The Blossoming of Real Communities

When a Georgia Council on Developmental Disabilities (GCDD) initiative ends, the celebration continues. The work has planted a seed, sown results, and now all can watch the fruits and impact of the initiative multiply as time goes on.

PURPOSEFULLY INVOLVING PEOPLE WITH AND WITHOUT DEVELOPMENTAL DISABILITIES IN COLLABORATIVE PROJECTS WAS PIVOTAL TO REAL COMMUNITIES. So it is with the recently completed initiative that began 10 years ago as Real Communities. The objective at the start of this initiative was to equip community members at the local, grassroots level to work together toward common goals to improve their community using person-centered supports, community-centered connections, and persistent and reflective learning. Purposefully involving people with and without developmental disabilities in collaborative projects was pivotal to the framework of Real Communities.

GCDD tapped Sumaya Karimi as the Real Communities organizing director. Karimi is the founder and co-director of Global Ubuntu, an organization that has helped Georgia residents discover and use their individual and collective power to change their communities for good.

With Karimi’s guidance, GCDD supported Real Communities in several ways, including technical assistance, training, popular education, and at times, financial support. Projects were determined by individual communities, as opposed to GCDD staff, and varied according to local needs and desires.

The initiative partnered with various organizations throughout the state of Georgia. Each Real Communities partner had a community builder whose role was to create the group, support implementation of the work, and create sustainability and accountability. Successful community builders worked toward the goals of empowerment – helping people mobilize, obtain resources, and develop strategies that promoted their interests or causes specific to their community.

Looking back at the early years of the initiative, GCDD’s Executive Director Eric Jacobson said, “I believe that many of the outcomes were achieved as we brought people together and changes occurred locally such as new transportation opportunities in Fitzgerald, greater food access in Savannah and Clarkston, and the identification of gifts and how to use them in Macon.”

Other Real Communities achievements included:

The goal of Open Studio for All at the Colquitt County Arts Center in Moultrie was to create a more inclusive art community by shifting people’s perceptions about individuals with disabilities through gatherings to create artwork, share experiences and talents, and share stories as the community members get to know one another.

Mixed Greens Community Builders and The Little Green Wagon at the Forsyth Farmers’ Market aimed to build increasingly diverse relationships through shared experiences of caring for a place and all its people. They had individuals plant a seed, watch it grow from one week to the next, and take their plant home when it was ready to transplant.

Re-Cycle Macon provided adults of varying abilities in need of transportation the opportunity to earn a bicycle as means of stopgap transportation and to repair bicycles together.

About four years ago, the Real Communities initiative morphed into Welcoming Communities.

“The purpose of this change was to focus on the idea of how we create places that welcome all people and engage them in not only developing projects but involvement in creating an atmosphere of social justice. This means engaging in trying to change the political environment in local communities. I think that we are beginning to see the achievements of these projects as each community works with a coach to identify issues and tactics,” Jacobson explained.

The change to Welcoming Communities allowed the initiative to address the urgent issues many individuals with and without disabilities are now facing in society and across Georgia. Neighborhood groups and towns began hosting Welcoming Community Dialogues to create space for community members of differing backgrounds, races and abilities to discuss and dream of a society where everyone is treated with dignity and justice.

Coming out of the initiative were offerings such as:

Filling in the GAPS in Augusta organized a series of community dialogues covering “Life in the Time of Corona,” “Mental Health: Reducing the Stigma,” “Finding Healing in Daily Lives,” and “The Power of Empathy.” They offered a safe place to have authentic, real dialogue around these topics in a judgment-free environment.

Georgia Research Environment Economic Network focused on documenting the social justice concerns of marginalized groups in the Savannah community and established a Community Action Team to come up with measurable solutions.

Inspire Positivity created a program that includes Welcoming Community Dialogues that specifically address the social issues and concerns of persons of color with disabilities, as well as the creation of public gatherings that encourage better community involvement and support of persons with disabilities in disenfranchised communities in LaGrange and Troup County.

Dialogues and advocacy are poised to shift culture and attitudes so that everyone can regard others with empathy and compassion, and people feel welcome and develop a sense of belonging.Within the past year, the initiative grew into what is now called the Welcoming Community Movement (WCM). Its goal is to pave the way toward an equitable and just society – foundational of welcoming communities – where people across race, ability, ethnicity, culture, class, socioeconomic background, educational status, gender and religion are treated with dignity and respect. Dialogues and advocacy are poised to shift culture and attitudes so that everyone can regard others with empathy and compassion, and people feel welcome and develop a sense of belonging. The WCM is a journey through disabilities and racial justice.

WCM aims to make choice real for more people with developmental disabilities so they can exercise the responsibility to act as contributing citizens to make their community better for everyone.

The community builders make four commitments through their groups’ work:

  1. People with developmental disabilities are active members.
  2. Action focuses on making the community better for everyone.
  3. Over time, the initiative builds up local capacity for collective action.
  4. Participants take responsibility for sharing what they are learning.

The initiative is not about single victories, but about building communities where people have a growing capacity to act together.

WCM AIMS TO MAKE CHOICE REAL FOR MORE PEOPLE WITH DEVELOPMENTAL DISABILITIES SO THEY CAN EXERCISE THE RESPONSIBILITY TO ACT AS CONTRIBUTING CITIZENS TO MAKE THEIR COMMUNITY BETTER FOR EVERYONE.With this change, Mixed Greens in Savannah expanded their work and joined forces with the Episcopal Church Diocese of Georgia in a dialogue 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.

ConnectAbility in Dahlonega brought together 10 teams of people with and without disabilities who share a common love of photography with a goal of building relationships and making friendships during their annual “Thousand Words Photography” project.

And the Georgia Research Environment Economic Network in Savannah is working with people, with and without disabilities, who have been released from incarceration and want to return to their community as contributing members.

When looking back at all the accomplishments through this initiative, Jacobson sees how it tied directly to GCDD’s current Five-Year Strategic Plan and will serve constituents in years to come.

“We have significantly reduced the scope of the Welcoming Communities efforts. Instead, we are using the learning and values of Welcoming Communities in most of our projects,” he explained. “Concepts such as Collective Impact, Asset Based Community Development and Theory U (a change management method) will be foundational to GCDD efforts.  In addition, we will continue to fund smaller, local projects that continue to promote the idea of bringing people with and without disabilities in coalition to create more welcoming spaces.”