I drove to Charlottesville for the Virginia State Neighborhood Conference, and it was a blast.
I was eating scrambled eggs at a table with attendees from Hampton, Roanoke and Danville. We were sharing ideas, waiting for the suits to show up – you know, the guys from city hall who are pleased-to-welcome-you-on-behalf-of. But the only person sitting at the head table was a man in a turban. I thought, “Someone’s going to have to tell him that’s reserved for the suits.”
Turns out he’s the mayor of Charlottesville, Mr. Satyendra Singh Huja! That was humbling. Even more so, to see the significance this long-time city planner has had on Charlottesville. Our mobile workshop deployed via school bus through neighborhoods he worked to preserve. We also walked seven blocks of the Historic Downtown Mall he helped transform into a truly vibrant city center. My favorite part was the community chalkboard and podium (memorial to the First Amendment). Several of us wrote our thoughts freely with chalk in hand.
Networking at this annual conference always gives me a chance to reflect. Coy Barefoot, creative director of earless rabbit, C-ville’s innovative online television network, sized it up in his keynote speech. He said, “You will fail forward.” Meaning, don’t delay doing something because you want it to be perfect. Just begin, like learning to play piano or ride a bike. Practice leading. Some projects will work. Others will fail miserably. None of the neighborhood projects I’ve volunteered for have been easy. All had obstacles and naysayers. At one of my lowest points – shoveling kitty litter to soak up an oil spill on a hot day – the people helping me kept me going.
Even the “Creating an Inclusive Meeting” workshop gave me new ideas. Jonathan McBride and Wanda Ferrell of the City of Hampton had us sit in a large circle, hold a stick in our right hand, thump it on the floor, clap our hands and pass it to the person on our left. This was not easy! Even with a steady cadence, there were bottlenecks at one person or another. Passing the sticks demonstrated how cycling (momentum, progression and support) is at the heart of any great meeting where every voice is heard.
A guy came running in late to the last workshop, sweaty-dirty and cradling a bicycle helmet. He was Todd Neimeier of the Urban Agriculture Collective of Charlottesville. Ron McCorkle, the workshop presenter from the Urbiculture Foundation of Roanoke, had collared Todd earlier and pulled him in because he’d heard about UACC and wanted to get as many cool ideas out there to us as possible. What could be better than urban residents of all ages and backgrounds working together and learning from each other while collectively growing, harvesting and sharing locally produced organic fruits and vegetables on unused land?
The highlight was seeing Neighborhood Services Coordinator Christen Zenich accept two of the conference’s top three awards on behalf of the City of Manassas, its community partners and the Bristoe Station neighborhood for 2012 Neighborhood Project of the Year and 2012 Neighborhood Youth Group Effort of the Year. Both awards recognize the impact of the May 5th Big Day of Serving Manassas project on the community.
Now that was a project! I remember youth gathering tons of debris and household hazardous waste, as well as items to be recycled for the Salvation Army or Habitat for Humanity -- even books. A youth from West Virginia hit his finger with a maddox. One of the pharmacists from the Walgreens First Aid tent drove him and his adult leader to an urgent care facility next to Prince William Hospital. I followed and sat in the waiting room with them. After he got three stitches, I drove them both back to the Boys & Girls Club. We missed the block party, but we didn’t mind. We had a good time talking and shared a “fail” that was actually now part of an award-winning project. And that’s okay.
As Mayor Huja said, “A great neighborhood is one where you want to live yourself and enjoy it.”