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Affordable Housing , Community Development , Homelessness , Supportive Housing

Dance Parties on Division Street: How Small Changes Make a Big Impact

6 May 2014

Sara Salomons, United Church of Christ minister, and an organizer of the Imagine. Build. Create. Community Conversations series

I began my career on the streets -- one street in particular.  Called Division Street, it lived up to its name by dividing the haves and have-nots (or have-nothings).  Division was where you went when you had nowhere else to go.  It was dotted with thrift stores, shelters, soup kitchens, sleazy bars, SROs, clinics, and addicts. 

There is a version of Division Street in most American cities.

It was 1996 and I was a 21-year-old recent college graduate with a deep desire to tackle urban poverty.  I decided the only way that I could do that was to roll up my sleeves and get in the trenches.  My first job out of college was as the director of an 80-unit SRO -- as trenchy as it got. 

I witnessed the devastation of addiction, the lack of care for the mentally and socially vulnerable, what hunger does to a body, the effects of not having permanent shelter, the reality of carrying all earthly possessions in three grocery bags, the isolation associated with life on Division.  I began to realize I was not going to tackle urban poverty on my own so I tried to gather an army.  I’d rally and organize and motivate and march.  People joined my cause, but Anthony still went without his meds and Larry died at the age of 41 of cirrhosis and Shelly could not find her way out of prostitution.

Maybe because I was a 21-year-old optimist, I forged ahead, but I needed a new approach.  In my tiny, fluorescent-lit office, I hung a little piece of paper on my bulletin board.  On it I wrote, “You never change things by fighting the existing reality.  To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”   Richard Buckminster Fuller said that. He was an architect known for his designs and inventions of practical and inexpensive shelter, among other things.  I don’t remember being aware of this at the time – I just liked the way the words flowed.  I still have that piece of paper.

I didn’t wipe out poverty and homelessness and hunger, even with my army of good people, my young optimism, and inspiring quotations.  But I listened to stories, made myself available, and found ways to create community.  We had dance parties and art shows and live theater events.  We celebrated birthdays and impromptu potlucks.  We hosted seminars and started AA and NA groups and had mock job interview days.  The old model wasn’t working.  I needed to create a new one to make the existing model obsolete.

I began to see our little corner transforming.  Our building was cleaner because people began to take pride.  Our people were happier because they began to understand community.  Laughter echoed in the hallways.  It even smelled better, and by the time I left that old building on Division for graduate school, we had new tenants because the old tenants were on to jobs and permanent housing and creating new communities.

As time passes I become more convinced that managers do things the right way and leaders do the right thing.  Doing things the right way essentially means continuing to follow the prescribed, formulaic, systematic way of being.  There’s nothing wrong with this approach if effecting change is not the end goal.  Doing the right thing is flipping “doing things the right way” on its head.  It can be unpopular, unorthodox, unconventional.  Think about people who stirred the pot and agitated the masses -- Dr. King, Rosa Parks, Óscar Romero, Malcolm X, Nelson Mandela, Mother Theresa.  They didn’t push paper and hope for the best.  They led with loud, strong voices.  They changed the world.

As we tackle the issues we face -- poverty, homelessness, racism, addiction -- our approach needs to be one of leading, not managing.  We need to focus efforts on building a new model so that our old models are obsolete.  How do we begin to do that here in Hartford?  Let the leading begin.

The next Imagine. Build. Create. conversation – Building Up a City – will be at 6 p.m. on May 20 at Congregation Beth Israel, 701 Farmington Ave., West Hartford.

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