Partnership Evolves: What Habitat Connects Looks Like in Practice

Home is where one starts from. —T.S. Eliot

After six months of planning, after reviewing 90 resumes and finally hiring our first Program Coordinator (Christina Rupp), after forming an Advisory Team to discuss best practices in grassroots leadership development, and after conducting one-on-one interviews with the families at The Woods it was time for the inaugural Connects meeting.

Families gathered for a simple meal at a nearby church (Lutheran Church Christ the King). Introductions occurred and we proposed the idea of meeting once a month to discuss how the emerging Woods at Golden Given neighborhood could become an amazing place to live. Like any initial community meeting, a healthy mixture of questions accompanied enthusiasm. There were as many crossed arms as nodding heads, but the energy was palpable. We all knew it. That was February 2014.

With the common house still far from completion, we decided to meet for the first year at the Metro Parks STAR Centerwhere the kids could have a supervised place to play while the parents shared a meal and a facilitated discussion. From the Habitat staff perspective the goal of these meetings was pretty simple: Get to know each other’s stories, tap into the gifts existing in the room and begin to set up a process for sustainable leadership to occur at The Woods. We were hoping for an asset-based community development approach that encouraged everyone to get involved. Community partners joined us and began offering presentations. Participants included the dozen or so families that had already moved into their Habitat homes as well as new families that were still working on their sweat equity hours.

Teams began to form within the first few months of the large group Connects meetings. One of the first such committees was the Hospitality Team: A handful of women who agreed to meet outside of the large group gathering to plan welcoming and relationship building activities. They took on a portion of organizing new home dedication ceremonies (the first time Habitat homeowners had done this for our affiliate), created a move-in checklist for new families and started to organize meals for Connects meetings. They worked with the newly formed Safety Team to organize the first National Night Out BBQ in partnership with the local fire and police departments. A Grounds and Garden Team formed to create a community garden at The Woods. Two homeowners agreed to join a Resident Design Team which began to meet monthly, co-creating content and curriculum along with Habitat staff for the Connects meetings.

In December, the Hospitality Team organized a very successful Holiday Party that included music and food from the six cultural traditions already represented at The Woods. We reflected on what we had learned from the first year. Some homeowners talked about the fact that the deepest relationships often form after working through conflict; that participatory decision making is hard work, but worth it.

From the staff point of view, we continue to learn a ton from the Connects Process. Like many non-profit programs, we often have a scripted idea of what will work. Several times throughout the year I have stood in front of the Connects group and have said, “You know what? You’re right. I’m wrong. Let’s figure this out together.” These moments were met with grace and new resolve to evolve in our partnership. One homeowner came up to me after a meeting and said, “Thank you for hearing me.” I nodded and said “of course.” “No,” she said. “Seriously.”

Habitat Connects is continuing to grow and will roll out new family support options in the coming year. Participants will also take on small group advocacy projects. Connects leaders recently joined a two-day collaborative design workshop where they teamed with Habitat staff and local architects to design their future common house at The Woods. We are witnessing the evolution of partnership that now extends past the new house dedication when keys change hands. Connects equips the future local leaders of Tacoma/Pierce County to make a significant difference in their community.

By Elliot Stockstad, Director of Homeowner Services at Tacoma/Pierce County Habitat for Humanity

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