“An American that looks away is ignoring not just the sins of the past, but the sins of the present and certainly sins of the future.” – Ta-Nehisi Coates
In the shadow of Yale’s affluence and the bustle and prosperity of downtown, it is easy to forget that not every part of New Haven enjoys such ease and comfort. The Hill is the south-westernmost neighborhood in New Haven and has historically struggled with issues of poverty and violence, but the citizens of this areas are determined to fight for the prosperity, safety, and success of its residents.
Recently, a local grassroots coalition called Building It Together has started fighting back against the issues facing their neighborhood.
Building It Together is a collection of men, founded by Steven Cotton, Jewu Richardson, Jason Dorsey and Reginald Bell, who grew up in the Hill and still live in the neighborhood. These men found themselves having conversations about the community, brainstorming ways to make improvements and posing solutions about what could be done to improve the neighborhood they love. They realized that while their voices were important, in order for real change to take place in the Hill, they needed to engage more of the community. In response to this need, the Hill Saturday Morning Pancake Breakfast began.
“There must exist a paradigm, a practical model for social change that includes an understanding of ways to transform consciousness that are linked to efforts to transform structures.”
― bell hooks, Killing Rage: Ending Racism
The originators of Building It Together quickly identified the main reasons why movements in their neighborhood have failed to stick and reap lasting benefits for the community: Community buy-in, investment, and leadership. All too often urban areas are told from outsiders what they need to improve, and while these outsiders are more times than not, well-meaning, they don’t have the understanding or trust of the community they are seeking to serve.
Building It Together has a vision that includes empowering, educating, and organizing their community. The gentlemen of this grassroots group are not naive. They understand that to make real change in their community, they need to engage the neighborhood and build a power base in the Hill. They highlighted that “the ideas to change the neighborhood have to come from the neighborhood. This can’t be something that is forced on the people. It has to come from the people to build ownership.” They couldn’t be more right. Studies show us that top-down approached to organizing aren’t successful, and in cases where real change was able to happen, all stakeholders needed to be engaged and included.
“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together” – African Proverb
One of the problems they realized they were facing is that due to budgetary constraints the Hill doesn’t have a unifying community setting where people can gather to share ideas, gain knowledge, and build power from within the community. The men of Building It Together realized that they needed to provide a venue to get people together, get people talking, and get people reinvested in their community. The Saturday Morning Pancake Breakfast was born from this need. Every Saturday the men come together with food that they have cooked in their own homes and purchased with money from their own pockets on Congress Street and serve breakfast.
They have faced opposition. Some have said that Congress Ave, across from the Methadone clinic, is the wrong place, but these gentlemen disagree. “This is part of our neighborhood and we need to be proud of our neighborhood.” The men serve breakfast, but this weekly event acts more as an impromptu community forum. People tend to let their guards down with a belly full of homemade pancakes. Steve, Jo, Jason and Reginald are able to talk honestly with their community and find out what they need in order to improve the neighborhood. “Before we start offering programs and help we need to hear from the people about what exactly they want and need.” So far the needs expressed by the community members at the Saturday Pancake Breakfasts have helped the men develop financial literacy courses, social/emotional health curriculums, art initiatives, and more open, trusting dialogue between folks in the community.
They are seeing real change. They reported that men and women who were at first skeptical of their open Saturday breakfast model have started serving and engaging other members of the community. “A man who has never had a bank account in his life came to me last week and told me he opened a bank account. This is big. This is the first step to ending generational poverty.”
“We have to recognize that there cannot be relationships unless there is commitment, unless there is loyalty, unless there is love, patience, persistence.”
― Cornel West, Breaking Bread: Insurgent Black Intellectual Life
Building It Together has lofty aspirations, but these men are so determined that there isn’t a single doubt that they will achieve what they set out to achieve. They hope to one day open a community center in The Hill that will serve as a place for community forums, classes, and “a place for the community to gather, build power, and reinvest in one another.” The four men at the helm of Building It Together are New Haven natives. They were born and raised in The Hill, and although they have had successes in their lives, they are not leaving the neighborhood they call home. Instead, they have decided to stay and fight for it.
They know this will take time, but they believe that true community engagement is slow, meaningful work. They are currently looking for donations to help them in their mission. Want to help? Come to One6Three on Wednesday, November 8th. 10% of all the sales will go directly to the organization. Or, stop by Building It Together’s Facebook page and donate to their cause, and spread the word about what they are fighting to do. Or, stop by Congress Ave on Saturday mornings and bring a dish to share.