Are You Here to Serve, Support, or Save?
After many months of New Community Visions Initiative conversations, my stand out memories are mostly people talking about how we should use words like community and equity.
At the Charleston, West Virginia, gathering, friends from the place I call home were in the room. And one of those friends, Jai Washington, gave us her truth about one of the tensions in the conversation about community and equity.
As he did at every gathering on the New Community Visions Initiative tour, Michael Rohd, who designed and implemented these discussions with Clay Lord, asked us to discuss and interrogate the meaning of community.
He told us that Americans for the Arts had provided a starting point for the definition.
This slide was intended only as a place to begin the conversation, and Michael was clear that this is not their adopted definition.
After people in the room spent a few minutes in one-on-one discussion of the definition with a person sitting nearby, Michael added: This is a learning context for Americans for the Arts. They are listening for and want to understand: what are the questions you feel need to be asked before an organization or agency can use the word community in their mission, or funding or grant applications, or before an arts organization can assert that it serves the community? What are some questions people should think about before using the word community? What is ethically necessary before we use that word? If you had the power to insist that people ask questions of themselves first—what would they be?
And this is when my friend Jai dropped her verbal bomb.
The question she wants everyone to ask themselves before using the word community, before saying they are of the community, or proposing to do something in or for a community, is this:
“Are you here to serve, support, or … save?”
I’ve heard Jai ask this question before. We both live in a rapidly changing Cincinnati neighborhood called Over-the-Rhine (OTR). Perhaps you’ve read about it. Politico recently published a controversial article, “How Cincinnati Salvaged the Nation’s Most Dangerous Neighborhood,” as part of its “What Works” series. Another group just rated OTR as one of the top fifteen coolest neighborhoods in the country.
For sure, I’m glad that people are saving and reusing the architecture and infrastructure of this uniquely beautiful 19th century historic district.
But we’re living in a place that is still transforming, where new people enter every day who don’t know or appreciate the history and culture of the neighborhood, or that some current residents have been here making it a place for decades already.
Jai has lived here a long time. I moved in a few years ago. We’re both troubled by what we observe happening—or really, not happening—on sidewalks between newer and long-time residents, and by how visitors—who are primarily here for entertainment—seem to disregard the residents and culture of our place. And by disregard, I mean literally seem to not see us.
These days, Over-the-Rhine feels very different to Jai. She told a reporter: ”It feels like someone has walked into your home, hung up their coat, made dinner, kissed your husband and started playing cards with your kids without you. That’s hurtful.”’
At our monthly residents’ council meetings, there have been times when we cringe over the tone of the conversation. There are so many requests for our input on plans for development that most months there’s a difficult debate between the pro-developer crowd—which seems to view any questions of for-profit developers as rude—and others who are promoting historic preservation, affordable housing options, a mix of retail and services, and equitable development.
Even more uncomfortable moments happen when people assert their privilege like a salve, offering to assist, and othering the people who came before them to the neighborhood.
The residents’ council should be a place where everyone can come together to build a strong(er) neighborhood. Every resident has something to offer. But too often, someone implies that newer residents are there to help the long-term residents. Or even that the council itself is there to serve the long-time (and mostly people of color) residents working in jobs that don’t pay much.
It was one of those moments when I first heard Jai ask: “Are you here to serve, support, or save?”
Think about that. If people are working together for their community, they can be equals. If one part of the group is saving and the others are being rescued, they can’t be equal. If I’m here to save you, you must be needy or deficient.
When we propose to contribute toward making a place more healthy, equitable, and vibrant, we should be in and of the community—but not saving the people in it. This is true in gentrifying places and everywhere.