Thursday, August 9, 2012

NextGenCD: A Sense of Belonging

Jason Arnolod,
NeighborWorks Community Scholar,
Kansas City
In honor of the upcoming NeighborWorks America Young Professionals symposium, we have collected several blog posts from those under 35 asking their feelings on the meaning of community development. Share your comments on Twitter using #NextGenCD or follow Jason using @RepresentKC.
A community is a place where people live, usually defined by a geographic region or another characteristic.  Community development  is a highly multifaceted field.  For some, it is a chance to own a home.  For others, it is an opportunity to build a career around helping people.  For underserved neighborhoods, it is often English as a second language classes, rental assistance, or after school student services.  A simple definition might be: “Community development gives people a chance to live their lives." 

In today’s world that is no easy thing. Globalization has reached into every corner of the planet, affecting our economies in a way that is still not understood. Shifting demographics have challenged our cultural and economic landscape, prompting us to learn new ways of doing things (see Sir Ken Robinson’s video on revolutionizing education).

A butterfly captures the mood on Lykins Neighborhood
Community Farm, Northeast Kansas City
My home state of Wyoming is built on the country’s largest coal reserves. That meant that I would enter either a low-wage service economy or the energy industry. So I did what many young people do. I left. I served with the Peace Corps in El Salvador for two years, and, when I returned, I saw my country with new eyes. There were opportunities literally everywhere. There were also enormous challenges.  While I had never been very motivated by climbing the career ladder (perhaps that’s why I was in the Peace Corps in the first place?), I found that I was now driven by a strong desire to do...something. This is not an unfamiliar story.  The question was, what? That is how I found myself living in Kansas City, studying entrepreneurship. I joined a young community of urban farmers with the goal of bringing local produce to market. 

My dream as a community development professional is to live and work in the same community. I want my children to belong.  I do not want to build a career as an outsider, delivering services to people who view me as an extension of some federal policy.  I want the life that I have been promising to people.  Do I still want to serve people?  Of course.  The difference is that I want to do it together.  And this time I am on familiar turf.  I speak the native language.  This is my home.  

In the last year of my service in El Salvador, I was befriended by several families.  They welcomed me into their homes and taught me about their way of life.  I was tremendously encouraged to have these relationships, since cultural isolation is very real.  I now hope to bring the same attitude to my work here in the states.  If you are an outsider, a foreigner in this community, I want you to know that you are welcome here.  That is how I was treated and I can offer no less.

My daughter, Annabelle, models for a
renovation project. Northeast Kansas City.