indirectly, but sometimes so directly as to make you uncomfortable — that needs to be part of any conversation.” The artist’s world, he says, “is a world we see really clearly and it resonates with our own experiences. It’s the power of the storyteller… the only way that we progress individually, socially — is with a good, thoughtful and careful critique, and the artist is one of the people that does that best.”
Polis is now engaged in 30 active projects. The center carries a full-time staff of 40 who are working with government, religious organizations, arts and neighborhood groups. “It’s not that we’re a jack of all trades,” Bodenhamer points out, “but we work in a concentrated environment.” The Polis approach is not to look at issues in isolation, but to constantly search for meaning in the web of interrelationships that constitutes this particular community.
“How,” asks Bodenhamer, “do we maintain the connections e have to have to be a humane and generous society?”