Community – 3 Lessons Learned

Schroeder Stribling, N Street Village’s Executive Director, spoke today at TEDxMassAveWomen, an event hosted by the Johns Hopkins SAIS Gender and Development Forum. This local event was one of many community gatherings being held around the world on December 1st as part of TEDxWomen, which focuses on women and women’s issues.

Schroeder spoke about the importance of community to women and shared three lessons she has learned about community from the women of N Street Village.

“Our mission is to empower women to claim their highest quality of life, and we pay close attention to our impact – measuring and reporting our outcomes in housing, income, employment and health.  But there’s something else to which we pay attention at N Street Village that is more challenging to measure, but essential to creating change – something that is meaningful for all of us — whether we have been homeless, or poor, or addicted, or traumatized, or in despair – or not.

We believe in the power of community – the power of community to heal and restore individuals, to increase our resilience, to strengthen our relationships, and to offer us all a vision of a just and inclusive society.

Today I’d like to share three things I’ve learned from members of the N Street Village family about what community really means.

First, a community is a place where forgiveness and reconciliation are expected and achieved.  In 2008 one of our residents was experiencing a decline in her mental health.  Laverne was 42 at the time and her chronic schizophrenia, which had been well-managed for a few years, was now causing paranoia and bizarre behavior that was stirring up trouble with her roommates and making her unable to care for herself and her basic responsibilities. Having received a note from me that I wanted to talk one morning, Laverne came charging down the hall of the first floor of our building yelling at the top of her lungs.  She is tall, extremely overweight, uses a cane, and is given to a flamboyant, and heavily orange, style of dress.  She was an intimidating sight as she came down the hall yelling that she would kill the Three Spirits of evil that were dwelling inside me and the other staff.  We responded to the crisis with our usual protocol and plan – Laverne was ultimately hospitalized and received intensive treatment, and returned to the community several weeks later.  Staff made sure that Laverne and I saw each other on the day she got home.  She greeted me warmly, calling me “sweetie” (which was a first) and asking what I wanted to talk about.  I prompted her to talk with me about the day she left – “Oh that?” she smiled and laughed – “you’re fine, I’m not mad at you! Don’t worry about it” she re-assured me – clearly wanting me to know she would not hold a grudge against me.  I assured her back – working hard to telegraph a resolution of our conflict and a hearty welcome home.  Years later now Laverne remains in our housing and is doing well – we always share a warm greeting, and I feel a special connection to her.  Since that incident she has always called me ‘sweetie.’

Second, a community is a place where every individual has a meaningful role and contributes to the well-being of the whole in ways that are encouraged and appreciated.  Cheryl’s childhood was deeply impacted by trauma – abuse, neglect, family loss and domestic violence – and by the chronic deprivations of extreme poverty.  She completed little schooling and she started doing drugs and drinking at a very early age.  She carries the physical and emotional scars of years of dramatic hardship. Then, more than 10 years ago, Cheryl came to N Street Village for help – she got clean and sober and she got into independent housing — she started a long journey that she describes as “finally growing up and learning how to be a woman.”  In that journey she also found her calling – as an advocate for the poor.  Today, Cheryl is a member of the DC Interagency Council on Homelessness and has been appointed to the boards of a number of local organizations who value her passionate perspective on social justice.  She is a die-hard extrovert who is always happy to take the microphone and who has worked her way into the consciousness and good graces of more than one DC Mayor.  She openly shares her personal story of moving from despair to hope and she uses it to educate and inspire others.

Lastly, a community promotes healing and recovery, and can restore dignity and wholeness. One day in the summer of 2009 Barbara lost consciousness. She awoke in a hospital where she learned that she was diabetic and stayed for several days to stabilize her fragile health.  Barbara was fired from her job after this absence, and therefore lost her health insurance.  Without her health insurance and her income, she could not afford both her medicines and her rent, and she became homeless.  She stayed with friends for a while but this was difficult and eventually she came to N Street Village.  Barbara stayed in our night shelter and got health care in our Wellness Center.  With her health stable and a safe place to stay, Barbara wanted to put her time and her skills to good use and she wanted to express her gratitude.  She got involved in our client volunteer corps and we welcomed her creative ideas about how to contribute.  Over the past two years, Barbara has started a “knitting epidemic” (as she calls it) at N Street Village.  She teaches needlework classes every week to other clients and residents, and she led a group who contributed to a knitted coral reef that was on display at the Smithsonian.  She was featured in an article in the Washington Post on our knitting circle and has been the inspiration for many yards of donated yarn.

If you are interested in seeing what our community can do for you – and WITH you.  Visit us anytime – on the web or in person — we look forward to welcoming you.”