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Photo: Capital Area New Mainers Project.
Abdalnabi family members (left) are seen here with property manager Efrain Ferrusca (right). The family lives in what used to be St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church in Hallowell, Maine, a building managed by Capital Area New Mainers Project [CANMP].

As church attendance decreases and buildings can no longer be supported by the remaining congregants, some properties are sold or donated to worthy causes. Tara Adhikari and Erika Page write about church transitions at the Christian Science Monitor.

“Victoria Stadnik glides on roller skates down one side of a wooden halfpipe decorated in neon spray paint. Light pours in through stained-glass windows, catching her body as she rotates through the air in the nave of what used to be St. Liborius Catholic Church [in St. Louis]. 

“After the church shut down in 1992, the building served briefly as a homeless shelter. Now, St. Liborius is better known as Sk8 Liborius – a skate park in use informally for a decade, with plans to open officially in three years.

“St. Liborius is one of hundreds of churches across the United States beginning a second life. As congregations dwindle – only 47% of American adults reported membership in a religious organization in 2020, down from 70% in 1999 according to a Gallup poll – churches are closing doors and changing hands. Developers have jumped at the chance to transform the consecrated spaces into luxury condos, cafes, mansions – even a Dollar Tree

“For some, the trend brings with it a sense of dismay. … But in some cities, residents are breathing new life into sacred spaces by giving fresh thought to what it means to serve, and who can constitute a congregation. Groups in St. Louis, Philadelphia, and Hallowell, Maine, are finding that one fundamental purpose of church – community uplift – can take many forms. 

“ ‘These places are very powerful links to the history and the evolution of our neighborhoods,’ says Bob Jaeger, president of Partners for Sacred Places, based in Philadelphia. Even though a church ‘may need repair, even though it may be empty, … it’s a bundle of assets. It’s a bundle of opportunities.’ …

“When Dave Blum, co-owner of Sk8 Liborius, speaks about his plans for the church, his voice echoes out across the sanctuary, ringing with the hope and certainty of a sermon. His team is creating not only a skate park but also an urban art studio where local artists can display and sell their work and children can learn skills ranging from metalworking to photography.  

“In every empty nook and cranny, he sees the potential to support a new congregation: underserved urban youth. He hopes skateboarding will get kids in the door – where vital lessons await. …

“The church was completed in 1889, and after years of neglect, it has a long way to go before it can pass an inspection and be formally opened to the public. Emergency exits, bathrooms, window repair, plumbing, electricity, and heat are just a few of the items on a to-do list of fixes estimated at $1 million. But donations are pouring in from supporters, and local skaters like Ms. Stadnik, who also works as a skating coach, spend weekends helping with repair work.

“ ‘A whole community came together to build these structures because it was important to them. And now, what we’re trying to do is have a whole community come together to maintain this structure,’ says Mr. Blum. 

“Welcoming newcomers into the fold is another function churches often fulfill. In Maine, a local nonprofit is continuing that mission by turning a former holy space into a home and community center.

He appreciates the sacredness of his new home and is just happy to finally have enough space to study. 

“Ali Al Braihi and Mohammed Abdalnabi came to the U.S. as refugees because war – in Iraq for the first and Syria for the second – made staying home impossible. Their journeys were different, but their families both ended up in Hallowell, Maine. Housing was limited, says Mr. Abdalnabi, and squeezing all nine members of his family into a two-bedroom apartment was ‘rough.’ Mr. Al Braihi had the same difficulty.

“Now, the 18 people that make up both families live in what used to be St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church. … 

“ ‘What I feel is fortunate and thankful,’ says Mr. Al Braihi, now a college student. His family is Muslim, but he says he appreciates the sacredness of his new home and is just happy to finally have enough space to study. 

“After closing last summer, St. Matthew’s offered the building to Capital Area New Mainers Project (CANMP), which supports the growing number of refugees and other immigrants in the area.

“The congregation chose CANMP because it ‘felt like we would be carrying on the mission,’ says Chris Myers Asch, CANMP’s co-founder and executive director. ‘We take that responsibility very seriously. It’s hallowed ground.’ 

“Mr. Myers Asch and his team of volunteers are currently renovating the sanctuary to create the Hallowell Multicultural Center. When it’s ready, anyone in the community will be able to host events: dinners, talks, movie screenings, weddings – whatever brings people of different backgrounds together.”

More about church reuse at the Monitor, here. No firewall.

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Photo: Melanie Stetson Freeman/CSM.
Meidan “Abby” Lin poses in her apartment in Boston’s Chinatown. She and her husband bought the unit with help from the Chinatown Community Land Trust, which aims to stabilize the community through affordable housing, ownership of land, control of public lands like parks, and the preservation of cultural and historical sites.

One of the biggest challenges for America in these times is housing. Housing can help people with addictions get clean. It can reduce the need for long, polluting commutes to jobs in expensive urban areas, it can give people breathing space to pursue their interests and make better lives for their children.

One of the current experiments in providing housing that people can afford involves community land trusts.

Jocelyn Yang and Alexander Thompson write at the Christian Science Monitor, ‘In March 2016, [Meidan ‘Abby’] Lin; her husband, Yin Zheng; their young son, Yuchen; and Mr. Zheng’s mother left Fuzhou, Chin, … for another port half a world away on the Charles River in Boston.

“They shared their first apartment in Boston’s Chinatown with another family. During nights in that cramped space, Ms. Lin started dreaming of a place she could call her own. But Boston’s soaring real estate prices seemed to put that dream out of reach. Mr. Zheng works at a restaurant. Ms. Lin works at home.

“Then a friend told Ms. Lin about the Chinatown Community Land Trust. … The group was selling apartments at discount prices, and Ms. Lin jumped on the waitlist. But there was only one apartment big enough for her family. ‘I didn’t think we were able to get it,’ she says. All she could do was hope.

“Community land trusts [are] buying their own properties to preserve them as affordable housing in perpetuity and give residents more say over what happens in quickly changing neighborhoods. 

“That mission has gained new urgency over the past year as homeowners reap the rewards of a red-hot real estate market while renters are hit with steep rent hikes, deepening the divide between the housing haves and have-nots. …

“ ‘As neighborhoods change and gentrify really fast, the idea of having community control and having more say about how neighborhoods are changing and who’s going to be able to live in the neighborhood over time, from an affordability perspective, I think becomes really important,’ says Beth Sorce, who works with community land trusts nationwide at the Grounded Solutions Network, an affordable housing advocacy group. …

“Land trusts raise money from donations, grants, and government funds to buy property. Then they lease the house or apartment to a buyer well below market value, but the trust retains ownership of the land.

“This way, occupants typically get an ownership stake in their homes. They build equity over time, but at a rate that is often capped at 1% or 2% a year. The trust, which is governed democratically by residents and neighbors, can decide to whom the dwelling can be sold and at what price, usually through a covenant in the lease. This ensures the property remains affordable.

“The land trust idea was imported to the United States by civil rights activist Charles Sherrod in the early 1970s from the kibbutzim of Israel. Mr. Sherrod saw land trusts as a way for Black Americans to buy agricultural land in the South. …

“Andre Perry, a housing policy expert at the Brookings Institution [has shown] that an ‘intrinsic value of whiteness’ persists at almost every step of home buying from the appraisal to the sale. Minorities, but especially Black people, must pay more and get less. 

“By taking property out of the traditional market, land trusts reduce the discrimination baked into that system and empower communities to actively fight it, Dr. Perry says. …

“In California, justice is what drives Jacqueline Rivera and her fellow housing activists in San Jose. In the heart of Silicon Valley, where even high-paid tech employees struggle to find housing, development was pushing out vibrant Black, Hispanic, and immigrant neighborhoods.

“In community conversations Ms. Rivera and her colleagues held around the city in 2018, land trusts kept coming up. Ms. Rivera grabbed hold of the idea, and by 2020 she was heading up the South Bay Community Land Trust.

“Success has not come easily, though.  By definition, land trusts do not make profits, and fundraising is the biggest challenge they face. To buy their first property, a fourplex in downtown San Jose, they need to fundraise at least $1 million, on top of the half million dollars they need to pay professional staff and make the organization run. Speed is a problem, too. Developers snap up properties with cash in a matter of days, while the land trust moves ‘at the pace of community,’ Ms. Rivera says. 

“Yet, in order to disrupt traditional real estate, land trusts ‘still have to play in the real estate game,’ she adds.

“Advocates stress that land trusts are just one tool in a broader approach to the affordability crisis, but it could be a more effective one with government help. Ms. Sorce, of Grounded Solutions, says state and local governments should invest money in land trusts and change appraisal policies so land trust properties aren’t paying taxes based on their speculative value. With or without such help, land trusts must innovate to succeed.

“ ‘When we think about community land trusts, so many times we think about just the homeownership level,’ says Sheldon Clark, who recently served as president of the board of the Douglass Community Land Trust in Washington, D.C. ‘And that really just doesn’t cover the housing needs that we have.’

“Douglass has units it’s maintaining as permanently affordable rentals and other properties set up as cooperatives. They’ve also helped tenants take advantage of a District of Columbia law that entitles them to buy their unit if their landlord plans to sell.

“Really, land trust leaders say, homeownership is just one aspect of their focus on what Mr. Clark calls the ‘big C’ in community land trusts: the community.

“Douglass organized food drives during the pandemic and helps connect residents to credit unions, as many are unbanked. In Boston’s Chinatown, the land trust helped save a local park.”

Find other examples of how land trusts strengthen communities at the Monitor, here. No firewall; nice photos.

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Photo: Chelsea Sheasley/Christian Science Monitor.
Diane Nicholls stands in the room where she teaches in Elmore, Vermont. The Elmore School is the state’s last one-room schoolhouse. Elmore residents are voting on whether to form their own independent school district to preserve the school.

Today is the day that residents of Elmore, Vermont, were scheduled to vote on whether or not to protect their one-room school. Although my own brief experience with a one-room school does not incline me to nostalgia, I understand why this community may be afraid to lose its identity in the larger district.

Chelsea Sheasley writes at the Christian Science Monitor, “Each morning before school starts and after recess, Diane Nicholls rings the bell atop the snug one-room schoolhouse where she teaches.

“ ‘I don’t feel like I’m living in the 19th-century, but it is charming,’ says Ms. Nicholls, who educates a group of 18 students in the Elmore School, Vermont’s last operating one-room schoolhouse.

“The Elmore School, a public school serving students in grades one through three, is a cherished tradition in the tiny town of Elmore, with a population of under 1,000. Generations of students have attended since the school opened in the 1850s. Now, townspeople are wrestling with how best to support it.

“Residents will vote March 1 on whether the town should withdraw from a joint school district with two other nearby towns in order to strike out on their own in hopes of preemptively preserving their schoolhouse. Concerns mounted after a district-commissioned report released in November 2020 proposed five cost-saving recommendations, with four out of the five options suggesting closing the Elmore School. 

“Behind the ballot effort are questions that also play out in other rural areas: How much does a school contribute to a community’s identity?

Is a local school such a crucial community hub that taxpayers are willing to pay higher costs to preserve it?

“ ‘It’s difficult to say what forms the identity of a community, but we know these institutions like the Elmore Store, the school, are part of it, and we defend them as a proxy for defending the community,’ says Trevor Braun, an Elmore resident and board member of the Elmore Community Trust, a nonprofit that recently raised $400,000 to ensure the town’s general store didn’t close. 

“March 1 won’t mark the first time residents will vote on whether to form an independent school district. In December 2021 the town voted not to leave the joint district, Lamoille South Unified Union (LSUU), amid concerns that taxes might rise and unknowns over what forming an independent school district means. But enough townspeople signed a petition to bring the question back to the Town Meeting this week. 

“Elmore … is located 14 miles north of Stowe, a popular ski destination and home of the Trapp Family Lodge, known for its connection to the relatives portrayed in ‘The Sound of Music.’

“Elmore consists of a short main drag with the school, the general store across the street, town hall, and one church. The population swells with seasonal summer residents. 

“On a recent February morning, students in the cozy Elmore School classroom practiced nonfiction writing. A first grade student wrote about chickens, while a few desks over a third grader wrote about her favorite animal, polar bears. Kids write and draw on paper, with iPads handy on their desks to research questions.  …

” ‘I remember my very first day here and I just really liked it,’ says Ruby, a third grader, who says that now, as one of the oldest kids, she appreciates that ‘you can have friends younger than you and help them, and it’s fun to see and help them develop their skills.’ 

“Jon Osborne, an Elmore parent whose two children now attend college, says the Elmore School provided his kids with a ‘phenomenal’ experience, including building a tight-knit group of friends who helped each other in the classroom. …

“The superintendent and school board of LSUU say they have no plans to close the Elmore School. The report that recommended closing was completed under a previous superintendent and done by an outside group without consideration of local culture, says LSUU superintendent Ryan Heraty. …

“ ‘That sense of independence, of local control, is very Vermont,’ says Mr. Heraty. 

“But even with the school district’s assurances, some residents are skeptical about putting the future of the treasured school in the hands of others. A recent kerfuffle with the United States Postal Service over halting service to the post office inside the Elmore Store raised townspeople’s hackles. In an effective show of civic activism, the town rallied elected leaders and pressured the USPS to reverse course. …

“If Elmore were to leave LSUU, it’s unclear what would come next. Residents don’t know if the state would allow the town to revert to a previous agreement where older Elmore kids were allowed to attend their school of choice in other towns. Or the state might force the town to fully operate their own independent school district. (Another small Vermont locale offers a cautionary tale: In 2021 the town of Ripton voted to leave its school district but is now negotiating rejoining after the state said the town had to provide all the related services, like payroll and transportation.) …

“Inside The Elmore Store, where residents pop in and out to pick up mail and exchange town news, Kate Gluckman and Mike Stanley are settling in after moving from Mississippi to run the store for the Elmore Community Trust. They are enjoying the warm welcome from locals. 

“Ms. Gluckman grew up in a neighboring Vermont town. The couple is still getting up to speed on the school independence vote. They were planning to listen to community members at a town forum and take their cues from the discussion. 

“ ‘I just want to support the community,’ says Mr. Stanley. ‘If it’s what’s best for the community, I will vote for it.’ ”

More at the Monitor, here. In case you’re wondering, my experience was this: I spent the first month of first grade attending a one-room school on the island where I had spent the summer. My mother arranged for me to have the desk near the only person I knew slightly, an older girl who walked me to school, but the big boy whose desk it was became angry and threatening. I refused to go back after lunch, but that was a problem because the reading group for my age was in the afternoon. I didn’t catch up in reading until late in second grade back home.

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Photo: Ariel Cobbert.
At the Memphis, Tenn., library, Cloud901’s maker space is equipped with such high-tech tools as laser cutters and 3-D printers. The workshop is open to all ages, not just teens.

Today’s story is about an astonishingly innovative library in Memphis, Tennessee. It makes me ashamed to recall that my younger tradition-bound self thought libraries should never spend money on anything but books! Who knew the extended role libraries were going to play in people’s lives — from providing shelter during Ferguson, Missouri, protests to launching kids on undreamed-of careers. My own local library was recently renovated, and I wouldn’t give up a single 3-D machine.

Richard Grant writes at the Smithsonian magazine, “The Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library, a building of pale concrete and greenish glass, rises four stories in midtown Memphis. Walking through its automatic doors on a weekday afternoon, I hear unexpected sounds, muffled but unmistakable, almost shocking in a library context: the deep, quaking bass beats of Memphis hip-hop, plus a faint whine of power tools cutting through metal. …

“Here at the Central branch in Memphis, ukulele flash mobs materialize and seniors dance the fox trot in upstairs rooms. The library hosts U.S. naturalization ceremonies, job fairs, financial literacy seminars, jazz concerts, cooking classes, film screenings and many other events — more than 7,000 at last count. You can check out books and movies, to be sure, but also sewing machines, bicycle repair kits and laptop computers. And late fees? A thing of the past.

“The hip-hop beats and power tool noise are coming from an 8,300-square-foot teenage learning facility called Cloud901 (the numerals are the Memphis area code). Two stories high, it contains a state-of-the-art recording studio staffed by a professional audio engineer, a robotics lab that fields a highly competitive team in regional and national championships, and a video lab where local teens have made award-winning films. Cloud901 also features a fully equipped maker space (a kind of DIY technology innovation workshop), a performance stage, a hang-out area and an art studio. …

“Many cities have slashed their library budgets and closed branches. Memphis, Tennessee, one of the poorest cities in the nation, chose instead to invest, recently opening three new branches, for a total of 18, and increasing the library budget from $15 million in 2007 to almost $23 million today. Attendance at library programs has quadrupled in the last six years. In 2019, before the pandemic, more than 7,000 people attended the annual Bookstock festival, a celebration of literacy and education.

Memphis Public Libraries (MPL) is the only public library system in the country with its own television and radio station, and its branches receive more than two million visits a year.

“ ‘How did this happen?’ I asked Mayor Jim Strickland, who is serving his second term in office. He was sitting in his seventh-floor office with a view of downtown and the Mississippi River. ‘I’m a strong believer in libraries as a force for good,’ he said. ‘But none of this would have happened without our library director Keenon McCloy. She is amazing. We’ve got library people coming from all over the country to see what she’s done here.’

“McCloy is high-energy, fit from running, always busy, sometimes frenetic. Though passionate about public libraries, she has no training in the highly specialized field of librarianship, not even an undergrad degree in library science, and this provoked dismay and even uproar when she took over the Memphis system in January 2008. 

“ ‘I was the director of public services and neighborhoods for the city, and the mayor — it was Mayor Herenton at the time — appointed me without doing a search for other candidates,’ McCloy says over a salad lunch near her office in the Central branch. ‘It caused quite a stir in Libraryland.’ …

“McCloy’s first big task was to reorganize the funding and administration of the library system. Then she went looking for advice. She talked with directors from other states and visited acclaimed public libraries. ‘I wanted to meet the rock stars of Libraryland with the most progressive ideas,’ McCloy says. ‘And they all wanted to help me and share what they’d learned, because that’s how library people are. No one is proprietary and we’re not competitive with each other. We’re all about the greater good.’

“In Chicago, she toured the Harold Washington Library Center, where a 5,500-square-foot facility called YOUmedia opened in 2009. It was the first dedicated teen learning center in an American library, and it had a maker space and an in-house production studio to record teenage musicians. ‘That’s where I got the idea for Cloud901,’ says McCloy. ‘People kept saying the biggest problem at the Central library was all the teens hanging around, and I thought, well, they’re in our library, let’s find a way to redirect their energy.’

“The next step was to meet with the Memphis Library Foundation, a volunteer fundraising organization with connections in the business community and social elite. ‘I asked them if they would support a teen center at the Central branch,’ says McCloy. ‘Well, not immediately, but then they started raising money, and we decided to double the expense and really go for it.’

“Instead of a basic recording studio, McCloy and her team wanted a professional-quality studio. The legendary Memphis music producer Lawrence ‘Boo’ Mitchell, co-owner of Royal Studios and a longtime supporter of the libraries, agreed to design it. For the maker space, they hired a native Memphian who had been overseeing such facilities in the Bay Area. He stocked the workshop with 3-D printers and other equipment, and brought in FedEx, a Memphis-based corporation, as a supporter. It was the same approach with the video and robotics labs: hire experts, buy the best equipment, recruit sponsors. Cloud901 opened in 2015, at a cost of $2.175 million. …

“When [when Janay Kelley, now 18] first arrived at the video lab, an instructor there, Amanda Willoughby, taught her how to use the equipment — cameras, lights, editing software. …

“The first film that Kelley made here was titled The Death of Hip-Hop. She lit and filmed herself. … ‘I was going to upload it onto YouTube, but Amanda insisted on entering it into the Indie Memphis Youth Film Fest.’ “

Read the rest of the story at the Smithsonian, here. It’s free. It’s a long article with fascinating testimonials. Pretty sure Laurie Graves will want to read the whole thing!

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Photo: Angel Valentin/The Guardian.
“Puerto Rico imports 85% of its food,” the Guardian reports. The three farms of Güakiá Colectivo Agroecológico in Dorado “seek food sovereignty and climate solutions.”

The UK-based Guardian has some of the best coverage of North America to be found anywhere, and it’s free. Readers are asked to contribute, and I recommend doing so if you want to support good journalism.

A few days ago, the Guardian posted this update on an agricultural movement in Puerto Rico that, if taken up elsewhere, could make a big difference to the planet.

Nina Lakhani wrote, “Puerto Rico was once a thriving agricultural hub thanks to its tropical climate, rich biodiversity, and sustainable farming traditions. Today, less than 2% of the workforce is employed in agriculture and tens of thousands of acres of arable land sit idle. Meanwhile 85% of the food eaten in Puerto Rico is imported, grocery prices are among the highest in the US and last year two in five people experienced food insecurity.

“ ‘Unemployment is brutal, prices are brutal, migration from the island is brutal,’ said Denise Santos, who runs Puerto Rico’s food bank.

“Puerto Rico, a mountainous Caribbean archipelago, is also one of the places in the world most affected by extreme weather such as storms, floods and droughts. In 2017, Hurricane Maria devastated the islands and people went hungry as ships were unable to dock at the damaged ports.

“In the face of so many challenges, a new wave of interest in food and farming among younger Puerto Ricans is flourishing, as part of a wider movement demanding political, environmental and social justice. Small scale sustainable farming known as agroecology is driving a resurgence in locally grown produce that chefs, farmers, entrepreneurs and researchers argue can help revitalize the local economy, improve food sovereignty and both mitigate and adapt to the climate crisis.

“Agroecology is low impact agriculture that works with nature and local conditions to produce food sustainably so as to protect biodiversity and soil quality while drawing carbon out of the atmosphere.

  • “It involves a set of farming principles and practices that can be adapted to any ecosystem, microclimate and culture – a way of life practiced for thousands of years by indigenous people and peasant farmers. Farmers often integrate crops, livestock and trees (agroforestry) in order to maximize ecological conditions, such as a fruit orchard that aids water retention and provides shade for crops and grazing animals who in turn fertilize the earth to improve the yield.
  • “Crop rotation and crop cover are fundamental to this holistic approach, that takes into consideration the well-being of the Earth, those who produce the food as well as the local communities who eat it. …
  • “Advocates say agroecology offers locally driven solutions to a myriad of interconnected crises including food insecurity, biodiversity loss, environmental degradation and global heating.
  • “Agroecology is a social and political movement seeking to influence public policies so that sustainable farming benefits from government support (tax breaks, subsidies, and bailouts) currently propping up the dominant industrial agriculture system which is a major cause of biodiversity loss and accounts for more than a quarter of global greenhouse gases.”

The Guardian goes on to profile “three agroecology farms striving to change what and how Puerto Ricans eat by challenging the political, economic and agricultural status quo.” Here is one.

Güakiá Colectivo Agroecológico “is the collective brainchild of four graduates from [the Josco Bravo project] whose main objective is to improve access to healthy affordable food for vulnerable local communities. The farm is located off a highway in Dorado, an economically divided municipality with both multimillion dollar beach homes and families living hand-to-mouth in houses without indoor plumbing.

“The land belongs to a New York-based order of nuns who agreed to rent them 11 acres in 2017 for a symbolic amount ($1 per acre per year) after they’d almost given up hope of finding somewhere affordable. Back then it was a mess, having been used for years as an unauthorized rubbish dump, and they were still cleaning up when Maria struck, leaving many without work, shelter, food or clean water.

By the beginning of 2018, they were able to share the first crop – plantain, beans, yuca and papaya – with families going hungry.

” ‘Agroecology has always been a form of resistance against colonial capitalism, and here we are trying to rescue collective working and reject individualism by reconnecting people to the land and food, and building trust and solidarity,’ said Marissa Reyes-Diaz, 32, a biology graduate who also works for the nonprofit El Puente: Latino Climate Action Network. (All four members of the collective have second jobs.)

“Agroforestry is a big focus here, and there are fragrant fruit trees growing alongside a variety of crops, which has created multiple small ecosystems that help keep precious nutrients and rainwater in the ground. (Diversity enhances a farm’s resilience, as different crops are vulnerable and resistant to different pests, climate extremes and soil deficiencies.)

“So far the orchards have helped them survive two very dry spells, but it’s not enough to sustain and grow the farm, even with rainwater tanks and water from a neighbouring farmer. They’re trying to raise $40,000 to build a well connecting to the underground aquifer as water remains the biggest obstacle to long term success.

“But Güakiá is not just a farm, it’s also a community hub where neighbors come to enjoy the green spaces and try unfamiliar produce such as beets, turmeric roots and wild basil, as well as taste tomatoes fresh from the vine.

“Some locals volunteer, others exchange their food waste (needed to make compost) for vegetables, and prices remain accessible. They’ve hosted festivals with live music, art exhibitions, self defence classes, yoga and dominos — a very popular Caribbean pastime — and have built an emergency shelter fitted with solar panels ready for the next climate catastrophe. Reyes-Diaz said: ‘Agroecology has never been just about producing food, it’s also about sustaining our physical and mental health and spiritual well-being.’ ”

More at the Guardian, here.

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Zunis Help Design the Park

Photo: Zuni Youth Enrichment Project.
By incorporating the Zuni people into the planning, design, and execution, a unique park in New Mexico addresses health on multiple levels.

Call it the department of “Don’t tell people what they need. Ask them.” It’s a bit of wisdom that organizations and government entities proposing to do good have been trying to apply to their work for years now. Unfortunately, past failures mean they first have to overcome suspicion.

Amanda Loudin reports at Shelterforce, “Six artists reside in the Shack family home in Zuni Pueblo, New Mexico. While that many artists living under one roof is an anomaly, in the Zuni tribe there’s at least one artist living in nearly 70 percent of households, according to a study by the University of New Mexico. Art is part and parcel of the tribe’s history and culture.

“The Zuni Youth Enrichment Project (ZYEP) understands this, so when it began planning a new youth center and park in 2015, Zuni artists and community members were invited to play a central role in the design and execution of the project.

“Their opinions and their art were woven into the fabric of the process from start to finish. The end result is the 2.5-acre H’on A:wan, or ‘Of the People,’ Community Park, which officially welcomed youth and the wider tribal community in 2018.

“ZYEP is a grassroots nonprofit founded by community members with the mission of enhancing the health of the tribe’s youth, who number 2,900 of the 10,000 tribe members. Zuni households face many challenges, including systemic poverty, which affects one in two Zuni families with children. And poverty, of course, is closely linked to health.

“Daryl Shack, one of the six artists in his Zuni household, played an integral role in the youth center/park project. ‘I kind of became involved by accident,’ Shack says. ‘We had a Main Street Art Walk project underway, and I was already involved in that to help ensure the modernization included a cultural aspect to it. When I heard about the park project, I wanted to learn more.’

“Funding for the park and community center originated with ArtPlace America, a 10-year collaboration among federal agencies, foundations, and financial institutions. … By design, the projects involve artists, culture bearers, and community members in every step of the planning and implementation.

“With the grant money, ZYEP set its sights on developing a center for youth that would benefit their spiritual well-being. To ZYEP, this meant Zuni art, history, and culture needed to be integral to the project. But Zuni youth also need access to safe spaces to play and be physically active, says ZYEP Executive Director Joe Claunch.

“ ‘We were well aware of the fact that they lacked space where they could run, play, and fall down without getting injured — every surface was either concrete or desert,’ he says. ‘The park represents a green space that celebrates Zuni identity and [is a] safe place where kids and families could engage in a range of healthy activities without concern.’

“Like many kids today, the Zuni youth have access to technology, which can quickly override cultural influences and healthy traditions. ‘Kids can get stuck on technology and start practicing a sedentary lifestyle, planting the seeds for preventable diseases,’ says Claunch. …

“The original intent for the park goes back more than a decade. ‘We had a local pediatrician who heard too many times from youth that they had nothing going on in their summers,’ Claunch explains. ‘He recognized that they needed healthy spaces and places, not just activity.’ …

“On a spiritual/emotional level, [the park] is a supervised space with a positive, culturally sensitive staff in place to encourage healthy activity. ‘We provide training to our staff that focuses on the strengths of the community, the family, and the youth.’ …

“In 2014, ZYEP approached the Zuni Tribal Council about acquiring land to develop the park and community center. Together, they found a spot near the center of the village, and ZYEP leased 2.5 acres. A year later, they applied for the ArtPlace America grant. …

“Typical government-sponsored development brings with it an institutional look, says Claunch, rather than a cultural look. Think chain link fences, sometimes even topped with barbed wire, which is unwelcoming and devoid of character. The same goes to new housing developments, which are designed for the nuclear family, rather than the extended family commonly found in Zuni culture. A government-designed home will look like a typical two-to- three-bedroom home, whereas a traditional Zuni home will house three to four families living under one roof — much larger in structure with large communal spaces for family functions like meals.

Having a recent history of development that often neglected the role of Zuni culture meant that when approached by ZYEP, community members were initially skeptical about the good intentions of the project. …

“Like others in his community, Shack came to the table with a healthy dose of skepticism. ‘Usually, grants come into Zuni and the planning and models are made, the meetings are held and that’s where it ends,’ he says. ‘When the park project was directed to the artists community, I was hesitant but interested.’

“Shack’s first introduction to the project was in a large-scale meeting he attended to listen in and hear about the planning process. ‘Subsequent meetings were smaller, and that’s when I decided to sign on,’ he explains.

“From the get-go, says Claunch, ZYEP aimed to build trust in the community, and did it by engaging residents in conversation. ‘We didn’t make any promises but assured them that over time, we’d show them we were serious about having them shape decisions,’ he says. ‘The artists took on the role of advocates and cast the vision. They also took the feedback and concerns from the neighbors, often in the Zuni language. If it weren’t for the artists, we wouldn’t have gotten anywhere.’ ”

Read more about how this beautiful park came together at Shelterforce, here.

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Photo: University of Canterbury.
Maoris teach that we’re all in the same canoe, an understanding that enough New Zealanders have absorbed to make Covid restrictions successful there.

I don’t know much about the Maoris of New Zealand (does the Disney movie Moana count?), but having seen how successful New Zealand and its prime minister have been in dealing with Covid, I’m not surprised to learn that the high level of cooperation among the populace relates to absorption of Maori values.

In an opinion piece at the Washington Post, Matthew Milner and Richard Ngata explain.

“Life in New Zealand is almost back to normal. While the United States has seen more than half a million deaths from covid-19 — with a death rate of more than 160 per 100,000 of population — New Zealand has lost only 26 people at a rate of 0.53 per 100,000.

“Two months ago, one of us, Richard, went to a New Year’s festival with more than 12,000 fellow revelers — something barely imaginable in the United States, where most concerts are online-only. Meanwhile, teachers, including Matthew’s parents, have been instructing in person since May [2020] without requiring masks or social distancing measures.

“Why has New Zealand fared so much better? Many people argue that these differences stem from New Zealand’s geographic advantages, and there is no doubt that being an island nation has helped. But … there is a deeper reason: Manaakitanga.

“While New Zealand hasn’t always been great at recognizing or celebrating our indigenous Māori culture, campaigning by Māori advocates has helped to ensure that Māori culture is now well-incorporated into society.

Manaakitanga is one of many customs of the Māori people that are now taught in New Zealand schools. It holds that others have importance equal to, and even greater than, one’s own.

“Manaakitanga is about understanding the power of the collective. It derives from the Māori term ‘mana,’ which is the spiritual life force and energy that every living thing possesses. When you honor the mana of others, your own mana will increase through the respect you have earned. When you acknowledge these connections, you understand that your freedom as an individual is only as strong as your place in the community.

“This community approach underpins many aspects of life in New Zealand. We provide health care to anyone who needs it. Our gun safety laws focus on keeping the community safe. And manaakitanga is one of four key values the Teachers Council for New Zealand wants teachers to focus on in the classroom.

“But never has the importance of manaakitanga to our society been more evident than at the start of the covid-19 pandemic. Last March, when New Zealand went into full lockdown, people were not permitted to see others outside their ‘bubble’ (such as a household); only one person from each bubble could leave at any given time, and not travel farther than five miles from the house.

“This strict lockdown lasted six long weeks, and while there was political pushback, the ‘team of 5 million,’ as Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern calls New Zealanders, stayed home and stamped out the virus.

New Zealanders were willing to give up many of their individual freedoms and face personal hardship for the benefit of the community. …

“Still, people found ways to connect and support each other. The lesson of the coronavirus is that an individual approach is not sufficient and that it takes a team for us all to gain true freedom. The Māori proverb ‘He waka eke noa’ expresses these sentiments clearly: We are all in this canoe together. …

“While [the US president] was playing down the virus, Ardern was running daily broadcasts alongside the nation’s director-general of health to clearly communicate the latest updates and restrictions. The central message: ‘Stay Home, Stay Safe, Be Kind.’ ” More at the Washington Post, here.

If you want to dig deeper, check out research by Diane Ruwhiu and Graham Elkin at the Leadership journal on the “converging pathways of contemporary leadership,” here. The authors describe “two emerging domains in leadership – servant leadership and Indigenous Māori leadership. Both not only have strong resonance with each other,” they say, “but also reflect a common concern with individual and collective morality that draws us to the significance of human relationships.”

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Photo: Jim Davis/Globe Staff
John Fallon gathers squash at the 8,000-square-foot traffic island in Beverly Farms.

Today my friends surprised me with a bag of apples from a tree in their yard. They are not farmers, but many nonfarmers are getting into growing things these days. Some gardeners are growing especially to share.

Consider the Beverly, Mass., man who appropriated a traffic island for a community garden.

John Laidler reports at the Boston Globe, “Growing up in Beverly Farms, John Fallon developed a talent for cultivating vegetables by helping his Irish immigrant father tend the family’s backyard garden. A half-century later, Fallon is drawing on those farming skills — refined through many years of his own gardening — to help improve the lives of people in need.

“Since 2016, Fallon has been growing vegetables on a traffic island in Beverly Farms and donating them — together with vegetables from his own garden — to local food pantries, homeless shelters, and other organizations that serve low-income families.

“In the first four years of his nonprofit operation, Fallon annually harvested and donated on average 3,000 pounds of produce. This year, in response to COVID-19, he expects to raise that volume to about 5,000 pounds. …

“Now retired as a test engineer in the semiconductor industry, Fallon, 61, cited the need to promote economic and social justice as a motivation for his philanthropic farming. …

“ ‘Everyone should help those less fortunate than them,’ said Fallon, who experienced losing a job himself when he was laid off from his longtime semiconductor job in 2007.

“Fallon’s philanthropy began in 2014 when he donated surplus tomato plants from his home garden to a farming program for inner-city children. …

“In 2016, Fallon came up with the idea of growing crops on the idle traffic island on Hale Street. The state Department of Transportation, which owns the island, authorized him to farm the land for free provided he donate any crops he raised to charity. …

“His 8,000-square-foot Beverly Farms Gardens produces tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, summer squash, regular and golden zucchini, eggplant, broccoli, and acorn and butternut squash.

“Fallon does all the growing and harvesting himself, with occasional help from volunteers, including students from Landmark School in Beverly, and Gordon College’s women’s soccer team. …

“Although his program is self-funded, Fallon has received donations from individuals, local businesses, and churches. The Farms-Prides Community Association helped him purchase compost last year and plans a fund-raising effort to assist him with other expenses.

“ ‘I have watched John over the last five years turn a barren plot of land into a lush, productive garden supplying food to needy families,’ Rick Lord, the association’s president, said by e-mail. …

“Fallon hopes he can inspire others to do similar work. … ‘My vision would be for each town or city to set aside 4 acres, whatever it takes to feed the homeless in their area,’ he said.”

More at the Boston Globe, here. Another take on the story is at the Salem News, here.

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When residents of Holyoke, Colorado, saw local businesses struggling in the pandemic, they stepped up.

Sometimes it’s hard to know where to start when many problems call for attention at the same time. In one small Colorado town, the almost unimaginable generosity of the community helped neighbors — and built a lifetime bond.

Cathy Free reports at the Washington Post, “Brenda Hernandez Ramirez thought she might have to close the doors of her family’s small-town Mexican restaurant for good when she was temporarily forced to shut down in March because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“With bills piling up and no income, ‘we weren’t prepared for the challenges that covid-19 brought,’ said Ramirez, who owns Taqueria Hernandez in Holyoke, Colo., population 2,313.

“When she and her employees heard in late March that a Help Holyoke campaign had been started to assist small businesses, Ramirez said she felt grateful, thinking she might get a few hundred dollars to help pay her utilities.

“Two months later, when Holyoke Chamber of Commerce Director Holly Ferguson stopped by with a check, Ramirez was shocked to learn that people in her farming community had donated their government stimulus checks and dipped into their bank accounts to raise $93,592 — enough to help every business in town affected by the shutdown.

“In addition to about $2,000 to pay her restaurant bills, Ramirez also received smaller checks for each of her six employees.

‘We were overwhelmed with emotion,’ said Ramirez, 24. ‘Feeling our community’s support during the pandemic gave us the ambition to keep on going. I’m beyond thankful.’

“The Help Holyoke fund came about after Tom Bennett, president of the town’s First Pioneer National Bank, wondered if people might be willing to part with the $1,200 stimulus checks that most had received from the federal government.

“Even during normal times, it’s not easy to run a business in a small town, he said. … ‘Having our restaurants, bars, salons, the gym and movie theater shut down was unprecedented. You start thinking, “What if that was me?” ‘

“Bennett contacted Ferguson, Phillips County Economic Development Director Trisha Herman and Brenda Brandt, publisher of the Holyoke Enterprise, and arranged a meeting at the newspaper’s office to talk about his idea to help save their downtown. …

“The group members quickly developed a plan: They would get the word out about Help Holyoke through the Enterprise, the local radio station and social media, plus enlist high school students to help call everyone in town. Once the donations were collected, they would cut checks based on how many employees each business owner had to lay off. …

“Karen Ortner, a family and consumer sciences teacher at Holyoke High School, rounded up members of the Family Career and Community Leaders of America club she advises and put the teens to work calling every household in Holyoke.

“ ‘We split up the phone book with two other student organizations — the Future Business Leaders of America and the Future Farmers of America,’ she said. ‘Almost everyone the kids called said they’d give what they could.’ …

“ ‘This is a supportive, tightknit town,’ added FCCLA President Amy Mackay, 17. ‘Everybody knows everybody and they knew exactly who that money would be going to in the end.’ …

“ ‘This was the best way we could make a difference,’ said Nancy Colglazier, 67, executive director of Holyoke’s Melissa Memorial Hospital Foundation. … Colglazier and her husband, Harvey Colglazier donated one of their $1,200 checks to the fund after seeing how abandoned their downtown had become, she said. …

“Said chamber director Ferguson, ‘Some gave $10, some gave $100 and little kids came to my office to empty their piggy banks,’ she said. ‘Everyone did what they could and showed overwhelming compassion.’ …

“In addition to receiving about $3,500 from Help Holyoke, Veronica Marroquin, 44, who runs Veronica’s Hair and Nail Salon, also received checks from customers who wanted to pay for the haircuts they missed due to covid-19, she said.

“ ‘I’d been really worried, and I got teary-eyed when I saw everybody’s generosity,’ Marroquin said. ‘I’m close friends with my clients — they’re family. But this took it to a new level,’ she said. ‘None of us will forget their kindness.’ ” More here.

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Photo: Gareth Henderson
Messages of hope fill a window at the Bernard General Store in Barnard, Vermont.

When you’re feeling down, it’s a sign of health to look for comfort, which actually can be found in many places. Some people find it in phone calls to distant friends. Others find it in reading, music, exercise, or nature; in donating to people worse off or in watching children playing and laughing.

Gareth Henderson writes for the Christian Science Monitor that in Small Town America, some people are finding comfort at the general store.

“As COVID-19 restrictions were tightening in mid-March,” Henderson writes, “Jillian Bradley and Joe Minerva made a big decision: They pledged to keep the doors of the Barnard General Store open, no matter what.

“Now the Barnard store has a grocery home-delivery system supported by volunteers, and they also offer curbside pickup. But it’s been a long haul for the store, in this remote Vermont town of about 900 people, located a half-hour from the nearest grocery establishment.

‘Most days we are working 10 to 12 hours a day, but we are happy to do it for our community,’ Ms. Bradley says. …

“Country stores across the U.S., from New England to the South and the Midwest, are the heartbeat of their communities, often standing in the same spot for generations, growing up with the town.

“Eight years ago, the Barnard store closed for about a year but came roaring back after a community trust with hundreds of local members raised the funds to save the business. It reopened in 2013, with Ms. Bradley and Mr. Minerva as the new owners. The community simply would not let the store fail. …

“These Vermont stores have become essential food hubs. With most country store buildings closed during Vermont’s state of emergency – which was extended beyond May 15 – online ordering and curbside pickup has become the trend. Such is the case a 40-minute drive south at the South Woodstock Country Store, which has been running its curbside operation since early April. Around noon each Friday, co-owner Simi Johnston, donning her mask, puts out brown paper bags with grocery orders, each labeled with the customer’s name for pickup.

“For Ms. Johnston, the main focus is continuing to serve the community while keeping everyone safe. The store closed to the public in late March, two days before the state required restaurants to shut down.

“The entire operation is sanitized, and the store tries not to touch deliveries for 24 hours. The first week of curbside, the store saw 20 orders – which is nothing like being fully open.

“ ‘It’s a huge hit, for sure, but we’re definitely hoping there’ll be a lot of understanding from everyone around that,’ Ms. Johnston says. …

“ ‘The reason we run the country store is because we care about our community,’ she says. ‘Without it, South Woodstock is very different. Closing the doors of the country store, for myself and my staff, was surprisingly emotional.’

“With Vermont’s unemployment rate soaring to more than 20% during the pandemic, many stores are also finding a way to give back, even while they themselves struggle. In Craftsbury, which sits an hour south of the Canadian border in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, businesses have joined forces to set up a pop-up food pantry. The Craftsbury General Store put out a call for donations, and they came in fast.

“ ‘There’s been a lot of generosity in that realm,’ says co-owner Kit Basom.

“At the store, the doors are closed to the public, but they’re doing business seven days a week, filling online and phone orders for curbside pickup. The store’s owners have added a third person to help with phones, and everyone is on deck to be a ‘personal shopper.’ …

“The Craftsbury store has also added a ‘virtual tour’ on its website, so customers can browse the shelves digitally. The staff regularly updates an online list of items people can order in bulk – think flour, rice, or pasta.

“ ‘We’re moving a lot more product from our grocery section than we ever did before,’ Ms. Basom says.

“For many here, these stores are a lifeline holding the fabric of the community together. There is growing concern about the warmer months, from May to October, when these small village stores usually make the majority of their annual income. Though it’s been on their minds, Ms. Bradley from the Barnard store says she is confident they will find a way to make it.

“ ‘It’s sink or swim time and there is no way we will let ourselves sink,’ she says.”

More at the Christian Science Monitor, here.

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Photo: Bank of America
Nonprofit Haley House uses food and community ties to provide job training and to revitalize neighborhoods. When it was closed 11 months for reflection, it was sorely missed in Dudley Square, now Nubian Square.

There’s a nonprofit gathering place in Boston’s Roxbury section where food and mission come together. But when persistent financial losses seemed to threaten its future, fans far and wide worried.

In December, Kay Lazar reported at the Boston Globe, “The little bakery that could is making a comeback.

“When Haley House Bakery Cafe in Roxbury, a bustling eatery and beloved community gathering place, closed its doors in January [2019], its executive director vowed it wasn’t goodbye. It was a timeout to figure out how to make the grand social experiment in Dudley Square financially sustainable. Since its opening in 2005, it never broke even.

“Now the cafe, known for providing job training for former prisoners and hosting community discussions, poetry slams, live music, and community dinners, is planning to reopen in mid-December. It will feature a new menu with an international flair (and some reimagined old favorites). …

“Pivotal to its sustainability, says Bing Broderick, the cafe’s executive director, is its new open-book approach. The restaurant’s financial information is being shared with workers, everyone from the cashier to the dishwasher, and each is being trained to be an efficiency expert. They’ll learn how seemingly little things, such as food waste or showing up late for work, affect the entire operation. Employees will have a say in menu pricing and taste-testing new dishes.

‘It’s very empowering if everyone understands how they can help the success of the business and lead to a better organization overall,’ Broderick said. …

“All food assembly will be moved to the kitchen to free up more space for its legendary live performances, as well as for private events, such as wedding receptions and corporate meetings that Broderick hopes will help them bridge the financial gap. …

“The meals will be bowl-based, with customers choosing a base of grits, home fries, mixed salad greens, or rice, with a pick of protein options — including vegetarian offerings — and a sauce topping. The new recipes will reflect the culturally diverse Dudley Square [now Nubian Square] area, including the bakery’s workers, with African- and Caribbean-influenced sauces and spices. …

“The process of redesigning the menu has featured some fascinating in-house discussions among the bakery’s international staff, [new general manager Misha Thomas] said.

“ ‘It’s been cool to get their thoughts,’ she said. ‘Everyone has an idea of how spicy things are supposed to be.’ …

“One thing that will not be changing is Haley House’s social mission. Founded in 1966 as a provider of food and shelter for the homeless in the South End, Haley House, the bakery’s nonprofit parent company, uses food and community ties to provide job training and help revitalize neighborhoods. … The meal and training programs went on hiatus after the bakery closed last winter, but Broderick said they will be bringing them back.

“Also returning will be cultural events in the evening, from jazz and history to poetry and movies, all offering a beacon in a community that has weathered some tough times and frustrating one-step-forward-two-steps-back revitalization efforts.

“ ‘The arts and cultural programming at the cafe was very much its identity and community ownership, too,’ Broderick said.”

More here.

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Photo: Peter Yeung
One African country has made impressive strides in reducing the child mortality rate.

Sometimes it’s the poorest countries in the world that lead the way in solving a problem. Recently I learned that Rwanda, for example, is on track to be the first country to wipe out cervical cancer, thanks to its massive roll-out of HPV vaccine.

And as Peter Yeung reports at National Public Radio (NPR), Mali has drastically cut child mortality rates.

“Imagine a world in which pregnant women and little kids get regular home visits from a health worker — and free health care,” Yeung writes. “That’s the ground-breaking approach that’s being adopted in one of the world’s poorest countries: the West African nation of Mali.

“And it’s already underway in a pilot program. Nana Kadidia Diawara is one of many community health workers who do daily rounds through the sprawling, dusty streets of Yirimadio, a neighborhood on the outskirts of the capital city of Bamako. …

” ‘I know everyone in my area, and it’s a system that works very well,’ she says, while measuring the skinny arm of a child to check for signs of malnutrition. The child lives in a one-story concrete compound that is home to ten families.

“A nurse who’s joined the country’s cadre of community health workers, Diawara visits each of the homes in her designated area, which contains roughly 1,000 people, at least twice a month. She diagnoses, treats and refers patients. It’s part of a free door-to-door health-care plan that began in Yirimadio in 2008 as a trial by the government.

“When data from a seven-year trial was compiled by a team including researchers from the University of California, they found that child mortality for kids under age 5 in Yirimadio dropped by an astounding 95%, according to findings published last year in BMJ Global Health. …

“Now the program will be extended to the entire country. This spring, President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta announced a target date of 2022 for nationwide coverage — at a cost of $120 million. This localized, free health care for pregnant women and children under age 5 could help the West African nation meet the U.N. Millennium Development Goals. A key factor will be the provision of community health care workers who’ll be trained to do the door-to-door work. …

“Astan Koné, a 28-year-old mother of two in Yirimadio, [offers praise]. During Mali’s hot season last year – which regularly exceeds 100 degrees Fahrenheit – one pregnant relative was diagnosed with stomach ulcers.

” ‘It makes me very happy that the government will do that for the rest of the country,’ says Koné. ..

“[Currently] Mali’s planned reforms rely on external funding, secured with help from the Clinton Health Access Initiative, to supplement government spending. But there is no guarantee this supplemental funding will last in future decades, and Mali will need to find a long-term solution that may involve restructuring its budget. …

“The key to long-term success, according to [Robert Yates, an advocate for universal health care coverage at the U.K.-based think tank Chatham House,] will be political support – which Mali already has – and a long-term funding plan. ‘Clearly countries need more public finances to do it,’ he says. ‘But it’s perfectly feasible – by allocating a greater proportion of the budget to the health sector.’

“The cost of the Mali’s reforms, averaging $8 per person a year, could reasonably be covered by what the region’s governments are already spending on healthcare, Yates believes. …

“Community health workers — who in Mali are trained for at least a year and are able to carry out basic medical procedures — are so important.

” ‘The leading causes of maternal, newborn and child death are curable,’ says Dr. Ari Johnson, a medical doctor and co-founder of Muso. The nongovernmental organization, which aims to end preventable deaths, has supported the trials in Yirimadio with staffing and training. ‘Diseases like malaria and newborn sepsis can kill within hours. … But in status quo health-care systems, poor patients face many barriers that delay their access to care: fees they can’t afford to pay, distance they cannot travel to the nearest provider.’

“Back in Yirimadio, one 6-month-old girl in a white dress calmly awaits treatment on her father’s lap under the shade of a mango tree. ‘She is suffering,’ says Naba Fané of his daughter, who has pain when urinating. Community health worker Diawara writes the family a referral to the local health clinic in a matter of minutes.”

More at NPR, here.

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Photo: http://www.mlive.com/
Seitu Jones, a St Paul, Minnesota, artist who teaches urban food systems at the University of Minnesota is behind the community meal that won an art award.

Minnesota is home to many cutting-edge artistic endeavors, and the one described by Jim Harger at mlive.com is no exception. It’s neighborhood picnic as work of art.

“The ArtPrize Nine jurors — each of them experts in art — went for a neighborhood picnic in awarding the $200,000 juried grand prize for ArtPrize Nine.

” ‘Heartside Community Meal,’ an outdoor meal for 250 guests in Heartside Park on Sept. 23, was entered by Seitu Jones, a Saint Paul, Minnesota, artist who teaches urban food systems at the University of Minnesota.

” ‘This is a project that came out of love,’ said Jones after the award was announced on Friday, Oct. 6.

“The meal, served on a 300-foot-long table in Heartside Park, was aimed at engaging residents of the mixed-income neighborhood with each other over a table of locally produced foods. …

” ‘Seitu’s work speaks to some of the key issues in America now,’ [juror Gaetane] Verna said. ‘Access to food, access to community and people being able to create a space of conversation, exchange and synergy for everyone. He speaks to what is important in the context of the “now” in his practice, not just the ability to paint or draw.’

“Juror Scott Stulen, director and president of Philbrook Museum of Art in Tulsa, Oklahoma, nominated ‘Heartside Community Meal,’ saying he was struck by the event, where

‘people were sitting down and talking to people they would never talk to otherwise.’ …

“Inviting residents of condos and luxury apartments to dine with homeless residents who live beneath overpasses was a challenge for both groups, Jones said.

“Guests, both rich and poor, were moved by the experience, said Jones, who declared, ‘Of course this is art!’ when asked about the artistic nature of the big meal.”

More here.

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Photo: Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe
Malika MacDonald is director of the Amal Women’s Center, which provides shelter for Muslim women and children in need of temporary housing.

When I was working at the central bank, we had a Hubert Humphrey Fellow visit us from Bahrain. One aspect of America she was studying was homelessness. She said there was no homelessness in her country. She said families would never let it happen; they would take people in.

Having no way to know whether that was true in every case, I was nevertheless intrigued. Was it something about the culture in a Muslim country?

One thing I do know is that in this country, alas, Muslim women and children like other women and children, sometimes find themselves in need of temporary housing. That was the impetus for a new center in Boston, the brainchild of an Egyptian-American college student.

Lisa Wangsness wrote about the initiative at the Boston Globe. Here is the part of the article that touched me the most.

“The project began six years ago, when Mona Salem, then a 20-year-old Egyptian-American college student, was trying to help a young Muslim friend who wanted to escape a foster home where she felt unsafe.

“Salem thought her friend would feel most comfortable in a Muslim-run shelter for women, but soon discovered none existed in Boston. So she began raising money to start one, and teamed up with [Malika MacDonald, the national director of the Islamic Circle of North America Relief USA’s Transitional Housing Network.] …

“Donations poured in from every direction. Dishes and pots and pans for the kitchen arrived from families affiliated with the Framingham and Wayland mosques. A man offered his Home Depot credit card to pay for lighting. Various groups and individuals sponsored each of the bedrooms, furnishing them with bright-colored bedding and art for the walls.

“Salem said she was near tears when she saw the finished house the other day.

“ ‘That place was a dump when we first got there, and now it’s beautiful — absolutely beautiful,’ she said. ‘That says a lot about . . . how strong we are as a community to help one another.’

“Help arrived from beyond the local Muslim community as well. An artist in Texas sent an Arabesque Moroccan ceiling medallion for the living room. A board member of the interfaith group Kids4Peace Boston donated a lacquered dining table and banquette. The founder of a planned shelter for transgender people in Indiana sent along bathroom towels, MacDonald said.”

I suspect many of those donors know what it’s like to feel different and look for comfort.

More at the Boston Globe, here.

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Attempts to improve housing for low-income people have often destroyed a sense of community. That’s eminently clear in Robert Kanigel’s new biography of Jane Jacobs, an activist who helped to end the construction of the large complexes known as the “projects.”

So there is some irony in a new Global Oneness film about a 70-year-old housing project that probably once destroyed a neighborhood but has since created its own sense of community. Today it is threatened with what sounds like very pleasant improvements.

Life is complicated.

The Global Oneness Project has interviewed Yesler Terrace residents and created a film to spark discussion of the pluses and minuses of revitalization.

Even the Walls is a short documentary about the multi-generational residents living within Yesler Terrrace, a public-housing neighborhood in downtown Seattle grappling with the forces of gentrification.

“For over 70 years, Yesler has been home to thousands of Asian, Asian American, African, African American, Native American, Hispanic, and Caucasian residents. The 30-acre property is being redeveloped quickly and the residents are being forced to make a decision — collect their memories and belongings and leave, or return to a place they know well, but do not recognize due to heavy reconstruction.

Even the Walls chronicles the intimate stories and experiences from the residents of Yessler and defines the human connection to home and community.”

The film is here. Lesson plans for teachers are here. And the good intentions of the City of Seattle are described here.

Photo: Seattle Housing
In an organic 70-year process, the residents of Seattle’s somewhat worn Yesler Terrace have made the “projects” into a real community. So not everyone is thrilled that improvements are afoot.

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