WE NEED MORE SPACE

Monika Grasley–Lifeline CDC of Merced County

That is what I keep hearing when I coach folks at a community center… and I love the nagging. :-)   Over the last few months the community is coming together to make things happen… all out of a small (1300sf) community center.

Outside it is sweltering hot with over 100 degrees and not safe due to gang and drug violence (at least for now), but inside is another story.  People from all races, ages and economic groups come together to create a better neighborhood.

In this town there are no playgrounds, no swimming pools, no camps … so they do it themselves!  Community members created a leadership team and together they planned out the summer:  tie dye shirts out of donated packages of Easter egg coloring and old t-shirts,  signing up for library cards and participating in the “Dream Big: Read” program, making crafts projects, having water balloon games, and reading are just some of the ways they are enjoying each other’s ‘gifts.’  The participants are learning to eat healthier snacks through a partnership with the County Human Service Agency, they have Boswick the Clown come visit through a partnership with the library, they are planting a small garden taught by a community member, and they go to the movies.

This community center is transforming! There is not only the “Kid’s Time”, but there are computer classes for seniors, ESL classes, and people using the computers to look for jobs and update their resumes. People are sharing their knowledge and referring each other to organizations to take care of some needs. A Spanish Church calls it their home, a NA group meets twice a week, and a Community Bible Study is there during lunch. There are partnerships with groups, and groups using the facility. The community center is a common place, a place of conversation, a place of sharing, a place of belonging.  What started out 5 years ago as a weekly food give-away is becoming a place where people listen to each other, hear one another’s stories, and help each other out.

More exciting for me though are the deeper questions that are starting to be asked: Who is the new chain store employing? Are these local people? Do they sell fresh local fruits and vegetables? Why do we not have a bank in town and how do we get one? How do we work with the police to get rid of the gangs? These are the questions that tell me that a community is changing. The questions are not about personal comfort, not about ‘what do I get out of it’, not about individual issues only, but about justice issues: local employment opportunities, fresh local groceries, equal access to resources. It is about the systemic issues that need to be addressed.

When we talk about community transformation in the Asset Based Community Development framework  we need to talk about systemic change. I don’t think that it is possible to have individuals change without it affecting the whole community.  But if you get enough people to make small choices acting on the things they care about you will notice change within the community. When individuals change and have access to more resources (by building relationships, exchanging gifts and skills with each other) then they are more likely to look at the bigger issues: Why do they not have access to healthier foods? Why is the library not open more hours? Why do the police not respond to calls? Why is there no employment in town?

So when people want more space… we will look for more space… because people are dreaming big: a place to exercise, have classes (GED, literacy, Bible, ESL), designated reading areas for kids, and so much more. As we work in partnerships with schools, groups, churches and other non-profits we know we are all struggling for funds to make it happen… but a recent $20,000 gift for a stipend for a community member to keep the center open longer is a good start.  :-)

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