Let me share with you a story of a village, a town, a city within a city (Martin, 1978). This is the story of a group of people removed from their ancestral lands finding their way in a new land. It is an account of the power of working together as human beings to create a sense of community.
In September of 2012, as a graduate student, I was searching for a capstone project, a professional development activity where I could apply all I had learned in my graduate program at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs. I came across a class on community engagement, which immediately caught my attention. It was an opportunity to work in the Cedar Riverside community, which is nestled within the West Bank of the University of Minnesota. For much of my time living in the Twin Cities, the colorful towering buildings, the bounty of arts organizations, and most of all the people interacting there, intrigued me. On any given day it is not uncommon to find yourself amongst university students, small business owners, Somali women wearing flowing dresses, community elders, and counter-culture types. To an outsider, this neighborhood seemed filled with diverse people and perspectives; a place ripe for community engagement work.
A capstone project can be a required academic exercise with clear purpose but without much soul. This is far from what I wanted to experience and even further from what most communities want. Institutions often have a reputation of coming into communities, doing their research, and exiting without leaving much behind. Doing work in community requires more than that. It would be arrogant, and perhaps naïve, to think that one can come in and become part of the community. It is important to strive to have a relationship that will allow for good, honest collaboration.
There is an important distinction to be made between working in the community and working in community. Though subtle in syntax, the real life application is vastly different. While one implies them and us with all the assumptions that it carries, the other denotes collaboration and partnership. As people affiliated to a large anchor institution, the University of Minnesota, many of us come in to the communities we work in with the first mindset. Whether it is part of our research or our application of theory, it is a task to be done as part of our work. Working in community is bigger than that. It is a worldview. One that allows us to humbly come in to a community other than our own to learn from those with whom we collaborate.
Working in Cedar Riverside has been an amazing experience. Through its Cedar-Humphrey Action for Neighborhood Collaborative Engagement (CHANCE) initiative the Humphrey School of Public Affairs offers the opportunity for students to come into the neighborhood and work with community partners on a specific project. This project is designed by the students with the guidance of faculty and presented to a community forum. At this forum community members and CHANCE participants come together to discuss the proposed projects. By the end of the night the community votes for projects they would like to see developed during the next four months. Later, students pick the project they feel they can contribute and connect to. This is how this journey started.
After selecting the project—Library Resources in Cedar Riverside—it was time to look into who could be our potential community partners. Given the interest demonstrated in the project, their leadership in the neighborhood and the relationships that had already been started, our capstone team invited the West Bank Community Coalition (WBCC) and the Riverside Plaza Tenants Association (RPTA), and they accepted! We set up weekly meetings to start the project. During our meetings we came together as a team, attempting to understand where each of us stood, clarifying assumptions we might hold of one another, and striving to understand the community we were hoping to serve. After a month the standing joke was we had two meetings in one: the first hour we talked about logistics, analyzed potential next steps, and divided up tasks; the second half of the meeting, we shared lessons from our cultures, our experiences, and our stories. This is when the real relationship building happened. Beyond the labels given by affiliation, nationality, or immigration status, these were conversations about our humanity; strengths and failures, hopes and dreams. It was the connecting thread that allowed us to do our work more effectively, with greater clarity of purpose.
For several months we had attended meetings hosted by different organizations in the community. As a class, we had researched on the neighborhood’s history, demographics, crime rates and more. It became clear there were a series of efforts that would improve the neighborhood: beautifying the sidewalks and streets, improving housing structures, expanding communal spaces, and the list went on. As important as gaining context was, we were still missing a critical piece: What is the greater longing in the community, the need? Well, there was no library in Cedar Riverside but people wanted to be able to access the services that public libraries provide… so that must be the need. Right? We set our focus on the task at hand: identify literacy-related needs, identify library resources available to the community, and fill any gaps with recommendations of potential partnerships.
It all seemed fairly straightforward. We would invite people to share their opinion, then analyze the data gathered and propose recommendations. Then came the moment of realization. At a team meeting, as we discussed the logistics of recruiting people to community conversations, one of our community partners said, “You know, what we need to give this community is hope.” A bit stunned and very curious, I wanted to know more. He went on to say, “The people who live in this neighborhood are trying to make it work; they are surviving. This project can help them focus on the future.” That is when it became crystal clear that the greater longing was for members of the community to move from a place of survival to a place where they could thrive. In order to do this, we needed to build a sense of communal pride and hope for future possibilities.
The team decided to hold community conversations, open to anyone interested in participating. We intentionally chose to use Circle Process, where everyone at the meeting sits in a circle, including the facilitator, taking turns to respectfully listen to each other. This would allow all those present to be seen and heard. The invitation would be simple: “We are interested in hearing what you have to say, your voice matters.” The location needed to be convenient—walking distance from homes and businesses (after all, this was Minnesota in the dead of winter). To ensure that we would be attracting people from different areas within the neighborhood, the locations would vary. Personal invitations, emails, radio announcements, and flyers went out. Considerations were made for cultural norms, such as prayer time. Everything was in place. We were ready for our first group.
The first group meeting took place at Brian Coyle Community Center. Many frequent it, so it provided the familiarity we were looking for to start. As we approached the building it was clear that something was happening. People were on their cellphones, seemingly making arrangement for something. Others were waiting at the curve, looking for a ride. As it would turn out the Somali president was in town that evening. There had been little knowledge of it until hours before. Questions started emerging quite quickly. What to do: cancel or continue? Would anyone show up? Thirty minutes after the scheduled start time, there were two people in the room, other than our team. Once again the thoughts of canceling came to mind. At this point the principles of Open Space Technology came alive.
Initial community conversation held at Brian Coyle Center
Though we were not using this particular technique, our goal for the meeting fit its philosophy perfectly: creating time and space for people to engage deeply and creatively around issues of concern to them. Whoever come are the right people. Whoever would show, despite the Somali president’s visit to the state, would be vested in this project and make it happen. Whenever it starts, it starts. Given the circumstances it was important to be flexible. In an effort to do away with some time and in the hopes that others would show, the conversation started with an icebreaker. In a few minutes we were sharing facts about each other and laughing together. It had started, even if we had not talked about library resources yet. Then an elder showed up. That was the critical mass the rest of the group was waiting for. Quickly the group shifted its attention to the conversation we came to have. For the next hour the discussion flowed from the definition of library resources, to the importance of literacy and lifelong learning. Food came, creating a pause before ending with the importance of building community. When it’s over, it’s over.
The reality is that what happened is the only thing that could have. The group was smaller than expected, allowing for a more intimate setting. The discussion was rich and fruitful. Through the conversation, it became evident that those in the room all held some kind of leadership role within Cedar Riverside. This informed our next steps, we decided the next session would intentionally focus on parents.
By the second session we were openly embracing the principles of Open Space Technology. This time the location was a community room inside Riverside Plaza. Once again we sat in a circle, highlighting the importance of recognizing that there is a leader in every chair (Baldwin & Linnea, 2010). Respecting cultural norms, there was an opening in the middle of the circle to leave space between men and women. People moved fluidly in and out of the room. Those who were genuinely interested stayed. Mothers came in with their young children, so we quickly set up an area for children to color and have a snack. Once again the conversation started by weaving a connection amongst the participants by building a common definition of what library resources meant for the community. Many in the group expressed their interest in bringing others to future sessions. Given our goal of getting a better understanding of what the community wanted and the fact that each community conversation was building ownership and support for the project, another session for parents was called. At each session, people expressed their interest in continuing conversations; ones in which they could freely express themselves and that would lead to community action.
During most of these sessions, the voice of the adults was dominant. Though some youth were present and their voices quite assertive, there was a lingering need to include their perspective. The team decided to invite the Cedar Riverside Youth Council (CRYC). After all, the idea for this project emerged from an informational meeting with them. In order to have a more casual and candid conversation, only youth were invited. The location picked was the Safety Center, a familiar site to them since they use the community room for their own meetings. Like previous sessions, it was humbling to hear the wisdom that was present. The youth not only expressed interest—they wanted to make sure that the project was going to lead to something, that it would enrich their community and better their lives.
As students we knew that we were conducting community-based research in which genuine collaboration would be driven by community interest, rather than from academia (Strand, Marullo, Cutforth, Stoecker, & Donohue, 2003). Therefore we made sure that our community partners were part of every step in the process. All along we thought that by having two Somali men on the team we had representation of what the community needed. During the community meetings it became clear that the wisdom lies in the community at large, that our community partners served as guides. As we all participated in the community conversations we were learning from each other, building a stronger network.
The capstone presentation was most certainly the highlight. Once more the invitation went out to the community with great intentionality. The presentation would be hosted at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs. The community had welcomed and invited us in—now it was our time to return the favor. The room was set up to create a welcoming environment. The chairs in a circle, the walls lined with the notes taken at the community meetings; at the center of the circle a sampling of the books, most of them bilingual Somali-English, that had already been donated to the project. The food served represented the cultural groups involved: sambusas, hummus, pita bread, tortillas, chorizo, salsa and homemade chocolate chip oatmeal cookies.
As people started trickling in, there was a sense of the energy around the project. There were representatives from the different community organizations, Hennepin County Libraries, University Libraries, community elders, the CRYC, Brian Coyle, and the Park Board. In all there were 40 people in the room, from all walks of life, ready to engage deeper in a conversation to make this initiative come to life.
Now it is time to bring one of the next pieces to fruition: A reading room will be set up in the community room of the McKnight Building in Riverside Plaza. It will house more than 40 boxes of books donated by Breck School and the Minnesota Humanities Center. Sherman and Associates, the developer of the housing complex, donated the furniture to renovate the space. Once again a call will be made to the community to come together to set up the space, igniting their vision of bringing library resources to Cedar Riverside.
This time our team will not come in as students from the University of Minnesota, but as three people vested in the growth of a thriving community. It is not an overstatement to say that this was truly a transformational experience. The ways we approach our work and our worldviews were positively impacted. One member of the team has become a volunteer for an adult literacy organization serving the Somali community in the area, another is considering becoming a resident, and I continue to work in projects within the neighborhood.
Ultimately, working in community is about sharing our culture, our experiences, our stories, so that together we can achieve things we could not have possibly achieved on our own.