One of the things I remember about growing up is our front porch. I frequently sat out there with my dad – two lawn chairs, side by side, watching the world go by. But we didn’t just watch, we talked to one another and to people who walked by. Oh, and we listened to baseball on a transistor radio. We also sat in the backyard that didn’t have a fence and we could see people and they could see us. And we visited. These were gathering places in my childhood. This was common every day life. Kitchens were also gathering places, around tables, sitting and talking. Relatives, neighbors, people who just dropped in all gathered around the table. My mother was known for “throwing on a lunch” and my aunts could always pull a brownie or some other treat out of the oven or freezer. Depending on the house, there was coffee or iced tea (not sweet tea – I didn’t learn about that until I moved South). Most of all there was conversation.
Thus, my perfect house would have a wrap around porch, a big back yard without a barrier of a fence and a big kitchen.
Maybe I don’t need those things though. Maybe it is just opportunity – presented, taken and created.
I have had a lot of chances to talk to people this summer and it has been wonderful. Conversations that are not just “hi, how are you?” “oh, I’m fine (though I am not)’ kind of conversations, but deeper discussions ranging from the meaning and place of reconciliation, what is happening in community and what can I do to help, engagement with community and others, and deeper spiritual discussions about passion, where we fit and how we find our own way in the universe. I don’t know that I realized how many of these discussions I have been involved in until Thursday night when I was fortunate enough to be part of a small group who gathered at Social Venture in Birmingham, Alabama to share an evening with Molly Barker as part of her Red Boot Coalition tour.
I discovered Girls on the Run and Molly Barker while I was working on my MA in Health Studies. I was immediately awed by the amazing work she started and that continues today, providing space and opportunity for girls in elementary and junior high to run and to learn about how to avoid the girl box. (more on boxes in a few paragraphs). I had a project for a class so I wrote to Molly, not necessarily expecting an answer from an Executive Director of a national organization, but I received an answer and met a generous spirit. Molly retired from GOTR and began to explore other avenues for her passions and change. The Red Boot Coalition is one of those. She has been traveling around the country listening and talking with small groups about politics and change, what makes an excellent leader, what’s broken and how can we as individuals and in small groups, fix it?
I discovered that Molly was coming to Birmingham. Hooray! I was hoping that she would. Birmingham was the last stop for this venture.
Thursday was not the best day I had all week. It had been filled with sorting through a maze of issues regarding Group Health, Medicare, nursing homes, and where my sister will ultimately wind up living when she exhausts benefits or when Group Health decides she is no longer making proper progress. It was a frustrating day in a frustrating week. I was exhausted and thought for a moment about not going to the event. I also had a vendor visit and met her for dinner before the event. Dinner was great and this is one of my favorite reps so it is always fun to catch up with her but I was cutting the time close and I was not quite sure where I was going. I left the restaurant and turned the wrong direction, of course, and got lost. As I wound my way around Birmingham, trying to find the Woodlawn section of town and the building I still was not sure I would make it. But I did and it was great.
As I pulled up, my friend Theresa Mince was also pulling into the parking lot. (See her blog post about the evening here.) We went in and found a small group gathered. The group was great – passionate men and women who care about community, politics, resources and making where they live a better place. We talked about politics – what does an excellent leader look like? What are his/her qualities? We talked about education. How do we help parents and students know the resources available? One of the most meaningful moments was when Dylan talked about meeting a student and parent face to face to talk about a program the student wanted to get into. Face to face. Not e-mail or text or even a blog. They talked and the student had a face and a voice for Dylan, who seems like a wonderful administrator from the short time I was with her, but who talked about how that encounter made a difference. Other teachers in the room talked about similar encounters. It is so easy to hide behind our internet and social media presence, but when we sit and talk then we can understand each others stories. We talked about resources and working together instead of trying to create one more organization to do the same work. I love the mural project that Kathleen Hamrick talked about creating in Birmingham. There was much more.
This reminded me of my years in Grand Rapids, and especially living in the Wealthy Street and East Hills area. It was the Center of the Universe. (For real. I have a photo of the sign somewhere.) There were people who really cared about the neighborhood and making it a better place to live. Many of them still live there and I watch the change that continues with some envy at times. I miss my neighborhood. Neighbors knew one another and watched out for one another. Developers lived in the buildings they were renovating. The neighborhood changed and became a place where businesses wanted to locate and where people wanted to live. When I first moved there I had more than one person question what I was doing moving to “that” part of town. The change came through engagement.
When I was driving to the pool way too early Friday morning I thought about Tuscaloosa and what has happened since the April 27, 2011 tornado. We have an excellent leader in Mayor Walt Maddox. He didn’t just show up for the photo opportunity. He has been part of leading the community back to a better place than it was before.
On Friday I continued discussion with my friend Heather. I sent her a note, saying I wished she had been able to come but knew she had an important school event with her husband and daughter. She asked about meeting and I first thought, “not today,” but then said “yes, of course” and I am so glad I did. We had a great discussion about a wide range of topics – the kind of discussion that leads to something evolving and happening.
I have much more to write but I am in an airport, taking up a coveted plug for recharging, so I will end here for now. Thursday evening was one more piece in my own journey of thinking about story, faith and health – what will I do and how can I make a difference for other people? The possibilities are coming to light and I am excited to see where this will lead.