Surprises from a Florida day (p.1)

Now back in Indianapolis once again, this time greeting spring in all of its warm, rainy, flowering glory, my heart is still reverberating from a surprise-packed day I spent discussing asset-based ideas and possibilities with 55+ members of the Sarasota/Tampa Bay community.

I learned so many lessons through planning and doing this workshop, and heard some great stories…  once I began writing, it all poured out!  So, this blog is cut into 3 parts for easier digestion.

 

I was thrilled initially, four weeks back, when I my old New College sociology professor Dr. David Brain asked me over Facebook chat if I’d be interested in extending my April trip in Florida (originally set for working the Sarasota Film Festival) to host an ABCD workshop.  He’d been working with a group of students around homelessness, he said, and had some relationships with other institutions who might be able to help fund it.

Working with David is always such a pleasure, because in his work in community around planning and development, his core philosophy is all about citizen-centered, inclusive decision-making and community.  Also, he’s the one who first introduced me to John McKnight’s “big green book” and this wonderful movement. This was also a chance to work closely again with my dear friend and colleague Mary Butler, an ABCD community builder and neighborhood connector in Newtown of Sarasota.

Through the supporting partners of the day — Salvation Army, New College, SCOPE and the Community Foundation — and through my friendships with folks in town, registration filled up quickly.  From the day that I said “Yes,” my wheels began spinning…  How can I create the best workshop yet?  What can I add to the usual routine that will not just drive points home the day-of, but demonstrate the art and practice of asset-based thinking?  And, just as importantly, how can I help ensure that the conversation, learning, and application of these ideas continue after I leave?  So often, great group learning experiences end up being just that…  a day of epiphanies, inspiration and new hopes that, when people go back to the daily grind, evaporate without any chance to take root in actual change in our lives or communities.  I didn’t know the answer, but I forged a determination to do my best to figure it out.

The workshop gave me a chance to integrate things I’ve learned since moving to Indianapolis last year… perhaps most importantly, I’ve learned that the most important way of “doing” and of teaching asset-based thinking is to PRACTICE it.  Following the example of the person who has become my mentor, Roving Listener De’Amon Harges, I thought ahead about who I know in the community who is somehow on the margins, and how can I use their gifts or skills in this workshop?  Also inspired by De’Amon and the folks at Broadway here in Indy, I was determined to use the limited budget we had to not only showcase but to invest in these skills, thereby building community with the workshop itself, and also demonstrating what I believe is one of the most socially and economically transformative tools we have — our money, and where we choose to spend it.

I had a limited budget, so not a ton to invest, but the following ideas worked beautifully…

With my friend and colleague Mary Butler’s help, we decided to approach local restauranteur and business owner Brother Lance Shabazz about cooking lunch for the workshop.

Even though it took more time and energy than, say, going to the local Sam’s club and getting some sandwiches, we worked out a deal with Brother Lance.  For those of you not from Sarasota, Newtown is THE African American section of town. I had the privilege of working in that neighborhood for over a year back in 2009 and, through one-on-one conversations and attending various community functions and meetings, saw first-hand the immense amount of caring, community action, creativity, proud history and rich connection exists in this community. However, it’s my experience that the rest of Sarasota views Newtown as a broken, dangerous, needy place… even my “progressive” friends are afraid or openly disparaging of the community.

Brother Lance is someone I remember from years back as a powerful economic “doer,” who not only has worked hard to build his own businesses on the once-thriving Newtown corridor, but has also been working for years to cultivate a Newtown Business and Community Association which can restore the interconnected economic vibrance of years past in Newtown. I always enjoyed Bro. Lance’s down-to-earth, outspoken nature, and was delighted that he agreed to work with us on such short notice to make 50+ lunches for Saturday!

I also wanted to hire an artist to capture the day’s deeper messages through live images. I know both the power this can have for a group, to see their words and thoughts translated into picture. I also know the power it can have for the artist, because I WAS that artist when De’Amon and his partner Anne Mitchell first asked ME to do live recording at their ABCD workshop in Indianapolis two years ago… and then, later, offered to pay me to do it for them. Basically, being invited to give my gift, and then being paid to give it, both changed my life profoundly.

Because the workshop would include a number of people who are passionate about homelessness, I especially wanted to invest in and showcase the talents of someone who was experiencing or had experienced homelessness in the past.  So, also in the model of De’Amon and Broadway, I dipped into my pay to hire my friend Leon Middleton.  Although Leon reported this time that he was now living in his own apartment in my old neighborhood, he’d been open with me that he’d been homeless for several years previously.

Granted, he had no idea what I was really asking him to do, and I struggled to explain it clearly, but I’ve come to appreciate that working with assets means giving oneself over to a spirit of experimentation and openness to what emerges… it’s not about control or predictable outcomes.

 

Speaking of emergence and surprises–we held the workshop at the Salvation Army.  This location wasn’t my first choice.  I had hoped to find a church in Newtown that would host it–both for the rich community feel that churches offer, and to get people out of their comfort zone and experiencing a safe, abundant place in the very labeled Newtown… a place they’ve been trained to see as the opposite. But since none were available that day, “the Sally” it was–which ended up being a blessing in disguise!

I met my first friend at the Salvation Army the day before the workshop. Mary and I were scoping out the assigned chapel space for the best layout, etc. Some young men were also there, apparently setting up for an event that night. As Mary and I thought through the layout options aloud, a soft-spoken, friendly young man spoke up and offered some ideas. We learned his name was Cory. He then asked what the workshop would be about? As we explained it, he lit up and asked if he could come. “Please do!” we answered. He said it’s just the kind of thing he’d be interested in.

The next day, Cory was one of the first ones to come, along with several other “clients” of the Salvation Army (ie. people who are in the rehabilitation program.)  As I was to realize later, the fact that we held the workshop there at the Sally meant that they could come–otherwise, they would not have been allowed to leave the premises and so would have been excluded.

 

Continued in Part 2

 

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