Latona Giwa '10 has been working as the Grinnell Corps Fellow in New Orleans, one of our many sociology alumnae who have been selected as Grinnell Corps Fellows. Here is part of one of her reports on her experiences.
"Ten months of community organizing work in New Orleans has not elevated me from 'beginner' organizer status yet, but those months of experience have taught me some important lessons. I learn from my supervisors and coworkers, I learn from making a lot of mistakes, I learn from the occasional successes, and, most importantly, I learn from the residents with whom I strive to improve their community. Engaging residents for development in a marginalized community is the goal of my work. Yet ten months in, I am still stumbling on how exactly to do that. The number of involved residents in the Faubourg Lafayette neighborhood of Central City has sky-rocketed in the last year, so the community engagement process seems to be going well. But what exactly does 'community engagement' mean? Non-profits and organizers throw the term around a lot; but my experiences on the streets and front porches of this neighborhood tell me that the phrase is far from self-explanatory.
This Quarterly Report is a tale in stories. Since I admit that I still struggle to explain what positive and sustainable community engagement is or how to do it every time, I will let these three examples speak for themselves. As my supervisor often says, 'the proof is in the puddin'; let those actions that are successful and those actions that are not reveal themselves in their results.
The first community engagement story takes place around the planting of a neighborhood garden. Early this year, we received word that a well-known corporation decided to donate a community park to the neighborhood and a community meeting would be held in just a few days to introduce the idea to the neighbors. Excitedly, I called the residents who would soon be neighbors to the park to see what they thought of the good news. I assumed that since a 'community meeting' was to be held in just a few days, the folks who live next door to the park would already be informed about it. Not only was that not the case, but it became clear once residents did show up to the 'community meeting' that no one had ever expected them to come. I squirmed uncomfortably in my seat as I watched the suit-clad business folks unveil their plans and pat themselves on the back without inviting the large group of residents in the audience to voice their ideas of what sort of park they needed or what concerns they might have. Some dialogue finally did occur, but frustration filled the room as residents spoke from a place of anger out of not being included and the donors responded with confusion at what they perceived as ingratitude.
After realizing that most of the plans were already set in stone, many residents became disenchanted with the entirety of the process. One resident, Ms. Joanne showed me the list of vegetables that she had written on notebook paper at home in hopes that with this new garden, she would finally have a place to grow; after realizing the park would not serve her purpose, she crumpled up the paper and threw it away on her way out. She has not been involved in the process since. Some other residents decided that, even though they were not invited, they would still work to make this park a true asset to the neighborhood. As one resident said, 'after all the planners go home, we're still gonna live right next door to the park.' They worked persistently to form an advisory council for the park and were instrumental in making key recommendations for its design and management. Their input brought much needed guidance to the plan, such as pointing out safety concerns of which the planners had not been aware. The garden was planted in March and this small group of neighbors continues to keep an eye on it and call it their own."
... [Latona offers a second example here.]
"To be clear, I am not saying positive community improvements can only come from within that community, as the juxtaposition of these two examples might seem to suggest. Systemic oppressions make it so that certain communities have more economic resources than others-- Fact. There are many community changes that simply cannot happen without outside assistance-- Fact. But positive and sustainable community change is infinitely more likely when the community is not only 'engaged,' but also a true collaborator in the process. So, I find myself asking, How can assistance from outside be a true collaboration and not an intervention? Or as the now cliché-ified Lila Watson quote begs, How can we replace the 'helping' of marginalized communities by privileged outsiders with the 'working together' of diverse communities for our mutual liberation?"
...[Latona offers a third, very interesting but long example here.]
"Community engagement is not as straightforward as it may sound. Hanging up a flyer to notify a community and 'inviting' them to voice their opinions is often not enough. Disenfranchisement and marginalization are deep-rooted realities. In those communities with the greatest need for positive development, residents are often used to and have come to expect disingenuous invitations for participation. I am learning to be highly critical and thoughtful in my work--- striving toward true collaboration. Though collaboration is always a more difficult route to an end, the benefit is often much greater than we ever imagined the 'goal' to be in the first place. People's hearts and minds change and are strengthened along the path to that goal, and that is exactly what this 'organizing' business is all about."
[If you are interested in reading more about Latona Giwa's Grinnell Corps experience in New Orleans, or any of the other reports from Grinnell Corps fellows, you might look at this site: http://www.grinnell.edu/offices/socialcommitment/grinnellcorps .]