A new focus has changed the 10-year-old Real Communities Initiative, funded by the Georgia Council on Developmental Disabilities (GCDD), into a totally new movement.
The program, now the Welcoming Community Movement (WCM), has shifted its goal to creating welcoming communities in which everyone understands they are valued, and their needs are heard and acted upon.
WCM is overseen by Global Ubuntu and is headed by its founder and co-director, Sumaya Karimi, and co-director Malaika Geuka Wells. WCM groups, located in nine Georgia counties, are being trained by three coaches in the areas of inclusion and restorative justice as well as healing and sustainability. The coaches are from Taproot (Atlanta, GA), The SEMANCO Team (Smyrna, GA), and Mattie J. T. Stepanek Foundation (Americus, GA). These coaches are training those involved with local initiatives in developing multi-disciplinary collaborations; resources and innovations in community organizing; and practices in sustainable change. Within the next few months, a fourth coach will be added to train the local communities on think tank development and strategies. This coach will help research policies that impact people with disabilities, those of color, people who experience oppression, etc.
With the switch to WCM, change has been noticeable from its new logo to greater inclusivity and deeper community cohesiveness. “We’ve seen increased collaboration with respect to partners working together among organizations in Atlanta, LaGrange and Augusta,” said Wells. “The grassroots movement of Real Communities has caught fire, and we are seeing people get creative on how to build community during this time of COVID-19 through technology, art and various other ways. We are seeing people take risks and discuss issues of discomfort. After doing the work on themselves, they then turn outward to help others in the community.”
“Part of empowerment is people talking to each other. Equity means Black with white and those with disabilities with those without disabilities. Inclusion doesn’t happen without talk,” added Karimi.
One such WCM community is Mixed Greens in Savannah, GA. This group of Savannah residents with and without disabilities began in 2009. Mixed Greens is currently being led by Jessica Mathis.
Today this local initiative is working on mindfulness, death issues and social justice. “We want to give people basic tips on what to do to conserve their mind/body/spirit,” explained Mathis. Part of that work is dealing with end-of-life issues in their Death Café, a safe space to share and grieve. Mathis also notes that COVID-19 gave rise to noticeable racial and income inequity in their community. “We want people with and without disabilities to be powerful allies in social justice work, to ask questions on how everyone is working to include everyone regardless of disability, color, income, etc.,” added Mathis.
She leads the Mixed Greens group with an eye on the future. “We are working on the Beloved Community Dialogue with the Episcopal Church Diocese of Georgia. The purpose of this dialogue is to help all community members learn how to end discrimination against people with disabilities, end racism and create different pathways to economic and resource access,” Mathis added.
Out of tough times great change often comes, and so it is with ConnectAbility in Dahlonega, GA. Taking on the Welcoming Community Movement they are focusing on intentional diversity and in doing so have discovered there is more diversity in their community than originally thought. “We don’t want to highlight our differences but bring appreciation and recognition of them,” explained Jacqueline Daniel, president of ConnectAbility.
Their biggest community impact recently was due to having to adjust their annual “Thousand Words Photography” project because of the pandemic. Ten teams of people with and without disabilities came together under their common love of photography with a goal of building relationships and making friendships. ConnectAbility worked to make the photography displays portable this year by displaying photos on sandwich boards that were placed in Hancock Park. Seven local businesses asked if they could each have a turn displaying the photography works in their company locations, calling attention to this collaboration among such a diverse group of citizens.
Reverend Vernell and Anita Cutter have joined forces with the Georgia Research Environment Economic Network (GREEN) in Savannah, GA to work on social justice issues. Their main clients are returning citizens – people who have been released from incarceration. “How do we as a community say we see you have paid your debt?” explained Anita about their goal to create a more welcoming community. Vernell has been doing the legwork in the community with one-on-one meetings with recently returned citizens with and without intellectual disabilities as well as with state and local legislators. The goal is to welcome all back into the community and help them feel they are valuable citizens.
Future plans by the Cutters include creating a Community Action Team for guiding returning individuals to embrace and work on turning their lives around, showing society their value and to voice the stories of the issues they face as they return to their communities.
The reach of the Welcoming Community Movement is growing across Georgia. Other WCM communities are being organized by:
- Abilities Discovered, Warner Robins, GA
- Compassionate Atlanta, Atlanta, GA
- Filling in the GAPS, Hephzibah, GA
- Inspire Positivity, LaGrange, GA
- New Neighbors Network, Comer, GA
- Peacebuilders Camp, Americus, GA