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Community Dollars | Organizing for Empowerment Part I

“We use the word all the time, but what does ‘community’ really mean? This is something I think we should discuss first.” – Yesenia

Two or three years ago I was sitting with Rochelle Alley, Associate Director at Children’s Bureau, in her office going over an abused notebook of meeting notes, doodles and expired agendas. It was part of our ‘every so often’ idea-sharing sessions in which we would bounce ideas and get excited about projects to plug the community into Magnolia Place. In some ways, it was an extension from conversations that started in the Center’s Economic Stability Workgroup meeting and then found its way on Rochelle’s desk, coffee-stained and all. I had a list of ideas that hovered around ten items long – and covered the gamut from micro-enterprise to technology. One such idea that originated from this dialogue was the community yard sale and exchange.

With four weeks left before the 4th community yard sale will be hosted at Magnolia Place I admittedly did not anticipate the reaction, this project would generate. When the notion first appeared scribbled on that wrinkled sheet of notebook paper, crammed in between other ideas, it was unassuming. In fact, I rallied for other projects before the yard sale. Now the originally treated “special event” is transitioning into a full-scale project.

Year after year the commentary continued; “we want to do this more often” (reaction to the yard sale occurring around twice a year). The sentiment of the vendors resonated with me. The profits they earned by selling their hand-made pupusas, used-clothing, and crafts were not just side income but a substantial piece of keeping their household stable. It was not until after the first yard sale when the anecdotes made their way back to our ears. One vendor remarked her earnings went to keep her cell phone from being deactivated, the very number I used to confirm her for the yard sale in the first place. More recently others have shared a loss of income. And in this climate where unemployment, especially among monolingual Spanish-speakers, is uncomfortable and commonplace the opportunity for a household to utilize community outlets and rethink human capital is worth exploring.

Taking a page from the concept of cooperatives, the community yard sale is working towards becoming a 100% community member-facilitated and managed business. In essence, community members (mostly made up of past participant vendors) will take on the full responsibility of hosting and organizing all future community yard sales at Magnolia Place. It is a significant undertaking but a necessary step in the grand scheme of making sure opportunities for community building, economic stability, and community resources sharing is materialized. The after-effects could be great and perhaps set a model for other communities in other ‘hoods to replicate.

10:45 am

It is Friday, January 20th on a sunny morning at the Magnolia Place Family Center and the first meeting to discuss the formation of a community yard sale committee should have been underway 45 minutes ago. A few women wait patiently, seated at long white tables. Franco Vega, Founder of The RightWay Foundation whom graciously donated the room for the meeting, attends to business on his Blackberry. Tina Mojarro of St. John’s clinic and Lilia Perez of Children’s Bureau/Magnolia Place wait in the lobby to catch any members that may have forgot what room the meeting was being hosted in while Linda Flores of Pan American Bank and I debate whether to cancel the meeting or move forward with the three women plus child in tow that arrived on time.

Just earlier that week we had confirmed 23 participants. 

Irma, one of the yard sale’s most vocal supporters, nominates herself to seek interested community members.  She returns 10 minutes later empty-handed.

10:50 am

A sudden influx of women and two men begin assembling just outside the doors. Irma welcomes them inside and assures them that this is the charla they are not to miss.

This may have been the first formal meeting discussing the idea of an organized group for the yard sale, but some members had already begun operating as such. To my amusement, one vendor had created her own flyer to promote the meeting while another elected herself to call and confirm past and interested participants of the upcoming orientation.

As everyone got settled I pulled out my agenda in English to review (the meeting was conducted entirely in Spanish) and thought about the conversation I had with Yesenia Castro. Yesenia had participated in all of the past community yard sales. Once word spread during the previous yard sale that there would be a possible committee forming to schedule the event many more times during the year Yesenia was one of the most anxious and excited to get started.

In fact, her consistency with her bi-weekly check-ins and texts kept the pulse beating into the project. Because of her energy, I gave her the position to keep in contact with the community members and confirm their attendance for the upcoming meeting. During the months-long gap between the last yard sale and now, she was my most valuable asset to bridge community members to the project. Irma, likewise, took a lead when she collected names and numbers for the unnamed charla during the yard sale. One cannot negate those examples of initiative. It is precisely this type of ownership in one’s community and self-sufficiency that the community yard sale committee is meant to encourage.

Days before the meeting Yesenia and I held an informal meeting by the reception area at Magnolia Place to discuss the Friday meeting. I asked her for any suggestions and recommendations for talking points and that is when she mentioned ‘community’. At the helm of this collaboration, between community members and the organizations sponsoring the effort, was the concept of community and how its definition must be in the active consciousness of the committee members themselves. Understanding that we are all part of various communities and that within this cross-layering there is a level of obligation and ownership is important for the success of all.

Comunidad

I scrapped the agenda, wrote ‘communidad’ in green letters on the whiteboard, and for the next hour or so we had a round table discussion about ‘community’ and began hashing out the details for what a community yard sale committee would look like. Each member was given a two-page document that outlined the structure of the committee along with positions, purpose, and expectations.

Participants became animated and the energy in the room was high. As they talked, laughed and even disagreed we began to see the formation of something special brewing. The committee was coming alive. And despite some of the complexities, the group remained polite, responsive and controlled. Word document abandoned participants began to brainstorm ideas to confront issues, such as cost and membership fees, among themselves. A separate conversation sprung up concerning members who were invited to the meeting but didn’t show. One woman suggested they move on without them. That’s when I stepped in and tapped the board, “Ah pero no se olviden de Comunidad!”

The room laughed but the message was understood; we are a community. And this committee is community-based, community-run and for the benefit of the community.

So, what is the first order of business for the committee? Ensure that all the other vendors who couldn’t show make it for this Friday’s meeting at 5:30 pm.

Get Part Two.

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