Wednesday, August 15, 2012

RASC 2012 - Jenny's musings

RASC Oh-Twelve has come and gone and I'm mulling over our sophomore year. We had some lively debates this week about how to make the most of the potential this project has to pull Roeperians together and do something that feels worth doing.

Piles of Oats and Spaghetti at the Food Warehouse
But first things first - huge thanks to the organizers, hosts, and volunteers, including special shout-outs to Lori and Anna at Alternatives for Girls, Stephanie at Focus:Hope, our own Pam the social event cruise director, and most of all Emery Pence, who supported, cheerled, assisted and encouraged us at every turn.

And to: Jeff, Sierra, Jake, Michelle, her two adorable children, Eric, Barbara, Eric, Clint, his hard-working son, Annika, Patrick, Jennifer, Karen, Linda, Jessica, her excellent husband, Joanna, the other Pam who led the bike trip and her really nice husband, Joscelyn, Jackie and her super-cool kids, AJ, Melissa and Maria, Christy, and Denita and Julie in the development office.

Day 1 - Saturday - we partnered with Alternatives for Girls, a shelter for girls who have nowhere else to go. It's a beautiful place and they do amazing things for the girls - our work there felt needed and appreciated.

We had a great turnout, in part because we chose a Saturday, so more local folks could participate. Magically, we had exactly the right number of projects for the number of people - building planting boxes and filling them with mountains of soil; repairing and staining a wooden swing, laying out irrigation hoses, building a rainbarrel platform and painting a bedroom. We weren't completely satisfied with the outcome - the rainbarrel platform was left unfinished, and our wonderful enthusiastic children might not have been as neat painting as we might have liked. But we were glad to help Anna Weaver, the volunteer coordinator, tick some much-needed projects off her to-do list.
This link is to our complete photo-album - you have to be a Facebook member to view it.

Days 2-4 at Focus:Hope included painting over a graffiti-covered building and trimming the weeds around it; packing food boxes in the warehouse, weeding a public park and distributing flyers for a community event where children could get backpacks filled with school supplies.This last project gave us a real close-up view of the challenges Focus:Hope is facing as they try to revitalize their neighborhood. Over half the houses on the blocks we canvassed were boarded up, burned out or just empty. Every block also had well-tended houses, with neat gardens, obviously owned by people who wanted to stay in the neighborhood despite its problems. The people we met as we walked were unfailingly friendly - many waved and greeted Stephanie Johnson, our wonderful supervisor from Focus:Hope, who is obviously liked and respected  (she grew up in the neighborhood and continues to live there.)

Painting Pam
Our group had mixed feelings about these projects, and the wildly varying turnout from one day to the next probably reflected, in part, the value people placed on the different projects.  Some felt that the painting project seemed pointless - it was in in a place where people didn't walk by, and it seemed that the graffiti would return, and the weeds grow back, in days or weeks.   Similarly, weeding a park that is locked almost all the time felt to some like hard work that had little real impact.

Others disagreed. They pointed back to our stated mission, of providing service in whatever way our host organization needed or wanted it - if we believed the organization did
good work, and they saw a need for these projects, we honor that and work with good cheer.

Nobody argued with the need for, and value of, packing food boxes. The connection to the people we are helping is direct, and the day is a ton of fun. We get to chat, we're inside all together, and there's something about being on the assembly line, trying to find the perfect, most efficient way to line up boxes, stack bottles of juice and chili and milk and oatmeal, that's strangely enjoyable.   At the end of the day, we learned we'd filled 770 boxes - that's a lot of hungry people fed.  And the throngs agreed - we had by far our best turnout on Tuesday, with 20 volunteers.

The bike tour was a great addition this year - what a wonderful
way to see the city.
It was the last day - the weeding day - when only a few hardy folks came, that the questioning began. After hearing the different points of view, I asked Stephanie what she saw as the impact of our work painting out graffiti or weeding. She reminded me of how many people honked and waved at us as we painted, and told me what it feels like to grow up and raise your own children in a neighborhood that is as blighted as this one.

Any effort to clean up, fix up, beautify or improve the way things look has a tremendous impact, she told me. It makes things feel less hopeless, it encourages the people living there to feel that someone cares and that they're not alone. Even small efforts can have a domino effect, and we may never know what the cumulative impact of our work might be.

When we first dreamed this up last year, I came up with a few parameters I thought should guide us, which included this:

We have to find a local host that can effectively manage a team of volunteers and put us to work in some useful way. Demolishing / renovating decrepit houses... building a farm/garden on an empty should tie into an existing organization, and be something that fits in with their priorities, not us coming in and telling them what they should want/do. . . .

Something that we can fund ourselves through fundraising and not make them pay for...something sustainable after we go... something we can come back and do more of with new groups of people and even tie Roeper students into on an ongoing basis. . . . .

[I]t's possibly harder to manage an influx of outsiders to do human service-y things as opposed to bricks and mortar-y things. But it all depends on who we hook up with and what they need.

 which then evolved into a more formal statement of purpose, which is, in part:

Our mission is:
  • To bring Roeper alumni together: in the spirit of the school, to use our creativity and energy to do good.
  • To make a measurable and concrete difference to a project or projects in Detroit.
 Some of the essential principles we've identified so far include:
  • Everyone commits to raise money or contribute to making it happen
  • No financial drain on supporting institutions (neither Roeper nor the recipient organization)
  • Location-specific: a place in Detroit that could use support
  • Tangible: Once project is done, the results should be able to be seen
  • Durable: Should not create ongoing support needs
  • As little organizational infrastructure as possible - this is an all volunteer initiative

I think we've done what we set out to do, so far, but after two years it's a fine time to contemplate whether that mission needs tweaking. For example, we originally felt tangible projects would work better than working directly with people. Has that turned out to be right?
After the very last day - still smiling.

Also: we tried to be very aware of the pitfalls of seeming like a bunch of privileged suburbanites from an elite school swooping in to save Detroit and then go home again.  I'm not sure we can avoid that completely (being that many of us are indeed privileged suburbanites who can spend a day or two or three and then go home.) But can we craft the projects to be more mindful of this issue than we have so far?

I invite comments from anyone and everyone.  In no particular order, some of the questions I would like to hear your thoughts on include:

If you participated, how do you feel about the projects we did?

Did you not participate because the projects weren't of interest, or didn't have the kind of impact you'd like the RASC to make, or for some other reason that we could address through further thought and planning?

Do you have specific suggestions for what projects we might undertake next year that would further our goals?

And anything else you'd like to say.

I'll be posting a link to the "official" survey soon, but meanwhile, talk to us!!

Friday, August 5, 2011

Detroit Serendipity - Pam's take on the week

 Imagine a long hallway. It’s very beautiful. Light and airy, leaving you unexpectedly pleased. Now imagine there is a door at the end of the hallway, and it magically opens on its own accord revealing another beautiful hallway leading to a door that magically opens and another and another and another. As you walk easily down the hallway, each door before you magically opens.

That was how our RASC process went, from the first Facebook post to the closing party last night. Pure serendipity.

On a lovely weekend morning when we all had better things to do, a few of us found ourselves on Facebook. (What else is new, right?) Jenny posted an idea. Within minutes, she had her core team of organizers. Within days, we had a mission statement. Within weeks, we had a project, a web page, and the support of Roeper School. Within months, we had a solid team of volunteers on the ground with tools in hand.

As we proceeded, every time we needed something, it magically appeared. When our guide from Focus Hope said they would like the park to have a tall, visually pleasing structure, Asa Watten '03 – our Prince of the Pergola – stepped into the limelight. Asa had a vision. He seemed to know what he was doing. And we had the good sense to get out of his way and get behind him to take his vision from his creative brain to the corner of Linwood and Kendall. When we needed someone who knew something about gardening, Eric Peterson '95 of the NYC Parks and Recreation Department came aboard. When we needed a smart, go-getter who lives in the area to do the prep work, Amy Voigt '85 said yes when she had every excuse to say no. When digging those damn holes to support the structure became arduous, two young, strong Focus Hope volunteers showed up with exactly the skill set vitally needed. When we weren’t sure if our little project would make any difference to the community, 50 local kids swarmed into the park with their energy and enthusiasm. 

When we needed a truck to haul the wood,
Emery showed up.

When we needed compost,
Pam was there.

Before we even knew we needed a connection
with the most recent alums,
Catherine found us.

We need a few donated flowers.
Look what we got.

Over and over and over again, doors kept opening throughout the entire process.

What we did this week is what my cousin Jackie Victor devotes every single day to doing. From her teenage years on, I’ve known Jackie’s life passion is to revitalize Detroit.  As some of you may know, I’m extremely proud of my cousin’s work in the city, the example she sets by consciously living in Detroit, and the vibrant center of joy that is Avalon Breads which she and her partner Ann created from scratch. Jackie walks the walk - usually at a sprinter’s pace, sometimes at a crawl, but always forward. She’s in Detroit, every day, even, like she recently told me, “when it’s not so fun - in the dead of winter, on frigid days in February when you trudge to your car to discover someone has stolen your hubcaps.” So I figured that Jackie would have full and fair rights to besmirch the RASC project as the frivolous dalliance of out-of-towners descending into the city to spit a drop into the leaky bucket of Detroit.

But she did no such thing. On the contrary, Jackie is hugely supportive of our efforts. Glowingly. Joyously. Welcomingly.

“There is this great kismet about Detroit that the little things you do have a huge impact,” Jackie said to me this morning, before I had even mentioned the serendipity of our project and how much we’ve been pondering the word “impact.”

“Kismet! Yeah, that’s exactly what we encountered,” I said with surprise.

“That’s the thing about Detroit,” she chuckled knowingly. And she told me about a radio piece a few years ago where she wrote, “Detroit is a spiritual city. For no place else that I have visited or lived, cultivates the strength to see the divine within, in quite the same way as Detroit.”

Obviously Jackie had experienced those same magical doors of serendipity we discovered this week on the outwardly bleak corner of Linwood and Kendall.  

[To hear and read Jackie’s full piece entitled “Detroit is a Spiritual City,” check it out here]

Thursday, August 4, 2011

I open at the close - Jenny's take on the last day

"I open at the close" -- a line I love from  Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - it's so beautiful and mysterious and it's all about endings. So it came to mind tonight as the Roeper Alumni Service Corps 2011 comes to a close.

I'm not one to stop and take time to just feel and experience and appreciate. I tend to be busily thinking busy noisy thoughts at 100 miles an hour: what's next? What went well, what needs tweaking? Who do we need to thank? What are all the evaluation questions we should ask? Should we change the mission? restructure? etcetera.

But all that can wait til tomorrow.  I have been writing my top ten favorite things about the week (my list is at about 14 and growing) and thinking of how every single person who showed up this week brought something special and necessary and perfect for that moment. And I'm not one who likes to talk about The Universe and how everything happens for a reason. But this week may have changed my views on that!

I've also been thinking about impact: the obvious kind - did we make a difference to Detroit? to Roeper?  Then there's another kind of impact, as Brad pointed out - the impact on ourselves. And a third kind, that my husband Fred mentioned later tonight: something about  acquiring humility.  Realizing that as RASC (and as human beings) we can only ever be a drop in the bucket, and accepting that.

Herewith, in no particular order , my top ten (twenty) favorite things about the Roeper Alumni Service Corps 2011.
Everyone we asked for help or to get involved said "yes" without hesitation
How the right person with the right skill kept showing up at just the right time
How a little girl named Paris said “We’re here to take care of the plants.”
The wonderful feeling of tired muscles after a hard day of physical work
Mom-approved porn. Eewwww.
Knowing we fed 1,000 hungry people
Salads from Avalon and how Avalon was in the very space that used to hold the Willis Gallery where I spent many hours as a child helping my mom hang art shows
How I couldn’t visualize what the pergola was going to look like but others could so I didn’t need to
190 trays of flowers - and we got a bigger boat
The greatest gift to us this week: Stephanie Cobb Johnson
Feeling like all my nostalgia has been banished - who needs to think wistful thoughts about life in Detroit in 1982 when life in Detroit in 2011 is so interesting and engrossing?
Learning about how many other entrepreneurial, community oriented project led by smart passionate committed people are happening in Detroit
Helping Roeper get press, build connections with alumni,
Having lots of long conversations abuot the Roeper philosophy
Meeting and working alongside very recent Roeper graduates
Making face book friends into real friends

love and thanks to all of you!

Ways You Know You’re on an Assembly Line with Roeperians (as observed by Pam)

·      You observe at least half the workers experimenting with alternative, non-standard methods of getting cans of food into boxes.

·      One person (that you know of) calculates the number of boxes packed per minute as she works.

·      You lose count of the number of puns exchanged.

·      Brad Rourke takes a photo of you with his phone.

·      The kids boss around the adults.

·      You engage in more than one brainstorming session.

·      More than one person has performed children’s theater/improv comedy/in a band.

·      Everyone uses the term “forensics” in the non-CSI way.

·      There is no need to translate from Geek to another language.

·      It kind of feels like a family reunion.

What This Week Means To Me (Brad's Take)

I was not much of a joiner in high school. In fact, I'm not much of a joiner now, but I can mingle with folks alright. In high school, you would not have seen me within four feet of a "service project," because not only was I not a joiner, but I was also pretty much a jerk.

This was brought home to me this week when one of my former classmates, whom I think the world of now, told me that the nickname for the crowd I ran with was "the mean boys."


That is one reason that this week of doing service with fellow Roeper alumni on behalf of Detroit, where I grew up, is so important to me. I have struggled for some time at being a better person than I was when growing up. I have so far to go, but at least I don't think I am in the "mean boys" crowd anymore.

Now, still the kind of person who does not get involved in group efforts, I was given the opportunity to take part in a series of meaningful acts with others. So, instead of quietly supporting from the sidelines and begging off with protests of being "too busy," I committed to coming back home to Detroit and working.

It has meant a lot to me. For me, it is a marker of the kind of person I want to be -- the kind who pitches in and helps.

And it is a testament to the power of the ideas behind The Roeper School, which seems to mold such people even in spite of themselves. Roeper showed great patience with my and my crowd's immaturity.

Roeper believes in the best within all children. I can remember a story a former administrator told me. A particular student had . . . well, let's say the chemistry lab needed a lot of cleanup and was smoldering a bit. (At least that's how he told the story.) The student's punishment? He was assigned to be in charge of the security of the chem lab for the rest of the year.

Once, I can recall that one student used a racial epithet against another. Classes were canceled and we worked together on racism.

Yes, Roeper is that kind of place.

To all the people who comprise the Roeper community, and especially to Jenny Hansell, Pam Victor, Amy Voigt, and Asa Watten who really got the Roeper Alumni Service Corps off the ground, thank you for this chance to work at being a better person.

~Brad Rourke

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

A Thousand Flowers (Brad's Take, Day Three)

Well, not a thousand. But, did you know what 100 flats of flowers look like when they are delivered? Like this:

As Jenny said, when she saw all the flowers being delivered, "We're going to need a bigger boat."

Today we took delivery of all these flowers in anticipation of an influx of young volunteers being led by Summer In The City folks . . . we did not know how many, but it turned out to be about fifty. It was pandemonium, as we asked them to plant the flowers in the many flower beds in a pocket park across from the old Bell Building.

While the kids were working, Channel 4 (WDIV) came by in the person of Lauren Podell and shot some footage that appeared on the 5 O'Clock news.

Yes, we were really on TV! Here is where you can see that.

Meanwhile, the Pergola Team completed the pergola in the wet.

After lunch, we came back to finish a few things up on the pergola . . . planting a few vines that will grow and begin to provide shade.

Then, it was back to the pocket park. We had barely made a dent in the flowers. Eric Peterson jumped into action and identified a bare flowerbed that could use some love. He and a handful of Bank of America volunteers quickly had the bed in shape.

Focus:Hope is planning to use the rest of the flowers in other parks, so we are not worried.

Tomorrow, we will be working in the food warehouse, distributing food for people in the community who are in need.

Tomorrow's our last day. What an incredible and meaningful experience this has been. I am so glad to have been a part of it. Jenny Hansell, thank you for having the initial idea to do this.

~Brad Rourke

Pam's Take of Day Two: Power to the People

The highlights of Day Two for me were the people. But, then again, for me it always comes down to the people upon reflection. I loved hanging out with Catherine, one of our most freshly minted graduates and the class president. (I only very vaguely remember us having a class president. I suspect it was either Stephanie or Denise because the rest of us were too lazy for the job.) Catherine was a wonderful representation of the best that a lifetime at Roeper can produce. She is intelligent, highly self-motivated and asks really good questions.

The sweltering and arduous afternoon was made much easier by working along side two young Focus Hope volunteers. I took vicarious thrill at their reactions to the scent of a lavender sprig I broke off from a plant I was weeding around. “Where can I get some of this? I want my dad to plant it!” So cute. Then the tables turned as one of the girls regaled me with the story of her luncheon with Barack and Michelle Obama. It was my turn to coo and swoon.

And, yeah, we weeded and turned over heavy, clay soil and raked mulch and spread compost too. It was hard work, and the kids and I crawled into bed early last night and slept until the last possible moment this morning. Turns out, good work makes you really, really tired.