We’ve been getting into connections in a big way lately. Partnerships with businesses, college students and professors, retirees, community agencies and other people out there are a huge part of what makes Starfire U work so well, in my mind. It’s our first small steps toward helping support Tom Kohler’s “horizontal democracy.”
Candice has been our leader in that effort and is a natural at forging these connections. Over the last few months, she’s been working on a training for Starfire around connecting, and we wrapped the third and final day of that training on Wednesday.
We intended this to be mostly about neighborhoods, being awakened as citizens, and discovering the gifts that are hidden in plain sight in everyday people and places. We soon discovered that we needed to first introduce a framework for why this was important to the lives of people who live with labels of disabilities. We decided that an intro on Social Role Valorization might be just the thing. (Bonus: we wanted to explore SRV a little more at Starfire anyway!) If you’ve read any of my prior posts on SRV, you know I’ve got a few thoughts on how it’s taught and how it might be spread in the future.
So we wanted a one-day training on SRV, and we decided that, in the Starfire spirit, we would like to include the people in their third year of Starfire U in that training. These are two things that are not traditionally done with SRV. Most SRV trainings are a minimum of two days. And I found examples of people with disabilities being involved in trainings of SRV, but usually as an example or host, not as a co-learner. So we knew we’d need someone who was willing to operate a little more fluidly that what we’ve encountered at traditional SRV offerings. We discovered Leah Holden from the Fairfield County Board of Developmental Disabilities. Leah has been leading a one-day intro for new staff at Fairfield County for some time. I spoke to her on the phone and was shocked (and delighted) that she was willing to take on the challenge. We worked on the training together over email, including Starfire and some local friends familiar with SRV. What we came up with was terrific. I’ll admit, I was a little worried going into Monday, and rightly so. Every SRV training I’ve been to (save one) spends a majority of the time on the devaluation and saves a small segment at the end on developing roles. In my opinion, the time dedicated to each should be flip-flopped. We should spend a little time learning “what we’re up against” and the inherent problems and pitfalls that lie in our way (devaluation, etc.), but we should devote much more time and energy to learning how to move beyond them (building valued roles). Focusing on the former just doesn’t provide a roadmap for a hopeful way out of a tough reality.
We were worried that people might get stuck in a dismal discussion, which, in my experience, happens frequently with this topic. Leah did a few things that really helped that to not happen:
- She started the day with all of us drawing a poster of the story of our lives. They all had pictures of people and relationships and dreams. We taped them to the walls of the room, so we were surrounded by pictures of our lives throughout the week.
- She made lots and lots of room for discussion. Leah hardly “lectured” to us (in the traditional sense) at all. She let us figure things out for ourselves and provided guidance and thoughts.
- She hung various quotes around the room. One was something like “When I feel like I’m the verge of doing something important, my anxiety goes up.” Another was about “capacity thinking” and another was “Start a huge, foolish project, like Noah…it makes absolutely no difference what people think of you.” Whenever we felt ourselves getting stuck, we were able to look up and see all of these encouraging quotes on the wall.
But the single most important thing about Monday was that we included the members of Starfire U. They heard all the same things the staff did. We all shared our ideas and thoughts in small groups. Their presence brought an entirely different (and better) dynamic to the training. Many of them told me they’d never been to a training in their lives. And many thanked me for including them when we wrapped on Wednesday. It was me who was thankful, though, and I let them know that. Without their presence, whatever we talked about would be less legitimate. I think the learning was deeper, because it was more relevant, and more personal.
On Tuesday morning, Joe Erpenbeck led us in a discussion on connecting in our community. Joe leads the Asset Based Community Development Team here in Hamilton County and has taught me much of what I know about this work. We broke up into small groups and talked about strategies we might use to include someone new in our neighborhood. We brainstormed on places we would take them and people we’d introduce them to. Again, Joe provided lots of room for discussions and small group learning.
That afternoon, we all went out into the city in small groups of 4-5 and started making small talk with people we encountered. On Tuesday, my small group went to Over the Rhine, a neighborhood just north of downtown Cincinnati. We visited Findlay Market and talked to many of the shop owners. We met David, who has a huge plot in the Over the Rhine People’s Garden. Big giant okra, lots of melons and tomatoes and beans. He took us on a tour of his garden, then told us about his work on the presidential campaign in 2008. He was fiercely proud of both. And in between, we stopped and chatted with all kinds of people and learned their stories. We met an engaged couple, an artist, teachers, and so many other people.
There were seven other small groups like mine exploring different parts of the city. At the end of the day, we met back at Starfire and shared our stories. Everyone was on fire with all they’d discovered in a couple hours of “being more chatty in Cincinnati.”
On Wednesday, we went back out into neighborhoods. But this time, we had the caveat that we had to explore a neighborhood of the people in Starfire U. My group of five ended up in Evanston and Walnut Hills, and discovered (once again) a treasure trove of gifts, passions, and hospitality within a few blocks. We found a whole food store and cafe called Lucky John’s on Woodburn in Walnut Hills. We met the owners, who live above it and care deeply about the neighborhood. They even save small jobs for the kids around their store to come in and help with. We found an office of people who would typically work alone from home, but decided to rent some space and now share office space, in order to capture the sense of community that comes with work. We found a man who works at P&G and has been restoring a 12 bedroom mansion. He knew everyone, it seemed. We met some painters working on a building and talked with a man who wants to be an opera singer! We found a knitting/yarn store, and although the owner wasn’t all that friendly, a shopper invited us to the weekly “Stitch n’ Bitch” knitting club in Northside, where any level of expertise is welcome.
We met back at Starfire and shared stories and everyone had lots more incredible stories from the day of people they met and places that surprised them. They tied their discovery of our community’s gifts back with the valued roles that we all strive for. People who were previously strangers to be ignored or avoided became mysterious stories, waiting to be discovered. That is exactly what SRV strives for: to help people be seen for their gifts, instead of their perceived deficits.
It was a beautiful three days, and we wrapped it up with readings of Waddie Welcome and the Beloved Community, as part of a larger Waddie Welcome reading project. The story was the perfect way to finish the week.
Again, remember that all of this included the people in Starfire U. We worked through SRV together, we explored our city together, and they hosted 8 different readings of Waddie Welcome in their homes. I don’t think the importance of their inclusion can be overstated.
It’s been quiet here at Starfire the last two days, thanks to the upcoming Labor Day holiday. That stands in stark contrast to the bubbly and energetic three days prior. They were full of people stretching ideas, confronting paradigms and sharing and supporting with each other. This was a good week, and we’ve got Candice, Leah, Joe, all the families of Starfire U, and all the wonderful citizens of Cincinnati to thank. An abundant community, indeed.