Monday, February 28, 2011

Beyond The Story: Part Two: Responding With Collaboration and Hope

See the post below for part one of this three part essay that goes deeper into our experience...

2. The Collaborative Response: Why and How?
Into the world of fragmentation, against the status quo, there have always been a few in our Far North area living and working against the grain of the culture. Starting a community association, or a local small business, or working within the parks or school system to be a voice for community, or just choosing not to move. When we began operating A Third Place Community Center and Foundation in 2007, there were people ready for a catalyst just about of any sort. I am not sure any were used to our kind of radical collaboration though. For the first thing we did, as an act of building trust and vulnerability, which are the key foundations of collaboration, was to collaborate with strangers, to turn our newly rented building and space over to neighbors whom we barely knew.

We few residents who created the center, created a library and computer center and clothing room and food pantry and community gathering and meeting space and meals out of our own combined resources. And we said come and take what you need, no questions asked, and leave what you can to help us support what we do. To help us make the rent and utilities most months. No one gets paid. We put it all into operations. We want to be broke at the end of the month, like most of our neighbors. We trust that we will have enough to go around. And we trusted people with keys. We had our bumps and our welcoming and safe and civil space culture to protect in its fragile stage, and still do, but we began by a radical openness to collaboration, even if you had a not so good reputation, even if you were just out of jail, even if you were homeless, even if you had a very different religious or political persuasion than we did. That is the mission of Third Places; vital to our lives are not only first places like homes, or second places like jobs or affinity groups or churches where we gather along some designated lines, but we need those third places of real trusting radical community where diversity can flourish and authentic community can find roots and begin to grow again.

With that culture beginning to be seeded, we began to collaborate with the University of Oklahoma. First to bring in health care providers. Then with the Social Work department, which had helped to bring in the health care providers, we began to collaborate on some of the Center’s mission to help bring residents together and in a safe space and structured way (which was unique for most in their experience with community gatherings here) for them to listen to one another and lament and to hope and to plan and to share ideas and resources. From these we began collaborating each semester with different classes working in different areas on the topics of interest that had emerged from the grassroots meetings: abandoned properties, blighted neighborhoods, food insecurity, poor health, fear of crime, youth needs, job needs, stray and wild animals, better schools and support for our schools and for our local groups. We began to see the overlap in many of those areas, resulting in one of our collaborative projects, The WelcomeTable Community GardenKitchenPark project where we, residents and social work students, identified abandoned homes in a block, purchased the block, and have a design thanks to OU Graduate Design Studio, for how to create a kind of outdoors A Third Place Center that can be beautiful, inspire community events, grow relationships through food production, and more.

Through first our collaboration with one another, with radical trust and vulnerability, which means we know we will fail each other and have our hearts broken, but will try again and show up with one another again;., this led to our second collaboration with OU and some of its varying disciplines and departments, and I know we could collaborate with so many more OU departments and classes that have a connection between their fields and the areas of our service; and this collaboration led to our third level of collaboration, our wider sphere, as we began to meet with other individuals and groups throughout our Far North area, what has been called From TU to Turley area, with community coalition meetings, with joint projects like the McLain High School initiative, the Food For Life initiative of the Indian Health Care Resource Center, and with other partners small and large who have a dream for making life better for our residents by growing the spirit of community and making it real through real collaborations.

Which has led us, after just three years, into our next phase where we will create a house for these collaborations, a house for hope itself. We are in the process of buying that old abandoned Turley Methodist building that has stood at the center of our part of Far North Tulsa since it was constructed in the 1920s. We are doing so, I am pleased to say particularly here and with you all, with the kind and generous help of the Anne and Henry Zarrow Foundation. It will allow us to expand three times our current size. Our vision is that one third of it will be a Community Academy space, a hub especially for new visions of community health and nutrition, a place for classrooms and group clinics, a specialty library, for partners like OU and many others to do service learning in the neighborhoods of most need, to connect their students with our residents for the mutual transformation of both. Another one third of the space will be a Community Center with many of our current services plus an expanded Food Justice Focus, and one third of it will be a place, a quiet chapel, for individual and group meditation and prayer and spiritual renewal. And an adjacent building will be a Center for Community Gardening and Sustainability. And someday in many rooms in the basement we hope to provide spaces for people to sojourn with us temporarily as they serve with us at the center and out in the community. Our vision is also that even this new bigger building won’t be the end, just as the outdoor garden park won’t be the end, but that all across our area, in what we call our Four Directions Initiative, we will find a diversity of ways to create “third places” in every neighborhood.

The social fragmentation described at the beginning of my talk was the byproduct of the abandonment of institutions and neighborhoods in our area, along with the general cultural changes of wider society, in the last few decades of the 20th century. In these first decades of the 21st century, to change that, we can’t jump straight to bringing back or recreating new institutions and thriving healthy neighborhoods in our area. We must first address the result of social and community fragmentation, isolation, fear and mistrust of one another, and of others, especially in ethnic relationships. And only then can we have the soil full of life in which all the surface level things like businesses and civic groups can grow. I have often said that it will do no good to have an official incorporated town for Turley unless the values of community, of collaboration, are what first are incorporated.

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