What is your official title?
Executive Director at Building Blocks of Kalamazoo.
What’s an average day in the ‘Zoo look like for you?
Building Blocks is part time so it’s a split day between a couple of things. Generally, mornings are devoted to Building Blocks. I meet with other community organizations, with board members and community members. It includes a lot of planning right now since our programs run primarily in the spring. I find myself in many meetings and bouncing ideas off of the team – the Building Blocks board – to ensure we are prepared for May. I also work part time at Soccer Zone. I head in there for the afternoons and do administrative work for them. I always get a walk or run in with my dog and try to fit in a soccer game some evenings; it depends on the day.
What is Building Blocks?
Building Blocks is a grassroots, community-organizing nonprofit based in Kalamazoo. Founded in 1995, Building Blocks partners with WMU students, neighborhood associations and residents in low to moderate income neighborhoods to complete exterior home improvement projects. The primary focus and goal of Building Blocks is not simply neighborhood revitalization but to build social capital by building relationships and strengthening community. These types of collaborative projects help to strengthen the social fabric of the neighborhood and assists neighbors to engage in a deeper conversation about the well-being of their community.
The project cycle runs for 8 weeks, starting in May and ending in July. The projects and resident planning process act as the vehicle to bring groups together. Building Blocks is in an exciting transition phase to expand our work beyond the 8 week projects. We will engage resident groups organized from the initial projects on a year-round basis to help build and support resident leadership, to assist in identifying resources, and to connect with other community organizations and entities.
What kind of projects are you currently working on?
Approaching the May program, we never know what revitalization projects are going to be since it’s completely resident driven and unique to the groups. Student and resident organizers will come together with the neighborhood groups to facilitate the allocation of project funds between the residents. Projects could include building a new fence, fixing porches, installing windows, landscaping and gardening – it truly runs the gamut.
As for other projects, currently I am working with the board to develop our model to expand our organizing efforts. As I said, it’s a very exciting time for Building Blocks as we consider how to deepen our impact and how to best do this in a collective manner within the community; partnering significantly with other organizations working in our target neighborhoods. I am also very focused on student recruitment and preparing for the organizing course that runs during the projects of Building Blocks.
Can you tell us about your background?
I am a Kalamazoo native, born and raised. I attended Hackett and then Western. Within a month of graduating with a bachelors in social work, I left with the Peace Corps to serve in Malawi. I served as a Peace Corps volunteer for two years and then was hired as a community development director near my home village. I worked in Malawi for another year before returning to Kalamazoo. My time in Malawi provided me practical experience in grassroots community organizing which was a different service model than what I had been heavily exposed to in the US. In Malawi, I really had no tangible resources but myself to offer so we had to creatively identify strategies together which was empowering for the village to recognize their assets and improve their own community from what they had. It was much more about the community coming together — figuring out what skills you have and what things you can do without relying on outside sources.
When I came home I knew that I’d like to serve in a leadership position in the nonprofit sector preferably with an organization that was grassroots, however the path to get there was not clear to me. I was fortunate to work in community outreach for Gazelle Sports as well as gain experience licensing foster homes. I then pursued my masters at WMU. It was during my last semester that I found Building Blocks. The mission and model could not have been more fitting. It’s been 7 months now in the position and it’s been great.
What are you most looking forward to for Building Blocks this year?
I am most excited to get into the neighborhoods and start the projects. I gain so much energy and knowledge from being around others and being with the community especially as we work towards a shared vision. It will be great to finally see in action what I’ve heard so much about these past few months!
Tell us about your time in Malawi.
It’s a very small country, about the size of Pennsylvania. I had never heard of it before receiving an invitation from the Peace Corps to Malawi. Malawi is known as “the warm heart of Africa,” which was reassuring to hear about a country you are invited to live in for 2 years. I was placed in a village that had no electricity, no running water. I learned how to carry water on my head, learned the language, learned the culture, learned to eat and cook, basically relearned everything. I was incredibly fortunate because my village was very welcoming, supportive and receptive. I never felt wanting of anything. We built a very strong and warm relationship. I consider that village my home village. My time there taught me that I don’t like to compartmentalize my life. I’ve found more satisfaction when things overlap. I want to work where I live and have things be very fluid. In Malawi, our doors were always open and people were always coming in and out to share about work and life.
What do you love most about Kalamazoo?
Kalamazoo has a spirit of perseverance, it’s a city that believes in itself and takes pride in itself. Having lived here all of my life, I’ve been fortunate to watch the challenges faced by our downtown and then the commitment of local businesses to rebuild and strengthen it. The Kalamazoo Promise is an example of such a commitment to our city. I recall waking up the day it was announced and hearing it on the radio. All I could think was, “This is the coolest thing ever! This is my city!” It’s just amazing to see how many companies and how many local people believe in Kalamazoo and have truly stayed with it. It was a great experience working for a company like Gazelle Sports. They are a great example — they could have left downtown when downtown struggled, but they didn’t. Chris and Bruce had an unwavering love for their city and their community as do many people here. I guess that has spilled over onto me.
What do you think can be improved about Kalamazoo?
There is a large gap related to socioeconomic levels in the community. To improve these things that are so large and complicated, we must learn how to have productive conversations and safe conversations across boundaries — that includes for-profits, nonprofits, residents, leaders — everyone. We need to start to bridge that gap. I believe, as a city, we are trying. More than ever, our community must elevate and listen to the voices of those who, right now, face significant challenges.
How do you take your coffee?…or do you?
It depends on my mood, black coffee normally. If I go to Something’s Brewing, which I take my dog there often for walks, it’s a flavored coffee with almond milk or just black. Sometimes I add a little vanilla extract — it’s a cheap way to flavor.
Do you have a “go to” spot in Kalamazoo?
Yes. Gazelle sports for my running needs and just to say hello and to run. Lately it’s been The Union on Saturdays for bloody mary’s with my best friend. They have half off bloody mary’s on Saturdays. Something’s Brewing and Martini’s are my other favorites.
What have you been jammin’ to recently? What’s on the iPod?
I’m a big fan of bluegrass, indie/folk, admittedly a fan of Taylor Swift — it’s quite a broad spectrum.
When you were younger, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I wanted to be a veterinarian.
Who would play you in a movie?
Natalie Portman, I’m thinking of her role in Garden State. She is just super quirky and so cute.
What is your dream for Building Blocks?
We are in the midst of a big transition so it’s really open ended right now. We will continue our traditional projects as they’ve existed. They are a great vehicle for residents to get involved. In the future, there will be groups that continue to meet all year and organize to play a large role in the development of the neighborhood. The best way I can try to describe it is in a neighborhood if you build a street level group here and a street level group there — eventually they start to overlap and network and from there, you can start to build a social fabric. You have to start small to begin to build something much bigger.
I’d like to see a lot of individuals break down the fears that they may have, destroy the many generalizations that exist about some of our central city neighborhoods. You hear the bad stories. I want Building Blocks to help build a vibrant community highlighting our success. I want Building Blocks to help neighborhoods create an identity for themselves. That being said, Building Blocks is just a piece of the puzzle, we need to have a collective, targeted and intentional approach that complements the initiatives of other organizations.
Carrie, thank you for taking the time to meet with us and sharing your thoughts! Keep up with Carrie and Building Blocks Kalamazoo on facebook. Also, be sure to follow us on facebook and twitter for updates.