How Can We Build A Sense Of Community

By Chelsea Anderson, MY Denver Instructor, Denver Parks and Recreation

I spent most of my life in a very small town in Northern Wisconsin, and then a few years going to school in Madison, and one solid year exploring the city of LA. Last year I decided to make another move, hoping to find somewhere I could call home again. Moving into a new city is intimidating in many ways and The Lincoln Park/ La Alma community, where I found my first job working as a recreation instructor, is unlike anything I have ever encountered in my entire life.

Coming in, my supervisor told me that the neighborhood surrounding the recreation center had gone through a huge transition in the past few years when they had torn down many of the old houses in favor of new apartment buildings. This redevelopment pushed out a lot of families and the center stopped seeing as many kids walking through their doors. This, among other factors, was one of the main reasons why we were partnering with Mirror Image Arts, Speak Up, Speak Out! project. The hope was that the partnership would revitalize something that the community had lost and bring new vigor to empowering the youth and the community alike. I knew from the beginning that this was a project I wanted to be apart of. The partnership and the nature of MY Denver programming really pushed me to put myself out there and connect with kids in my program and community members in ways I never thought possible.

Initially, I was a little intimidated by the feeling of coming into the recreation center as an outsider. I would build up this idea of how people would react to me based on a fear of social disconnect rather than just going in for the “Hello.” Every time I pushed myself to talk to someone at the center or butted into a group of kids, I was genuinely surprised by the reaction. I was never met with a closed off attitude or unwillingness to at least understand who I was and where I was coming from. Who knew that if I had just extended my hand quicker, I would’ve integrated much faster into the community I would eventually call my home.

This wouldn’t have been clear to me and I also wouldn’t have known that I wasn’t alone in this sentiment if it hadn’t been for the community interviews and events we put on at the center with the help of our Speak Up, Speak Out! Youth Advisory Board. We heard from multiple people that there has been this feeling of social disconnect that is stemming from a change in built environment, transient neighbors, and “double hustlers” (folks working multiple jobs just to get by). The apartment buildings displaced families that had been there for years and brought in new people that didn’t know how to extend their hands to existing neighbors; leaving current residents unsure of how to extend their hand as well.

Being just south of downtown Denver and a center location to the light rail, many people coming through the neighborhood are very transient and therefore feel no concrete connection to the neighborhood. These people plus the parents and guardians of struggling families that are “double hustling”have no time to dedicate to their community and therefore push their families and neighbors to feel the same. When asked, many interviewees said that “community is togetherness, people who are willing to help one another, people who are willing to ask for help, to give help.” This is something that many community members around La Alma are no longer feeling. This is something that they want back. I know now that it starts with a simple “Hello”, but I also now know that it can’t stop there.

Currently, we are working to create a program through MY Denver that we can implement throughout the Parks and Recreation system based on our experiences at La Alma. From the very beginning, this project has grown with the needs of the community and I hope that is something that is never lost through it’s exploration into other communities throughout Denver. The outcomes of  Speak Up, Speak Out! will hopefully lead more communities through their own unique journeys as Mirror Image Arts and My Denver strive to enhance their sense of community through civic practice. Personally, I hope that I will leave the La Alma community with the inspiration to help their neighbors, no matter their walk of life.