Community Glue

The question of what it means for a community to thrive has been at the heart of our learning this semester. After exploring how this question plays out in the Old North End, it felt natural to expand our inquiry into other neighborhoods. Interestingly, as we did, the question itself morphed: Rather than merely being curious about what it means for a community to thrive, we found ourselves asking what it takes for a community to thrive. What are the secret ingredients? Who in Burlington is taking the risk to do this work, despite the challenges?

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We quickly learned that anyone interested in what it actually takes to make a community thrive may want to start by exploring places where thriving doesn’t come easily. In Burlington, one of those places has traditionally been the neighborhoods where many UVM students live off-campus. As we learned from the city’s Neighborhood Project, although student housing is concentrated in certain neighborhoods, nearly all of it is intermixed with owner-occupied residential units.

Without care and attention, dynamics between neighbors can be tense. But things are changing. Measures of neighborhood health are actually increasing city-wide (with overall calls for service having dropped ~24% since 2012), but the area where most UVM students live off campus has seen a 48% drop in calls over the same period. Why is that?

One answer is a unique collaboration has developed between the UVM Office of Student Community Relations (OSCR) and a neighborhood initiative, ISGOOD (Isham Street Gardening and Other Optimistic Doings). The two organizations have been working to build connections between permanent and student residents, using gardening, community events, and an approach they call “random acts of kindness.”

In early November, BCL students began the day connecting with the OSCR staff, and getting an overview of the Isham St. project. City and Lake_EDITED (1)

From there, we walked down to Isham St., where we received a tour from Brian Cina, a longtime Isham St. resident. After the tour, we joined seniors who are temporary residents of Burlington Health & Rehab, a medical facility at the end of the street. Students spent time with Rehab residents, and shared stories. A few students were able to hear from a WWII vet about his time in Papua New Guinea.

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Together with the seniors, students made Fall-themed gift bags — bags that BCL students then delivered to Isham St. renters. It was a simple project, but through this “random act of kindness,” we joined the effort to make connections between Isham St. renters, homeowners, and the seniors who are also their neighbors. We heard from people intimately involved in neighborhood issues about the challenges to living in community, and we joined in solidarity with those who are envisioning simple solutions.

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Back at the Old North End Community Center, we applied this insight to our own home base, in all of its complexity and diversity. Our question was how we could strengthen connections with the people with whom we share the building–people we see nearly every day in the hallways, but who come to the O.N.E. Center for different reasons. One powerful tool for building these bridges came to us through our semester-long collaboration with local artist, Mary Lacy. Aong with being inspirational in her own right, Mary has graciously invited us to connect with many of her artist friends. One of these is Corinne Yonce, who works for the Vermont Affordable Housing Coalition. Corinne’s recent project, Voices of Home, is a remarkable example of how to use portraiture to both build community and to advocate for people who are traditionally marginalized.

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Inspired by Corinne’s work, we applied these ideas to help one another connect in our BCL community. Students began by drawing “blind contour” portraits, and eventually shifted to full portraits. The experience resonated with vulnerability, humility, humor, and care.

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Next, we connected with another local artist, Ashley Roark, who has been using the medium of collage to bring people together across differences. With her guidance, BCL students engaged in a collage project with seniors from the Champlain Senior Center. It was wonderful to watch how sharing a creative space allowed stories and connections to flow.

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Our continued interest in how art can help build community then took us to Pine St., at the heart of the South Ends Arts District. There, we met with P.J. McHenry, a BHS grad, and one of the founder and owners of ARTSRiot. He told the story of his own journey from wanting to live in the woods, making as little impact as possible, to the realization that instead he wanted to have a big impact–and that the power of the arts to bring people together was the way to do it.

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Just down Pine Street is the studio where Corinne Yonce is an artist-in-residence. Our conversation with her came full circle, as conversations about art often do, and we found ourselves talking about industrial history of the South End, the city’s zoning policy, and the complex dynamics of gentrification.

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The end of November marked a natural end to our unit exploring what it means, and what it takes, for a community to thrive–and what better way to answer that question than with a glorious, harvest-themed potluck? There is so much to give thanks for, but at the top of the list for BCL is community itself.  

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