1. The Value of Lived Experiences in Community Building

    June 20, 2019

    By Rashidah H. Farid. 

    New England. I am no stranger to travel and having worked across the lower 48 states and Alaska. I might say I am experienced, particularly with rural communities.  Working in rural New England, however, has presented some unique experiences for me. The prevailing culture is of inclusion and openness. Everyone is open to diversity, natural resource protection and organic locally sourced foods. Individuals or groups that openly challenge diversity and inclusion are immediately shunned and labelled as backward thinkers. In a place born out of religious freedom, the American revolution and abolition of slavery, a progressive and inclusive thought are mandatory.

    The Community Garden. I traveled to a small and beautiful state in July to solidify plans for an upcoming workshop. My host was a past grantee that proudly detailed how a small grant 10 years ago has helped to create a more sustainable community. Ten years ago, the ad-hoc garden was struggling to survive local politics and the grant provided legitimacies to the cause. Now, the community garden provides produce to the food bank and works with local 4-H and boy scout groups. The organization has expanded to include providing meals on wheels to seniors and hot lunch to over 120 people every day! Located on the lawn of the city government, “Visibility is key”, she said. “That’s how you get the community to take an interest”.  This is an old mill town. Most of the jobs were lost when factories moved over seas. The town has been struggling ever since to create a new economy and provide resources for those in need. The town is proud to independently take care of its residents.

    My host knows everyone from the police to the construction men. The economic diversity of this town is apparent, everyone from millionaires to those receiving living assistance. When I asked about cultural or ethnic diversity, I was informed that the town was “white as a loaf of bread.” I confirmed this later with the 2000 census data; 97.6 % white, 0.39% black, 1.15% Hispanic, 0.5% Asian and 0.15% Native American. In a town of 34,000 people, around 800 are not white. I stuck out like a sore thumb as I was shown around from place to place. The feeling of “odd” overcame me as we continued the conversation around inclusion and the value of multiple perspectives. I was no longer certain of its relevance. Thankfully, we arrived at the garden and our discussion moved to soil mixtures of sandy loam and organic potting soil added to the 10 inch raised beds. The nectarines, apples, pears were bearing fruit! The addition of honey bees created quite the stir in town. All of which, was protected by a fence. Apparently, produce had been disappearing before it made it to the food pantry. I sighed and went on about how the sugar snaps were still blooming in the July heat.

    Doulas on a Mission. Later that day, I met with a woman in charge of a local doulas organization. Doulas use traditional knowledge to guild women through pregnancy and labor. They recently had a training course for 20 or so diverse women from across New England. Her organization was a new grantee. Thus my purpose was to encourage and offer resources for success. We spent a while discussing capacity building, potential collaborations, future projects and the such. She beamed with pride. Passion was shining through her yellow dress, ambitious to say the least. Being a doula is a tremendous commitment and responsibility. She explained that one client was in labor four days! She had to be there, day or night, away from her own children. “You become close to the women and a part of their families”, she said. The lack of education about pregnancy and childbirth is limited as families become more singular and disconnected from tradition. Particularly for African American women, the rate of death during labor is disproportionately higher, even among the educated and wealthy. She went on to describe what women should know pre-conception. “We have lost traditions”, she said, “I work exclusively with African American women to reestablish knowledge of proper health that has been forgotten.” We discussed her ideas for the next grant round and how the group’s ad-hoc status would not limit their ability to apply for larger grants from New England Grassroots Fund. By the time we finished dinner, I had instructions on herbs I should but in my bath, prenatal vitamins, proper nutrient, and how to find a husband.

    Living Your Values.  I returned to work at the Grassroots Fund on Monday. Yet another meeting was scheduled with one of our partners in the environmental health movement. We spoke briefly about the standard: trends, barriers to funding, challenges and inclusion. I was struck most by her experience in Vermont. She grew up there and expressed the “live free or die concept” best. In her point of view communities are small and local decisions are made by local town councils. Proud is not the word to describe communities defined strictly within 5-10 miles radius. “It’s tradition”, she said. “We want our independence and are willing fight for it”. I silently wonder if this independence is code for isolation and homogeneity. Surely, they have value in different cultural and lived experiences? These ideas of freedom and unity haunt me here. Even the churches are inclusive, proudly flying rainbow flags. New England has always been a leader in progressive thought and culture. Though, I doubt that if faced with living those values daily they would fare any better than us southerners. People assume that the racial and culture oppression of the south is result of slavery, the Confederacy, which it is-however, systemic discrimination and separatist ideas do not adhere to the Mason–Dixon boundaries. Southerners are forced to confront and reform their values based on their environment, their community and their lived experiences. Most southerners lack the privilege of living in a community that is 97% white or 97% black. When cultures are exchanging ideas and beliefs, conflict can be expected, but genuine culture appreciation can only be obtained through these shared experiences.

    Self-Reflection. During my time with the Grassroots Fund, I often wondered what grantees think of me, my southern drawl and unapologetic boldness. The rainbow colors are inviting. It’s difficult for anyone to feel threaten and not instantly befriend by a woman in a purple, white, orange and pink dress with matching converse low-top sneakers. Getting organizations to openly discuss their organizational challenges can be difficult. Unfortunately my soft skills are methodical and rough; this limits my effectiveness. So I pace myself, go slow, flash a pretty smirk then bait the conversation from the student prospective. People are typically at home when teaching. Slowing, I walk with them as they self-discover that inclusion and diversity of lived experiences is an essential component of growth. Each step is important and rewarding. At the end of each day, I slouch forward. Social work is exhausting. Life as a data scientist is so much easier.  

    Rashidah H. Farid is a PhD candidate in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation at the University of Florida. Her research focuses on the population ecology of Gunnison’s prairie dogs. Originally from Alabama, she enjoys traveling and community development work.