rethink

After the Storm

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This was the second time I had been part of a relief mission after a storm. The first was over half a lifetime ago. I had just finished my junior year of high school and received an invitation to participate in some cleanup and restoration work in the southern tip of Florida.  There, a community had been hit by a fairly powerful hurricane, nearly a year prior, and crews were still being dispatched to help with the ongoing efforts. I don’t remember any of my youth leaders discussing what to expect, and maybe they didn’t even know.  However, I’m sure I carried in my own expectations based on the values and messages I’d picked up along the way about what it meant to help.

There is a lot I could say about our experiences, however, one stands out in my mind.  We had been informed that we would be helping in a neighborhood that was being restored and that we would be assisting by painting a house.  About ten of us, all white middle-class teens, were dropped off at a small home in a Latino community. The home appeared to have been there way before the storm.  It was made of concrete block with all concrete floors and open windows (no glass). As we scurried to begin our assignment, I noticed family members wandering around, as if strangers in their own home.  I had been conditioned to think that the family would be “grateful” for our help, but here we were and it all felt awkward. We were quickly loaded up with paint cans and began painting the exterior of the house.  My friends seemed unphased as they were eager to get started. Like most teens in similar situations, their focus was on each other. So, they began painting the house, painting one another, and basically goofing off.  This time, however, I was in my own zone, walking around bewildered at what was happening. I then wandered in the living room and came face to face with the Matriarca (mother). We locked eyes for what seemed like an extended period of time and a deep shame and sadness came over me.  

In that moment I realized that the issue at hand was not a storm, but chronic poverty and injustice, and the remedy was not a few gallons of paint. In fact, I didn’t have the words to put to it, but I realized that we were somehow contributing to the problem.  

Did anyone ask this family what they really needed?  Was anyone’s dignity considered in this process? Why did a group of kids from Ohio need to come to Florida to do what the residents had the capability to do, and probably much better?  Was this really about them….or about us?

Please don’t misinterpret my statements to suggest that service doesn’t matter or that “people should just take care of themselves.”  Quite the contrary. It’s an honor and a responsibility to come alongside people in need, both near and far. Rather, I’m suggesting that HOW we serve matters. This includes the actions we take and the position of our hearts.

Nearly three weeks ago our Dayton community suffered devastating storms.  Many of us have already had the opportunity to serve our neighbors and will continue to have opportunities to serve over a long period of recovery. As we do, I offer up a couple principles to help guide our actions.

Listen first and don’t assume to know what others need. Listening includes giving up preconceived notions of what people may need, asking how you can be of assistance and paying attention to the material, as well as the psychological and spiritual needs of others.  

Respect and defer to local leadership.  Outside relief can be a huge asset because of the manpower needed to mobilize and resource such efforts. However, all relief and recovery  efforts should be accountable to, and in lockstep partnership with, indigenous leaders inside neighborhoods impacted.

Lastly, do WITH instead of TO or FOR others. Tragedy can break down neighborhood and other invisible barriers that divide us.  As we do, let’s not miss the opportunity to cultivate new friendships that extend beyond the needs of today to the gift we have of each other.  

Marlo Fox, Executive Director, Think Tank, Inc.

To learn more about Marlo's work, please visit thinktank-inc.org


Waiting to Be Developed

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I was in my late twenties when I was exposed to the idea of greenfield and brownfield development. Never having formal training on urban planning or economic development, it took me some time to understand what was involved.  Simply put, greenfields include undeveloped land (in a city or rural area) that has never been built upon. Brownfields, in contrast, are abandoned areas of previous industrial or commercial use which have the potential for redevelopment.  Both spaces hold opportunity for fresh purpose and use; be it recreational, commercial or some other type of development.

Living in a mid-size city that possesses many brownfield and greenfield assets, the subject of brownfield versus greenfield development always seemed to spark lively conversation and imagination.  In some ways, it was equally scary to entertain either option. There was something about our untouched land that seemed sacred and safe. Paving paradise to put up a parking lot felt like corruption of something formerly pure and sacred.  At the same time, brownfield development could mean resurrecting the dead; scouring through toxins and reliving old failures and wounds.

Who knew that land use and development would be the theme that would pop into my head on the first day of the new year, 2019.

 It does seem that strange metaphors have a tendency to find their way into my brain at just the right time. These images, however, hold symbolic meaning for most of our lives.  As we think about the year ahead, there are undoubtedly undeveloped lands where the soil is ready to be tilled. It can feel risky to try something new….to pave a way into the wilderness.  Past screw-ups or disappointments can weld themselves into our psyche enough to convince us that not trying is better than “getting it wrong.” Therefore, too many canvasses don’t get painted and musical instruments don’t get played. People don’t get the help they need and we unconsciously convince ourselves that life is easier spent passively consuming than actively creating.   On the other hand, revisiting wastelands can also seem risky and painful. Whether it is a relationship that needs forgiveness and mending or a project in the garage that I’ve started three times and can’t seem to finish, brownfields require me to clean through a mess to find new glory revealed. In reality, some brownfields need to be left alone. The investment required to decontaminate or resurrect old structures just aren’t worth it at this time.  However, each one of us probably have areas of life that we thought were dead that just need a little disciplined effort and creativity to be given new or refreshed purpose again.

I’m grateful to say that at Think Tank we are constantly given the opportunity for greenfield and brownfield development, metaphorically speaking.  This year holds the promise of new collaborations that give platform for people, who are transcending poverty, to share their stories and be given greater influence to lead change.   Additionally, we have some old projects that we’re excited to dust off and bring new life to again.

I hope you’ll take the next few days in quiet reflection and imagination about your life’s areas of wilderness and wasteland, waiting to be developed in 2019.

Marlo Fox, Executive Director, Think Tank, Inc.

To learn more about Marlo's work, please visit thinktank-inc.org