Kristy Wallace is an AmeriCorp member serving in the West Coconut Grove Community in Miami, Fl. She arrived in Miami in 2009 from Virginia by way of Chicago to become part of the Urban Resurrection team. She grew up in an Air Force household on a military base where she first learned the value of community living. She truly believes in the work that Urban Resurrection is doing in the West Coconut Grove community and feels privileged to be a part of the community there. I coach and mentor Kristy on Community Development and Community Organizing. Community Development is often referred to as both an Art and a Science, and the best community developers are those that strike a good balance in these two “seemingly” polar opposites. The “Art” form is in the ability to create and maintain caring individual relationships. The “Science’ is in seeking or creating opportunities for the individual relationships to transform or mature into “communal” relationships; where visions and desires for a better community life can begin to take shape. As I continue to coach and mentor Kristy I can see how she strives to find that balance. The following story is a glimpse of how she’s doing that in her neighborhood.
Bring on the crowds…
Back in November, our home hosted a barbeque and movie night in our backyard. We left a flyer with every home on our street and the surrounding streets inviting them to participate and contribute to the event. We were blown away as each and every person that we spoke with expressed excitement at the idea of bringing together all of the neighbors for such an event. The week before the big event, we eagerly prepared our home and reminded neighbors as we came in contact with them. On the day of the event, we set out the tables, fired up the grill, put on the music, opened the gate, and waited for the crowds to arrive. Well … although we had some of our neighbors show, the crowds never arrived. The day wasn’t a waste but it was not what we expected.
Fast forward three months…
Over the Christmas holiday, I made door-to-door deliveries of homemade cookies to neighbors. Although this activity was of a much smaller scale than our first attempt at connecting with neighbors, it proved to be effective. In following weeks, there were many inquiries about the next batch of cookies and even offers to purchase ingredients to expedite the process. I’ll never forget the day “Cliff” came up to the car as we drove by with excitement in his voice and said, “I got the chocolate chips!” Who would have thought that young men hanging on the corner until the wee hours of the morning would be so interested in homemade cookies?
The cookies broke the ice leading to conversation among our neighbors about ways in which we could gather together as a community. Although we were invited, Elaina and I were not going to hang on the corner drinking with the fellas every weekend; we needed a different venue that would be appropriate for all ages. The solution… old school “Sunday Dinner” like grandma used to do. We come together every week at our home to share a meal in which each neighbor has mutually contributed to the planning and preparation.
Sunday Dinners have carried on for about seven weeks now. Each week, dinner looks a little different; one week it might be good conversation over plates of spaghetti, the next it might be an engaging movie with a helping of chili, and the next week might be intense card games with a side of tender ribs covered in barbeque sauce. What I see at our dinners is that neighbors look after one another’s children, serve each other plates of food to ensure everyone has enough, and clean up after one another so the burden is not on a select few. No only are they…no…we caring for one another in the most basic ways, but every interaction from meal preparation to table set up to meal clean up has become an opportunity to engage in meaningful conversation about transformation of our community.
During our most recent dinner, we first filled their bellies then focused our attention on the task of planning the upcoming “Easter Sunday Dinner”. Each neighbor expressed a desire to make this dinner extra special with a traditional meal and fun activities for the kids. Facilitating this planning process was a lot of fun where I was able to see the gifts, talents, and interests of each neighbor come out as we discussed the roles they would play in making the dinner a success. We got Cliff and “Nathan” on the kids’ games, “Kevin” and Cliff on the egg decorating, Elaina and Erika on the meats, Asquith and Lu on the potatoes/sweet potatoes, and so forth.
In the midst of our planning, there was a side conversation being carried on which quickly became a loud debate. Back and forth each party passionately made their point. When the volume came down and the discussion was over, it was clear that the love remained. Sunday Dinners have actually become a place of honest discussion, familial security, and unconditional love. That’s what I’m talking’ ‘bout!
By Kristi Wallace-AmeriCorp Member Miami, Fl