I feel confident in saying I’ve been accepted by the community, but that doesn’t mean I’ve got it all figured out.
I wanted us to meet in a no-man’s-land, so I chose the soccer field. The hot April air was almost unbearable, but a patch of shade appeared at 3 pm. We set up the chairs in a perfect circle. We put our feet up to wait while tiny bugs hopped out of the grass.
The contract I signed said I was the ‘general advocate for the community’. The community, I thought, would certainly be on board with this project. Free training, free screen-printing materials, and eventually a job making shirts to sell through our organization. I was hired to make it happen. I tapped my fingers on my clip board and looked around.
This was our first meeting. We had sent thirty-five invitations. We had brought twenty-five chairs, but I didn’t expect everyone to show. Folks arrived in a trickle and took their seats. Friends sat with friends and family sat with family. Ten minutes into the discussion I knew something was up.
There were many questions and little input. I explained everything about how the project would roll out and asked them if they would build it and run it. Most didn’t want to speak in front of such a big group. Gradually two bitter voices arose and the quieter people deferred to them. I listened without letting them control the discussion, but then the sun started working against me.
The patch of cool shade we had settled in was moving. The shadow of the leafy treetops gave way to long vertical stripes of trunks and branches. I watched as people stood up and moved their chairs into the thinning shade. The perfect circle was fracturing. Friends went with friends and family with family. Instead of a discussion, we had two groups chucking contradictory points at each other through the golden sunlight like some surreal game of community battleship.
Community. Was this the community I was hired to represent? Was this the community I thought I knew so well? After what was already a long day, I became exhausted and less able to speak above the others. While my coworker labored to get people to listen to each other, I slipped quietly into my own thoughts.
Too often, we enter a low-income area and proclaim it a community. Yet, I would never consider the neighborhood where I lived as a community. Being a part of a community means feeling a sense of belonging to the group. Relationships are stronger than place attachments. We may visit our neighbors for dinner, but if a natural disaster strikes, would we really seek them out first? or would we be drawn to our church group, our soccer team, or our coworkers?
This was even more difficult in a community composed of internally displaced peoples. Everyone here was relocated after the hurricane and wound up in Villa. No wonder there were fractures in the group. The sense of belonging to the ‘community’ was not as strong as their personal allegiances. Like the post-colonials, I had drawn a line around a group of people and expected them to work seamlessly together.
I suddenly felt very young, very foolish, and very out of my depth. My brow was pouring sweat down my nose. The conversation came back into focus. I was the only one left sitting in the 100-degree sunlight. Everyone else had moved back into their respective parts of the shadow-tree. I mustered what energy I had and finished the meeting.
In two hours of hard talking, we selected the two groups of eight who would produce the first 120 T shirts. We set a meeting for the following week when team-one would learn to do the designs and then we dispersed. It was 5 pm. What felt like an entire week’s work had only been two hours. Damn.
I hoisted a stack of chairs onto my shoulder and left the soccer field. That could have gone better, I thought to myself, and I should really find out who amongst these groups gravitate towards one another. I had been proud of the community accepting me, but was I kidding myself? I’m not sure. What I do know is that I will always advise those of us who work against poverty to remember to review history; to not repeat the mistakes of the ancestor’s who’s messes we’re still cleaning up today.