For the past two months, the organization I work with, Jericho Road, has been hosting “Community Dinners” for members of the neighborhood to come together, share a meal, receive some sort of training and discuss events going on in the neighborhood. During our dinner in September one resident stood up and shared his dream for a Halloween event in our neighborhood. He called it “Trunk or Treat” and described how in a previous neighborhood he had lived in, residents would deck out their cars with Halloween decorations and load up their trunks with candy. Last year he took some kids from the neighborhood to trick or treat in the Garden District, a far wealthier community only a few blocks away, and lamented the fact that little trick or treating took place in Central City. However, with only a month to go, a full time job, and little funding for this project, he felt that planning a Trunk or Treat wasn’t a feasible idea, for this year at least. I sat there and nodded my head, I figured that we’d do something next year, when there was a neighborhood association or something to sponsor it, I figured we’d stick to small dinners for now.
But the other residents didn’t agree with our assessments of the situation, and were enthusiastic about providing a safe environment for trick or treating. Two residents volunteered to participate, and when the local church got wind of this, they donated their space, recruited volunteers and solicited donations from their members. Instead of a “Trick or Trunk,” we put together “The Great Pumpkin Parade” – a Halloween carnival set up at stations throughout the neighborhood, culminating at the church grounds with food, prizes and even more games. I still wasn’t sure it could succeed, even up until last Saturday morning, I was unsure if our work would pay off. Well, nearly a month after that idea was initiated, I’m glad to say that we did it. This Halloween, volunteers donned bright orange shirts, residents opened their homes to trick or treaters, and children in costumes from Tinker Bell to the Batman to bloody vampires filled the streets.
My elation at the success of this event has helped quell a feeling of ineffectivenss I’ve felt since I’ve begun my work. For the past two months I’ve been constantly comparing my work to those of my housemates. At times I have felt as though I am not carrying out social justice on such a direct level – I’m not helping someone find a job, or rebuild their home. The work I am doing is slow, methodical and aimed at creating a community where my housemates will be out of work because the residents of the community I work in will be able to find jobs that support them rebuilding their own homes. Furthermore we want the residents to create this stable community themselves, with us acting as the facilitators, not the creators of this neighborhood. This overarching goal seems like the very definition of social justice, but on a day to day basis its difficult to see how the small steps contribute to this vision. The goal of a safe, happy neighborhood where all residents can support themselves seems like a distant one. So how does this relate back to Halloween? How do children in silly costumes and volunteers passing out hot dogs and mountains of candy relate to creating a self sustaining community?
Brad Powers, the Executive Director of Jericho Road has joked for the past few weeks that we’re going to write a book on using national holidays as vehicles for social change. I had been laughing at it for weeks, but since this past weekend I’m beginning to think there might be something to it. From the beginning I knew that this event was about more than just having a good time and creating safe Halloween fun, I think at some point I got so hung up in the details – in making sure we had enough candy and volunteers, and trying to get participants to come to the event – that I had forgotten what it was really about. This event not only provided fun, it gave this neighborhood, so plagued by blighted property and gun violence, something positive to call their own.
What this event showed me and the community (I hope) is that this dream of a Halloween event that one man brought to his neighbors on September 28 could be brought to fruition in a little over a month. We as an organization, together with the community, made this event that seemed so impossible, a possibility. And if we can make this a reality, what else can this community do?
While I might spend much of my time doing work that doesn’t seem as directly impactful as many of my housemates, the success of this event showed me that the work I do – organizing community meetings, writing agendas and setting up systems for collecting information about the neighborhood – are the building blocks for the work of transformation that our neighborhood will one day undergo. I’m hopeful that I’ll get to see this community transform, if ever so slightly, in my year working for Jericho Road, but I know that there will always be so much more to come as this community is brought closer together and works towards the neighborhood that right now is only a dream.