Thursday, October 3, 2013

Being the Community Backbone

I have begun interning at The Fifth Ward Community Redevelopment Corporation (FWCRC), a non-profit organization that reaches out to the community through real estate and home development, home loan and foreclosure counseling, and community organizing. Ok, this all sounds pretty boring, but it’s actually really awesome! There is an entire world behind community development that sits at computers, planning, organizing, finding resources, and writing grants, being the backbone of development that then allows others to go out and do the work: constructing homes for low income families, planting community gardens, building parks and recreation areas, and helping folks maintain their properties and businesses, all of which promotes neighborhood economy and sustainable quality of life for folks living in low income areas like the Fifth Ward.
This mosaic was created by folks at the Museum of Cultural Arts, Houston (MOCAH) Click on the pic!
I love learning about all of this behind the scenes stuff. I have always wanted to make my community a better place, so I started food ministries, handing out bagels in Phoenix’s ZONE downtown then joining up with people who were meeting the immediate needs of folks on the streets.  As I’m soaking in all this new information at the CRC, I’m beginning to understand that while immediate needs must be met, there needs to be a plan to build and sustain neighborhoods that foster relationships among neighbors and help meet residents’ long term needs such as affordable housing, access to affordable and high quality food, financial counseling, spiritual mentorship, safety and security in the neighborhood, high quality education, and common
gathering places that foster greater relationships. 

I suppose these were things I knew were needed, but I didn’t know where to start. I had no idea how to write grants, build parks, or start food co-ops. But now, God has placed me in the CRC to develop these skills, learn how to create truly sustainable community and then go back to Phoenix to find folks who are doing it there and join them to implement it all. And doing it all without gentrifying the neighborhood.

One project that my teammate, Charlie, and I are becoming heavily invested in is a project that focuses on the Fifth Ward as a “food desert.”  There are two grocery stores in our area. One is a market across the street from our apartment complex with extremely high prices and terrible quality food, more like a large gas station convenience store.  The other is called Fiesta, a market mostly catering to the Hispanic community, but which also includes many other every day food items.  This is where my team shops every week for our groceries.  As I am reading studies and getting a grip on the area, I have discovered that the African American population of the area (about 50%, while Hispanic folks comprise the other half) does not feel that their needs are being met by Fiesta.  Nor does Fiesta offer a variety of health conscious food (a much needed section for the obese and diabetic population of the community). 

We have discovered several community gardens in our area, some of which are currently fully functional, others that are dwindling because of a lack of gardeners, and others that are completely run down because they have not been maintained. Our idea is to create a food co-op between all these gardens, building relationships between all the gardens and the folks in the community, allowing access to affordable healthy, fresh local produce. This is quite a big project, and we are still working on what exactly it is we want to achieve, but we have an idea and it’s growing bigger every day.

We are going to be learning from Gerald at The Last Organic Outpost. We visited Gerald's farm last week and were blown away by how well his farm was flourishing. He not only grows fresh vegetables, fruits, and herbs, but he also has a Tilapia pond, a bee farm, and is making plans for a crab hatchery! They host several local events such as concerts, farming classes, community dinners, and, my favorite, yoga! This place gives me so much hope for what a farm can look like in the middle of an urban city. Click on the picture to check out the website! 

We are also partnering with Alesia at Cane River Gardens to begin plans to create a food co-op and build a coffee shop out of shipping containers on the garden property. Click the picture below to find out more information about cane River Gardens. 

I am so thrilled to be a part of what God is doing in Houston's Fifth Ward. It's a beautiful place with beautiful people reaching out to one another to build relationships and lift one another up. There are continuous lessons to be learned, and I pray to be open to all of them.  

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