The other day I received an email from a group of smart, well-intentioned young people planning a community service project in Little Havana. They had come up with a project idea and had a place in mind for sharing their presentation. In an email, one of the group members asked me if I had the contact information for the person in charge of their proposed venue.
I started to write back with the contact information, but then I stopped myself. I had a sense of deja vu. Was this not the scenario that we residents encountered all the time with the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT)?
A project decided (by whom? In whose interests?). A place selected for a community meeting (not necessarily accessible to residents, or well publicized). A presentation: “Here is what we intend to do in your neighborhood.”
Business as usual?
I sighed to myself, feeling a mix of disappointment and concern. Still, I believe that the members of this group are sincere in their intentions to do something beneficial for the neighborhood. What about “with” the neighborhood, I wondered?
The place they had in mind for their presentation is on Calle Ocho, in the heart of the district most frequented by tourists. It is not a site I would recommend for outreach to local residents.
The group thought it might be the only place that would have a projector and screen they could use. But there are plenty of other good places, I thought to myself. I quickly emailed back with some suggestions for locations in East Little Havana where they could do their presentation, at centers already frequented by local residents.
Why Are So Many Well-Intentioned Groups Focusing Exclusively on Calle Ocho and not the Rest of the Little Havana?
There’s the Little Havana Acción Center/Community Action Center on West Flagler, which has an important public meeting tonight. It would have been a perfect place to do a presentation! Had they attended a meeting there?
Had they stopped by the beautiful new Hispanic Branch of the Miami-Dade Public Library on SW 1st Street, which offers meeting rooms for free? Or the community center Jose Marti Park, which has rooms often used for public meetings, and which is frequently used by Little Havana residents? Or one of the local churches, like San Juan Bosco or Iglesia de San Lazaro? Both have big meeting rooms, too.
I also asked how they had been reaching out to and engaging local residents already, because I began to wonder if they had visited any of these centers in person. How had they picked their project idea? Had they spoken with local community leaders? Why had none of the group members interviewed or met with local stakeholders?
Maybe they didn’t have time. Maybe they didn’t know where to begin. And maybe they were dealing a bit with what fellow activist Anneliese Morales and I discussed in an email last night.
Fear and Misperceptions of “Othered” Residents
While there has been a lot of interest in Little Havana among some very inspiring, bright and big-hearted young people, I’ve noticed that most of those who don’t already already live in the neighborhood seem reticent about exploring it beyond the familiar parts of Calle Ocho. Something inhibits them from walking around the area and interacting with residents, especially low-income and marginalized residents.
As Anneliese wrote to me later, “Visitors, local and foreign, see the sneakers hanging on the electric cables, and automatically they feel threatened by potential gang violence. They’re afraid, because they’re not familiar with all the special places that are ‘Hidden in The Hood’. She added:
Frankly, I know quite a few people, even adventurous ones, who will only go to Little Havana if they’re with me. Part of the problem is they don’t know which routes/places are safe.
I’m thinking that perhaps Anneliese and I, along with other activists like Raissa, Marcos, Hugo, Sonia, and a group of local high school students, could offer some kind of a community walk specifically for folks who are genuinely dedicated to the idea of community service. Leadership “training” must go beyond in-the-classroom work to hands-on bridge-building in neighborhoods.
The online world can only offer so much. At a certain point, one must put the iPhone away and begin to make genuine, face-to-face connections with community stakeholders.
Otherwise, the formula will remain the same, which will result in the sad state of leadership we have in Miami and Florida today, with leaders saying “Here’s my project for your [city/neighborhood/etc.]. Sign off on it.”