How is a 15-foot fiberglass giraffe like good community organizing?

Picture this: ten young West Virginians carrying a 350-lb fiberglass giraffe through the grounds of a community center in a low-income neighborhood in the Chemical Valley.

It’s a bizarre sight – and it certainly isn’t what the socially-conscious participants expected when they signed up for a summer with Build-It-Up! West Virginia, to build infrastructure and expand the capacity of long-term community-run sustainable economic projects in the coalfields.

But Build-It-Up! exists for a bigger reason: to work in solidarity with communities. For centuries, missionaries, extractive industries, volunteers and other outsiders have come to West Virginia to “fix” the state, without ever asking what – if anything – needs fixed.  Build-It-Up! makes the extra effort to work with community members, listen to people’s stories, and otherwise assess the needs.  As we build infrastructure, we build trust as well.

“Even though you can’t see the economic improverishment right there in Rock Lake it is all around you, close around you.  This is one of the most economically poor areas in all of Charleston, like right where we’re working.  Not only are we fighting extractive industries, we are fighting an entire system that causes poverty within all areas, specifically West Virginia,” said Dustin Steele, a coordinator for Build-It-Up.  “So when you’re At Rock Lake, realizing that you’re creating and helping build back up a building that is going to help serve as a positive outlet for people to rise up and be empowered from this economic depression…you’re doing tangible, wide-reaching good in all of these communities.  Know that with every maddock you swing, every picnic table you paint, every board you carry out, you are doing a solid good, not only for the community, but for yourself.”

So why the giraffe?  Rock Lake Community Center, where we’re working this week, was a rock quarry, transformed into a swimming pool during the great depression.  The pool also holds historic significance as the site of multiple sit-ins during desegregation.  Community members – and even participants in Build-It-Up! – have shared childhood memories of the Rock Lake Pool or the amusement park, putt-putt course and arcade that later graced the site.  Many coalfield residents spent their childhood summers here.  (More info on the site’s history can be found here)

The community center got its feet off the ground this year with monthly open-mic nights that also serve as a forum for community members.  Suggestions from neighbors resulted in a huge, community-painted mural now prominent inside the old arcade, and now, with help from Build-It-Up! West Virginia, the minigolf course is being restored to its former glory, giraffe and all.  Participants will go door-to-door in the community to spread word of the progress at the center.  Over the next three weeks, volunteer engineers will transform ideas for minigolf obstacles collected from local teenagers into plans for Build-It-Up! to construct in our second week at the site.  That’s what good community organizing looks like – identifying real needs in a community that they can’t implement on their own, connecting the community to the needed resources, working in solidarity with them, and helping them build capacity.  And sometimes, it may just look like a fiberglass giraffe.

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