Not unusual: people coming into Hartford with big ideas about what residents need and what will “save” us.
The Public Allies — an AmeriCorps program — promise that is not their mission. They insist that they are “not here to re-market Hartford.”
Young adults in the program work with a non-profit four days every week; each Public Allies “community” — Connecticut has ones in Hartford, Bridgeport, and New Haven — undertakes a service project each year.
This year, the group’s goal is to “strengthen community through figuring out assets and problems,” Al Riccio, one of the Allies on the “Greater Hartford Team”, told participants at the Hartford Public Library Monday evening during the Hartford Unity Community Conversation. In chatting with residents, the Public Allies identified that many residents feel “proud to be from the city,” but believe that there are negative perceptions of it due to the news media. He added that a lack of jobs, housing, and access to resources were other issues identified.
During the first of what Public Allies say will be several community conversations, residents were told that the Allies — several of whom are long-time Hartford residents — would be facilitating discussion, but not participating. Heads nodded as residents commented that these conversations need to be in the neighborhoods, not just Downtown. The library was named a “hub,” a natural place for civic discourse to take place, and there are library branches throughout the city.
Broken into small groups, residents and stakeholders named activities that could “create attention toward positive aspects.” In the brainstorm, two groups named the Walk the Frog tour as an example of an event that has highlighted the positive aspects of a neighborhood; other similar walking tours have taken place elsewhere in the city and could be replicated without much effort.
A “treasure hunt” was another idea that emerged. In the past, HartBeat Ensemble had a popular scavenger hunt fundraiser; other groups have also organized scavenger hunts.
In the discussion, three common needs emerged: empower youth, empower those in living in deep poverty (including the homeless population), and unite those living in all the various neighborhoods.
One individual said that “we need to find a way to make people feel like they live in one place.” But, when there are such economic disparities within the city, are residents from perpetually neglected and impoverished communities going to feel inclined to unify with those who can afford year-round landscape services?
A teacher at Grace Academy said they need to “find a way for youth to express themselves. They’re angry. [They feel like] they’ve got no effing future.”
HartBeat Ensemble, The Artists Collective, Center Without Walls, and Guakia were among those named in a brainstorm of which organizations would help youth to express themselves, but, one teacher said, these organizations can sometimes be too expensive to bring into the schools.
A Hartford mother said her group discussed incorporating film and photography into workshops for youth. This would give them the opportunity to express what they see. Sometimes, those images might not be the way we want the city to be represented, but they would reflect the youth’s own experiences in their lives.
The perception of violence and actual experience of violence were concerns residents wanted to address, but as one person said, this is not unique to Hartford: “We have a violent nation.”
Another resident, who has been involved in the Occupy Hartford movement, echoed the Public Allies’ mission, saying that what does not work is when outsiders come in and expect residents to join up, when that group should instead be seeing what those living there need.
There is a difference between emphasizing what is great, and “coming in to revitalize or improve” a place, one of the Allies said. The group was urged to find a way to support the work already being done in the community, particularly when it comes to changing laws/ordinances at the Legislative Office Building and City Hall.
The Public Allies plan to have a few future conversations before designing and implementing their Team Service Project.
UPDATE: You can read more about this at Urban Compass.