Learning Journeys Spark and Promote Connections

Learning journeys are a key piece of the purposeful learning process for Real Communities. The Georgia Council on Developmental Disabilities (GCDD) believes it is vital to create opportunities to support individuals to travel to other places, learn about different approaches and consider how we might apply that learning to our work in Georgia. We find that when we get people away from the day-to-day grind and take part in an immerse and experiential learning process, people are able to open themselves up and see new possibilities.

This past October, I had the privilege of taking part in an eight-day learning journey to the Midwest with colleagues and friends who are exploring inclusion and community building in their local communities. My friend and partner in community-building, April Doner, a talented photojournalist, storyteller and a current fellow of the ABCD Institute, accompanied me on our learning journey. Over the course of our trip, April was constantly documenting our time with her camera and writing in her notebook. She has an incredible gift that she enjoys sharing, and I invited her to tell about our adventures, meeting some of the people who welcomed us into their homes and communities and share the entire story of that trip with all of you here in Georgia.

- Caitlin Childs, GCDD Organizing Director, Real Communities Initiative

*The following story has a photo album from the Learning Journey to the Midwest that allows you to visually experience the trip along with the different stops. To access the photo album visit, http://www.flickr.com/photos/gcdd/sets/72157632301938837/.

This October, I was among a crew of people to undertake a week-long "Learning Journey" throughout the Midwest, visiting people who were pioneering exciting grassroots, citizen-led change in their communities.

Accompanying me were Anna and Amara, artists and neighbors in the Village of the Arts neighborhood in Bradenton, FL, who are trying out ways to create a more connected, welcoming community. We were also joined by Caitlin Childs of the Georgia Council on Developmental Disabilities, Kirk Hinkleman (CA) with Lifeworks Supported Living, Anne Mitchell of Tesserae Learning and Sheldon Schwitek of the Center for Positive Living Support.

My background is in neighborhood community-building in the tradition of Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD), and I have been practicing ABCD here for about six years. While "inclusion" is always a major focus of ABCD, Toronto marked my first in-depth exposure to the growing network of folks doing amazing things around inclusion for people with disabilities. Hearing their stories made me realize the challenges that families, people labeled as "disabled" and communities face in creating a welcoming, respectful place for folks with this label in community life. I also realized the joy when those challenges are overcome. This journey opened my eyes even more.

My companions and I also learned about the core principles behind truly creative social innovation and impact. We learned that real, sustainable change starts with conversation and relationships, and in continuing those two things. It also lies in each of us developing some solid personal habits and orientations toward curiosity, regular reflection and an openness to adventure and encountering the unexpected, unpredictable and unknown.

The journey began at the beautiful home of Anne Mitchell and her husband Chuck. Anne Mitchell was the host and behind-the-scenes coordinator of our Learning Journey. She is an incredible woman with a fierce, inquisitive and experimental spirit. At her home, we came to appreciate her love for her two dogs and her stellar talent for aesthetic gardening. Together with De'Amon Harges, Anne runs Tesserae Learning, a teaching and consulting company that empowers people to build community and influence their environment wherever they are.

It was fitting that we began with a simple social gathering, because as the journey continued, we all began to realize a core truth: all significant change begins and ends with conversation, relationship, and authentic caring between people.

Stop #1: Cincinnati, OH, Starfire Council:

Our "Cincy" visit was hosted by the wonderful folks at Starfire Council, a person-centered organization focusing on building inclusive lives and communities. We started at the Red Tree Gallery, where we met the Starfire team and a young woman named Melissa.

I was impressed with Director Tim Vogt's description of how Starfire has evolved from a service orientation to a person-centered approach that focuses on building connections and relationships in which people with disabilities enjoy reciprocal, satisfying relationships in their community and can act on their passions. Starfire members, family and now anyone from the community are encouraged to take on a capstone project as a way to take action around something they love to do or care about.

Melissa told us about her project, which involved selling her baked goods. But, Tim told me later, her baking is just part of her capstone project. She is working on developing an after-party for the 5K that's held in her neighborhood of Saylor Park, and she and a group of other bakers are going to collaborate on the treats for it leading up to the party.

Starfire has also found innovative ways to encourage members, members' family, and local citizens to begin expanding their web of relationships locally through learning conversations. Individuals are encouraged to have coffee or a meal and learn about others' lives, talents and passions. Starfire then hosts gatherings for people to share what they have learned.

We then went to another coffee shop and met with Joseph, a Starfire member, and Tina Manchise and Tara Lindsey Gordon, founders of the Emery Theatre Requiem Project.

Through Starfire, Joseph made a connection earlier this year with Northside Slow Ride, a group of biking enthusiasts who meet every Thursday. From there, Joseph was inspired to create Streetfilms Fest, which Emery was happy to host.

Tina and Tara have partnered with Starfire on several great community events over the last year. The two groups have found a common passion for community and including people in the margins as leaders and artists to be celebrated.

After exploring Emery, we had lunch with Mike Holmes. Through Starfire, Mike has connected with his passion for sports now coaches girl's basketball for the Cincy Swish.

Stop #2: Indianapolis, IN, Broadway United Methodist Church Building Community, Economy and Mutual Delight:

Next, we visited Broadway Methodist Church. This was once the most heavily attended congregation in Indianapolis, but with urban renewal and "white flight," many economically wealthier families left the community. Now, the congregation is mostly white people, and the neighborhood is mostly African American people. Over the years, Broadway's efforts to change its culture to one of listening, supporting each other and practicing hospitality has bridged the gap that once stood between these two groups.

The halls of Broadway are adorned with images and words that celebrate the people who live in the neighborhood, as well as those who attend the church (many who live outside of the neighborhood). At one time there was a gap between these two groups, but over the last decade, this has been transformed into a community of people who seek and see each others' gifts and are thinking of the surrounding community as full of abundance, not deficits.

I was also struck by the depth to which the culture in and around Broadway has become one of giving gifts, caring and celebrating, especially as we all gathered as a group to meet and exchange stories with the neighbors who live around Broadway. At one point, Terry, an artist and organizer of artists, asked DeAmon – "Is it okay if I share something? I know Terri's mom passed away a few months ago, and I made something for her but have been waiting for the right time to present it." DeAmon, of course said, "Sure!" and Terry brought out this beautiful portrait he had made of Terri's mother.

When you start listening for gifts and then bringing them intentionally into the life of the community, a cultural shift can occur... it was so lovely to see this spontaneously happen.

One thing they began to discover through DeAmon's Roving Listening was an abundance of artists in the neighborhood. Alchemi and other artists have organized community art activities, and through knowing each other and other connections that Broadway people also have, they held shows in various places in the community. Most recently, they had a show at the Athenaeum in downtown Indy – a very prominent art gallery. Two artists within this group have also won national awards. These are the things that can come from looking for assets and talents, not needs!

Broadway has created a ceramics room to support local artists who want to hold ceramics classes and activities.

Rev. Mike Mather met with us to share the journey of Broadway, and I was struck by the point that sometimes staying true to your values as a person and as an organized community means saying "No" to very tempting partnerships or offers.

As DeAmon explored the neighborhood, he met other neighbors who had the talent to connect the community. Here, Terri tells her story of how she got involved and spearheaded a Youth Roving Corps in the neighborhood:


Finally, DeAmon and a couple of neighbors showed us the Fishes and Loaves room.

The Fishes and Loaves room is a place for documenting the "assets" in a way that everyone can see, share and play around with to creatively weave community. We heard from two other neighbors who have been acting on their passion to support others and browsed the "asset maps" hanging on the wall: large sheets of paper with sticky pads hanging on them that list individuals and their gifts, talents and passions. Many are grouped by similar skills or passions.

Stop #3: Indianapolis, IN, Workshop – Building Community in Your Home and Workplace:

We then dived into a two-day workshop led by Anne and DeAmon entitled "Building Community in your Home and Workplace." The workshop was eye opening for each of us in different ways.

Here are some key learning points taken from my graphic notes:

The premise of Tesserae Learning – DeAmon & Anne's organization: "All significant and sustainable change is built on a foundation of belonging with the other people involved in whatever we are doing."

All significant and lasting change begins with conversation.

One key practice to help build community wherever you are and to be an innovator of change: Pure Observation. We often start with an agenda and a ton of assumptions. Instead, the smartest thing      to do first is to OBSERVE.

Creating community also requires being incredibly open and curious. It means throwing our agenda in the trash and asking, "What are they thinking?"

A wonderful quote: "The success of an intervention depends on the interior condition of the intervener." (William O'Brien) This means we can't just apply a blueprint onto our community and expect it to work – we must be open, engaged, curious and looking for gifts inside if we hope to create that kind of world around us.

Stop #4: Midland, MI, The Arc of Midland Cultivation Independence and Care:

In Midland, we were hosted by the Arc of Midland, an organization that helps people with disabilities live in their own homes and achieve their personal goals through the support Circles of Care (people who care about them from their family and social life).

Our second-to-last stop in Midland was "Tim's House" – a home with a very important history, both to the disabilities inclusion and justice movement, and to our learning journey host Anne Mitchell.

This was the first home purchased through the efforts of a circle of friends with the goal of giving greater independence and community connection to a person with disabilities. His name was Tim, and Anne was a member of the Circle of Friends who accomplished this.

The home purchase was accomplished primarily through the collaborative efforts of this Circle, pulled together by Tim and his mother. It included people who cared about Tim, and they pooled their talents and connections to make this purchase possible, as well as a groundbreaking shift allowing Tim to choose his roommates and caretakers. He, understandably, chose people to live with him who were young men like himself and had similar interests. While this may seem like a commonsense arrangement, it is extremely rare in most situations people with disabilities face in the community, where living companions are usually other people with disabilities and staff providing services are chosen by a service, not the recipient of care.

One thing that surprised everyone in the Circle was when against everyone's predictions, 10 people responded to an ad for a roommate to someone with a disability – and after meeting Tim, almost all were still interested. Contrary to public and institutional belief, "non-disabled" people are willing and happy to share living space with someone with a disability. And, as they tried out this new model, they found that it actually worked. Tim was happy, the roommates were happy and Tim's parents were happy too.

Another surprise with Tim's Circle of Care was how this group became a source of support for each other. While they thought they were getting together to help Tim live a more meaningful and dignified life, the relationships they built with each other in that process ended up doing the same for them.

Tim has since passed away. A young man named Rob now lives in his home with the support of people who love him. Rob showed us very thoughtful hospitality, making sure we all had coffee before we sat down to chat.

Our trip to Midland included visits to three other homes, where people with disabilities now live on their own with the support of friends, family and staff of their choosing. Melina is living her dream, having been able to move in with her boyfriend, work together with him at the local stadium and even travel to Paris.

Ric lives in his own home, regaled with his favorite Elvis and old rock memorabilia.

Our final host was able to decide the layout of her home according to her lifestyle, (she loves to cook, so the kitchen is huge!). She is also an activist now, promoting greater independence, inclusion and community engagement for other people with disabilities.


We wrapped up our learning journey with a big "So what?" conversation at the Arc office together with Arc staff and collaborators. A few themes that emerged:

  • "Care isn't a product you can give somebody – it is a result of being in a relationship with someone."

  • It's crucial to the inclusion and community-building movement, and on a larger scale to our continued improvement as a human society, that we get over the fear of having real relationships with people in our workplaces and community. Specifically, there is more harm than good in the "professional" rule against developing feelings of genuine caring and friendship with "clients" in human service systems.

  • We don't need formal training in this field. Rather, what's needed is a belief that everyone has something to contribute and that people seek connection. Many people have done so well because they have no formal training. The others are spending time trying to "unlearn."

  • The people providing support (staff people) are often over-looked. What are that person's gifts?

  • Size DOES matter: small is important! The urge toward growing our systems larger ends up creating places we don't want to be. Kirk's organization decided NOT to become larger, but instead found other organizations of a similar small size and created a network of partners.

  • We need to celebrate the work we are doing. How do we tell those stories? Find the people with the skills and resources to do that.

  • How do those of us who are older support those who are younger? The generations of pioneers – younger and older – feel a strong need to develop more supportive, collaborative relationships with one another.

I learned so much during this learning journey, as did my fellow travelers.

This trip made me appreciate the deep commitment to equality and inclusiveness that people driving these necessary changes must possess to actually make them happen.

Perhaps the deepest learning that others and I took away, happened as we traveled and talked together. We deepened our relationships with each other. I recalled what it is that makes a "Road Trip" such a magical thing – it's an adventure taken together with others, by choice – and it's never so much about the journey as it is about friendship and shared experiences.

* To learn more about April Doner or to see more of her work, visit, http://www.aprildoner.com/artwork-by-florida-native-april-doner/