"Mapleton-Fall Creek residents uniting in dreams

De’Amon Harges has a way of evoking trust in people. They readily invite him into their kitchens and talk about what really matters to them. He’d likely have these kinds of conversations anyway among his friends in the Mapleton-Fall Creek neighborhood, but for the past year it’s been his job. And the result is a groundswell of ambition and cooperation in the community.

The project started when Harges, a member of Broadway United Methodist Church, was tapped by church Pastor Mike Mathers to pursue an unusual goal. Harges explains, “He [Mathers] recognized that one of my gifts and talents is to listen to people and have conversations.” Not just idle chats, mind you. Deep heart to hearts.

Mathers obtained a grant to allow Harges to do just that: to talk to residents of the neighborhood and find out what they dream of doing.

Taking the title of Roving Listener, Harges spent the past year listening to and then writing down the aspirations of his neighbors. “My task,” he says, “is to go from block to block and talk to people, to find out their gifts and talents, their dreams, and what they’re passionate about, what they’re willing to act on.”

So far he’s engaged more than 150 community members. And once they get over the “say what?” factor, people are typically eager to share. In the course of the project, he’s met artists, gardeners, health professionals and many people with a vision of helping kids in some way.

To begin connecting like-minded people, Harges’ friend Marc McAleavey got involved this fall. McAleavey had been hearing about Harges’ encounters in detail. “One thing we were very cognizant of,” McAleavey says, “was how do we make these conversations turn into something of action, to actually springboard into some really solid connections.”

Together, the two men established an organization called the Zawadi Exchange (Gift Exchange, translated from Swahili). Its priority is to link people to people — and dreams to reality.

McAleavey’s role as Illustrator of Gifts ties in with his master’s degree program in social work; the project is his practicum. His job is to operate as a kind of “neighborhood publicist,” as Harges puts it, so that people can come to know what each has to offer. And taking it one step farther, he seeks support and resources to help bring their dreams to life.

The whimsical titles the men have taken are no accident. Even the resident board of directors has an evocative name: the Pollinators. This program, while based on some universal maxims, is unlike any other, and the names are just the most obvious difference.

McAleavey and Harges eschew the red tape of more traditional community development institutions, which typically focus on analyzing need and deficiency. The Zawadi Exchange is guided by some specific principles, and beyond that, there’s quite a lot of improvising.

“We’re making it up as we go along,” Harges says. “We don’t say this is the [intended] outcome. We wait till the outcome happens, and then we say, this is what works.”

What are the guiding principles? Don’t facilitate anything that community members can’t sustain on their own. Start projects when three or more people are willing to commit. Build around meaningful conversations. And, finally, everyone has something to bring to the table.

“We don’t come up with the ideas,” Harges says. “They come up with the ideas. Our main goal, very simply, is to connect people, to build relationships, and to help foster and support their dreams.”

Some intriguing possibilities have arisen from the Zawadi Exchange so far. A group of women calling themselves the Mapleton-Fall Creek DAMES has begun tackling economic development and housing issues in the neighborhood. A young mother has gained support for the in-home tutoring she already provides. A man who has the trust of drug users and non-users alike is planning to start a street-level rehab program.

None of this would be possible, the two men say, without the support of Broadway UMC, which is located in the heart of Mapleton-Fall Creek. But the program is not church-run, they are quick to clarify: The Zawadi Exchange’s true headquarters is in the homes and lots and businesses of the neighborhood. That’s where the real resources lie.

McAleavey notes that people who call the area downtrodden are missing something vital. “They don’t get it at all. These are hidden treasures. We don’t see what others talk about in our lives. We don’t see this poverty-stricken, poor in spirit [neighborhood] … We see a lot of people who have so much to offer.”

What: The Zawadi Exchange, in partnership with Broadway UMC, is hosting an Asset Based Community Development workshop called “Abundance and Generosity: Congregations Building Community”

When: Jan. 31-Feb. 2, 2007

info: For information, e-mail Marc McAleavey at mamcalea@iupui.edu.



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