Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Bursting the Bubble: Part II

I sat at my desk and stared at a wall and wondered how I was supposed to breathe life into the Family Resource Center.  How was I going to turn this vacant-for-seven-years building into an integral, thriving part of this community?  I sat there for the rest of the day.

I sat there for the next three days too.

On the fourth day, I decided to take a walk.  I'd grown up just a few miles from this neighborhood and I'd driven by it dozens of times.  I'd just never driven through it.  I'd never taken a good look at it. Honestly, I had no idea what was here.

It is a geographically small area, only a couple blocks  or so.  The neighborhood is bordered by a small community school on one side and a magnet school on the other.  Children in the neighborhood attend the community school, unless they are selected, by lottery,  to attend the magnet school.  Next to the magnet school is the YMCA.  There are convenience stores and check cashing businesses.  There is a diner type restaurant that serves a variety of food and a very small, intimate restaurant consisting of just a handful of tables that serves up made-from-scratch Puerto Rican food.  There are churches and a soup kitchen.  

The neighborhood demographic is largely southeast Asian and Puerto Rican.  Most residents are at or below the poverty line.  Many are unemployed and receive public assistance.  Most of those who do have work, work at low wage jobs.  Drugs are prevalent.  

During that week when my boss was in Paris, I walked the neighborhood each day.  I'd return the the Center and take out my notebook and jot down ideas.  It was easy to see what the problems were.  Trying to fix them wasn't.  

My boss finally returned and sat down with me.
"It isn't your job to fix anything. You can't do that.  Your job is to find out what the people want and need.  Your job is to help the YMCA build a relationship with the people, with their schools, with their community," she told me. "You can't walk in out of nowhere and presume to know what they need."

"Get to know the people before you do anything," she said.  "Find out what they want, not what you think they need. Don't speak.  Listen." She gave me a list of local community groups and steering committees and dates they met.  She told me to attend the meetings. She told me to get involved with the schools, with the churches, the soup kitchen.

She then told me she hired two Outreach Workers for my team. This made me panic slightly since I had no idea what to do with myself, let alone two new workers.
The first woman quit after a week on the job.

The second was a single mother with four children.  She'd been through some difficult times and was  excited about this new job opportunity.  She was calm and quiet and kind.  She'd faced some of the challenges the people in the community were facing and they could relate to her.  She had their immediate respect and I liked her the moment I met her. 

We hired another Outreach Worker to replace the first.  This woman was an accidental find.  She had applied for a different position, but knew immediately she was the perfect for this job.  She was young and fresh and vibrant.  She was full of ideas, talked way too much and had an impossibly positive attitude. She was in the US from Kenya, Africa  studying International Program Development at the local university.  She'd done work with the Peace Corps and other major organizations.

The first time I walked the neighborhood with her, she was shocked.
"This is a poor area?" she asked.
"Yes, " I told her. "One of the poorest in the city."

She told me about children in Kenya who walked to school with pieces of cardboard tied to their feet because they had no shoes.  She spoke of children who could not afford proper clothing and therefor were not allowed to attend school.  She talked about children who went without food and pointed to the soup kitchen and said, "This is not poor."

She'd seen far worse and while she had empathy and compassion, she did not feel sorry for the people living in this area. She spoke her mind and told the people so.  She intrigued them and they adored her.

So there we were.  Three intelligent, creative, compassionate women and one large and inviting building.  Now we were to create a Family Resource Center.

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