The Middlebury neighborhood of Akron is located just east of the University of Akron and south of downtown. The neighborhood has its share of challenges. According to 2000 US Census figures, nearly one third of all residents 25 and older do not have high school diplomas.
That statistic may help explain why so few Middlebury residents hold professional or management level jobs – Middlebury residents earn on average about 26 percent less than residents of the city of Akron overall.
If you are thinking at this point that the neighborhood’s residents have given up on their community, you would be sorely mistaken. The people who live and work in Middlebury want more for their community and they are willing to work to get it. They have ideas and dreams for Middlebury, but it is hard to make those dreams a reality when you don’t know how or where to start.
A day-long outdoor event held at The W.O.M.B.’s community gardens on Market Street, Envision Akron: Middlebury, aimed to give residents a place to start and an opportunity to have a voice in how to work as partners to build a stronger neighborhood for themselves and for future generations.
If the turnout was an indication of community pride and desire for stronger connection, it was clear that the will is there. As far as the way, well, the beauty of the Envision Akron concept is that the community members themselves determine what they want for their neighborhood and how they will accomplish their goals.
Event organizers Kelly McHood and Caitlin Boyle of Rooted Akron planned the event with the intention of creating a welcoming, friendly atmosphere that encouraged everyone to participate and celebrate together, and their efforts were a success.
Organizations and individuals from all walks of life were on-hand to encourage Middlebury residents to find their voices and to give the people the necessary tools to make their neighborhood the place they envision it can become.
If all that sounds too complicated to be fun, it’s not.
While sitting in the shade of a canopy enjoying free hot dogs and blue skies, attendees introduced themselves to one another.
While learning to stack rocks with Akron’s rock-stacking guru, Ed Cote, folks began to break the ice as they tried, failed, tried again and cheered one another on as they succeeded in building their rock towers from the ground up – a literal grass roots endeavor.
As they joined Wandering Aesthetics Theatre Company’s master storyteller and Co-Artistic Director Kyle Jozsa and Gum-Dip Theatre’s Artistic Director Katie Beck, people began telling one another their Akron stories, specifically their stories about the things in Akron that have engaged and inspired them. I had the great pleasure of sharing stories at their station with a young man who is currently a resident at Akron’s Oriana House. He shared with me the story of his struggles with mental illness and incarceration and the opportunities Oriana House is giving him to find recovery and rehabilitation through its programming. Making connections with one another by telling their stories allowed community members to find common ground and common goals.
As they joined poets and other members of the community at the spoken word station, community members heard and had the opportunity to deliver messages of hope and empowerment.
At the self empowerment station, Body Karma Healing’s Julie Norman was on hand to encourage residents to write their hopes for the future of the Middlebury neighborhood on a giant vision board. Participants were also invited to create individual mini vision boards to take home with them.
Another station encouraging change through self empowerment was the Akron Organizing Collaborative voter registration table. Volunteers for the non-partisan organization urged residents to register, educate themselves and go to the polls to exercise this right that so many have fought so hard to secure.
Grateful for Grace, an organization based in Florida, travels the country and helps communities that are working to become environmentally sustainable. They are currently working at the Stone Garden Farm in Richfield and agreed to participate in Envision Akron: Middlebury by hosting a foot washing station. The idea was to demonstrate servant-leadership in action.
Grateful 4 Grace volunteer Julia Velja had her own way of empowering members of the community. Julia greeted me with a “heart hug.” She explained to me that when people meet and hug front to front, their heartbeats sync and they form a “heart connection.”
Julia became committed to the practice of foot washing after an experience washing a homeless man’s feet a number of years ago. As she unwound the plastic bags he had been using instead of shoes, she discovered his feet were blistered, scarred and filthy. Julia said that the act of kneeling before him and washing his feet was life-changing for her. She explained that foot washing empowers and humbles both the giver and receiver and places them on equal footing. I watched awhile as people had their feet washed by Grateful 4 Grace volunteers. Most sat down hesitantly, but rose with a peaceful self assurance that seemed to embolden them to more confidently engage in the other Envision Akron stations.
There were plenty of other activities at Envision Akron: Middlebury, including a children’s activity station, a drum circle, an open mic and a health fair that offered free diabetes screenings.
What comes next for Middlebury? Envision Akron: Middlebury served to help create active community engagement and ready the community for the Middlebury Better Block event, which will take place on July 30 and 31.
For more information about Akron Better Block, go to https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100008413536862.