Freight trains rattled overhead and a double rainbow stretched across the gray sky as hundreds of South Bend residents gathered for the second annual “Studebaker Talks” in a room that once served as a factory floor for the Studebaker company. The once-abandoned venue, which now serves as the South Bend City Church, reflected the history of the wagon and automobile manufacturer based in the city for more than a century, employing thousands in South Bend until the plant’s closure in 1963.
The history of the space where audiences heard and engaged six TED-esque talks was something that organizers leaned into, according to organizing committee member Jacob Titus.
“That space has been reimagined in a way that you can definitely tell this was part of the factory,” Titus, a photographer and designer at the helm of a creative studio called Tutt Street Studio said. Titus is also behind the blog West.SB, which centers around South Bend history and culture.
“[It adds] a lot of weight to the conversations having this shadow of Studebaker,” he said.
Friday night’s event donated all net proceeds to the Boys & Girls Club of St. Joseph County, raising more than $2,500 in ticket sales.
Jonathan Jones, director of recreation for the city’s department of venues, parks and arts, served as the night’s MC, introducing each speaker and facilitating discussion throughout the room in between each talk.
“Tonight we're going to have an opportunity to celebrate ingenuity and progress that is happening in our city and for some of us, myself included, tonight might be the very night that serves as a catalyst for you to really be inspired to make that first step … that's going to help make it a place where everyone can thrive,” Jones said.
The first speaker of the evening was Lety Stanton-Verduzco of the Boys & Girls Club, who discussed the needs of children in the South Bend community.
“How many of you can honestly say that in your childhood, your youth, an adult made a positive impact on your life and because of them you are the person you are today?” Stanton-Verduzco asked the room.
She discussed her upbringing in Gary, Indiana as the daughter of a steel mill worker who had to feed his six children, often doubling up on shifts.
“It was not uncommon for me to go days without seeing my dad. At some point he had to sleep. So that meant that school became an extended part of my family and therefore my teachers and my coaches also became an extended part of my family and made an impact on me,” Stanton-Verduzco said.
Stanton-Verduzco, who came to South Bend to study writing at Saint Mary’s, recalled working with local youth the summer before her senior year. She discussed current local crises of violence and mental health and a lack of support in public schools.
“Kids need support, they need to feel valued. And only a person can make somebody else feel valued. So how do we do that? How do we fill the gaps? Everyone's heard the saying ‘it takes a village’ but it's more than just a saying, it's a call to action,” Stanton-Verduzco said. “Every day, I see the collective ability of individuals to make an impact. I see the two dozen of my former club kids who are now current club staff. I see it in the faces of kids and volunteers who show up every week, consistently to read to kids, to engage with them, to talk with them, to listen with them.”
Stanton-Verduzco closed with a call to action.
“Every kid is one positive adult away from being a success story. And all of you already have everything it takes to be that one person,” she said.
The second speaker was Leslie Pinson, a podcaster and founder of the startup Local Spirit. Pinson, originally from Texas, recalled coming to her stepmother’s native South Bend as a child.
“This little Leslie loved Indiana, loved South Bend and Indiana sweet corn,” she said. “So she loved Indiana sweet corn, Rudy and the outdoor ice skating rink at Howard Park.”
Pinson, through a tale of grief and trauma and self-healing ultimately told the story of how moving to South Bend was the way in which she faced her fears.
“I moved to the place that represented my deepest fear, and that was boredom. I thought it was boring, and yet I moved here and, y’all, what happened? What happened is by embracing my deepest fear, I found my greatest joy. I found who I am. I reconnected to the magic that is within me,” she said.
Pinson recalled seeing South Bend on a list of dying cities and being upset at the “overplayed” narrative.
“Y’all, what if there was pieces of this city that needed to die so that the treasure could be revealed? What if the way we help South Bend find healing and become that full potential, what if it's like we individually do that for ourselves? And we don't do it alone. We do it together, in community,” she said.
Third, Zachary T. Nelson spoke. Nelson, an artist and “amateur archivist” discussed the phenomenon of going viral on TikTok because of the 100,000 photos and videos he had collected of his life, ranging from the mundane to the comical.
Over the course of a rapid fire slide show that included fart noises and failed stunt attempts by Nelson throughout his adolescence, Nelson told the story of his life growing up in the South Bend area.
Ultimately, Nelson made a more emotional point, stemming from a TikTok comment he had received. The commenter was requesting Nelson show his archive from a certain date, a frequent appearance on his page. The date she asked for, however, was not random, or an anniversary or birthday.
“I want to see you lived the worst day of my life,” she wrote.
Nelson said that this opened his eyes.
“What I realized in this talk is that this is not the story of a guy who has 100,000 photos and videos of his life. This is the story of a guy who has lived 100,000 moments and you don't need to photograph them and you don't need to remember them for that to be important. I often wonder if by measuring our lives by the highest highs, we invite lower lows,” Nelson said.
He closed with an argument about the significance of those forgetful moments.
“If you're doing nothing, or you don't have a Studebaker talk to give … I just want you to know if it feels like nothing, nothing matters,” Nelson said.
Fourth on the stage was South Bend native Benjamin Futa of Botany, a plant store in northwest South Bend. Futa discussed the importance of access to plants, his years directing the garden at the University of Madison-Wisconsin as well as Botany’s work to build a public garden next to their store.
“I was born and grew up in South Bend. I went to grade school downtown and on my way to school every single morning, we would pass these vacant decaying buildings and a downtown that has really struggled to rediscover and redefine what it wanted to be,” he recalled.
Those vacant lots and abandoned buildings are an opportunity for hope, according to Futa.
“So if you think about going to a normal public garden, you drive, you park, you pay the admission. You walk through a series of rooms — the rose garden, the herb garden — that tell stories. South Bend, though, has a series of rooms which are spread all across the city. Our front yards, our vacant lots, our alleyways, the nooks and crannies, the crevices, all of the in-between spaces that we haven't quite figured out what to do with,” he said.
Futa said that plants and public gardens are the way to utilize that space.
“I believe great cities need and deserve public gardens because they reconnect us to one another and because they reconnect us to the natural world,” he said.
Fifth, Jeff Walker of Life Outside Reentry Assistance, a nonprofit to help formerly incarcerated men and women resume life in South Bend, spoke. Walking onto stage, Walker peeled off his gray suit jacket to reveal a black t-shirt with the words “From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration.”
Walker spoke about the barriers to community for people returning from time in jail, including difficulty finding employment, bureaucratic hurdles to jump through and social stigma.
“Returning citizens are the most marginalized and vulnerable people in our community. So what can we do? We can bring them in from the margins, to the center of our community. We can give them a helping hand. We can all walk alongside them throughout this journey. And we can open doors for them,” Walker said.
He made a plea to employers and landlords to look beyond background checks and get to know former convicts as individuals “beyond this piece of paper.”
“We can help just by smiling, just by a conversation. Your presence in a returning citizen's life can go a long way because returning citizens coming back to the South Bend community. They aren't different than us. They aren't even just like us. They are us,” Walker said.
Finally, Caitlin Hubbard of the yoga studio Bend Yoga, spoke. Hubbard opened her studio at the end of February 2020, seeking a community around yoga that had not previously existed in the city, while adjusting to moving to South Bend and learning her mother was dying of cancer.
“Every restaurant I tried, every volunteer project I pursued, every gray and cloudy day left me feeling dissatisfied and stewing in my own unhappiness. I didn't have anywhere to go to do some yoga to help me deal with all this,” she said.
Though the pandemic changed her business’s trajectory and offered a new challenge to Hubbard’s fledgling studio, she said there was something different about the grief she now experienced.
“But this time I wasn't alone in those feelings. There was a communal sense of loss, and of loneliness and fear,” she recalled. “As we slowly started to emerge from our houses, some people came back to yoga and they looked sad and they looked scared. But after yoga, they looked a little bit better.”
To Hubbard’s eyes, the absence of a yoga studio in South Bend on her arrival was initially a challenge. But it did not remain that way.
“I now try to see absence as an opportunity,” she said. “I invite you to consider: what does the city need that you can offer?” she asked the audience.
Contact Isa Shekih at email@example.com