Sitting with Daniela Peterson at Niedlov’s on Main Street, it’s easy to recognize that people know her here – really know her. Why they know her is part of a winding tale of her innate desire for connection and her remarkable ability to create a home and help others find their own.
Connecting with Words
Peterson first came to America as a college student on a summer travel/work visa. In school in Chile to become a social worker, she disliked studying English but felt compelled to learn. “My school had international students,” she explains, “and if I couldn’t communicate, it was a lost opportunity to connect.” Her travels included a chance meeting with an American named Paul, and long story short, several years later they fell in love and she ended up with him in Chattanooga.
“The first few years were hard,” she says. “I was terrified to drive and my English wasn’t strong. I felt separated from the community, but I found support and care in friends and in other immigrants.” She took free English classes at the public library, where her 12 classmates were from 12 different countries.
“One day I met another immigrant for coffee,” Peterson remembers. “She insisted on paying, saying: You are new here. Let me take care of you. One day you can take care of someone else. It was so touching; such a simple thing.”
Connecting through Work
It wasn’t long before Peterson had the opportunity to help others belong. She joined the staff of Chattanooga Neighborhood Enterprise as a community engagement specialist. “In South America our concept of social work recognizes that to understand an individual, you have to understand their family, their community, the systems around them…working with communities is what I do.”
And that skillset is what brought Peterson to her current role as Creative Placemaking Fellow at the Trust for Public Land (TPL). TPL is a national organization with a local presence, and Peterson’s position is unique. It represents a seachange in the way that the Trust intends to approach its work.
“Just because an organization says it needs the community, doesn’t mean the organization is ready for the community,” she explains. “You need systems in place, and that’s my job.” Peterson works here in Chattanooga and with the national TPL team to create the systems and organizational culture necessary to engage communities in their work.
“Placemaking in the formal sense is about an end result – a public space that people feel like is for them, where they have ownership and a sense of belonging. But for me, I think placemaking is the process, gathering and really understanding the community perspective on a park or a trail and helping the community think through why they feel the way they do,” she says.
Peterson believes that approaching projects with a dedication to including the ideas and desires of residents helps people feel that they are valued within the community, which in turn, facilitates a sense of belonging. TPL is working on several projects to energize the Alton Park neighborhood. With Peterson’s guidance, they’re taking a novel approach to engage the community.
In a recent project, TPL began working to activate a public park that doesn’t get a lot of use. “We connected with an afterschool program and the kids created drawings of what they’d like to see in the park,” Peterson says. “They want more trees, so we had and artist build six-foot-tall cardboard trees and invited the kids to move them around in the park to where they’d like the trees to grow. Our team tracked the locations, and now we have a grant for 30 trees to be planted – and we know they’ll be in places that make sense for how the community wants to use the park.”
Connecting with People
“Often people are eager to meet you, but they don’t want to meet you,” she says. “It feels dehumanizing; they don’t see you. I think empathy is important, but ultimately I can never really know what someone else’s life is like. My story is different than yours and that’s ok. We can connect not because we’re the same, but because we’re people.”
That’s what Peterson found at Niedlov’s. The smell of fresh bread drew her in because it reminded her of home, but inside it wasn’t familiar. “Even ordering coffee was hard – I had to learn the process, the questions to answer, but people here were patient and treated me like everyone else, not like “a Latina.”” After that first fresh roll, Peterson returned again and again until Niedlov’s became a daily haunt for her.
“I have immigrant friends who have lived or worked on Main Street for over 8 years and they’d never come inside,” she says. “They didn’t think a place like this was for them, but once I brought them here, they found welcome here as well.”
A kind, genuine welcome is bedrock for belonging, for knowing that you have a place in a community. What’s more, being connected to people naturally leads to connections with resources and opportunities that can benefit our families and ultimately contribute to economic mobility. Benwood’s commitment to strong neighborhoods and shared prosperity in our community is why it supports work like Peterson’s at the Trust for Public Land.
“Recently I was in a room to discuss completion of the South Chick connection to the Tennessee Riverwalk,” Peterson says. “People have been working for decades to build a 25-mile public greenway, and the South Chick connector will allow people to move from Camp Jordan all the way to St. Elmo. In those moments, fundraising was completed and people were moved to tears. It was a moment of intense belonging for me. We were working on other people’s work and I had a place in that. These greenways were built to connect us – to connect people.”