The Dream Cube: Art for Social Impact

The Dream Cube, a monolithic structure constructed of pillows piled 8-feet high, popped up in downtown Des Moines late last fall. The provocative piece sparked conversations about the potential of our youth—if they have a safe place to dream.

What place does a soft, white pillow have against cold concrete?

The Dream Cube, a monolithic structure constructed of pillows piled 8-feet high, popped up in downtown Des Moines late last fall. The provocative piece sparked conversations about the potential of our youth—if they have a safe place to dream. 

Developed by artist Kub Stevens and youth who’ve experienced homelessness, the installation called on the community to see youth as humans with strengths and hope for the future. When the community invests in their comfort and safety and values them as people, they can add to the vibrancy and success of our region. 

The jarring contrast of a soft white pillow on cold, grey concrete invited the viewer to see the issue and not turn away. It’s the unique ability of art to spark dialogue on critical community issues that inspired Mid-Iowa Health Foundation to invest in the project alongside other funders.

As one youth expressed: “Believe me and listen to what I have to say.” 

“Pillows stand as a physical representation of what's needed in order to dream. You don’t have dreams if you don't have a safe place to sleep. You can’t dream of a better future if you don't have a safe today, a safe place to call your own right now." – Kub Stevens, artist

Youth Homelessness

The Dream Cube imagines a community where all young people have a safe home. 

Yet, more than 700 youth ages 18-24 were served in Polk County’s homeless system in 2019. Youth of color and those who are LGBTQ+ are disproportionately represented in this number. The pandemic has heightened the challenges youth are experiencing as many are isolated from places of support and are living in increasingly stressful family situations. 

Racism, unstable housing, low wages, stigma around mental health, bias against LGBTQ+ individuals, abuse in homes, and lack of access to services and opportunities are all factors, often created by systems and policies, that can lead to homelessness.

Efforts to end youth homelessness in Greater Des Moines is at a tipping point. A nearly $2 million grant from HUD is supporting planning and implementation of strategies identified by more than 40 organizations and the Youth Action Council, a group comprised of youth who’ve experienced homelessness.

Using art, the youth were given a platform to be heard and to elevate the issue of homelessness in a unique way, challenging our community to listen. 

“If our youth don’t have a safe home to dream at night, we are failing them as a community. This project was about having our youth tell us what they need to thrive.”  – Suzanne Mineck, president and CEO, Mid-Iowa Health Foundation

Art for Action

Art has the unique ability to connect us to each other and our environments. It generates the creative friction needed to understand issues in new and differing ways.

The Dream Cube was not intended to expand knowledge on the issue of youth homelessness Rather, it heightened visibility of work underway and stirred emotions to inspire greater community engagement. 

“Art enables us to see complex issues through new lenses, and with this project, we wanted to give our youth a platform to be heard. We hope this will be the first of many projects that align the power of art to accelerate progress toward our civic goals and to create social benefit in our region.” – Sally Dix, executive director, BRAVO Greater Des Moines

Youth Perspectives

Michael Ghost

Reflecting on the Dream Cube, Michael Ghost emphasizes the importance of working together to solve our challenges. 

His parents divorced when he was young and the turmoil at home caused him to become distracted in school and pick fights. Fearing being placed in the child welfare system and mental health institutions, he fled to homeless camps and found a community that worked together to survive. With the help of Iowa Homeless Youth Centers, he eventually secured an apartment with Anawim Housing where he works part time, in addition to serving on the Youth Action Council. 

“If people start to realize there are people hurting inside your own community and we are simply human beings,” he says, “we can make a better lifestyle and work out our differences.”

Davossi Wisdom

An artist and father, Davossi Wisdom has been inspired by the Dream Cube project and the role he can play in the community. “I hopped on because I wanted to put inspiration into this project, because I’ve been through it,” he says. 

Wisdom was kicked out of his adoptive parents’ home when he was 18 years old and spent some time on the streets, but mostly, he found houses where he could crash with the wrong crowd. When he found out he was going to be a father, he began to make changes that led to

"I don’t want anyone to have to sleep on the streets alone or with guns under their pillows," Wisdom says. "That’s not a life. If I can stop homelessness or have an impact on it, I’m good."

His hope is that the Dream Cube brought smiles to people’s faces and inspired them to not judge those who live on the street. 

The Process

In its 2019-21 strategic plan, BRAVO Greater Des Moines set out to amplify connections between arts and regional priorities. Thinking about what this would look like, Sally presented an idea to Suzanne about how art could accelerate action on addressing a children's health issue. The conversation led to a project that took shape in the following steps:  

Identifying the Issue

Among many complex issues needing community attention, Sally and Suzanne identified the issue of youth homelessness because of the collaborative efforts underway to address it, but the lack of visibility of those efforts. The organizers believed that art could push this work to the tipping point needed for significant change to occur. 

Planning

Group Creative Services was hired because of its unique role in facilitating art projects that advance civic discourse. Consultants Teva Dawson and Mat Greiner developed the request for proposals for artists and facilitated the process needed to bring the project to fruition. 

Organizers sought additional funding to support the project. They also invited leaders who are coordinating efforts to address youth homelessness to provide input into the artist selection and the call to action and to support youth involved in the project’s creation. Many representatives coalesced around a shared vision that came together quickly. The timeline from interviewing artists to project completion was three months. 

Engaging Youth

At the center of this collaboration was the belief that youth needed to drive this project. The Youth Action Council helped interview potential artists and informed how the project developed at every stage. When the Dream Cube was publicly displayed, the youth presented the work to the community.

Selecting the Artists

Stevens’ proposal won over several proposals developed by internationally acclaimed artists. Stevens is a recording poet, recording artist, and placemaker who focuses on the communal properties of art as tools to fight local social injustices, utilizing projects to bring people together and strengthen interdependent ties. Never homeless himself, Stevens witnessed the difficulties of living without home and security through the experience of loved ones and close relatives. 

This was Stevens' first major public project working with several stakeholders. He had the initial idea of developing a structure out of pillows and then engaged the youth in deciding what form the pillow structure would take and the message it would represent. 

“I appreciate how it came together to make the best environment for the project possible.” – Kub Stevens 

Taylor Carlson, an illustrator and professor living in Ames, helped illustrate the message the youth wanted to convey about the structure. Her work focuses on graphic novels and comic books with the goal of “wanting children to feel equipped to face the dragons in their lives, no matter what shape those dragons take, and no matter whose faces they wear.”

Prototyping

Stevens began meeting with youth weekly to get feedback on concepts and to test what the structure would look like. They gathered outside of the Des Moines Public Library or at the Iowa Homeless Youth Centers downtown. Carlson led a session with the youth to translate what they had experienced to a message for the community and together they landed on three panels that represented comfort, safety, and dreams. 

Launching

The concept developed into a tall cube built with pillows stacked onto steel poles and placed together. The planners chose three visible downtown locations to temporarily install the structure in late October. Estuary Motion produced a video teasing the project before it was installed and capturing the project afterward to increase reach. The artistic nature of the video invited viewers to experience what the project conveyed and to connect with the youth.

The Dream Cube

The 8-foot tall cube was installed for 12 hours at three different locations from October 29-31: Wellmark YMCA, DART Central Station, and Cowles Commons. Each day, the structure changed to reflect the environment and as pillows were given away to individuals on the street. By the last day, the cube looked more like a fort with a white flag sticking out from the top. 

The youth decided what changes they wanted to make in each moment. “It shows what youth can do when they have the tools and resources,” says Stevens. 

Graphic illustrations and messages on the sides of the cube featured youth sleeping next to a dumpster, in a tent, and on a couch in a home. The words on the panels emphasized youth’s needs to seek comfort, safety, and dreams.

A launch event brought media and a larger crowd involved in the project to the YMCA location. The youth presented the Dream Cube to those who stopped by and talked about what it meant.

"The art came to life when you heard youth tell their stories and show pride in their future," Mineck said.

Many people drove by and saw the sculpture. The most foot traffic was at the Wellmark YMCA and DART Central Station. More than 100 pillows were given away at DART. 

Comments about the installation were mostly positive from individuals curious about the structure, but one person asked why pillows were being given away when homeless individuals were being discouraged from sleeping in the space. This created an opportunity for conversation.  

“This was not as much a call to action as it was to impact how people felt and to start to shift perspectives,” says Greiner, pointing out that the website and videos created to capture the project steered people toward more information. “This installation was about widening perspectives on the issue.” 

As stated by the youth on the Dream Cube: “We don’t win or lose. We win and learn.”

Impact

The planners of the project believe the real impact was building understanding, empathy, and community responsibility to support youth. The youth expressed a strong desire to not be judged for living on the streets and to be seen as humans. 

“The call to action was to start to see folks as human beings and then decide what is it that I need to be doing differently to show my humanity to people and to think differently about what I say about people who are homeless. What are my stereotypes about those people?” – Andrea Dencklau, consultant and one of the project’s planners

One comment on a post-project survey noted: “The pillows contrasted with the environment in the street were visually impactful and led to curiosity on the part of those who viewed the cube in-person or through social or traditional media.”

Emails to partners, social media posts featuring video and photos, and media coverage of the project generated greater interest beyond those who visited in person:  

  • The following media covered the project: Des Moines Register, Business Record, Channel 5 News. 
  • Iowa Homeless Youth Centers noted that its Facebook posts had an organic reach of 3-4 times more than what the organization would see on a typical well-performing post. 

Organizers noted an increase in conversations among their board members and networks.  

The work built strong relationships with the managers of the downtown locations. DART and the YMCA promoted the project on their pages and the YMCA staff offered to host an installation inside their building in the future. 

The biggest impact noted was the youth’s ownership of the project and how it gave them an opportunity to express their experiences in an organic and authentic way. 

“To end homelessness, we have to listen to people with lived experience and let their voices guide the way. This project successfully placed young people in the driver’s seat (in partnership with Kub and the community) to express their advocacy through art. Youth were truly engaged in the process and really proud of the results.”  – Abbey Barrow, Youth Homeless Demonstration Program Coordinator, Polk County Continuum of Care
“This project was so great to see how the youth could utilize their skills and strengths in such a unique way. You could see the excitement and passion for the project throughout—even how they engaged and motivated others to get involved in the project!” – Elizabeth Patten, Youth Opportunity Center Program Manager, Iowa Homeless Youth Centers

Lessons Learned

The organizers met shortly after the installation to reflect on the experience. A few lessons from this project include: 

Authentic engagement

A commitment to authentically collaborate with youth takes time and planning but leads to a more meaningful project than holding one focus group for input or looking at data. The organizers acknowledged the importance of Stevens’ dedication to this process. 

Carlson noted that she had to learn how to sit back and let the youth have more of a voice. "I don’t think we would have created something as successful if we hadn’t done that," she says.


Call to Action

The call to action for those who experienced the Dream Cube was difficult to make tangible. Discussion on the call to action led to an understanding that the goals for this kind of project are different than other efforts. This project became more about seeing homeless individuals as people with strengths to contribute and less about asking people to do something specifically. The PolkCares.org website was offered as a place to dive deeper into specific actions people could take. 

Timeline for promotion

The project had to come together very quickly and evolve with the youth’s participation, but some of the promotion was more limited as a result. The organizers recognized that bringing in the messaging and promotion plan earlier in the process could expand the reach.  

Next Steps

Sometimes comfort is simply feather-soft
And hope is a smile.
But if you look away,
How will they dream?  


The work to address youth homelessness continues as local partners implement the action plan and the Youth Action Council advocates for changes. BRAVO Greater Des Moines will continue to identify opportunities to use art to advance regional priorities. 

Your Call to Action

As you experience this project, we hope you begin to ask questions, including where we invest our dollars and how can we ensure youth have the support and opportunities to contribute to our community. 

Are you okay with people living on the street? Is this what we’re about? What is our community response to that?

Thank you to the partners who made this project possible:  

  • The Youth Action Council
  • Lead artist:  Kub Stevens
  • Illustrator: Taylor Carlson
  • Lead investors: BRAVO Greater Des Moines and Mid-Iowa Health Foundation
  • Project Leader: Group Creative Services
  • Supporting Organizations: Polk County Continuum of Care, Iowa Homeless Youth Centers
  • Supporting Investors: Capital Crossroads, Community Foundation of Greater Des Moines, Iowa Arts Council

The Dream Cube, a monolithic structure constructed of pillows piled 8-feet high, popped up in downtown Des Moines late last fall. The provocative piece sparked conversations about the potential of our youth—if they have a safe place to dream.

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