By: Elise Jones
“Relationships, relationships, relationships. These are what are important.”
I can still hear the words of my summer camp director echoing in my head as they continue to ring true. They were true during summer camp when developing warm and welcoming relationships with campers could make the difference between them feeling accepted and part of the camp family. This continued to be true in my social work program in which the importance of establishing rapport with clients was regularly stressed. And, it is still just as important in my work as a community organizer at Grassroots where establishing trusting relationships with community members makes the difference between working with or even working for communities rather than working on them.
As a community organizer, the work I do is relational. I begin by developing relationships with community members connected to schools, neighborhood associations, churches and local businesses. I get to meet community members and listen to their passions and their interests, learning about their vision for their community, school or neighborhood. I then work alongside them to turn their vision into a reality. For my work as a community organizer, relationships matter.
For this reason, when I began thinking about what brought me to my role at Grassroots and to who I am today, all I could think about were the relationships that have shaped me along the way. So, I am going to bring you greetings from these people whose relationship with me have impacted the way I work as a community organizer.
First, I bring you greetings from my mom, Elaine, who taught me about the gift of listening to others. My mom is a walker. While training for the Avon 39 (a two-day event where participants walk a marathon the first day and a half-marathon the second day, totaling 39 miles) and then actually walking the 39 miles together, I learned that my mom’s practice of walking and listening went hand in hand. While she was walking alongside me, she was asking questions and intently listening to me. My mom made me feel heard. She continues to teach me the power of someone walking beside you and the value of being heard.
I next bring you greetings from my dad, Mike, who taught me the importance of being passionate. If you spend any time with my dad, you quickly will learn that he has a passion for Kansas University and more specifically for Kansas Jayhawk basketball. Growing up some of my favorite times were getting to travel with my dad to Allen Fieldhouse in Lawrence, Kansas to watch the men’s basketball team play. We would cheer along with thousands of other fans until we were both hoarse. Although some might think having a deep passion for a sports team is silly, my dad showed me the beauty of being passionate and inspired me to search for work that I could find meaning in.
I bring you greetings from my babysitter, Nina, who first introduced me to learning from other cultures while my family lived in Norway when I was a small child. Nina was my dagmamma, which literally translates to “day mother” in English. I would spend my days with Nina’s daughters who primarily spoke Norwegian. Although I was young while Nina cared for me, she exposed me to food, language, and a daily rhythm that was different from my own. My family’s relationship with Nina allowed me to fearlessly engage with another culture as a 4-year-old in a way that my adult self could learn a lot from today.
Next, I bring you greetings from Allene, a family friend, who taught me about the gift of hospitality. Growing up, Allene seemed to regularly have kids from the neighborhood or a foster dog or a litter of freshly born kittens that she was caring for at her house. No matter who you were (whether human or animal), Allene welcomed you into her house and made sure that you had something to eat. Allene was the first to teach me how food can bring people together and how you yourself can be a welcoming presence to both friends and strangers you meet.
I bring you greeting from my former co-worker, MiLisa, who taught me about unconditional support. Every Friday I worked at camp, the female camp staff would gather together for coffee, breakfast, and good conversations at the local coffee shop. This was valued time together as our week slowed down for an hour. Although each new year brought steady turnover to who was working at camp, MiLisa was the constant. She was always there, every Friday morning, reserving a table for us. MiLisa taught me more than anything that support is about being consistent. It is about being the person that others can count on to show up.
Lastly, I bring you greetings from the staff and interns of World Hunger Relief who taught me about collaboration. I am by no means a farmer so the time I spent getting to know the day-to-day workings of the farm during my social work internship were outside of my comfort zone. As I spent time out in the fields picking okra and transplanting, I realized the power of working alongside others. World Hunger Relief taught me how working together on something, in this case digging through the dirt and pulling weeds, breaks down barriers and fosters deep conversation. I learned that it is through doing together that stronger partnerships and relationships are formed.
Listening to others, passion, learning from other cultures, hospitality, unconditional support, and collaboration: these are just some of the many lessons I have learned from the individuals who make up my past communities. These lessons shaped and molded me into who I am today and prepared me for my role as a Community Organizer at Grassroots.
However, never did I imagine that the individuals in South Waco, my present community, would continue to teach me these very same lessons. Re-shaping and re-molding my understanding of what listening to others, exercising passion, learning from other cultures, practicing hospitality, giving unconditional support, and working towards collaboration looks like.
Listening to others now brings to mind Pastor Greg, who is a long-time South Waco pastor who has lived in the community for several decades. Over the years, he has served as a PTA president and on the board of his neighborhood association. He could easily consider himself a neighborhood expert, but instead, he regularly approaches other residents with humility, ready to listen and learn from them. Pastor Greg is showing me how listening and learning from others is a lifelong process and that we always have something to gain from hearing another person’s story.
Passion now looks like city council member Hector, who has a deep desire to serve his South Waco community. Passion looks like Hector responding to community concerns about rising property values with action by hosting a property tax workshop for his community prior to actually beginning his city council term. Hector is illustrating the energy that passion can bring and how it can be a spark that ignites a community. He is also teaching me the careful balancing act that must come along with passion as he intentionally makes spaces for those things that are meaningful in his life, including his family, his work, and his community.
Learning from other cultures now looks like a bilingual principal who creates safe spaces for parents who are both Spanish and English speaking to connect with their child’s school. Just like my dagmamma Nina, Principal Lozano cultivates spaces for cultural exchange to happen. Parents who speak different languages are able to learn from one another and to all provide feedback to the school. Principal Lozano is showing me the way in which shared experiences and shared language breaks down barriers so that learning from other cultures can even occur.
Photo Credit Waco ISD
Hospitality now makes me think of Amber, a longtime South Waco resident making her neighborhood a more welcoming place to call home. She coordinated a celebration for the re-opening of a beloved neighborhood park gathering donations for drinks, food, and even a mechanical bull that over 350 community members came out to enjoy. And, she has not stopped there. She is already planning a welcoming gift of homemade tamales for a new fire station that is moving into the neighborhood. Amber is showing me how hospitality does not have to be contained to a singular home or location but can be part of the DNA and culture of an entire neighborhood.
Photo Credit AALDA Photography
Unconditional support now looks like Cindy, a parent from a South Waco elementary school who has committed to working with teachers this summer to strengthen family engagement at her child’s school. She has said yes to sharing her time with the school over this next summer and school year. She has said yes to boldly voicing her ideas and concerns as a parent. And, she has said yes to showing up. Cindy is teaching me that unconditional support for your child can go beyond solely impacting your own flesh and blood. Her support is a commitment to work towards making her child’s school a more welcoming place for all children and families.
Collaboration now makes me think of my fellow community organizers, Cuevas and Josh, who work alongside communities in East and North Waco. Collaboration now looks like Cuevas joining parents at JH Hines as they persevered through establishing a PTA on campus. Despite challenges, parents were motivated to continue working together because of the shared importance they felt for having this organization on campus. Collaboration also looks like Josh meeting regularly with business owners along 25th as they develop a shared vision of what safety, success, and preservation of their Latino culture could look like for their business corridor.
The work of my colleagues and those within the North, South, and East Waco communities is constantly showing me we truly are better together. There is a saying at Grassroots that is regularly repeated, “If you want to go fast, go alone, if you want to go far, go together.” This is our role as community organizers. We build bridges, establish connections, and foster relationships. So, communities can move forward TOGETHER addressing concerns that THEY have defined with solutions that THEY have developed.