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MEET ME IN THE MIDDLE: Roundtables on Solidarity, Ecology, Care + Making (September)

by Peter Midwa

In the absence of institutional and government support, how do we create space for communities to experience collective care, shared purpose, and transformative change?

During the Meet me in the Middle roundtable on Saturday, Sept. 17, community leaders who use creative methods to support different community projects engaged with an audience of about over 30 people at the Overton Center of Excellence. The leaders discussed themes around mutual aid, ecology, solidarity, care and making. They also shared their views about how to scale up the impact of initiatives, especially in Southside neighborhoods such as Bronzeville. There were two sessions in the morning and afternoon which were moderated by Rachel Kaplan (Chicago Architecture Biennial), and Neeraj Bathia (The Open Workshop), who welcomed the audience – varying in experiences and backgrounds - and introduced the topics of discussion.

Sitting around in a circle, the panelists in the morning session were: Erika Allen - co-founder and CEO of Urban Growers Collective who works in the urban agriculture industry out of her interest in justice and environment; Cosmos Ray, an organizer for Chicago Food Sovereignty Coalition who started addressing food insecurity throughout Bronzeville after talking directly to residents about their needs; Ghian Foreman - president & CEO of Emerald South Economic Development Collaborative who learned about real estate early on, seeing it as an empowering opportunity particularly among African American communities suffering from land ownership discrepancies; Bweza Itaagi who has worked to make Englewood more welcoming where she co-founded Sistas in the Village which provides fresh food Englewood residents; Gleenance Green who works towards healing systemic oppression through her research work and by co-founding The Black Researchers Collective with one goal, institutionalizing racial equity.

The session was engaging and informative, providing a glimpse into mutual aid and solidarity which the panelists described as exchanging resources and services so that everyone in the community benefits.

Green told the audience that mutual aid participants need to work together to figure out strategies to meet community needs while organizing themselves against the unjust and oppressive system that created shortages in the first place, which is both a fair and an equal way of doing things.

Ray, who jumped on, said that with this approach, everyone on the team needs to contribute their own ideas about what need should be met instead of one person making all the decisions. “After everyone contributes their ideas, they can talk about it and agree on what to do together,” Ray said. “Having this mindset is important to scaling up an initiative.”

The panelists also explained that while it's important to work together to develop communities, cities sometimes make ecological changes that damage the stability of these communities.

“Some people in Mississippi have gotten sick from lead poisoning in the past, and water shortages in Chicago have led to violence,” Foreman said. “If community leaders work together, they can help make sure that cities have eco-friendly policies that will lead to more sustainable community development.”

After the audience had an opportunity to ask questions to the panelists, the roundtable continued with a session in the afternoon, which was about care and making.

The panelists in this session were: Amanda Williams, an artist and architect who appreciates making art that helps people feel involved; Andrea Yarbrough who started an initiative called In Care Of Black Women, which gets black women from different parts of Chicago to create together with the goal of making them feel better about themselves; Lydia Ross, director of public art at the City of Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (DCASE) who is passionate about supporting artists, especially those who may not have had access or outlets for their work before; Craig Stevenson from Open Architecture Chicago who is interested in using arts, culture, business, design and education to help communities do better through placemaking, and looks into how the mind affects how people feel.

The goal of this session was to better understand what collective care means in collaborative, participatory work.

“Collective care means that everyone involved in an initiative works together to create relationships that are full of care. This includes the artist, participants, and support workers,” Williams said. “Everyone works together to challenge and support each other… this makes people more engaged with each other, instead of feeling like they don’t belong.”

In a similar sentiment, Yarbrough said that through conversation with artists and participants, we need to investigate the ways in which participants care for one another, and how this should be encouraged in order for the initiative to flourish.

In addition to the two sessions, all panelists talked about ways to get help from other organizations and people with resources and experience. They also talked about how important it is to design with communities, not just for them.

“One of the most important steps in the process of activating an initiative is getting the right people to the table… in the launching phase, there needs to be a proper balance among stakeholders—at both the community and organizational levels,” Stevenson told the audience toward the of the session.

Based on the feedback by the audience, the roundtable was a great success.

Asha Barnes, Urban Planner at Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Chicago, reflected: “I've been emboldened and encouraged by the people here. I would like to take the knowledge that I've gotten and bring it to where I work. I want to be able to unite with other individuals and other organizations here and continue to scale up my work.”

Ann Panopio, Senior Owner’s Representative at IFF, reflected: “There's so many great takeaways. But the one that's hitting me is how important it is to meet regularly and look at each other and talk to each other and inspire each other. I’ve learnt the importance of being intentional about making connections.”

Bahati Aimee from Community Food Navigator reflected: “The ideas of solidarity and ecology can have very limited definitions sometimes, but it requires conversations and relationship to each other and more than one person’s experience to understand how these ideas manifest and create spaces of belonging, exploration and curiosity.”

Meet me in the Middle was organized by Borderless Studio and The Open Workshop, building on ongoing work of Creative Grounds and the research for a Bronzeville Action Coalition.

Photos by: Peter Midwa


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