Building Community Connectedness: United For Community

From March 2016- February 2018, Jackson County United Way (JCUW) engaged 475 members throughout the county from all walks of life and backgrounds in 37 deep conversations about the kind of community we want Jackson County to be.  People came into these conversations with honesty and a willingness to share and for this we are deeply grateful.  In return, JCUW is committed to broadly sharing what we heard so that anyone in our community who wants to take action can get involved.

The purpose of these conversations were to listen to county residents in order to change JCUW’s culture to be one that is turned outward. A turned outward culture makes decisions and actions on what is best for the community based on shared hopes and concerns.

This is the county-wide aspiration we heard: Jackson County residents want a community where people choose to live, that is healthy and safe.  They want a community that is alive, vibrant and growing with places to go and things to do. We want to be known as a place where we work together for solutions to take care of our neighbors and generations.

JCUW is focused on the shared aspiration that will drive the next steps of our work in the county.  While the bulk of the conversations engaged residents in the kind of community we’d like to live in, it also addressed concerns.  Here are the things that came up in most conversations and specific voices that were echoed repeatedly:

  • Community Connectedness & Pride- People want to be engaged and part of the community. Residents want to feel pride about the community they live in.   People want all residents to feel invited to community activities and events. There are concerns that language barriers and poverty create unequal access for community members to come together to drive success. People are demanding real collaboration where partners work together for the betterment of the community and ensure that follow through happens when promised. Community members called for less talking and more action.
  • Growing Poverty Rates & Working Poor- People are concerned about the job market– the number of jobs that go unfilled; the perceived lack of willingness to work; and jobs with low wages that make it hard to make ends meet. People also say that more people are working and still living in poverty and how many people are stuck in a cycle of poverty because there are too many barriers for accessing resources to help them. People are also concerned about how to break the cycle, especially for students who are living in generational poverty.
  • Stigma of Substance Use- There are many stigmas about substance use. People are demanding to change the stigma surrounding people who are in active recovery.  People in active recovery have said they don’t feel included in the community and need to know from others that they are not being pushed out but actively pulled in. When people talked about the issue, they also noted that it affects all income levels. 
  • Accessibility to Drugs- People talked a lot about how easy it is to get drugs. Drugs are found everywhere throughout the county in workplaces, schools, libraries, and gas stations. People specifically talked about how they could make a call and in five minutes meet up with someone for the drug of their choice. Parents need to be aware of how accessible drugs are in the life of their child. Teens also shared that they have multiple friends that are using, selling and sharing needles. 

Other main concerns included:

  • Safety of Children & Adults (particularly seniors)
  • Lack of Social Gatherings & Places
  • Care for others and Supportive Services
  • Generational Substance Use

During our time with residents, people also talked about their trust in people and groups. What we heard was residents trust in organizations with a broad scope of influence and those they have a current relationship with.  While people believe big organizations should be involved, there was no consensus about which organizations are trusted.  Trust is in short supply due to the lack of relationships and decisions made without public input.  

Residents also shared they want to see progress- too many residents have seen many community plans come and go without much to show for it.  For people to believe this time will be different, they need to see clear attainable goals, objectives, and a timeline identified.  They also want to see strong partnerships, more collaboration, and more community leaders involved. Members of the community also say that they too will need to get involved if Jackson County is to become a community where attitudes change and people are respectful and respected. 

When people were asked what kinds of things would generate a sense of change, these things were noted:

  • People want to see more recovery options for all people. They specifically noted that if inmates are in jail anyway there should be the option for them to receive treatment and there was a specific voice that identified teenagers needed treatment options available.
  • People want to build healthy relationships at family friendly events throughout the county. They also specifically noted more events need to be available for families to connect in all parts of the county, especially Brownstown, Crothersville, Freetown, and Medora.
  • People want others to learn more about this issue, how it is affecting all members of our community, how we can rally together to create positive messages of hope, and how we can create opportunities for people in recovery to gather publicly.

JCUW is working towards these shared aspirations in the community: a healthy and safe community, a vibrant community with places to go and things to do, and working together for solutions to take care of our neighbors and generations. Initially, JCUW is going to focus on two big issues: Helping People get out of Poverty and Substance Use.

Tonja Couch, Executive Director, shared, “We will do our work in a way that helps build community connectedness at the same time.   This includes convening members of the community to talk about how they can get involved and organizing spaces where people can come together to create informal networks and take action on these issues and community conditions.” 

JCUW is ready to take action and is encouraging other groups, organizations and networks to do the same. To start, JCUW is widely sharing what we have learned from the community. Couch stated, “Many community leaders, civic organizations, and workplace campaign partners have heard the information and are considering how they can use the information to reshape current work.  We’ve also will continue to share with residents at the Farmers Market at third Saturdays.”

With our first small pockets of action we hope to demonstrate what is possible when the community works together. This summer and into the fall, we are working with others to host Neighborhood Block Parties and a few free summer events for families in the parks.  Couch shared, “These are an important step in getting people to know each other and provide engaging activities.  Real connections are made and developed at neighborhood block parties through building neighbor relationships and encouraging others to learn more about available resources in the community.” 

JCUW co-hosted the Jackson County Public Library’s Summer Learning Kickoffs throughout the county this week.  Other upcoming events will be in August with the Seymour Parks Department End of Summer Party at Shields and Breastfeeding Coalition’s Party in the Park at Gaiser.  We are encouraging neighbors to co-host neighborhood block parties, JCUW will be happy to come to other pre-planned events with rock painting and aspirations sharing.

Seymour’s First United Methodist Church is hosting a Block Party to reach out to the residents in their neighborhood on Saturday, June 9th from 5:30-7:30 PM has a fun evening with free food, games, activities, and prizes.  Youth and Young Adult Minister, Rachel Nay, heard about the opportunity to host a block party through Leadership Jackson County.  “We want to host a block party for all the reasons United Way started doing the block parties.  We want to get to know our neighbors and help build a sense of community.  We want our neighbors to know we care about them.  We want church to be a place where everyone in the community knows they are invited and welcome anytime.”

In 2017, JCUW had a few residents who hosted parties.  Connie Hernandez, Mi Casa co-owner and mother of three, shared, “For me, we are new to the neighborhood; in the past our best relationships come from neighbors and we want to connect with our neighbors.  This is important work- the community has said it is, so individuals should sign up to create a stronger sense of community.”  

JCUW is asking for more neighbors to host parties this summer or early fall and provides a neighborhood block party kit to help plan the event, door hangers to invite neighbors, and will come to set up a #JacksonCountyRocks painting activity and share more about this community connectedness work.

JCUW is making it easy to host the event. Hernandez continued, “Don’t let fear keep you from doing it.  Don’t think, ‘I don’t want to spend time or money on this event’- you don’t have too!  Encourage your neighbors to make it a pot luck pitch in, have everyone bring a chair- just get to know your neighbors.” 

JCUW wants to see a community where we do work together to take care of neighbors and generations.  Couch asked, “How can we ensure that neighbors are helping neighbors if they don’t even know their neighbor’s names?”

Hernandez agreed, “Neighbors take care of us and we take care of them.  It builds a safer community when you know your neighbors.”

Moving forward JCUW will also begin to convene experts and interested community leaders to look at more in-depth actions we can take for the major pressing issues regarding helping people get out of poverty and how to tackle the drug issue.

If you have questions – or would like to host a neighborhood block party please contact Tonja Couch, Executive Director, Jackson County United Way or 812-522-5450.