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Before I Die: How Ideas Spread


By Tom Peterson

In 2011 Artist Candy Chang used her creative powers to connect her New Orleans neighbors to their own dreams and to each other. Dealing with depression related to the unexpected death of a loved one caused Chang to reflect on what really matters in life. She turned the side of an abandoned house (pictured above) in her neighborhood into a giant chalkboard. She stenciled it with the sentence, “Before I die, I want to ______.”

Passersby were provided chalk and invited to fill in the blanks. Surprisingly, in one day, they had filled out the entire wall—with specific hopes, aspirations, dreams. From her website:

By the next day, the wall was full of responses and it kept growing: Before I die I want to… sing for millions, plant a tree, hold her one more time, straddle the International Date Line, see my daughter graduate, eat more everything, abandon all insecurities, be completely myself…  She understood her neighbors in new and enlightening ways, and the wall reminded her that she’s not alone as she tries to make sense of her life.

“This neglected space became a constructive one,” says Chang in a 2012 TED talk that has been viewed 4 million times. “And people’s hopes and dreams made me laugh out loud, tear up, and they consoled me during my own tough times.” She asks, “How can we share more of our hopes for our vacant storefronts so our communities can reflect our needs and dreams today?”

Before I Die, in Little Rock

before i dieLater in 2011 a student at the Clinton School of Public Service saw the wall and brought the idea from New Orleans to Little Rock, where the mostly-abandoned Main Street cried out for a bit of human connection. A small group converted the corner of an empty building into a “Before I Die” chalkboard (shown at right and below).

It was an instant hit. I watched as business women, homeless people, lost tourists and others walked by and momentarily found themselves thinking: What is something I’d like to do in my life? What’s important? What’s fun, what’s adventure, what’s meaningful? Among the wonderful bucket list items, many people, myself included, wrote that they wanted to see this abandoned building come to life again.

IMG_0041 - Version 2Months later, not just that building but the entire block it sits on began to be renovated. And half of a nearby block is undergoing a $20 million re-do. Other smaller projects are also underway.

Candy Chang is making good use of her degrees in graphic design, architecture and urban planning. But she’s also helping individuals and cities like Little Rock dream out loud.

From one to 1,000

Chang posted a few photos of her in New Orleans wall and soon began receiving hundreds of messages from people around the world who wanted to create one in their city. With colleagues Chang made it easier for them by creating a website with an online toolkit that advises how to choose a site, get permission, spread the word, make and maintain the wall. The “build your own wall” section includes stencils, measurements and detailed information on what materials to use.

Mostly through social media, interest in the wall quickly spread. In just a few years 1,000 have been created in 70 countries and in 35 languages. While most walls stayed with “Before I Die..” some changed the prompt: If you could have a superpower what would it be… (Beijing), When I graduate… (Atlanta), Life would be better if… (Beirut).

Before_I_die_I_want_to_write_an_album._(6123412737)This idea didn’t catch on because of a marketing program and a big budget. It caught on, most importantly, because it was a wonderful and powerful idea. People saw the images, read the stories and shared them on social media. (The “Before I Die” Facebook page now has 18,000 likes.) Like the Little Rock student, some saw walls as they were traveling and brought the idea home. It also spread quickly because Chang and others saw the interest and quickly created the DIY tools to make it easy to copy. They didn’t try to own it; they generously shared it.

Human connection and community

Before-I-Die-04-pirateWhat began as one creative woman’s outlet to deal with grief grew into a global art project and message board that connects our aspirations in their wild diversity. Chang says that through efforts like the walls it’s important that we keep the perspective that “life is brief and tender… Thinking about death clarifies your life. Our shared spaces can better reflect what matters to us as individuals and as a community.” Here are few things people would like to do before they die:

  • Grow squash
  • Rock you like a hurricane
  • See my dad
  • Own a dog
  • Perform on Broadway
  • See the woman my daughter grows up to be
  • Finish crocheting my afghan
  • BID-SavannahHug a redwood
  • Meet my brother
  • Visit Paris
  • Get matching tattoos with my mom
  • Learn to play the fiddle
  • End bullying
  • Fall in love
  • Drive an ice cream truck
  • Change the world

Before I Die Links

Photos: (From top) from Before I Die website; Tom Peterson (2 from Little Rock); Tiffany Bailey, Creative Commons; bottom two from Before I Die website. 

2 Responses to Before I Die: How Ideas Spread

  1. Rosalee Sinn January 26, 2016 at 9:42 am #

    Dear Tom . . . Thank you for this article . . . It really resonated with me. – At 82 I still have lots of dreams . . .
    Before I die . . . I want to share wtth Paul every day how much he means to me.
    Before I die . . . I want my sister, brother, cousins to know how important the memories of of our Oklahoma, Missouri family have been.
    Before I die . . . I want to see happiness for my children, grandchildren and great grand daughter
    Before I die . . . I want my friends to know I care deeply for them.
    Before I die . . . I want to take the entire family on a vacation on a warm beach
    Before I die . . . I want to write at least 50 more poems
    Before I die . . . I hope to see a more peaceful world

    And I could keep going . . . .
    I am so glad you are my friend.

    • Tom Peterson January 26, 2016 at 9:52 am #

      Thanks for sharing these, Rosalee!

      It’s funny, the older I get the more things i think of that i want to do. Not exactly a bucket list, but things like see the aurora borealis.

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