Many concerned citizens often pay lip service to the notion of getting involved in their communities.
But the 88 people who gave up six hours on Saturday to take part in Akron’s Neighborhood Engagement Series were looking for more than another forum to voice their own concerns or to show empathy toward the issues of other communities.
The session took place at the Andrew Jackson House and was the first of a five-part monthly series of group sessions organized by the University Park Neighborhood Network, the University Park Alliance and the University Park Faith Team.
The ultimate goal is to help interested folks better understand their social and economic environment by actively, effectively and safely engaging their surrounding neighborhood, local businesses and faith organizations to build relationships that will help their community develop.
“This whole thing is really set up to engage the faith communities, block clubs, neighborhood groups, social service agencies, to really prepare them to engage the community in a tangible way,” said Sue Lacy, a community organizer and managing partner of Akron-based Round River Consulting which also helped plan the series.
“A lot of times churches just do free meals or food pantries. This is about relationships and about finding assets in the community and building upon that to make some really powerful stuff happen with people not to people,” she said.
The attendees were seated at tables marked for their neighborhoods: the University, Leggett, Middlebury, Mason, Perkins Street and Upson-Jewett.
Speaker Yvette McMillan, director of Harvest Home, a homeless shelter for women and children, spoke about deepening the understanding of the economic and social context of the community.
Pastor Duane Crabbs of South Street Ministries and the Front Porch Cafe discussed leadership principles to help aspiring “urban missionaries” navigate their forays into neighborhoods with advice such as, “Never offer money,” and “Do not join in criticism of police, landlords, other churches or social service providers.”
The session ended with those in attendance forming teams and choosing among several assignment options geared toward taking them out of their socioeconomic comfort zones. Those tasks must be completed before next month’s session. The suggestions included taking the bus, participating in a free meal and visiting a middle-class church, with the goal of gaining a better understanding of others through observation and listening.
The participants — a varied group that included University of Akron students, senior citizens, an Akron police officer, and others — said they were looking forward to the assignment.
Yolanda Walker lives in West Akron but was seated at the Leggett table. She said curiosity drew her to the series.
“I didn’t know the implication was to actually work out in the community, but I’m real excited about that,” Walker said.
“I’ve always wanted to do something but never knew where to start or where to go, but now, this training?” she said.
Walker teamed up with her concerned and community-minded friend Angela Cherry of Akron, and the two decided to attend a Leggett Block Club meeting as their assignment.
“I just have a yearning to try and get things better for those who think that they don’t have a way out of these situations. There’s always hope, [and] there’s always a person somewhere that can lend a listening ear or offer some kind of help. That’s me,” Cherry said.
Kayla Steinhoff of Akron is a student at the University of Akron and sat at the Middlebury table.
“I grew up in the suburbs and now I live in inner-city Akron and I want to better understand what it’s like to interact with the people that live here in that culture,” she said. “I think it’s really cool that they’re challenging us to do something specific and giving us tangible baby steps to get us to that point,” she said.
The Feb. 16 session will concentrate on building strong relationships through active listening and will take place from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Front Porch Cafe, 798 Grant St.
Malcolm X. Abram can be reached at 330-996-3758 or firstname.lastname@example.org.