Connect Kalamazoo: Making Space for the Care of Community Building

The blog this week was written by Beth Mount after her recent trip to Kalamazoo for the 4th Annual Building a Community of Belonging Forum. How might we contribute to making our community a place that is welcoming, supportive, and respectful so that all people belong?

I have rarely seen the fruits of community partnership like I did during my recent journey to Kalamazoo, Michigan hosted by the Arcadia Institute.  The Arcadia Institute is a small non-profit organization founded by George Martin in 1994.  Arcadia is funded by the Department of Mental Health, and several local community foundations.  Staff of Arcadia offer person-centered planning, brokerage supports and on-going support to 20 people with disabilities and/or their families.  

In addition to person-centered planning, staff member Allison Hammond facilitates Connect Kalamazoo, a network of community leaders who gather monthly to reflect on this question: 

How might we contribute to making our community a place that is welcoming, supportive, and respectful so that all people belong?

The Connect Kalamazoo partners are genuinely and enthusiastically bound by their mutual commitment to build a better community in which all members belong.  The result is the naturally occurring presence and participation of growing numbers of people with disabilities who are WELCOMED in settings and associations such as the Boys and Girls Club, the YMCA, the Boy Scouts, the Public Library, the Nature Center, and various Arts Associations.  People with disabilities are engaged in opportunities for inclusion that fit their unique interests and weekly schedules.    

Connect Kalamazoo associational leaders are inventing local practices, accommodations, and partnerships that yield inspiring stories of belonging for people with disabilities which also benefit their collective membership.    Examples of mutually beneficial innovation within various settings include the following: 

The Portage Public Library created a collection of “Ready Read” books for adults--high interest, easier-to-read books for those who are learning English as a second language or those who need easier reading options.  Additionally, the library curates a variety of art exhibits that telegraph an inclusive world in which diverse community members belong and contribute.  The library is filled with small areas arranged for people who want to talk, work, and think together.   People with disabilities of all ages are subtly engaged throughout this large sprawling library.

The Southwest Michigan Council of Boy Scouts demonstrates a strong commitment to Scouts with complex support needs who truly belong to various scout troops.  Many boys and teens with disabilities are also fully included in the various summer camp experiences offered by the Boy Scouts, the Nature Center,  the Boys and Girls Club, and the YMCA.   The Portage Public Library offers specialized supports to Boy Scouts working on badges that relate to computer skills.  

Across town, Boy Scouts work on badges related to environmentalism and nature with the staff of the Kalamazoo Nature Center.  The Nature Center embraces a vision of “No Child Left Inside,” and staff demonstrate a robust and creative commitment to providing nature and camp experiences to as many children as possible!  

Meanwhile, the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Kalamazoo has implemented a thoughtful structure for belonging that brings out the best in all their members.  The structure provides all 140 participants with choices and belonging as staff methodologically lift up examples of cooperative, welcoming, and constructive relationships throughout the group.  The structure telegraphs that who we are to each other matters in every moment and every act.  Students with disabilities naturally thrive in such a setting along with all the other members.  

The YMCA has built a Family Locker Room that enables people to stay together (and help each other) during transition times such as changing clothes and organizing for workouts and other activities.  This thoughtfully designed space creates a welcoming option for people to stay present to each other.  I watched an older couple and a mother with children effortlessly negotiate the transition required of “changing clothes and getting organized,” and of course this space is a great help to those with different abilities who benefit from high levels of personal support.  

The Director of the YMCA embraces the vision that “the YMCA is not a building but a mission.”  In his words, “people come here to play in the starfish of hope, it is our work to create a hopeful space for all members, and for the community as a whole.”

Finally, The Media Arts Project “produces critically thinking social change artists” by supporting young people to be activists who   capture injustices that youth face daily within health, education, and criminal justice systems.   Young people engage in a variety of leadership development opportunities and young people with disabilities are naturally included.  

We have much to learn from the intentional and consistent practice of collaboration growing through Connect Kalamazoo.  The Arcadia Institute and community partners have created a shared space for wondering how to created a better community for all.  The partners thrive in this space of “I don’t know how to do this, but I am open to discovering what more I can do to support all people to belong.”  The structure and practice of mutual engagement is simple, yields profound results. 

The Acadia Institute is expanding a space in which possibilities grow through relationships and partnerships. In the words of Julie, a Community Supporter, “We all have a teacher and a learner in us. Gathering together creates an explosion of the winds of care that awakes something in all of us and leads us to act on behalf of people.” What might the world look like if all of us made more time and space for the winds of care to blow and move us to acts of welcome? Kalamazoo is clearly a place for us to discover the power of partnerships and conversation held in the spirit of “I don’t know, but I am eager to explore with others how I can make a difference so that all members belong.”

Beth Mount, Ph.D. 25 West 81st Street, 16-B New York, NY  10024 212-362-9492