The S Word: Sustainable Community Development
I am a practical and typical modern man who has lost the ability to sleep.
Despite the recently published IPCC Report, what does sustainability really mean? Is it a possible marketing ploy geared towards the ultra rich to cater to their guilty consumerist tendencies? Or is it a way to save our environment and possibly preserve what little is left of our biodiversity? Or could it quite possibly be the answer to all our societal problems? How do we create a sense of community amidst the chaos that surrounds us?
These are the questions that kept me up at night. Defining sustainability is not the definitive point of this narrative I am describing. For when we begin to discuss how to make our world more sustainable, we must first look deep within our own personal narrative.
In August 2020, I took a risk that was unbelievably foolish. I moved to New York City in the middle of a pandemic.
I began working for a food pantry and human services non-profit, Urban Outreach Center, by way of an Americorps program. Their goal: end hunger in the Upper East Side & East Harlem. The method, do it in such a manner that provides dignity and hospitality. Ironically, the Americorps stipend sets you under the poverty line with a stipend of $700 every two weeks ($1400 per month). This would become the first challenge and personal obstacle to overcome. Secondly, entering New York, one of the most populous places on Earth, still incredibly alone. Thirdly…
How could one “sustain” this kind of a life?
I would tinker with creative thoughts and begin to once again turn the wheels inside my mind with my fellow team members at the Urban Outreach Center. At least one day out of each week, I would meet with my supervisor over a cup of coffee at Stella & Fly’s, a local coffee shop in the Upper East Side, as we discussed everything under the sun for two or more hours. This was the beginning of my rehabilitation. My supervisor became my best friend and confidant. We would talk about food security as it pertained to our work, but more importantly – we talked and listened to one another about our ideas and conceptions of community, love, grief, and just what exactly does it mean to be simply human.
Those coffee sessions would lend itself to various ideation phases where the best of my ticking mind would begin to flicker once again. One idea would lead itself to another, and eventually we were serving double the amount of food to our Yorkville & East Harlem community. We noticed inefficiencies in our food pantry and would try our damnedest to develop communication with our Mandarin-speaking population (1/3 of our food pantry recipients). Eventually, we recruited two successive cohorts of interns from local colleges and became a well-organized and impressive force for good in our community.
Collectively, we built lasting partnerships with local organizations, schools, and local government officials to help address the increased food insecurity felt by every kind of socioeconomic demographic living in New York and continue to push for reform and uplift the voices that go unheard.
I do not think we have even scratched the surface of addressing our collective issues. But it is a start. The conversations that pertain to sustaining our humanity, driving towards a balance of shared nature with our rural neighbors and even how traditional forms of mono-agriculture drastically impacts our soil content and biodiversity are beginning to happen more and more.
The success of this story is embedded in the lesson of interconnectedness of all things. Where material touches the spiritual and there are no further words required to describe such a moment. Learning how to ask for help is one of the most integral lessons I’ve learned in the past year. Ironically these lessons occurred in a job where I help people. Talk about sustainable development.
At the same time, futility is lonely. I, like my friends, am a cynic, but hopeful. I am hopeful for continuing work in developing sustainable communities that thrive with a growth mindset and are simultaneously conscious of each action as it connects to our natural environment. I am hopeful that we can encourage each other to become a little better each day. That we can rebuild this “social contract” of ours in a holistic manner that is dignified and hospitable to our common humanity.
There are an awful lot of people in this world, and I hope that you find the ones who can relate to you the most. They are out there. As a world traveler, or at least with the mindset of one, you increase your chances. Despite the air pollution, find alternative pathways of connection. Reach out across the deep recesses of our worldwide web and connect with other people. Find the way to cultivate mutual understanding and empathy, when necessary. We all could use constant reminders to awake, and return to love and compassion in its truest, rawest form.
I hope our paths cross in the future, as I do with all intelligent forms of life. And I hope my worldly distractions do not prevent me from that opportunity. That we focus less on our definitions and concepts and move to shape a world that is still ours to form. Maybe then, we can get some well-rested shut-eye.
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Angelo Gonzalez is a recent double masters grad who decided to pursue an Americorps service year in NYC for the 2020-21 year. Working as a volunteer coordinator for The Urban Outreach Center, Mr. Gonzalez has been able to interact and develop a strong and resilient organization addressing food security in Yorkville & East Harlem communities. Mr. Gonzalez will continue to focus on international development and international trade from an entrepreneurial lens and has recently founded the direct trade importing & roasting company, Periquito. Using sustainable roasting technology and verified living income strategies meant to pay farmers based on their livelihood needs. All around, Mr. Gonzalez is focused on improving communities in a sustainable manner that uplifts their voices and evokes meaningful change.