So my attempt to take blogging back up has clearly not been very successful, as more than a month has passed since the last post in which I decided to hop back into this. Acknowledging the gap, I’ll give you another update on what that month has entailed.

Worth mentioning is that I’m writing this update on a plane from St. Louis to Little Rock (with a quick stop over in Chicago), coming back from spending the last five days with Hannah. Finding ourselves living in neighboring states again, it is a nice feeling knowing that we are “next door” to each other, even though that distance is quite more than our last geographical side-by-side locations in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. Additionally, Mandy is also to my south, in New Orleans. I was afforded the opportunity to see Mandy about a month ago as she spent about 20 hours in Little Rock with her 6th grade students on a Civil Rights tour. I point out these two visits with Hannah and Mandy because the amount of comfort, energy, and relief that finding ways to see my oldest best friends in the context of our current lives is of insurmountable value. When I think back to high school and before, I could never have imagined that I would be living in Little Rock (or anywhere beyond the boundaries of Massachusetts and New England), let alone about to graduate with two masters degrees and working in a field that I try emulate to live both personally and professionally. The past weekend I felt so very lucky to see Hannah in her element, as she showed me around her lab space at Washington University where she has just completed her first year working toward a Ph.D in clinical psychology. Last month I got to watch Mandy lead a group of thirty plus twelve- to fourteen-year-olds through Little Rock, culminating in a trip to the ice skating rink. Watching her interact with her students and guide them through what was a first time experience on the ice for the majority of the class is a memory that I am so happy I was able to share with her. When I think back to elementary school, middle school, and high school in small town Athol with my two best friends, I would have never imagined the three of us would be where we are, have achieved what we have, and would be working tirelessly to continue moving forward and upward. The distance we have travelled (literally and figuratively) has been great, and even though we only manage to see each other once or twice a year, those precious hours, days, or weeks are a key factor in supplying the energy, motivation, and faith to remember where I came from and to charge forward in getting to where I’m going. Although our lives are so different, we share something so similar, which is what I believe has bonded us and will keep us close throughout our lives.   

So, where am I going?

Last month I wrote about the completion of my courses for my master degrees in public health and public service, about approaching end of my contract with Catholic Charities Immigration Services, and the work I have done in growing the field service program and mentoring students at the Clinton School. This time I will write about a grassroots movement I have been involved in, and… a new job I have recently accepted.

Before I start this, I will say that I intend this blog to be more than the telling of what I am doing week to week. I plan to share articles of relevance to my interests, snippets of the culture that defines my world, and posts that will hopefully have relevance to others and stimulate questions, thought, and conversations (online or offline). I do feel that I need to lay the framework of my own activities before I get to those posts to give you the context of why I share what I will. 

If you’ve asked me what I’ve been up to anytime February and now, it’s likely that I mentioned something about a technology research park. I can almost without a doubt say the best choice I made in the past year (although I had no idea at the time) was when I registered for a racial and ethnic health disparities course last November. An elective course with a service learning requirement, my class of seven other students and two professors became engaged in an effort to advocate for responsible economic development in Little Rock. Without going into too much detail, several private and public agencies have come together to build a university technology research park. Basically, a park like this acts as an extension of universities/hospitals to commercialize research and make it available and useful to wider audiences than the labs in which it was developed. Its attractiveness comes through its promises of job creation, economic growth, slowing brain drain in Arkansas, revitalization, technological competition, and so on.

You are right if you are thinking that this doesn’t sound like it fits in with my normal interests. I have taken a particular interest in this because of the way the park is being planned. Negotiations and contracts for the development began years ago, but the tangible activities went “public” in about November 2011. A seven-person board was appointed to guide the development, its members being from science, technology, business, and real estate fields. One of the first public announcements the board made was its intentions to place the park in one of three areas they were considering. Each site is full of residential homes, neighborhoods, and families. It was announced in a business as usual fashion that the building of the technology park would require the demolition of a selected neighborhood. The least populated site has 123 houses, the largest has 262 houses. That amount to the potential for a thousand plus people being displaced and losing their homes in the name of “progress.”

I can write and write about this, and my roommates and friends in Little Rock can certainly vouch that there is not a day that goes by in which I do not take any opportunity to talk at length about it. As residents in these three potential areas began to learn the plans for their neighborhoods, opposition began to grow. A broad-based grassroots coalition emerged, as the neighborhoods began to organize to stand up for their worlds that have been lived in and created through the sacred place of one’s home. I have been involved in many different activities surrounding this, and my last month has been filled with going to city hall meetings, tech park board meetings, and meetings with other stakeholders to talk about the research my professors, classmates and I had undertaken through tradition literature reviews and analysis of Census and other data, but also through interviews we spent a semester conducting to understand what kind of impact physical neighborhood displacement would have on people. We studied things from federal urban renewal programs, social and mental health, patterns of racial discrimination in housing policies and urban planning, community organizing and so many other topics. I’ve been welcomed into the community coalition and feel so privileged to work alongside with committed activists who tirelessly work toward achieving a common goal of having the tech park built in a non-residential area. The outlets for creating change have come from grassroots door-knocking and block parties, to advocating for city ordinances, to coordinating for a public health expert to come to Little Rock and speak about the deleterious impact of forced displacement. I am in awe every day at the process of change and fight for justice. What began as a top-down process has been threatened by this organized community force. I have never seen “politics as usual” or the “powers that be” so thwarted by any opposing force as what I have witnessed and participated in over the last several months. Our coalition still has a lot of work to do, but we have several signs of hope that this technology park will not displace entire neighborhoods when all is said and done.

This project has made me feel connected to Little Rock in ways I haven’t before. It has also been a powerful lesson in civic engagement and community building. I’ve asked myself and others a lot of questions lately: what is representation? What is participation? What is participatory democracy? Is there justification for the “greater good” to advance if that requires a smaller portion of the community to suffer (in this situation those choices are not binary or dichotomous choices)? What do I expect of my city leaders? What do I do when my place of employment and/or school do things I believe are wrong (unfortunately that’s not a new one I’ve had to deal on the last several years)? How can I do something to act on any of these questions?? And the list goes on.          

This project will continue to go on for months (years), so I am happy that I am sticking around to be a part of it. This being much longer than I expected, I am going to leave you now until next time. As hinted throughout, I have a new job to write about. The preview is: it’s perfect.