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!!