Group Aims to Give Mother's a Second Helping
Community doesn’t just happen. It doesn’t matter how extravagant the facilities, how educated and wealthy the residents, how well funded the programs or how established the management structures (or the inverse of any of these)… community doesn’t just happen. Not real community. To get real community you have to work at it. You have to MAKE it happen. And it is VERY hard work. So hard that I admit I often question my decision to publicly declare myself a ‘Community Organizer.’
But then it starts to work. Things start coming together. I start to hear the concepts I teach making their way into the conversation. Concepts like the power of relationships; the importance of people; the value of place. Concepts like the power of collaboration - working together towards a cause. But most of all the power of a Relational Community. And my faith is restored. They are more then concepts. They work.
I bring this up in relation to this article because I believe it illustrates two points that are evidence of a community that is beginning to think relationally… a community that is starting to embrace a relational culture.
Mother’s Kitchen sits in the area of the West River neighborhood that we are trying to call the West River Business Triangle District. But most folks know of it as The Bottoms. It is currently the only section of this small neighborhood zoned for retail and commercial businesses along with moderate density residential. In other words, it is supposed to be a neighborhood business district. You can easily walk to it from anywhere in the neighborhood. It should be a vibrant place of commerce and social activity. But what we got instead is… The Bottoms.
Of the roughly 20 commercial enterprises in this area, Mother is the only one that actually lives in the neighborhood. This is not to imply that only businesses run by people who live in a neighborhood actually care about the neighborhood. That is way too much of a generalization. However in the Bottoms… it happens to be true.
Mother’s is a refuge and Mother is a jewel. Countless times I’ve been in Mother’s and watched her generosity.
- The young man who has obviously fallen on hard times (or had hard times fall on him) comes in with only $5 and she gives him a $15 meal.
- When she catered the West River Holiday party she got up and 3:00 in the morning and walked through a blizzard to make sure our curry chicken was ready. I remember her extreme disappointment when we had to cancel the party but took back all the food she thought she could resell and gave me strict freezing instructions for the rest then insisted that I promise to bring them back to her to reheat when we rescheduled the party. Then a few weeks later when we hold the party she insists on cooking all new dishes because, “I need it to taste right. Never mind the money. My name is on that dish. I need it to taste right.” Then she was insulted when I insisted on paying her for it.
Mother knows how to cook and how to hustle. For years she was able to work hard enough to keep up. When she got behind she just worked a little harder. She doesn’t know marketing. She doesn’t know bookkeeping. She knows how to cook and how to hustle.
Then she found she couldn’t hustle like she used to. Maybe she could put in the work but the reward just wasn’t there. Compound that with a few scoundrels who took advantage of a warm-hearted, gentle and perhaps a bit naive woman and we end up with this mess. Precision Services LLC is a predatory lender (though they will claim that they are providing financing to people who wouldn’t be able to get financing any other way (isn’t that what the mafia claims)) and frankly I am afraid of them taking over such an important piece of property.
Mother’s is in need of more than just money. She needs a complete restructuring. Hopefully we can put something together that will let her just cook and be Mother in all her fabulous-ness.
So though I love Mother and don’t know what I’m gonna do if I loose her Brown Stew Chicken with rice and peas and cabbage, I’m more concerned about what will happen if we loose that block to another ‘entrepreneur’ only interested in exploiting our community and keeping that block living down to its nickname - The Bottoms.
When we got the word that Mother was in trouble the neighborhood rallied. But we didn’t know what we could do. And here is where we see the first principle I want to lift up. A community is vibrant when the people take action.
We don’t know how this will turn out. Mother may be in too much financial distress for us to be able to put together a package that makes sense (after all, this is about business.) However we are willing to try. Nothing ventured… nothing gained. You have not because you ask not. However you want to put it, nothing happens until you act.
The group of folks who are coming together around resolving this issue is impressive. Not only do we have residents (both West River Neighborhood Services Corporation and the West River SHIP are predominately resident driven organizations - the later for profit and the former a 501c3) but we also have the City of New Haven Economic Development Administration, Yale Law Clinic, the Community Economic Development Fund, and various others working together. And all it took was a few phone calls to bring this team together.
The significance here is that this team is the “community”. In this usage “community” is relational. Everyone who lives, works, plays or cares about this neighborhood is a part of our community. There is no need to bicker. There is no need to get territorial (as often happens when a group such as this comes together.) It doesn’t matter your race, level of education, income, employment status… it doesn’t matter. All that matters is that you care and are ready to act on your convictions.
My second point - more a refinement of the first point: It’s not just about acting. It’s about acting together.
As I stated earlier, we don’t know if we will be able to save Mother’s Kitchen. We hope to be able to at least have the community take control of this anchor space in our neighborhood. We don’t know. It is the first time that we’ve come together around something this huge. Regardless the outcome, however, we have proven the value of a relational culture. It is the years of establishing a healthy public relationship with the people in our “community” that made it possible for us to respond as quickly as we have.
So in a sense we have won before we even begin the battle. We may not know exactly what we can do or how we can do it. What we do know is that we can do SOMETHING!!! We can act. And we can act with confidence because we are acting TOGETHER!!!
In one of our Neighborhood of Choice meetings last year I presented again the concept of building community relationally and one of West River’s new leaders - Ann Greene said, “It’s just like making Stone Soup.” The metaphor is perfect. I plan to write more about this later but basically the concept is that each person in our community brings with them the ingredients that make up this soup. We each have a role in the building of our community and that construction only happens, or happens successfully, when we put it all together in the same pot. It’s relational.
The coalition of folks working to save Mother’s… to save West River… to save New Haven is like Stone Soup. We stir it together, give it a taste and if something is missing we go out and get it.
The West River neighborhood is quickly becoming a Relational Community.