Those were the questions being addressed Monday as dozens of volunteers and officials gathered under a tent to paint the final canvas sections of a 3,175-square-foot mural to be mounted on the Archworks building near Eighth and Arch Streets.
The mural's title, How We Fish, comes from the proverb "Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime."
It would certainly apply in Santiago's case. The last real work he had was an under-the-table job in an auto junkyard. That was two years ago. In between, there was street life, and all that it entails.
"I'm out of it, I'm tired of it, and I don't want to do it anymore," he said, his brush poised in midstroke.
Santiago is pursuing his GED. He dreams of being an auto technician, like his mother, or maybe an artist. "Work is hands-on," he said. "It's focus, a lot of focus."
Monday's event capped a two-year process underwritten by the Citizens Bank Foundation for $200,000.
Most mural projects begin with a series of meetings to develop the theme and design, and to make the mural meaningful to its community. But unlike most projects, this one focused on an idea, not a neighborhood.
Over two years, the city Mural Arts Program in cooperation with Social Impact Studios - a Philadelphia arts organization that specializes in the triad of art, policy, and community - talked about work and its meaning at neighborhood meetings, as well as at Graterford Prison.
"I was surprised by how hopeful people were," said Ennis Carter, director of Social Impact Studios. Times were hard, she said, but people seemed optimistic about the possibilities and the redeeming power of work.
Netanel Portier, project manager for the mural project, found herself particularly moved by the meeting at the offices of Congreso, a social-services organization for Latinos in North Philadelphia. There, she said, participants talked about how the many textile factories in their neighborhoods once kept people employed. Those jobs are mostly gone.
"People could just go down the street and get a job," Portier said. "If they didn't like one job, they could go get another one.
"They had so many stories to share about the importance of work in their community, and, if there's no work, how it affects the fabric of the community."
In the mural, an ocean of blue fabric machine-stitched by a pair of hands of indiscriminate hue forms the lower edge. The image signifies that work is a fabric that unites all, and it gives more than a nod to Philadelphia's once-important role in textile manufacturing.
Mural artist Eric Okdeh attended most of the meetings, and his design incorporates quotations from attendees. The mural is divided into four vertical sections, each for a type of work that dominated the economy over time. Images evoke agriculture, manufacturing, the service economy, and, finally, the future of work, symbolized by a circuit board.
The mural also incorporates stained glass, a salute to Philadelphia's important role in stained-glass production.
The images were all translated into 128 cloth panels five feet square, most of them painted at an indoor workshop. Only the last 16 or so were reserved for Monday's exercise.
Some glass mosaic work is already mounted, and the painted panels will go up on the wall starting next week and through September.
The mural's position on the Archworks building is significant because the building now houses the Children's Village. The day-care center was founded by labor unions in the 1970s to care for the children of textile workers employed in nearby factories.
Recent graduate Nathan Hazlett, 5, of Haddonfield, and his family dropped by to paint. Judging from his hands, Nathan worked on the blue part.
"I want to be an engineer," he said when asked about his work plans. "I like to build things."
For more information about the mural, visit: www.philly.com/howwefish
Contact Jane M. Von Bergen at 215-854-2769, firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow @JaneVonBergen on Twitter. Read her workplace blog at www.philly.com/jobbing