New York transplant Malik Benjamin was sitting on a bench outside of Downtown Miami’s Soya y Pomodoro when he made the decision to stay in Miami for good. “People keep talking about how Miami is going to change — but it’s happening now, and we need you,” his friends urged. And since then, he’s been a pivotal part of that change.
Benjamin is the managing director of the Institute of Collaborative Innovation LLC and director of program innovation at the Florida International University School of Architecture. He’s also on the board of a number of community-based organizations, including Awesome Foundation Miami, Dance Now! Miami, and Opa-Locka Community Development Corporation, among countless others.
It may be hard to find him, as he’s often running around the city — from filming videos on the roof of the New World Symphony to visiting his pet eagle at the Miami Science Museum. One thing is certain — on the third Friday morning of every month, Benjamin can be found hosting CreativeMornings, part of a national movement that draws local creatives in one place to listen and learn from each other.
How did you start leading CreativeMornings?
I was working with The Awesome Foundation when I met Wifredo Fernandez and we decided to start making trouble together. I also knew Bruce Pinchbeck [current VP of creative at The New Tropic] was awesome with a camera and I asked him if he would help us film a video application for CreativeMornings. There were 17 other applications in the running, but ours was totally different. We started out at The Lab Miami, and ended up on the roof of the New World Symphony. Bruce rode around on his bike and we filmed the 2-minute video answering the question: Why should Miami should have a CreativeMornings?
Why do you think they picked you?
Well, when we got notice that they wanted to do an interview, I happened to be in New York, so I just walked right into the office. We hit it off, and I was just saying a bunch of crazy things about breaking silos, creating collisions and how crashing into each other literally creates creativity. For our video, Bruce did a full on production, we almost did a micro-movie. We even changed outfits once or twice to be stupid. One thing they noted about our video is that we didn’t feature the Wynwood Walls. Everyone else kept talking about these walls and we were the first ones that were like forget these walls. We didn’t mention them once. We thought that was old news — tech, startups, and innovative companies were the real deal.
How much time does the monthly event take out of your day?
On paper it takes about 2 hours a week, but it permeates literally everything in my world. It’s most directly attached to my city sciences research at FIU. In terms of curating speakers and themes, we have a long excel list of names, and a volunteer team of about 10. We’re super efficient — we use google docs for everything.
What do you do when you’re not hosting CreativeMornings?
For two days a week, I’m a thesis professor at FIU. We study cities and the things that make a city an organism. We talk about the life science of a city and how you can tell if its vibrant or dying. We talk about creativity, innovation, and culture. I also have a design firm where we research and design various things, with a focus on architecture and urban design. But we also do some random things — like I’ll go buy a drone, and tell the team I’m going to attach a camera to the drone.
What’s been your favorite CreativeMornings so far?
P. Scott Cunningham from O, Miami was the first one. Scott started talking and it felt like I was watching someone pitch a no hitter. I thought he was turning the whole room into the O, Miami Office of Poetic Experience. CreativeMornings has a national podcast now, and I think that this is the one that’s going to make it there. Nathaniel Sandler also had a pretty great moment because his parents were there, and at that show, I realized the whole room knew Nathaniel. The New Tropic was also great because there was so much community and it was a place where people could air their grievances. It was a moment where Miamians could come together and talk about what they did and did not like. It’s just getting smart people in the room — I want more of that for everyone.
Do you think this event is changing the city?
It’s not changing anything yet. Right now it’s about trying to gather everyone into one place. Right now there’s a set ecosystem and a hierarchy. We believe Miami can have a healthy ecosystem if the hierarchy is broken up. We have at least 2,000 creatives who have decided they want to listen to us and at least 1,000 people who are truly engaged. There are institutions who wanted CreativeMornings to be a part of their programming, but we don’t want it to be in one place — we think it should mix the city up and try to go further and further out.
How does Miami’s city design impact the event?
Places like Chicago and New York don’t really have the same problems we do in Miami, because our problem is really transit. We have our event during rush hour. So, I’m always looking a the flow of traffic and trying to figure out how many people will come given the traffic. The difference between two blocks can change everything. For example, we wanted to have an event at the Japanese Gardens in Miami, but instead we did it at The Lab. My real dream is to end up at the Miami Zoo.
What’s something most people don’t know about you?
I have a pet eagle named George. And it’s a girl. The Miami Science Museum is keeping it for me, because it’s illegal to have a pet eagle, but it’s my eagle.