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Love and Other Superpowers - with Rita Covington

This podcast with Rita is about planning a garden party in tandem with her local Rec Center’s back to school picnic. Her goal was to promote the neighborhood garden to families who could benefit. She shares how she learned to manage it all as a single mother in part by realizing she didn't have to do it all on her own. Rita says she found the energy to keep up with the project by "putting her cape on every morning" and designing ways to multi-task by including her son in the project planning. Rita's love of her neighborhood's rich racial, ethnic, and economic diversity launches her into greater community leadership once the project is complete.

Rita and David.jpg


Rita: My name is Rita Covington. I guess the question you asked me — what am I passionate about my community. I think being different and embracing that. I have like a fairytale fantasy of people living in harmony and I like seeing that. I like how we all are different and that brings flavor like a good pot of chili and I want to see that.  

Katie: Talk a little bit about Price Hill. 

Rita: Well, Price Hill in general holds over ten percent of the population of Cincinnati and three nationalities: Appalachian, African American, and Latinos.  

Katie: And that’s the pot of chili with flavor, you were talking about. 

Rita: Yes, yes.  

Katie: Do you think right now the neighborhood is living in harmony? Like you were saying as a dream of yours a fairytale dream, is it happening? 

Rita: I think people in general, especially in Price Hill, have invisible walls up — that we’re afraid of the unknown.  

Katie: We all have stories in our heads about people and that maybe creates a lack of opportunity for people to cross paths or be more intertwined in each others’ lives.  

Rita: People are comfortable. They’re with who they’re always around so I think its almost like a club or a clique, you know I just stay with people who look like me or think like me.  

Katie: Tell me about your work with building community, how did that start? 

Rita: Well it actually kind of started with, I did AmeriCorps, I served in Price Hill. I got very familiar with the people in Price Hill. I got aware of different other small non-profits in Price Hill so I could collaborate to serve the people better.  

So I love to garden and I find gardening is very healing. I’m like a “go green” type of person, like if you litter in front of me I probably will have to like *gasp* “My god, Captain Planet - No!” So we had our training at the Price Hill Rec Center which to me I call it the nucleus of the community. So the nucleus, right so we’re having the meeting at, we’re having our first week of AmeriCorps and here I see this guy come in with bags of green beans and I’m like I think this is the guy that people have been talking to me about who works for Turner Farm. My intuition is like, “Go introduce yourself, go ahead.” So I introduced myself I was like, “hey” and I was really more intrigued you know like do you need volunteers really to help with this garden because I walk past it everyday like from the library to the Rec Center.  

Katie: And this is a garden on the Rec Center property? 

Rita: It’s literally next door. Yes.  

Katie: So where did your love of gardening come from and your environmental passion? 

Rita: My grandmother. See, my grandmother used to hide money in the garden. She taught me how to garden ever since I was little.  

Katie: She would hide money in the garden? 

Rita: Yes, in this like cookie can and she was like, “Don’t save for a rainy day, save for a thunderstorm.” She would tell me life lessons while we gardened. Some of my most memorable thoughts was while we plant and my grandma taught me to garden.  

Katie: So it’s a literal tie back to a woman in your life, your grandmother. 

Rita: Yes, my first mentor. Who was a community person too.  

Katie: She sounds like a really inspirational person who kind of took you under her wing in a way that you’re still living with her. Tell me about the steps that it took then to being part of a community garden or being connected to other neighbors through that passion.  

Rita: So from there I was also meeting up with my mentor, we were just thinking of ideas of how we could get this community working and get this community, like involved. Because my biggest thing was, it has so many, it was so rich with resources and I don’t think a lot of people in the community knew what these resources had to offer — especially for me working.  

Katie: Yeah based on your experience in AmeriCorps the community garden would be a great place to start, hey let’s try and amplify this is here, for all the neighbors to know and start to use more.  

Rita: Yeah, and so first I went through what Turner Farm had to offer. So they had these ten week classes that you attend and you learn more about gardening you learn about soil you learn about compost and everything else. And do some volunteer hours and then you get a bed, they build you a garden bed in your yard. I just started volunteering. I wanted it to be authentic, that I wasn’t just trying to like, alright, I really was passionate. I really wanted to get my hands dirty, literally.  

Katie: Was that a step for you to kind of say alright I’m going to start taking some of my time out of my day, out of my week and make room for this extra obligation that also just like a fun thing to do but it’s anytime we take parts of our time away and give it to some place else it’s a compromise right, like what else did you not get done? You know you kind of have to weigh the options. Was that a tough thing to commit to? 

Rita: When I think back on it from last year I don’t even know how I did it. I had some superpowers, I put my cape on every morning and like I didn’t even dry clean it until like September. Like seriously but to be honest I got good at multitasking and overlapping multitasking. So I think I got good at making things a double win for me. 

My son started going to spaces that most kids didn’t go to. So the compromise was for people to accept there was actually a child in the class learning about gardening. I basically had to make a meal, pre-make our dinner, microwave it using the utensils at the Rec Center. Warm up my son something to eat while he you know sit and listens and plays on the phone a little bit while I was in gardening for those ten weeks. It was also a good balanced project that we could do together to you know bond even.  

Katie: So you made it work for you? You made it fit into your life in a way that wasn’t too much of an ask, and I think that’s all about design which I think is brilliant.  

Rita: So what came next was to keep continually building relationships and I think that’s the important part of any project is having authentic genuine relationships with people because those relationships turn into networks.  

So here I was you know going inside this Rec Center no one really knowing these staff members like they’re like in a mystery like what is she doing, I thought she just used our services for the after school program but she’s involved with community stuff, right? So I got the attention of the director at that Rec Center, so then you know... 

Katie: Just from being involved? 

Rita: Yeah, yeah so then he became a mentor to me. So now I just gained two mentors, and I was like this is what I’m suppose to do.  

Katie: That’s when it was like the “ah-ha”.  

Rita: Yes! Because everything started flowing like a wind, like oh my god. I met John McKnight in that process.

Katie: Who is the book writer on Asset Based Community Development.

Rita: He is the Beyonce of community development. He’s  Beyonce. So yeah and that’s the biggest thing. Is that I really grew to be like you can’t do it all, you can’t. It takes the fun out of it. It’s humility, it makes you humble, its not about you it’s about community. I wouldn’t have been able to do none of this without all those small little pieces which were big pieces to the whole vision.  

Katie: Ok so what’s the design for the project? 

Rita: So we had the Rec Center, we had Turner Farm, we had Santa Maria, different businesses like truck food, and it was like a win-win situation because it was like ok we had back to school.  

Katie: Yeah so your project ended up being a way to transform or redesign something that had already been happening at the Rec Center, right? 

Rita: Yeah, and they were expecting two thousand people, period. So I was like yeah so this is where you promote the garden right here.  My objective was like I want the community to know about this garden. Because this is the purpose of it. And I wanted to at least capture three or four people, which we did, we did more than that.  

Katie: How did you do it? 

Rita: I planned, I failed, I got back up. I planned, and then we conquered.  

Katie: That is a pretty precise way of putting it, that is how every project happens, and there’s so much grace and I think compassion for yourself when you can put it that way. And knowing and being able to look back and say, it worked out. Do you think part of the reason you stuck with it through any of the road blocks was that you saw this as your dream, of people coming together over something very basic and fundamental like gardening?  

Rita: Yeah, getting back to the beginning of the story everyone just stayed in their spaces and it was the first time I seen this diverse community - a Latino kid and a black kid and a white kid and they were all listening to music. It was like families up in the garden getting fresh fruits and vegetables, like I can’t wait to go back. It’s like a wedding to me, like its like my birth of my life of my passion because I was just so blown away. 

Katie: It was an amazing time and I think everybody, you were saying it was the dream coming true. Everyone was convening around things like music, gardening, food and just being there together and I think the back to school event that happened every year is never going to look the same.  

Rita: I know right, It's so funny because I gained respect within the leaders of my community and I found out that I am a force to be reckoned with and I think that’s the beauty.  

Katie: How does that change the way you show up in your neighborhood, your voice being heard and being respected? 

Rita: I think now when I walk in a room, my opinion is more respected because I put the work in. I think they’re impressed. I feel like I'm no longer more of like a threat or a question of why I’m here. More like I’m the advocate, I’m the person in the middle.

I want to concentrate more now on the solutions than the problems. And I feel I have an obligation to influence more people to attend circles where they’re usually are not used to going. We need to have tough conversations; we need to address some things that we just really as a society really push away.  

Katie: And that’s what you’ve done. 

Rita: Yeah, I think so.  

Rita: We have to have this space that we all can live together and I think I want to keep the funk of East Price Hill, that I think is cool. When I think about that it keeps me going to try to organize something. 

Katie: And I think it’s important for you to know there’s a way to talk about this that feels actionable. That feels like ok these are small things that I can do. So you’ve been going to your city council meetings and having these conversations? 

Rita: Yeah. 

Katie: It’s interesting how your approach to this work began as a volunteer in AmeriCorps and then it turned into creating something with a project, doing something interesting as an added value to your neighborhood and now it’s more of a day to day it sounds like for you as a voice, showing up on a regular basis to things in the community. So it doesn’t necessarily have to mean your project is continuing or its happening every year but what it’s turned into is you’ve dug your heels in even deeper and that cape needs to be put up in the hall of fame.  

Rita: Don’t do it! I’m a Pisces I’m a cryer, don’t do it!

I’m just so thankful for this experience, period. It gave me self-worth. This process, also seeing how my son is proud of me. But this thought and this collaboration with Starfire has built real life relationships of network, in my community. People now call me to get me involved.

There’s a lot of politics in this but overall love wins.

I think I want to keep creating spaces for people to see that we all… you keep talking to me we might have an interest but the conversations need to happen, the relationships need to happen.  

Katie: Yeah. Well, thank you for being a force and allowing this to happen. 

Rita: You’re welcome thanks for having me. Yay!

If Community is the answer… - with Bridget Vogt

In this podcast, you'll hear how the Vogt Family thought if community is the answer, then they needed to figure out what community looked like, and how they might be active in theirs. 

This podcast was recorded live at Starfire. To follow our show "More" - head over to Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or Spotify, and hit subscribe.

The Bellevue Garden

The Bellevue Garden


Bridget: I’m Bridget Vogt and I have worked at Starfire for twenty years in a variety of ways. 

Katie: That’s two decades. So that’s a long time. What has been all the variety of ways? 

Bridget: When I first started it was just office help and doing the outings that we had during the evening and weekends. You know a few years after that we started a day program so I started that, doing the day program. A few years after that we started StarfireU, so I worked in both and then just StarfireU and now I am doing one-on-one work with people and their families.  

Katie: What do you think has changed in the way that you show up to work from then and now, and what has stayed the same? 

Bridget: Well I’d say there’s just a different way of showing up when you’re starting your day with a room of 12 people or 15 or 20 people with disabilities versus showing up and talking to one person at a time. There’s a much different energy, there’s a different effort, there’s a different priority that is just the reality of probably day program life. You know, you’re hoping that everybody gets along and that they can say they had a pretty good day and I think the days of working with a group of people at a time it is more about being an entertainer and showing them a good time and keeping them happy and building them up. Now working just with one person at a time it is still about building them up and making sure they’re confident but it’s not quite the same, the word entertainer keeps coming to mind. The people who were really successful in the day program that keep coming to mind were the staff with big personalities who drew people in with just who they were naturally and they could almost perform, if that makes sense. They were a good storyteller or funny, all those things, and that’s not necessarily as useful or needed with just one person. So you’re still building into the person to help them understand who they are and that they’re a good person, that they have gifts to give, what are they, and figuring all that stuff out. And that’s kind of the biggest difference is working with one person and thinking.. You know.. Where do you belong... what do you do? Where are you going to be happy doing? 

Katie: Yeah, so it’s a little bit more of an in-depth conversation when you’re sitting with somebody, you don’t need to be the entertainer. You need to be the deep listener and over-shadowing a person by being too enthusiastic or too much of the entertainer could give the opposite effect than when you’re working with just one person at the time.  

Bridget: Yeah, I think that’s possible. Like I definitely think that’s happened, you know we’re working to help people meet people and if you kind of take over and don’t let that person who you’re working with shine more than you than you’re not doing a very good job.   

Katie: Yeah, so you stayed through this change, and you’ve had to turn on different parts of you or skills/strengths that you have during the change, and so what’s been really consistent about the work? Obviously, it’s kept you here, doing it. 

Bridget: Well I think we have, one way or another, throughout these times — we did what we thought was best and that’s still the case. I care a great deal for all the people we’ve met with disabilities out there.

And to recognize that appealing to a group of people doesn’t change what happens in their lives in ten years. Letting that sink in and figuring out how to do something that hopefully will mean something in ten years with or without my presence is the bigger key too. So I think that’s what keeps me here, is the belief that what I’m doing is going to matter in ten years to these people that I know. 

Katie: So obviously like a deep well of love or care for people with disabilities is consistent in you, you showed up in both worlds with that, with that intention.  

Bridget: Yeah, yeah I'd say so. There wasn’t a whole lot of outside forces drawing or keeping me. There are plenty of potentially simpler things to do out there in the world definitely probably more lucrative things to do out there in the world but that’s not where my heart was or what I felt called to do. And Starfire seemed like a good place at the time when I started here.  

Katie: Yeah, Starfire had something different even back then twenty years ago than other places, it was founded by family members who were looking for a better way and so that thread of intentionality and family driven-ness has kind of carried through.

One of the things you told me before this podcast around building community was that If we want other people to learn how to build community or do it on their own we have to really learn how to do it ourselves. Take me back to when things did try to shift to Starfire being more of a community building place for people with disabilities to connect to the community — and what was your involvement in the community when that change started to happen? 

Bridget: You know, before anyone saw any changes at Starfire, before it started to change Tim [Vogt, Bridget’s spouse] and I, mainly Tim, started doing a lot more learning around topics like asset-based community development (ABCD). And being introduced to some concepts that we had not heard of or knew anything about and kind of working through those and wrestling with some of the things we were learning with. You know if there was a belief that the community is the answer, it sounds great that the community can be the answer but we don’t always see it. But part of why I think for us what we had to acknowledge was well our community is not our answer — we’ve lived in Bellevue for three years and we don’t know anyone. We only know two of our neighbors and that’s probably about it. And we go to work and then we come back and then we had some old friends from like college and high school and those are who we see and not our neighbors.

That was sort of the beginning of noticing, we don’t really know our neighbors so this idea of community being the answer is just ridiculous. But is it ridiculous or is it that we just haven’t tried? And if this is possible, if community is the answer, then we probably need to figure out what community it is, and what does it look like and what are we doing to be active in our community.   


Katie: Describe Bellevue, describe what that neighborhood is like.  

Bridget: It is one square mile, in Kentucky, on the river.  

Katie: Is that it? 

Bridget: Yeah, one square mile.  

Katie: Oh wow.  

Bridget: You didn’t know we were that little? So it’s pretty small, what else would you say about Bellevue. It’s overall a working class neighborhood. 

Katie: How many people in the one square mile? 

Bridget: I don’t know. 

Katie: It’s pretty concentrated, like there are a lot of houses.  

Bridget: Yeah, I mean it’s urban. You know houses are very close together there’s not a lot of yards.  

Katie: There’s a big.. There's a great little main strip there with coffee shops and... 

Bridget: Yeah like your typical main street.  

Katie: Kind of on the river.  

Bridget: Close to it, yeah.  

Katie: Ok, so when you’re thinking back to that time and you’re just learning these new concepts around community building and you’re looking in you’re neighborhood and you’re like ok there’s.. We don’t have any connections here.. Did you have any revelations at that time or what started to shift and how did you start building community? 

Bridget: Tim was a little more, I know he had been to Peter Block and John McKnight and they had been talking about neighborhood interviews. Truly going and finding people and interviewing them and Tim did that. He was like, “Alright the challenge is I’ve got to meet five different people, I’m going to interview them on their gifts and talents,” and then he was like, “you should too.” And I said maybe in a more informal way.  

Katie: What was your hesitation around that? 

Bridget: Yeah, well it’s weird right, like this is an awkward beginning of like ‘hey stranger’ or someone that I’ve just seen in passing, ‘Could we sit down and I’ll interview you?’ I think anyone would say once they’ve done it it’s not weird at all it’s just the hurdle of asking. Because I think I did talk to a few people but I didn’t… I would just kind of talk to them instead of like scheduling it. I would just kind of be in a conversation and kind of work my way through what the interview probably would be.  

Katie: So like what are your talents, interests, passions, skills? 

Bridget: Yeah what do you like to do? 

Katie: So you kind of start with the low hanging fruit, I already know them.. 

Bridget: I started with the easy-peasy, ‘Hey friend that I already know’ and then we started talking about doing a starting a community garden in Bellevue, I wanted to do it, one of the people we like already knew was interested in doing it and then that kind of grew out of there. Like ok throw it out to the masses, who would want to start a community garden? 

Katie: So once you started talking to neighbors you start to kind of plot ideas? I feel like that’s kind of a natural thing that happens just with people, is once you get to talking you start talking about what would be great in our neighborhood? And that conversations just kind of naturally evolves right like, probably pretty informally like the way that your conversations evolved.

Bridget: Yeah I think so, like what would you want to do? Oh do we have this here? 

Katie: So did you find that there are people who are really driven/motivated to get something created off the ground like ‘ok we’ll do all the plans for the garden’ and then there are the people who step in once it’s there and say ‘yeah we’re going to establish this and make it set’? 

Bridget: I don’t know, there were some people who were interested in the beginning but they had some pretty… They were randomly enough when I went to community garden training there were two other people that I never met from Bellevue.  

Katie: Is that how you got started was just to go and learn how to do it? 

Bridget: That was one of my commitments, is I said I'm going to well I thought that I would get one I would interested helpful practice probably. And all the like powers that be were very supportive like the neighborhood association the people that were there at the time, had talked about it but they’ve never done it and I’m like I’m really going to do it, I’ve already signed up for the class. And they were like sure, go for it, you know we’ll support it  and you can do it under the neighborhood association umbrella.  

Katie: Had you gardened before? 

Bridget: Just in the backyard a little bit, I mean I still would say I’m not an expert gardener. Whatever, you plant seeds that grow, maybe they don’t, and that’s ok you just. You just keep going and that’s what’s great about it because the weather is unpredictable, the season is unpredictable. There’s no guarantee that just because you did it well last year you could do the exact... You could think you’re doing the exact same thing and it’s not.  

Katie: I like that approach, I really like that because I think there’s a lot of wisdom in that for people who want to do something that they don’t know how to do and maybe think they’ll never know how to do or be experts at, and for something like gardening that can be really intimidating. And what you’re saying is that’s ok even if it fails. The whole point isn’t necessarily...  

Bridget: Well, and that would be my perspective on it and what I bring to the community garden. I think I was talking about how there were two people at that training who wanted to grow their own food. They had plans to make a community garden, they wanted to sustain their living, they wanted to plant enough food to last their... They wanted to eat off their land. But it wasn’t going to be their land it was going to be some neighbor’s property that as an empty lot. And we kind of parted ways because they were very serious about, like we will be producing enough food for ourselves and the difference between the lot they already thought they could use and some of the lots like empty some vacant property that we were looking at they were like “oh there’s not enough room, not enough room” and I was like “not enough room for what?” But like my idea was not going out to produce enough food to support all of Bellevue.

It was always going to be a community garden, a place to meet, a place to garden, a place to enjoy each other. And hopefully get some vegetables out of it. 

So meeting those people at first was exciting and then it was like this is a struggle, they were not interested in the community aspect of it.  

Katie: The community aspect of it is what.. And that’s what you went to people with.. It wasn’t do you want to grow vegetables it was do you want to be part of a community that is growing vegetables? 

Bridget: Right. Yeah like bring your kids, it won’t matter, we won’t care. No hard core rules no you know some of the strict regulations.   

Katie: That’s the key. So then how did the potluck evolve? 

Bridget: There was ourselves and another family, the Salzmans,  who I guess we just decided we should try it. There wasn’t a whole lot of planning involved other than like we all do it once a month, we’ll have it at the city building and that’s it. And we don’t know what will happen, I think it was just mainly them and just saying like well it might just be the four of us - and kids who show up and we’ll just see what happens from there.  

Katie: And so during this time, you guys are starting to shake a little bit of your patterns about how you live in your neighborhood, can you talk about some of those smaller micro-things that you’ve done to build community and ways that you’ve also met neighbors. Because you know it helps to have that form of communication where it’s not just a flier going out. What were the ways you got to kind of know more neighbors so you could make those invites?

Bridget: I think a lot of it was, one the coffee shop became much more of a hub. So there were people coming and going and just running into people and saying hello. There were programs that our kids did, like there was a basketball program with young kids and we walked around, I think we went around to a few different people and talked to them about, ‘hey would you come? You’d be welcome.” There was a neighborhood group started on Facebook too. 

Katie: And I love that you guys do stuff in your front yard too. 

Bridget: Yeah we usually have our fire pit out there, so we’ll sit out there. Halloween we sit out there with a fire and hot dogs or just anytime and there’s quite a few kids in our neighborhood especially at this point, that just kind of wander around, hang out looking for stuff to do. So if we’re doing that they can come and hang out and sometimes their parents come with them. Sometimes it’s a formal ‘hey we’re having a fire pit who wants to come?’

Katie: And the same spirit happens at the garden. Right where people just kind of walk by and they see it so that’s an invitation?

Bridget: Yeah and I have gone to the school and done, like with the after school program, pretty much since the beginning brought a group weekly or however often works in their schedule. So there were a lot of kids then that I got to know who I would meet their parents somewhere in the grocery or wherever and be like ‘oh hi I know you’ and then they’d have to explain who is this lady? And then there is stuff like when people walk by, still like ten years later like ‘What is this? We have a community garden?’ And the community garden was communal, that was the other thing that we did, it’s not as if you pay a membership due and get so much property or square foot bed, it’s just everybody gardening together, so that if somebody is to come once, they don’t have to wait until next year to get their bed or whatever. They come and they can do whatever we’re doing, like everybody works on it together, same thing with kids and everything.  

Katie: So I mean taking it back to when you guys were first looking at Bellevue and saying this is not a place where we can build community to today it just seems like... 

Bridget: I don’t think we thought that we couldn’t build it but we just hadn’t. 

Katie: Yeah or I guess.. 

Bridget: We just didn’t know what community was, like to sit back and be like ‘oh yeah when we grew up we could talk to all these neighbors and we did run.. Like I did run around with my neighbor friends, there were five or six kids I was allowed to go around the block... I just think we as adults had not even attempted. Like we were just the people coming in and out our front door, parking, getting out and going out to work, coming home and staying home or going out somewhere else. And we just had that shift of well what is going on here in Bellevue?

We should be a part of this. If this is where we are going to live, let’s live here.

It shifted from work and people we know from work or old college friends that we’re going to go visit and see to shifting to like well who are our neighbors? You know maybe we thought that the neighborhood itself wasn’t very welcoming like when I look back nobody welcomed us what the heck. But we’ve been here long enough we are the people who have lived here, we should be the “welcomers” so I think we just kind of recognized our own role. If we want our community to look a certain way we’ve got to do it. We can’t wait and think well nobody else did that, so I guess it doesn’t exist.  

Katie: That’s just not part of our neighborhood.  

Bridget: It’s just not a thing.  

Katie: And that’s also something that you almost don’t want to impose on people its like ‘well nobody else is doing that here so maybe that means people don’t want it and if we tried we’d be imposing’ or we’d be asking people too much. But I’m wondering too is there something to the rhythm of the garden and the potluck that has allowed for this to take shape? 

Bridget: I don’t know I wanted to make a community garden. I think that as far as where is your energy best,  where gives you energy, what makes you happy is a big factor. So if it’s going to make you miserable to garden then you’re probably not going to be the person that starts the community garden. Like you might help with some aspect of it but going to the garden overall is a fun time for me, I enjoy it, it makes me happy. I love when new people come I love when old people show up versus trying to do something just because I think it’s a good thing to do, if that makes sense. There’s definitely been times and roles that I have taken on because ‘oh wouldn’t you, would you be willing to do this for us, you’d be really great at that’ ..Ok, I can do that, you know I’ll commit to that role… and then realizing this is killing me.. Like this just makes me miserable, why would I say I’d do this and now I say I’ve done it so I’ll do it but I’ve got to step out quickly. And I think that’s more like there are plenty of ways to build community and plenty of things that you can do, I think it’s just making sure you’re enjoying them. And then it’s also possible to make sure you’re enjoying them with the right people. You know some of those.. 

Katie: Keeping an eye out for who is going to be in the same.. Who has the same motivations as you. 

Bridget: Versus being like, oh if you’re willing. You know sometimes you agree just to have help, to have anyone on board to do something but if its... You know what you want and you’re going the wrong direction you might be really disappointed.  

Katie: You can be discerning when you build community and it doesn’t mean you’re not a good neighbor. 

Bridget: Yeah, I think the other things we’ve done like the potluck we were very conscious of doing things that are simple, keeping it simple, don’t make it complicated, don’t promise gourmet meals. We have never said that we are going to... You know the tables will be set up by 5:30 and we will have brought the main dish, anything like that. It's kind of, the more people come the more comfortable they are, like “oh it starts at five o’clock and that means we just get here at five o’clock and we start setting tables up and chairs and arranging the room it doesn’t mean at five o’clock dinner is served and you’ve walked into like a dinner party with tablecloths. It’s very laid back, we make sure there are plates which actually on Sunday we ran out but oh well. People figured it out, they reused some, ate off the cake plates. 

Katie: Yeah, that’s the part that stresses me out about potluck, when I hear it and I think of hosting it I think I have to bring the main dish, I have to be the one to set up everything and you figured out a way to make that low key.  

Bridget: You just kind of set it up with the expectation of 1) there’s not really a host, like Ryan will put it on the Facebook group and he’ll set the events, it’s every fourth Sunday and that’s kind of done for the year actually. Between a few of us we throw in paper plates and forks every once in a while, so yeah and just kind of knowing we could have put the bar really high from the beginning but I think at that point we were aware enough to know that that would wear us down. We wanted to make sure it would be nothing any of us dreaded going to and that’s not going to keep it going.  

Katie: Yeah, and how could you ever go on vacation or have a missed week? 

Bridget: Yeah and if we’re not there what do you do? You know luckily there’s not a key, the way Bellevue works is we just call the police and they have a key to the building and they let us in. Now anybody, the early birds know that. So if we’re not the first one there the other first person knows ‘oh I just call this number and they’ll come and let us in and we can get the tables out and start moving things around.’ I mean that all took time you know, but I think just to be cautious or thoughtful about if it’s something that you want to do for a long time, what is it that you enjoy doing and it won’t drain you over the long-haul? 

Katie: And how often do you go to the garden? How often are you.. 

Bridget: In the season I’ll go twice a week. 

Katie: Ok, and are you going at a set time when everyone else is coming too? 

Bridget: Yes, Wednesdays 6:30, Sunday at 9:30. 

Katie: So you have set hours? 

Bridget: Those are the established.. They kind of shift from year to year but usually it’s like Wednesday night and Sunday morning. 

Katie: Ok. How many people would you say are showing up to these different things, does that even matter? How important is that to you? 

Bridget: It’s great when there is a crowd. There’s probably like 30-40 people plus kids, and then some kids at the potluck.  

Katie: Starting out it was just you and the Salzmans right? 

Bridget: Well a couple more people came and even then obviously in the time that we’ve been doing them, who shows up and who is still showing up has changed. The same thing with the garden, some people who were really helpful and got us you know came and did some hard work at the beginning, you know one couple’s moved out of Bellevue another one is still semi-involved, actually a couple of people have moved out.. You know so some people who were involved are gone. And now it’s a different wave of people almost. And then there’s people that for some of those people that were a part of the community garden they never came to a potluck, that wasn’t their scene. We even though it is kind of close.. Bellevue is pretty small, so you could be conscious of — ‘oh they’ve never shown up once’ but it’s not their thing. So I think to just keep that.. Because when you first.. When things first get started and they’re sort of in that fragile state of beginning, it is sort of fragile right and you think ‘oh how come they aren’t coming to the garden, I thought they’d help and they’ve never shown up.’ And you can take it personally but then again another part of living in a neighborhood for your life is expecting you to live by these same people. So if you want to hold a grudge about the fact they said they’d show up and they didn’t you probably aren’t going to be great neighbors, you know like this is a lifetime of living so let’s not hold a grudge about the time they said they’d show up or why didn’t they and all that kind of stuff. Because that’s not necessarily going to help build community either.  

Katie: One of the things that I’m wondering now is if it is a new neighbor and they want to get involved in the garden, do they contact you? If they do want to come to the potluck is there a main person there to kind of coordinate things or.. 

Bridget: I think the Facebook group is a pretty big communication device for everyone, and that shows the times and then if somebody asks a question then the person tags my name or somebody else in there and say “hey they want to know about this” or you know I think Facebook is a big driver as far as communication that I’ve had and then it might be a personal message or text from somebody whose met, you know maybe they live next door to somebody who had that question and they say ‘oh here’s her phone number or I’ll text her or email her.’  

Katie: So you are the main contact for a lot of these questions for the garden?  

Bridget: I mean for the garden I am, I don’t know that anybody really reaches out for the potluck as much as they would just show up and be like ‘what is this, who should I talk to?’ And then people would probably point out a few different people to talk to there.  

Katie: So when people talk to you I guess they see you as a coordinator of the garden especially, and they come to you and they have a brand new idea for the garden or they want to implement something, being in that role as the main contact how do you deal with that how do you respond? 

Bridget: Usually it’s that sounds great, you can do it. Just recently we had a big, one of our neighbors was part of Crossroads and she was leading a go global effort in Bellevue and she wanted to do it at the community garden and she was like, ‘I’ve got some ideas’ and I was like ‘I’d love to hear them’ and they wanted to put in a pergola and a grill. The grill didn’t happen but the pergola is up and it was like that would be amazing, that would be great, and they did it. There have been many suggestions like at the potluck we should use silverware, all this plastic and I was like, ‘I hear ya I bring my own.’ My answer to that is me and my family, we have the dishes we come here with and we take them home.  

Katie: So you bring your own set of dishes and silverware?  

Bridget: I do.  

Katie: Oh that’s smart.  

Bridget: But I provide the paper ones as well, but one of the people who comes says we should really.. Or shouldn’t we all.. We should just have silverware here and I’m like, ‘if you want to bring it and take it home and wash it I would love it.’ But I am also making it clear that I’m not volunteering to do that.  

Katie: To clean everybody’s dishes.  

Bridget: I am taking home these five plates and these five forks because I would really probably resent everyone as I washed their dirty dishes, right?

Katie: Oh my gosh yeah.  

Bridget: But I would love it if somebody really was motivated and was like I’m going to do this, this is my thing I’m going to do every month, I would totally support that.  

Katie: Yeah I mean, it goes back to do what you want other people to do, sort of be the change by living it. I think people forget what an individual looks like versus what an organization looks like. It’s like an organization who runs a potluck would probably take that and maybe implement a new system of dishwashing because they could but an individual or a family…

Bridget: Or organize like it’s your month. Like could you imagine the rotating.. 

Katie: No. 

Bridget: Who knows... Who knows what any organization would do.  

Katie: But that’s the slippery slope of it getting really entangled and enmeshed in this sort of process, agenda, structure that ends up killing the spirit of it.  Now when you look at your neighborhood, Bellevue, what does community look like? What would be like a key image? 

Bridget: There’s a few that come to mind, like one it is the ability for my sons...  like Patrick who is old enough and friends live with he just walks around and finds friends. Like that’s a pretty great image for me.

That’s kind of his classic line at this point is “I’m going to go out and find some friends, I’ll be back.” That’s a pretty big deal for your kids to be able to go out and find some friends to play with.

I don’t know there’s a lot of images, you know we just had the memorial day parade and we weren’t in the parade but knew... Waving at all the groups that were walking by, how many people we knew or as people go to sit down or as we go to sit down and talking, knowing so many of the people that are around that’s pretty great.. That's a big day for Bellevue I feel like Memorial day parade but pretty great. 

Katie: Do you ever feel the need to go back in time to this hidden life of pulling in from work and going in the house and not talking to any of your neighbors, is there ever a time where you not regret but wish you could be more undercover I guess in your neighborhood? 

Bridget: I don’t think so, no, like I said I think there is the things you learn about being in community and being around your neighbors of knowing how far to take what you think is personal feelings right, ‘oh you hurt my feelings.’ And kind of working.. Being aware of who you are and why that hurt your feelings, like don’t hold onto that forever because I could find a way to probably be upset with a lot of people if I wanted to, right? We could find hurts everywhere or slight grievances whether they’re real or not, whole other story, but if I wanted to take that as a personal affront to what they said or not showing up... 

Katie: Or even just differences in political opinions.  

Bridget: That would be a big one right now. Like stuff like that, Facebook profile what somebody said on Facebook or on the group page you know, like how much do you engage in those conversations that people get started? So no I don’t, but at the same time I think there’s been moments of struggle where you have to sit down and say ‘ok this is what community is about, it is about you can be this person and we can still talk about our kids being friends even though we have this… We are not alike in a lot of ways.  

Katie: That part of it is what I think is most magical. Is when you can actually get to a place where you can be common with people who you are so different from and you can feel connected and familiar with them even though you might never have chosen them but they’re your neighbor. It’s kind of like family but in a different way.  

Bridget: It is, and it’s not to paint this picture…. there are plenty of people who don’t want to know me. It’s not as if the whole neighborhood is all sharing… You know there are those people who think a community garden is a waste of space, that’s fine. There were people when we first started who thought we were taking away a place for kids to play, we can win them over or just ignore them. You know they’ll either be won over all with time, I mean its not our intent, it’s not as if we’re hiding some intention other than I don’t know if some people are suspicious like, ‘why are you doing this’ ‘what’s your end goal?’ And I think there have been some people who have asked me that and I was like ‘um what do you mean? End goal? We’re going to get to know each other isn’t that enough’” But that’s not enough some people just don’t.. I don’t know people have suspicious nature sometimes, sometimes they don’t understand that you can just be doing it. I don’t know how many times Tim has been asked if he is going to run for mayor. He’s not… Or City Council. Like are you running for something? Some people thought I worked at the school, ‘well you’re a teacher there right?’ ‘no, no I just live in Bellevue.’ But like people’s concepts of why people do things, you know it’s your job to do them versus no this is just what I do for fun. This is my hobby.  

Katie: Yeah and it.. I think the intrinsic motivation behind why you’re doing something or if you were trying to get something out of it even if it wasn’t this is my job or I’m trying to run for City Council, if it was something less tangible than that like ‘I want to do this so I am.. So that people like me so I’m a good neighbor.. I’m going to do this so everyone thanks me and loves me for this garden at the end of it I’m going to be well-renowned’ - so even that gets you in trouble because there are people that say, ‘you took away my this this or this’ by doing it, you can’t make everybody happy. Or like you said, you can’t win everybody over so your motivation has to be pretty... I would even think it gets whittled down to being just a pure motivation of the only reason I would do this is because I love it and I want to be with the community. The community doesn’t have to all love it but if some people do and we can enjoy it together then that’s enough. I can see though where that would be really hurtful to be like but wait a minute, especially in the beginning, wait I’m not trying to hurt anyone why is this being misconstrued? 

Bridget: Why, why would you mock my garden? What do you think this is? But yeah. So you know that’s one of the learning, take your toys and go home or stick it out and see what happens, see who comes around, all things with time. Sometimes it’s hard at this point to be like ‘wow it’s been ten years’ ten years of growing and what did it look like then, what were the struggles when we started versus what are they now? You know, I think overall the struggles now, there's not really. We kind of went over some of the hurdles and now it’s just like I don’t stress about it a lot. You know if people’s expectations when they come to the potluck are let down because there wasn’t a greeter at the door or there’s not assigned seats, or whatever they had in their mind when they come in the door they may come and be disappointed because it wasn’t organized enough and they really think it should be organized. And they probably don’t come back and that’s too bad I wish they would but at the same time this is maybe not where their energy is fulfilling, like they would be really stressed out by our lack of…

Katie: So loose structure just kind of lends itself to anybody being able to fit in at the same time… 

Bridget: There are people who come to the potluck who do not always bring a dish for whatever reason, they don’t cook maybe they can’t afford the meal, nobody is checking at the door. We can all show up differently and bring a different gift. I mean and that ties pretty directly to our work right and all that we have done. Not everybody… The stricter the ways are the more exacting and perfect you have to be. At the community garden, it would be really hard for groups of kids to show up at our community garden if you can’t touch this and you can’t touch that and if you step there... I knew I wasn’t going to organize, I wasn’t going to manage ten plots and ten people’s opinions on how each plot should look. I was like heck no. That’s one of the things a lot of garden managers, community garden managers do. 

Katie: Ok so it has a lot of your spirit in it and whatever community effort is built has the person who starts it, has their spirit in it. So let’s take it back to Starfire’s work real quick. Where is this type of community building that you do in your own life where does that show up in your work at Starfire and how is it influencing your work with disabilities one on one, do you think you’d be able to do the same type of job if you weren’t doing this at home? 

Bridget: Yeah, I think I could. I can definitely.. I know I believe in the community building work. I’ve seen it I’ve lived it in my own live and seen how if we had not changed or shifted what we were doing around our own neighborhood I don’t know what our kids would be doing. Because of how we’ve shifted and lived I know that there is a lot of good things a lot of potential out here for communities to build up around. 

So I think that helps motivate the work but I think I could do it even if I hadn’t. I wouldn’t quite understand all the ins and outs I wouldn’t have had the experiences to understand or think through some of the things but some have probably played off each other too.  

Katie: So your work at Starfire has kind of informed your role in your neighborhood and vice versa? 

Bridget: I would say it has.  

Katie: Yeah, how could it not.  

Bridget: I don’t know how it wouldn’t have at this point, but I’m sure they’ve definitely influenced each other.  

Katie: That’s the work/life blend I think that was talked about at the beginning of this change at Starfire. It’s not that we have to take our work home and do our work at home it just means that our work is actually is a way of life and we do it everywhere. We do it at our work but we don’t clock out and go home and be sucky neighbors because it kind of just influences the way you live everywhere.  

Bridget: Yeah.

Katie: Why do you think it’s important for you to do this work in people with disabilities lives? 

Bridget: Well I think the... What I’ve seen in our own world and I think with some of the people that have started projects as families too is that it kind of spurs on the next thing. So by starting something it kind of opens another door. It’s the ripple effect of all of it. So I think that if somebody starts something in their neighborhood and then you know you don’t necessarily have to do it all, there are people who will be motivated to something else then maybe you just show up to support them or tell them they did a great job later on.

It’s not you for everything, but I definitely think for more people to know each other is good for everyone, for sure.  

Katie: So what is your hope for the next ten years? In the next ten years, let’s say ten years from now what is your hope for Bellevue? 

Bridget: I think that’s pretty hard because I think Bellevue is pretty great right now it doesn’t need to change anymore, but I’m sure there will be change in ten years and hopefully it will all be good change. My hope is that it is just a welcoming happy community for everyone and continues to be that and in ten years my sons will then be young adults - will want to be there too. That this is a place where they will want to be as well and feel as strongly connected to as they do now. 

Katie: And maybe carry through with some of the work that you guys have set? 

Bridget: Maybe I can’t imagine… In their own way they’ll be doing something else. I have no doubt they'll be doing something.  

Katie: Maybe they’ll run for mayor. One of them will run for mayor.  

Bridget: No, well maybe who knows. We’ll see. Which one would that be? No telling. 

Katie: Alright well thank you, I appreciate it.  

Bridget: Thank you Katie.  






Winging it: with The Stauber Family

Listen on Apple Podcasts

This conversation with the Stauber family takes you into their story of what it was like to connect with more people who love birding. They decided to host a weekend birding retreat and invite people they met through networking to come. This podcast outlines how they came up with the idea, planning and logistics, and how they navigated the "environmental concern" that almost derailed their entire weekend.

Their project was done in partnership with Starfire as part of our work to put families at the center of community building.

Tammi: My name is Tammi Stauber and we have a 20-year-old son named Kyle. And we live in West Chester.  

Katie: So, you guys just completed a year with Starfire. Tell me a little bit about what that project was? 

Scott: One of Kyle’s big interests is birds. So what we did was created a birding weekend, and invited a bunch of guests who were connected with the Audubon Society, Cincinnati chapter, Cincinnati Bird Club. People along that line those who share the same interest in birding as Kyle does.  

Katie: Yeah and this interest in birding is more than just - I like to be outside and in the woods, right? Tell me about that interest that Kyle has and what that looks like.  

Tammi:  When Kyle was born we had two acres in the woods and my husband is the biggest Audubon-nut known to man. And we had every bird in our yard. So Scott had all these CDs  from Audubon and from Cornell University of bird calls.   

Tammi: What we didn’t realize is Kyle’s gift is audio memory and at age 2, age 3 he was putting those CDs in our old stereo and memorizing, we didn’t realize, he was memorizing all those bird calls by track. We’re thinking three hundred, four hundred, or five hundred bird calls he has memorized, and he still knows them to age 20.  

Katie: That is incredible, I didn’t realize that it was something that started that young. So when you chose what to do, you were thinking around Kyle’s interests. Why were you looking at Kyle’s interest in particular? 

Scott: Well we want to get him integrated, involved in the community - trying to link him up with like-minded people. People with the same interests, shared interests.

Katie: So let’s unpack how you came up with the idea to eventually have a retreat, what was your initial concept around what you would do?  

Tammi: My initial thought was a running event, Kyle ran cross country in eight grade and he wants to run again. But Scott and I don’t run long distance. So I thought I thought we would set some kind of annual running event. And that was mom, all on my own, in my own head, I get caught in my head.  

Katie: What do you mean by that? Why was it like being caught?  

Tammi: When we came to Starfire and started learning different strategies.  Taking people to lunch, taking other runners, birders, artists, taking even neighbors, just taking people to lunch and pick their brains, I just call it getting out of my own head.  

Scott: Yeah the cool thing about some of this was when we first started thinking about this we thought well we can do this, we can do this with no input from anybody else you know we’ll come up with the idea and then we can help execute. And then talking to a particular person at Starfire we were told to just talk to people, see what they think and let them kind of run with the program. Don’t plan everything for yourself, this is not about you, this is about Kyle integrating into the community. Don’t even make the event about him, just make an event of which he is an equal part of and let people volunteer and get the buy in from that. 

Katie: How important do you think those coffees were and those plannings were over time? 

Tammi: They were critical.  

Scott: Critical that’s the word I was thinking too.  

Tammi: It was fun and it was critical to get everyone’s feedback and to brainstorm with others. The synergy of getting all our ideas together.  

Scott: Yeah, simple conversations and getting buy-in, otherwise you’re going in cold asking people to do something when they don’t even know who you are. It just, you have to. 

Tammi: And we took a few birders to lunch and they said, well why don’t we rent a cabin out in rural Adams County and go birding? And that had never crossed our minds.  

Scott: And then all the pieces, well what would we need to do for this and this and and it just kind of fell in place in some ways. It still look a lot of planning.   

Katie: And did it fall in place because the people who helped come up with the idea were helping with some of the logistics and thinking through what to do?  

Scott: Yeah. 

Katie: Some shared ownership there, and that’s kind of what you were saying that you might get caught in your head, that the original idea didn’t have anyone else owning it and so that’s the shift where some other people being part of this and feeling just as passionately is what drives the whole ship.  

Tammi: Absolutely.

Katie: And then so everybody who participated in the planning of it how did you work with their schedules to make sure they were involved? 

Scott: Our event was more of a regional draw, it’s not people who live on our street. So our meetings were one on one, they were through email, phone calls things like that. It wasn’t like a collective group of people meeting all the time. Turned out there was a bigger interest than we really kind of expected so we had to kind of pull back on it because the place we were getting for the weekend wasn’t large enough to hold everybody. So their enthusiasm made things so much easier. The worse thing you can do is throw a party and nobody shows up.  

Katie: That’s really neat. And what was Kyle’s role in the project planning itself? 

Tammi: Excellent question.  

Scott: I won’t say Kyle initiated any of the plans himself, what we would do is we would always ask Kyle if he wanted to do this, get his sign-off essentially.  

Tammi: Is it ok to have a sleepover with ten people in a cabin? And he would give us a thumbs up or thumbs down. He would come on all the lunches with us or the coffees we would have with people.  

Katie: Once you came up with this idea together and you landed on your theme, you came up with what you were going to do, you probably set a date, picked a location, were there any other things logistically that you really had to work through that were big parts of this? 

Tammi: We had to watch the weather, and it rained, which actually turned out to be a good thing because the birds like the rain.  

Scott: Yeah, it was migration season for the warblers, it was in May, so a nice spring rain kept them calm and singing.  

Tammi: Picking trails that were accessible and worthy of seeing lots of birds. Picking a trail that was near a lunch picnic shelter, because we provided lunch.  

Katie: Did anything come up during the process where you felt like, oh no this is never going to work? 

Tammi: Oh big time.

Scott: Yes

Katie: Can you name a couple of those?

Scott: Well, we had a spot all picked out, it was an hour and a half east of the city of Cincinnati, and was it a week or two before? They said, there’s — I’ll just call it an environmental issue. They had some wild animals on the premises, and we cannot have you come to this.  

Katie: What type of wild animals? 

Scott: Feral hogs. 

Katie: Oh of course

Scott: Feral hogs were loose on the property and we need to trap them and we can’t have humans at the facility because it’ll spook the feral hogs. So we had to scramble, Tammi actually did, scrambled and found a place that we then rented for the weekend.  

Katie: That must have been just.. How did that feel, gut wrenching? 

Scott: (Laughter)

Tammi: Gut-wrenching except that the rental I think turned out to be a better option for us.  

Katie: So it was a good thing, hogs feral hogs who would’ve thought can actually be the best part of your project?

Scott: Yeah and then we walked into the place we rented and the first thing we see is the mounted head of a hog on the wall, and I was like, this is perfect, it was meant to be.  

Katie: So take me to the day of the birding event. It sounds like a lot of the planning happened with you all and you were the connection but maybe having everyone in the room at once was kind of an exciting thing. Where everybody’s like, now we’re all here. Tell me about the day, how did it feel? 

Tammi: It was May and it was rainy and we all met at a trail head and that’s how we got our day started with a hike. 

Scott: And we turned the hike procedures and all that over to one of the birders, who was familiar with the trail. So they led the hike and we just participated like everybody else.  

Tammi: It was exciting, everyone showed up.  

Scott: Everyone showed up.  

Tammi: We had 17 on the hike and I think 14 came back to the cabin for dinner. That was exciting to finally get inside and out of the rain. We had a lot of fun stories to tell. And then ten people, that’s the limit on the cabin for spending the night, so we had ten conversations to midnight.  

And what Scott and I noticed too, Kyle being such a (I don’t want to say expert) but the audio memory, he can hold his own in that group of experts.

Katie: Were they impressed by the level of knowledge that he has?

Tammi: Absolutely.

Katie: After all this your goal to help Kyle get more integrated into the community, and also as a family to connect more socially with people who share the birding interest, what has happened since? What is a result of this project that you want to share? 

Scott: During that weekend one of the activities we did was we had a little contest where we would play a bird call and the avid birders had to identify what the bird was. We had fifteen birds and Kyle ended up winning the competition. It was pretty cool in and of itself. Then a few months later there was a bird outing, and the person that was leading the birding walk - we had never met. And when we introduced ourselves to him he said,

“Oh Kyle I’ve heard about you, you’re the one who knows all the bird calls.” 

So we decided to take him to lunch just to make the connection with him.  Over lunch he said he would like to do that, he heard about the birding weekend, he actually knew of the place we went and said that was one of his favorite places to go birding ever. And he would like to do that same weekend if we’d be interested in doing it with he and his buddies. So great yeah, we’ll do that. And then at lunch he decided I have about an hour, I’m going to go birding, Kyle would you like to join me? So we all went birding and it was kind of interesting because Josh kind of took Kyle. And they went birding and Tammi and I were kind of behind them watching it was pretty cool because it all came out of the birding weekend. It was that connection, he knew about the weekend, he knew about Kyle’s skills, he knew of where we went birding, it was just this perfect puzzle that was put together.

Katie: And you didn’t even have to put that out there? 

Scott: He did it all. It was his idea, and it’s his guest list, so we’re connecting Kyle to a whole other group of people he didn’t know before.  

Katie: That’s incredible, thank you guys anything else you want to say?

Tammi: Well, I was going to say, I felt as the non-birder, you know the big let down after the big weekend… Birders all go away for the summer and I thought, oh my gosh we did all of this and there’s no connection. And then a month later they go on that hike and then — there’s Josh.  

Katie: Pretty awesome.

Tammi: It was awesome.

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You're Never Ready - with Mieke

Listen on Apple Podcasts

Ever felt stuck? Or like you don't know where to begin? This conversation with Mieke will help you conquer some of your own doubts around just getting start. Mieke is part of Starfire's initiative to put families at the center of community building… This means she was granted a small stipend and offered a mentor from Starfire, to help nudge and uncover her family's own wisdom around building community. She addresses some of her own struggles - like expanding her concept of who her "neighbors" might be, her epiphany  around how to bring her four kids' passions  together in one project, how she leveraged weak ties of people she already knew to help with the project, and what tools you actually need to get started…

Mieke: My name’s Mieke and I have been passionate about community building pretty much since forever. I was the kid who was the bridge between friend groups in elementary school, I got voted most outgoing in my high school class of 307 people and I have just always been about bringing different groups of people to the same table.  

1:59 – 3:12 

Katie: Yeah, and that’s very true. I know you personally as well and I know that that’s been my experience with you. So your high school classmates - they had it right. So one of the questions that comes up a lot about community building and trying to do a creative project in your neighborhood is that starting is the hardest part and for somebody like yourself, it sounds like you’re more outgoing, so help people who might not be as outgoing, also bring them along in this podcast, so they can get a deeper understanding of what ittakes. Because I don’t think this is just for people who are outgoing, do you? 

Mieke: No, definitely not.  

Katie: Ok, take us back to when you first started your project with Starfire what were some of your first steps? 

Mieke: The hardest thing about getting started for me was that I didn’t feel like I was owned by any particular geographic neighborhood. I feel like I belong to Cincinnati, and I wasn’t sure how to narrow that down.  

Katie: So your project really started around that problem that this is supposed to be a way to activate my neighbors, but what you kind of had to come around to or learn was that community could be a community of interest, is that right? 

3:13 – 4:09 

Mieke: That’s exactly right. So that was my first struggle and I struggled with that for like five or six months. We walked our neighborhood, we looked around and we looked at the community bulletin boards and looked at the rec center and met people and I just still did not feel like that was what we wanted to do.  

Katie: And you had said that was a neighborhood you had newly moved to? 

Mieke: Yeah, and so just kind of first problem expanding my concept of who my neighbors are and realizing that it’s ok to do a project on a community of interests rather than a geographic community.  

Katie: So once you landed on that how did you come up with that community of interests?  

Mieke: The next big problem that I had was that I was very involved in a lot of this community work in Cincinnati but I was doing it without my kids.  

Katie: And you have how many kids? 

Mieke: I have four kids.  

4:10 – 5:12 

Mieke: From 10-17 and they all have very strong opinions and a lot of varied interests.  

Katie: Ok, so each child had their own thing going on? 

Mieke: Yeah, a lot of our time is spent going in different directions.

And so I would say another big hurdle I had to jump over was how do I bring it all in guys, coach mom at the helm here trying to figure out what we’re going to do as a family and how we are going to combine all the things that everybody, exploring everybody's interests and bringing everybody back to the table together. So that each kid can feel some ownership of our project.  

Katie: Yeah, I think it’s really interesting as a parent to do that because you do, you end up, well this child likes ballet and this child likes soccer, this child likes crafts and this child likes theater. So you end up doing things very separately and in their own age group. So then to bring it all back together and say we are going to do something as a family, was that more effort in the long run to have everybody come together or was it more efficient with your time?  

5:13 – 6:29 

Mieke: I would say having a central focus point for what we are going to do with our project did end up bringing the kids all together which did make it somewhat more efficient. But the fascinating part to me was that the project that we picked had so many different tasks. We had a master tasks list and each of the tasks built on each kid’s strengths. One kid could really care less about art in some ways but he took on the role of you know I’ll walk the stuff over to the venue and I’ll walk my youngest brother over to the venue and I’ll help by transporting things and carry things. Which was really helpful because I don’t have a staff I don’t have administrators, or secretaries or anything you know, I could use about five. And you know another kid is very creative but very picky so I said well you can do all the décor and you cann design the space and she was ecstatic about that, that’s in her wheel house. I guess what I’m trying to say is the project ended up having lots of little tasks that played to each kid’s strengths which brought them all around the table in a way that I did not expect.  

 6:30 – 7:29 

Katie: Yeah, and I love the idea of having really intentional invitations for your children to participate but also anyone who is getting involved from the community, you have that mind set of: ok where are they going to thrive and how is this going to feel energizing for them so it’s not a chore? And definitely coming from a mother/parent asking your kid to do something often sounds like a chore but you found a way to make it this fun thing that they did together. So tell me a little bit more about your project, what exactly you guys ended up landing on.  

Mieke: I had been meeting with my mentor for this entire time at a café in our neighborhood and it turned out that being at that café every month ended up being the open door for my daughter to get a job there. So then my daughter started working there and we became friends with the owners, and made community for ourselves in this space and then one day our mentor said why don’t you hold an event at this café? You’re friends with the owners already, they’re open to doing cool stuff in their neighborhood.  

7:30 – 8:29 

Mieke: So we ended up saying what can we do that is a community event that gives back some kind of creativity opportunity to the kids in the neighborhood, our friends, the people that we know. We wanted to do an event that had mindfulness, art, music and food. And we ended up inviting some artists, we invited the pop-art truck, my friend Janet owns that.  

Katie: And you had not known Janet as a friend when you reached out to her right, because you guys had known each other as acquaintances and then you reached out, how did she take to that invitation? 

Mieke: Yeah, she was thrilled. She was super excited, I told her what my budget was she said she would make it work. At first with my mentor I was brainstorming, I could put out a call to artists, I could put out an ad and then it was like, stop, think. I already know people.  

Katie: So you had the pop-art truck, you had a woman from the Hive.  

Mieke: Yes, there’s a woman whose an art teacher who made art journals with people, like these little made out of one sheet. Then my youngest son is also an artist, and he taught origami at this table and just him being able to you know use his gift of creativity to do the actual teaching which he thrives in. Having him have his own space you know, where he felt respected, was huge for him.  

8:30 – 9:29 

Katie: And he did awesome, at ten years old I was super impressed.  

Mieke: He was nine at the time.  

Katie: Ok, yeah not even in double digits and he mastered me in origami I could not do it.  

Mieke: He’s pretty amazing at that.  

Katie:  So do you think for people who are just getting started and they might not have the vast network that you already had, do you think one of the steps might be, who do I know who knows a lot of people and going out to find that super connector in their life who might be willing to reach out to their network? 

Mieke: Yes, I think that makes a lot of sense, because you are your own best resource. 

Katie: Yeah, and it seems like what we tend to do right now is I’m going to go online, I’m going to Google it and then you just don’t have that personal connection to really start with.  

9:30 – 10:33 

Mieke: Right. And I think don’t minimize the fact that no matter how young your kids are, they have ideas, so don’t lose sight of your own household as a source for ideas.

Even for somebody like me who already has so many connections, it’s like, I have so many other things on my plate, this is for the benefit of you, the benefit of your family, the benefit of your community. There’s nothing to feel guilty about or feel stressed about, it’s a win win.  

Katie: Yeah, because we can definitely put a lot of pressure on ourselves to be the ideal of what we have in our minds.  

Mieke: Exactly.  

Katie: So how do you know when you’re ready to jump in?  

Mieke: That’s a great question. I think of it a lot of times as how do you know when you’re ready to start a family? You’re never ready, there’s some things you can’t predict everything and you can’t know the end from the beginning. You just have to trust that it’s ok to not know what you’re doing and get started at the same time.

Things will happen almost organically and dare I say, magically.  

10:34 – 11:30 

Mieke:  It just kind of happens and you don’t have, there’s so few things in life that you are actually are ready for before you do them, but you just do them anyway.  

Katie: What’s the magic? 

Mieke: The magic is you already know people, you have a family, you have a community, you just haven’t really stopped to think about it. But it’s already in you. Literally you are the magic. You bring you to the table and everything else happens. You are the only tool you need. 

Katie: So it’s that simple? You don’t need some master chart that you hang up on a wall, it’s within you? 

Mieke: 100%.  

Katie: Mieke that’s too easy.  

Mieke: No I know, well let me just tell you a little secret. I did buy this big wall chart, it happened to have five rows and we have five people in our family and it had all the days of the week and it had all these little post it notes. I lost it.  

11:31 – 13:30 

Mieke: And then I replaced it, it arrived from Amazon and then I lost it. Basically there are no tools.  

Katie: Clearly it wasn’t being used enough if you’re able to lose it. Well I think that’s really important because sometimes tools can get in the way of doing what is hard. And it’s not to say that tools are bad or that they don’t come in handy for some people but the point is that there is no magic thing that’s going to get you on that track.  

Mieke: I mean I think everybody has all the tools that are needed just kind of built into being an adult in this world and you just keep putting one foot in front of another and you keep going down a path and it ends up being something so much more special than you set out to make it.  

Katie: Well let’s end on this quote then, from T.S. Eliot “For us there is only the trying, the rest is not our business.”  

Mieke: It’s good.  

Katie: What’d you think about that?  

Mieke: In more poetic terms it’s a value that I live by.

I’m not responsible for the outcome, I can’t make people love something that I do or participate in something that I am passionate about but I just keep going anyway. And yeah I think you just have to take the leap, trust that there’s going to be a trampoline under there somewhere and that you’re going to bounce back higher than where you started.  

Katie: Sounds like fun too. When you put it like that. 

Mieke: Super fun. I’m all about fun.  

Katie: Well thank you, I appreciate it.  

Reaching Toward Belonging: with David Hsu, Lynda Kahn, Jack Pearpoint, and Jo Krippenstapel

Listen on Apple Podcasts

Starfire brought in L.A. based social innovator, David Hsu to talk about the impact social isolation is having on American life at our last un-conference event. His presentation, “Profits & Purpose in the Age of Isolation” highlighted some of his findings shared in his e-book Unthethered: If you haven’t read Untethered yet, it’s an incredibly impactful (and quick) read.

This podcast is a conversation with David Hsu, Linda Kahn, Jack Pearpoint, and Jo Krippenstapel, centered around the theme of social isolation and the universal drive for human connection. We dig into ideas around who is leading the effort to become a more tethered society, the greater impact that comes from doing things one-on-one, and how we might all begin to reach for a future of belonging in small, practical ways.   

We hope you enjoy!

The more people understand their lives and part of their purpose as reaching for belonging, for themselves for their communities, there will be all sorts of innovations.
— David Hsu


Katie: Why do you think some people avoid the topic of social isolation?  

David: I think talking about social isolation forces you to deal with the reality that they’re all human problems, and human problems -- human dimensions are sometimes the most painful to confront.  

Linda: I think it’s because it’s so complex. People want it simple and it is so multifaceted and complex that there are no easy answers.  

Katie: So that’s Linda Khan and Jack Pearpoint, who both joined us for this podcast. You’ll hear from Jack next. Jack and Linda are long time advocates, presenters, movement builders of inclusion. They are inventors of person-centered approaches like PATH, MAPs, Circle of Friends and their ideas have really revolutionized the way that we tell stories and convey ideas when it comes to inclusion. 

Jack: And we are all looking, we have been trained to look for the 15-second-quick-fix and that’s not going to work. That’s not the nature of this issue, this is a human scale problem of global proportions. Which of course then shuts us down, until you sort of cut right back to well, actually it’s just the two of us and we can start right here right now. And it doesn’t matter where you start.  

David: Yeah, a lot of people in my world like to rush to policy or what can we do to raise awareness? As if awareness alone is something that changes things

So I think talking about social isolation, at least for me, clarifies that solutions lie in humans coming together and translating whatever we come up with into action. 

And that sounds vague but thinking about the ways in which people are isolated can help access I think why at root some of these issues like opioids, or suicide, or recidivism are such hard but I think solvable issues.  

Katie: So it offers a sense of clarity on a multitude of very complicated sometime personal issues but it kind of pinpoints something.  

David: Yeah and for me I mean I the people who have made a big impact on me, they sort of see that everyone is part of the solution and I think that a lot of the time we define problems in ways that make it seem that there are special people in society who can’t be a part of the solution and I just I want to fight against that. 

This is why with social isolation which is in many respects can be a health issue. I’ve seen in America us increasingly medicalizing it. And I want to go in a slightly different direction because I think we need more leaders not fewer, more specialized leaders.  

Katie: Ok, and that gets to your point of like policy and awareness, right, but what you are saying is it’s really more about people who are the most marginalized, vulnerable and isolated are the change makers actually, they have the answer.  

David: Yeah they are the real change makers. A lot of people that I work with through LA kitchen are people who are off the streets, have recovered from addiction, are home from 20 or 25 years of incarceration and its not a profound mystery to think why these people have a super well developed sense of the power and value of human connection because they’ve lacked it. Or they have against their choice been isolated from the community.  

Katie: Yeah, and I wonder if we can segue into the conversation around people being wasted, that people are being wasted. 

JackWe have developed a society that throws people away and doesn’t even notice. 

And that doesn’t sound very good, we don’t think of ourselves aspeople who do that - but we’re doing it. And struggling to come to terms with that, so it’s a fascinating challenge that we’re all working on. And the way you have to come to terms with that is in a conversation with somebody who has been exploited. And that’s anybody anywhere, and the leadership for this change is not going to come from systems. If we figure this out, and I think we can, leadership is going to come from the margins. It’s going to be all the people we have systemically excluded, when we slow down enough to listen to them. And one of the, I think one of the most exciting capacities that whether its ex-offenders, or people who have been through residential schools and other institutions, or people with disabilities, if we make a space where it’s safe and we slow down enough to listen. They teach us to slow down and listen. And boy do we need that right now. 

So, there’s actual enormous unrealized capacity to resolve some of the most fundamental issues in our society, by slowing down to listen. And its available to any and all of us next door, around the corner, over coffee.  

Katie: So now you’re going to hear from Jo Krippenstapel who is also around the table for this podcast. Jo is one of our mentors here at Starfire. She has inspired many many many of the changes that we have made in the last ten years. I do want to apologize for the quality of audio you are about to hear from Jo, it isn’t the best but she has a lot of great things to say so listen up.  

Jo: One of the other ways that I think it connects is how universal this experience is of being untethered. Right, it’s not just “they” are untethered- it’s we are all untethered and for us as a society of people to make space to have those conversations about “what are the gifts of people who have been previously devalued?”

If I’m only tethered to people who are exactly like me, then I don’t have any way of making a stretch to people who have been homeless or imprisoned or come from another country. This is where it starts to come together. 

Linda: So that’s a really interesting point, and another way to think about who are your people and where are you spending time? Because it’s another way of noticing, who's missing? Who are you not connected to? Where are the people of difference? Who else do you know? How are you spending your time? When you think about who are your people, if you’re not tethered to.  

Katie: Yeah and I’d like to bring it into more of a definition around tethered that you offered in the primer, you talk about connection as a mixture of strong and weak ties and I loved how you held up weaker ties as actually the most important. And why I loved that illustration so much is what we see in people’s with disabilities lives who we talk to is that their weak ties are often minimal if not null. And that while they might have family, they may have moderately strong ties. A lot of times those moderately strong ties are staff, people who are paid to be in their life, or they’re other people with disabilities. So that’s the picture of isolation it’s the picture of segregation as well. So you know, the weaker ties why are they valuable, why are you saying that they’re indispensable?  

David: Yeah I honestly can’t remember where I learned the language of not being able to access worlds beyond your own but I like it because it’s often the weak ties that help us travel more, further. And in very practical ways, you know you think about searching for a job, searching for romance, searching for belonging and our families, our closest friends are important but they often only take us so far. If you think about highly networked highly powerful highly influential people they are people who have amassed an extensive networks of weak ties that they activate when they need to.

Everyone needs that network of weak ties. 

But I think there’s another part of it that is a little but more hedonistic, sort of pleasure-centric, which is just that - this is other people’s research, but at the end of life, a lot of the time when we think back on our lives, there are small moments of intimacy that we experience with people who we may have met once, maybe on our travels, maybe … who knows where. But who help us to feel human in a way that can last a lifetime and I think that’s extraordinary and it’s a thing that happens through weak ties often. So there’s this saying in sociology, the strength of weak ties like weak ties have outsized strength in human communities.  

Jo: What I love about this notion of weak ties is at least to me, it makes the whole effort more approachable. If you say “Gee, I notice you’re a little weak in the most intimate friends category why don’t you get three next year?” I kind of get anxious. But if you say, how about a dozen weak ties, over the next couple of months. I can start to feel some energy about that, feels very doable, feels a little interesting. Really feels different to me.   

Linda: Because it’s then about the power of showing up, of starting to discover, ok so let’s look at your neighborhood and your community, and what do you care about and where are you hanging out and starting to discover what people’s interests are. And just places to show up and hang out whether it’s become a regular coffee shop or something that you join because it's interest that you have, there’s weak ties.   

Jack: And that makes it very, very doable because anybody can do it, it’s not that difficult. So one of the terrors you know “in the dark of the night” issues of what’s happened to the work of many people - its been industrialized by many people. Not here, not at Starfire. But the pressure to, ok we need numbers we need them now we need them reportable with stats. And we’ve commodified the very thing that we were trying to do. Not we have but -- it has been done with well-intentioned people trying to figure it out... But the pressure to do it faster, do it more for less, those kinds of pressures are enormous and the pressure to not do that is enormous.  

David: I mean I still think -- I still care about doing it at a bigger scale.  

Jack: Oh yeah  

David: Faster, improving it I just think we can do that one-on-one, it just requires that everyone be a part of it. There’s lots of ways of to do that and mass storytelling is one of doing them. What I think is more critical than the scale at which we recruit is kind of the desire and a belief in bringing people in and showing them how useful whatever they bring is.  

Linda: I think one of the things that’s really exciting about the way David thinks about this is just people stepping into some action and responsibility. Thinking about so what can I do about this?

What’s my contribution to the very problem we have? I think that’s pretty interesting because you need the contributions and the solutions of everyone, including the people the most impacted. 

And so I think trying to make this everyone’s issue is really interesting. 

Katie: What I want to pull out a little bit more is this idea that who are the leaders of this movement? That yes it requires all of us and yes it requires the marginalized and it requires those who aren’t typical leaders. But it does require it does require leaders at the top also. And that’s part of your work David right is to talk to business leaders and to talk to philanthropists.  

David: Yeah I mean I definitely have an interest in engaging resourced people, but it’s mainly out of an interest to help them understand what types of leaders they should be supporting. Rather than thinking oh me as a philanthropist, I’m the answer to society. It’s much more as you scan the landscape which good philanthropist is like doing all the time, you can recognize Starfire. You can recognize the kind of work they’re doing.  

Jack: And when you make the kind of transition Starfire is making, which is incredible, courageous and wonderful you lose some of your traditional backing.  

David: Yes 
Katie: I think that’s kind of what I was going to is this idea that there are a lot of Executive Directors in place right now, who have been in that role for however many years, they are not going to change their model or shift their financial structure to do something risky, to change their model to be more impactful. And to give leadership to families like we’ve learned how to do at Starfire, and to give leadership to people with disabilities to do projects cool projects in their neighborhood. The executive directors that we know, a lot of times, say excuses more that have to do with putting the onus back on people with disabilities to say it’s their choice to be with each other, you know they deserve this day program or workshop because what else are they going to do? 

Jack: And we surveyed them and they say they like it.  

Katie: Yes, the data shows...that they’re all happy.  

David: That’s a really interesting point, there’s a lot of lying in the world of impact and in non-profits. In having, I mean I try to study big non-profits that are doing the kind of work that we all care about but seem to be doing it on a huge scale. For example, there are non-profits who I will not name like in LA who will serve huge numbers of people who are coming out of prison, and huge numbers of seniors and things like this -- and their annual reports look amazing. Right? And then the more you sort of learn and talk to people and dig you know there is some muckraking that is appropriate I think in this world. Impact, there are a lot of lies that are told about large scale impact. There are so many dysfunctions in our mass like mass-style interventions. Whether it’s for hunger or aging or mental health services, or any of these kinds of things, where well intention folks we end up creating solutions that still waste just only en mass. For me it’s slowly seeing this and connecting the dots and I think people who have worked over the years and decades in disabilities probably have the most powerful ways to help people understand this. 

So I think there are people who work one and one also, we shouldn’t be unfairly or inappropriately modest.

Or we can say oh it's messy it's not so tangible the impact. But I think when you consider the amount of lying that takes place, we should stand firm about tangible proven impact at the scale that we’re doing. We should also understand and be able to tell the story of how one to one work does have this amplifying power. And I think that -- I’m still in the process of figuring out how to do that.  

Katie: I'm glad to hear the struggle is still alive and well. And that there are still no answers yet but we’re doing the right work and that’s what’s important. One of the things you say in Untethered is that “We are reaching for the future of belonging,” we’re reaching for that. So you know you talk about how old ways of belonging need to be remade. Let’s talk about what’s emerging and how people can like somebody said here show up, all we have to do is start showing up. What are those patterned ways of living together that need to be encouraged? 

Jo: I think the local movement is very hopeful and when people experience it, it feels fun. You get such an immediate sense of something’s really different about this than my usual pattern. 

So there are so many examples of local: local food, local beer, local everything, right? When we lean into that I think we will start to tether ourselves to people who aren't exactly like ourselves.  

Katie: Lean into local, I like it.   

David: I mean for me reaching for this future of belonging is all about reaching. I love this T.S. Elliot line which is, “For us there is only the trying, the rest is not our business.” 

The more people understand their lives and part of their purpose as reaching for belonging, for themselves for their communities, there will be all sorts of innovations.

It feels weird to name certain things because they’re so infinite. Like they come to they come to life in so many ways, which is why it’ s beautiful. It’s about this overall pattern and it’s about this sense of chaos that we are trying to create. The best kind of chaos. People just trying things.  

Linda: It does have to do with the courage to engage. It involves some introspection. And then there does need to be ‘what’s my local action going to be?’ Including noticing when the future we’re leaning into is here. There will be moments where people experience belonging, and we better notice those too, it’s not out of our reach. It’s living now as well and being able to share those stories and notice the experiences and understand how did it happen. It always takes courage to do that, so I’m often thinking about stretch and courage and being honest to notice when I haven’t done it.  

Jack: If we just make a space, and it’s -- it is scary I agree. You mean I’ve got to meet new people? Yeah. But it’s not that difficult if you go for loose connections. If we make the assignment: by tomorrow morning by ten am you have to have a best friend for life, we’re not going to do very well. But there are an infinite number of loose connections, we don’t even have a clue how many there are out there. It is beyond our limited human capacity to even imagine. So anything goes if we make the space. I think my metaphor for it is we need to get our fingers in the dirt, dirt is universal, and you don’t know what the wonderment will be yet. And next time it will be a different array of goodies. But there are always goodies.  

Katie: And Jo, when you’ve said before this is finding new ways to spend time together, and it’s deciding to spend time together. And then it’s finding new ways on how to spend time together. I just love that simplicity there. It’s powerful. Jack, Linda, David, Jo, thank you so much for spending this time together, I really appreciate it.  

David Hsu Untethered


"Safety" | with Tim Vogt

“We’ve learned that true safety comes from a form of love or a form of affection and care. It’s a shared obligation, it’s a reciprocal relationship.”

In this audio you’ll hear a conversation with Tim Vogt about the subject of safety, love, and the ‘spell of certain magic words.’


Katie: Can you start us off and talk about what does safety get sold as in the service system today?

Tim: They’re selling us an idea of safety that nothing will ever happen to us. And what they’re doing is they’re trying to provide a cover for families and communities to say, “Great you’ve got it take care of it thank you.” We just kind of believe that there’s a balance. That there are some services that can provide some degree of safety. But we just don’t believe that that’s the only form. And that’s where we have the question of well, “Who’s got my back? Who’s making it more safe for me and with me?” And the thing we think about at Starfire it’s a great quote is that safety comes from the presence of many capable, caring glances. We need to be in the presence of a bunch of people that know us and see us and love us. And that’s

Actually what keeps us safe it’s not the locks on the doors it’s not the security systems it’s not the management requirements of the Medicaid system or the policies of the group home or the day program or the segregated farm that says they’re going to do this that or the other. None of those things actually provide true safety.

K: Yeah, I mean if we all wanted to live in the safety that people with disabilities have to live in, which is the safety of basically the State and policies, it would look like a military state. You know, it would look like people going, patrolling up and down the streets and us having to lock our doors at a certain time and all of us being sort of trapped in this really sterile, scheduled out environment and nobody would want that.

T: It’s always safer with more people.

K: Yeah.

T: So that’s the design of Starfire’s work that’s intentional. That true safety comes from a form of love or a form of affection and care. It’s a shared obligation, it’s a reciprocal relationship. I look out for your best interest because I care about you. And you look out for mine because you care about me.

K: So… in front of me is a book called christmas and purgatory and I’m going to read a quote. It says, “Some of mankind’s most terrible mistakes have been committed under the spell of certain magic words or phrases.” This book is filled with graphic and disturbing pictures of an institution. I’m bringing this book into the conversation because it shows us the worst of mankind of what can happen when we follow the lure of ‘safety’ over community.



T: Well, the book Christmas in Purgatory has always been powerful to me because it is, as you put it, graphic. And it’s also kinda interesting, at least from my perspective, some of the pictures rhyme with the pictures I see even today. In services for people and in the form of our services. It’s not as bad, so that book shows people naked in rooms with dozens of other people without any kind of toileting or any kind of cleanliness. It’s a really horrific kind of doral kind of essay on what was happening to thousands and millions of people with disabilities. But if you took just the form of it, people in rooms without much purpose, you’d largely see that very much alive today. The same pattern is still happening in day programs and workshops and group homes for people with disabilities. That’s really, I think very dangerous because it’s almost like it’s repackaged, it’s the same pattern but it’s got some new color to it and then we buy it. We’re giving them a version of the Christmas in purgatory support system which is here’s some walls that will largely keep out the monsters that we’re telling you that live outside of here but they’re still sitting there in a room with each other doing nothing that leads them outside of those walls. We’re not in the presence of these safe, caring, loving glances. We are at the real kind of mercy of the wardens of the institution, so to speak.

K: So are you saying that we haven’t designed anything really new out of the institution? We just kinda designed smaller, prettier institutions when we closed down places like Willowbrook?

T: That’s my perspective.

K: It seems like the intentions are maybe better this time around.

T: I think we are evolving. Like I do think that people are trying to recreate somewhat of a better mousetrap. It’s just still a trap and now we’re stepping into a space in time where our our laws are starting to say, ‘Well are these kinds of places the same as the institutions?’ and people are largely saying, ‘Yeah, they are in function and in form.’ So it doesn’t matter the intention of whether or not, it’s still based on a design and that design is still based on some assumptions that people with disabilities are a them, are a collective group of people. And that’s a dangerous thing because then everybody’s identity is lost. Most people with disabilities that I am aware of and hear about and talk to are in real danger of having no purpose as a citizen of their community. They are simply a client of nonprofits and governmental services and their entire purpose is lost to the world. And I think that’s a big danger that I think Starfire raises and says: ‘What about this person’s purpose? Why was this person born? And what’s the role of the family in a community to discover that, and what’s the role of the support system, service system to nurture that experience?’

And I don’t think that it’s bad to have a collaboration between service system and families and community. It’s for me, from my perspective, it’s over weighted toward just the services system and then a person with a disability almost gets kind of sent to this place or places that are gonna serve them and if it’s just to captivate them and keep them safe in our building, the shared purpose becomes clienthood. It becomes we all are in this building because we all have some sort of need that’s been defined by our medical records or our doctor’s evaluation. So volunteerism could be we discover purpose together as citizens and that’s what would build that kind of safety net of relationships that well I look out for you because I care about your purpose and I care that your gift to the world would be missing if you weren’t here.

The biggest danger from my perspective is nobody’s talking about this. We say “it’s their choice to be segregated” and in that case let ourselves off the hook for even addressing the complexity of the issue. I think that’s why Starfire’s story is so powerful. It’s just more honest. We’re talking about the complexity of things versus selling everybody on the idea that we can solve all your problems.

The most egregious examples I have of people with disabilities being in trouble is where there were very few people looking out for them. There was a woman who was being prostituted. She had $100,000 a year in services and the services couldn’t stop her from being prostituted. Another person I know lit a cup in fire in his group home and spent two years in State Penitentiary. He again, had a big waiver, big bunch of money behind him that  the service system and a bunch of nonprofits, including Starfire. Both these cases lined up and said we’ll keep you safe. We had three people that I always kind of paired together that came to our dances and our outings. One young man’s mother shot him up with morphine then shot herself up. She’s still alive but she’s in jail for the rest of her life and her son is dead. Another young woman would come to our dances and our outings and her mom laid her down in bed and shot her in the head and shot herself in the head and both of them are dead. Another mother stabbed her daughter who was autistic and then stabbed herself and set the house on fire. All three of those people came to our outings and our programs. They all participated in our dances. They all went bowling with us.

And I’m sure it’s more complicated than any of us know. But my question has always been did we fail them by not bringing in more people into that story? By telling them that our dances and outings were gonna answer all of their hopes and dreams and fears, did we take away the complexity and did we let ourselves off the hook for actually inviting in those capable glances that would have said, “Hey it seems like you’re not doing so good, could I spend an afternoon with your daughter or could you and I take a walk and just talk about it?” How do we grow a safety net of relationships – versus services?

K: A safety net that looks more like love? Outside of the service system, outside of a volunteer saying, “Let’s go on an outing together and sort of not taking them as seriously as a true friend. When families can see that, ‘Hey my son or daughter is loved,’ that creates safety.

T: I think that if I fear being rejected, it’s largely because I’ve had that experience before right? And we know that people with disabilities are rejected a lot of ways throughout their lives. So are their families and if we don’t acknowledge that. Then we ask the question of how do we mitigate against that rejection? How do we build less rejection? That would be really good work but to simply say we’re gonna protect you from ever having to worry about rejection doesn’t actually get at the antidote to rejection. It just takes away the possibility of the hurt coming.

K: Let’s address the idea that people with disabilities often need support. Not every person with disabilities has the same needs or challenges but across the board there is a need for support that might look like a staff person, right? I think that what we’re saying here is not to say that someday that the community will replace every need for the service system. Is that right?

T: I don’t want anyone to ever think that a friend is going to replace paid support or a friend’s gonna replace family. However, we can’t think the service system is the sole system of support. We have to believe that some people can learn ways to support each other outside of services. So for example, if someone needs a feeding tube, that might lay outside the technical expertise or even something that would be unsafe. We wouldn’t want me to change someone’s feeding tube, I could easily cause an infection or harm to that person. However, there are lot of things we could do together that don’t require me changing a feeding tube. The problem is services own every aspect of a person’s life. I always ask families, ‘Were you trained to have a kid with a disability or did they just fall into your lap?’ They say we just learned. So family members are just citizens that learned the role of caregiver, so that means other citizens can learn. I just don’t like discounting the possibility that citizens can learn these things. So services have to be more creative and individualized so they can consider each individual’s design question. What is the design question that arises from this person’s life? Or their purpose. How might we help support facilitate that is an individualized design question? They also have to assume that someone from the community should and could be in this person’s life in a variety of different ways and the service workers have to own their own limitations.

K: One of the last quotes here in the Christmas at Purgatory book says, “The greatest discovery of my generation is that human beings can alter their lives by altering their attitudes of mind.” I think that is a big part of what we’re talking about. If we keep the same mindsets we’re gonna continue to pump out the same story, which is an old story of people with disabilities.

T: I think people can do what they want. If they want to recreate the outings or they want to recreate day programs. It’s a free country, right? Nobody can stop them, and yeah there might be people that say that’s a great idea for me or my family member. I mean those just aren’t the people we’re working with. We are working with people that say, “I thirst for a future and I believe in that future, and I’m willing to work with you.”

K: How should people change their mindsets about safety? What is the sort of underlying thing you think that needs to just shift?

T: I think they just have to start getting out there and meeting people. I think they have to start really believing that there are about thirty people out there that are going to be their future best friends that they haven’t met yet. And the only way to meet them is to start meeting them, and then the only way to get them to be best friends is to start investing in those people. And then just believe in it and act like you believe it and sure enough it becomes true.

K: Cool. Anything else?

T: It’s complicated isn’t it?

"Work" | with Christopher Kubik

What does it look like when people with disabilities are connected to meaningful employment – in the community?

Listen to Christopher Kubik speak on the topic of integrated employment and ways he matches people with disabilities and employers so that they’re both the right fit.


Christopher: For me personally, and I may not have enough experience to see this clearly, but I am very, very drawn to doing things that people thought were impossible. And for many people we work with their families or themselves personally were told at a young age, ‘you’ll never have a job.’ ‘You’ll never…’ A big long list of ‘you’ll never’s.’ That’s what gets me out of bed in the morning. 

So this summer was rough for us. A lot of people lost jobs. Because it’s their first job and you blow it on your first job. I remember being fired from the dairy corner down in Newtown.

And a lot of times the people we are working with, they’re adults that have not had a real job out in the community, that has nothing to do with disability, a typical job. Maybe real is a bad name.

Everyone blows their first job. You got to learn. Its okay. What do you do? Do you never work again? No. lets get another job and regroup and like go at it again now that we learned something. Were going to be able to design a better role next time.

Katie: Sometimes when you hear about employment with any marginalized group, it can create this deficit umbrella over them. “Oh, they’re unemployed so that means that they’re needy in some way.” So when you go to an employer, Chris, that narrative that this is a person who has a deficit, and they need you to give them a job to make their life better. How is that a different conversation through your work?

C: That’s a great question. The only reason we job hunt for people is because they have on their own said in some way, “I’m interested in that.” So we don’t prescribe a job as a solution. If you take it slow, and build it with being known first, then it can really be actually the culmination of who you are. But when it’s rushed and forced for an outcome, it can really backfire and have really long-term damage.

So when we come to an employer we say, ‘Hey, were looking in the neighborhood for opportunities for Katie to work, what do you guys do?’ And then I’ll ask, ‘What are some of the things that you guys are struggling with? Or what are parts and times of the week that suck?’ And then just offer solutions. It’s as simple as that. And then you can think about what if one of the people we are job hunting for can be the person that provides that solution. And what would that look like. And then we introduce the person were thinking are maybe a fit there. But its based on, ‘Will this help your business? Are you willing to have a trail period? Or will you hire this person and we will reconvene in 30 days?’

And talk about what’s working what’s not. What can we shift so it will work long-term. And small businesses, if the team is small enough, that is a really easy conversation. And they’re really open to that kind of experimentation. They’re not married to some org chart that they can’t stray from. They are able to look at the things in between and see opportunities. And that’s humbling to see business be like, ‘Okay, yeah lets try it.’

I know personally, a job has changed my life for the better. Of who I am and what I am capable of doing. And I see that with the people we work with. Their personality changes in positive ways. They gain confidence and are more comfortable in their own skin. This is a normal thing and it’s also shockingly happening with people who live with disabilities. We shouldn’t be surprised by this. What is a job besides the money? It’s people coming together around a  common mission and devoting time and energy in order to get that thing done. And so I think people should be included in that kind of thing.