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'Operation Paydirt Grand Rapids' Engages Community in Effort to Eliminate Lead Poisoning

Ferris State UniversityGRAND RAPIDS – While most artists come to ArtPrize with their pieces already finished, Mel Chin’s entry won’t be complete until this year’s competition concludes, and he’s giving everyone in West Michigan the opportunity to make it real. A part of Kendall College of Art and Design of Ferris State University’s ArtPrize 2014 exhibition, “I AM: Money Matters,” “Operation Paydirt: Grand Rapids” is not your typical ArtPrize fare – it’s actually the latest step in an initiative, started by Chin in 2008, that’s been steadily engaging grassroots communities across America in a creative action to generate both awareness of lead contamination and solutions for the national crisis of childhood lead-poisoning.

Inside Operation Paydirt

Through an extensive process of community interaction, Chin began to see a distinct lack of awareness and education about the dangers of lead poisoning across the nation. Lead dust and paint chips found in the interiors and on the exteriors of homes built before 1978 can be ingested by small children living in and playing around these homes, and it only takes a small amount of lead dust to create a toxic situation. In children, lead poisoning causes life-long brain damage, and poor physical growth and development. It can lead to social and behavioral problems, learning disabilities, and in some cases, even death.

The mission of Operation Paydirt is twofold: to raise awareness about lead poisoning and to empower individuals to use their own creativity to affect change and solve the problem. Participants are invited to create a “Fundred Dollar Bill” – a hand-drawn interpretation of a U.S. $100 – that is then collected along with other Fundreds from around the country. The ultimate goal is to collect millions of these unique artworks and deliver them in a special armored truck to the U.S. Congress with a request for an even exchange of the creative capital for real funding to prevent lead poisoning in cities all across America. The initiative has already gathered over 450,000 Fundreds through large-scale interactive events including a cross-country armored truck pick-up tour and city-based initiatives in New Orleans and in Charlotte, NC, where a school district-wide engagement last year yielded participation from 46,051 students.

“The point was that we were going to have to make money to solve this problem, but it didn’t have to be real money; it just had to have value,” Chin said. “In this case it’s the real value of creativity and imagination, and how that value is endangered by this invisible threat.”

Collaborative solutions in West Michigan

In Grand Rapids, work is being done to reduce the impact of lead poisoning. During the last 10 years, the Get the Lead Out! collaborative, which includes the city of Grand Rapids, the Kent County Health Department, the Healthy Homes Coalition of West Michigan, and the Rental Property Owners Association, has made more than 1,350 homes in Grand Rapids lead-safe with federal funds provided to the city of Grand Rapids, but there’s still a lot of work to be done. To learn more, go to

Paul Haan, Executive Director of the Healthy Homes Coalition of West Michigan said, “In the 10 years that we’ve had federal funding, almost 1,400 homes have been made lead safe and the number of children with high blood lead levels has dropped 84 percent due to a combination of homes fixed, greater awareness, and quick action on the part of parents and doctors. That’s the good news. But there were still another 426 children identified in Grand Rapids last year with elevated blood lead levels of concern. Operation Paydirt: Grand Rapids will help reduce that number even further.”

To maximize impact during ArtPrize, Operation Paydirt organizers have been steadily networking with organizations and individuals throughout West Michigan. A design workshop held at KCAD brought together a diverse cross-section of civic, non-profit, early childhood development, and educational leaders in an exploration of how to engage as much of the local community as possible. Organizers have also been working closely with KCAD’s Art Education program to develop integrated lesson plans that will help K-12 students learn about who is most in danger of lead poisoning, understand the concept of social justice, and gain the perspective and hope to know that their creativity can make impact on the world.

Chin, who was a Grand Prize juror for ArtPrize 2013, sees ArtPrize as the perfect forum for Operation Paydirt to give the entire community a chance to stand up for the right of every child to have a healthy start to life, and to support the cause of healthy homes for all.

Activating the community through ArtPrize

As the visual epicenter of Operation Paydirt: Grand Rapids, The Fed Galleries at KCAD feature stations where visitors can compose and deposit their own Fundred. Handmade tables allow a place to draw, while one wall of the space displays a hand-drawn map of Grand Rapids where the bundled Fundred contributions from individual schools will be tracked, giving students a tangible sense of how their creativity is contributing to the initiative’s overall momentum. Fundred Guards will be on hand to ceremoniously accept deposits. Any group that submits a collection of Fundreds at one time will have the opportunity to select one Fundred from the bunch to be a part of the ‘Communities’ Choice’ wall, a collective display of Fundreds that will be showcased in the space for all to see.

“We’ll do it right, step by step, and then I’m going to be sitting back in awe of what Grand Rapids can do,” Chin said.

For Chin, the real prize isn’t the $560,000 ArtPrize will be awarding to this year’s winners; it’s the impact created here in Grand Rapids that will help Operation Paydirt and its collaborators continue to move the needle on lead poisoning prevention. And when it comes to giving credit for that victory, he’s adamant that it belongs to the people.

“ArtPrize is about individual achievement, which I think should be celebrated, but this is a case where we’re saying, if we’re successful, we’re going to celebrate everybody that contributed,” said Chin. “Operation Paydirt is a very different track. It is dependent on the value of the individual, and the power of the collective voice of the people amplified so that the leaders of our country can hear it.”

How to participate

Anyone can participate in Operation Paydirt: Grand Rapids, and organizers want to see as many schools, groups, businesses, and organizations to participate as possible. In addition to the interaction in The Fed Galleries, off-site participation is also encouraged. Mel Chin s Operation Paydirt

Operation Paydirt