Coexistence and Community

By Josy Jones, 2019 Community Outreach VISTA

The term coexistence is a funny one. It is a concept that should be inherently American. We are, after all, a melting pot; a nation built on migration and displacement. A country that promises freedom and dreams to anyone from anywhere who works hard enough. However, very rarely do you experience spaces where people across religions, ethnic backgrounds, ages, races and identities come together. There are more “COEXIST” bumper stickers than there are spaces where it becomes actualized. The Exchange House has managed to become that rare space. 

ExH Staff 2017-2019. L to R: Zachary Forney, Neema Bal, Amber Cullen, Josy Jones, Kiara Nicholson, and Katie Beck

In February 2019, I started serving the North Hill community at the Exchange House as an Americorps VISTA,  with the capacity and skills I’d already acquired and wanting to learn new ones along the way. In my first month, I learned the numerous branches of the work. We accomodate people across many different backgrounds. We are the meeting space for many different religious groups, some I’d never heard of and some I still do not fully understand. We are an Airbnb, and we must make our guests feel comfortable. We are a space for youth to safely gather and work. At times, guests were able to join in on our festivities, learning language, gaining resources, eating new food and being amongst one another. At times, we juggle all of those branches at once. Through the work, the Exchange House provides us with the rare opportunity to meet in the middle of our differences by doing something human. When talking to people who had never been to the Exchange House, I would say, “It is our job to help people connect.” It’s vague, but emcompasses the passion of the work. We eat. We dance. We gather. We learn. We play. We laugh. We connect.

However, when you tell strangers you work in North Hill and explain the Exchange House they normally say something like, “Oh, you only serve refugees” or “Well, the immigrants are getting all of the attention. What about us?” and I find myself having to explain that we are a community space, meaning the entire community is welcome. I usually end with letting them know that I’d love for them to come and share a meal with us. If they were White American born citizens, I wonder why White American born citizens assume that spaces of color inherently mean they are not welcome. I also wonder if they recognize the importance of that feeling, as it is a feeling that many people of color share. It’s a White space, so I will not be welcome. If they are Black, I wonder who is spreading the rumor that New Americans are getting more services than Black people to start businesses or own homes. Just to be clear, they are not. Nevertheless, serving here has made me a witness to the importance of bringing people together, so they can meet one another. Face to face, strangers become less “the other” and more human. 

I cannot say that the Exchange House is perfect. Like any community work, it comes with many challenges. I faced two very hard realities in my service; community work can take an emotional toll and you cannot help everyone, no matter how much you want to. We are a small staff, trained to create diverse space. We are not trained in social work or housing, so when someone comes in and says they are experiencing homelessness, you do everything you can to help them, and realize that your efforts may not be enough. You have a community member tell you that their neighbor’s ceiling caved in from a leak, and you realize the person you’re trying to help speaks limited English. Luckily, we are a place for connections, so the community around us is always helpful. However, you sometimes feel like you’ve failed your mission, because you weren’t able to do more; because you weren’t able to help more. Be more. Know more. 

There are more positive memories than feelings of hopelessness. I have been so privileged to serve the Exchange House and I will miss it. Being here provides you with an immediate sense of purpose. Someone needs you to schedule an event in the house, someone is looking for English classes, you are teaching someone to carve pumpkins for the first time, someone else needs you to help them apply for a grant, someone needs you to make them a flyer for their AA group, you’re reminding the new American community that they are loved and welcome, you’re apologizing to the Airbnb guests because the Step class sounds like a break-in, you are bridging gaps and letting our American-born community know there are resources in the community. Your presence is greeted with gratitude almost daily, because you serve an immediate purpose. You are a part of a place that creates community, where people can coexist together. 

Josy Jones at the final North Hill Monthly Gathering of 2019, which was a celebration of New Citizens.

In the future, I want the Exchange House to have more resources for organizational capacity. It needs a few more positions. It needs someone for grounds maintenance and another for hospitality. It needs a dedicated grants and fundraising manager. It needs an event coordinator. It needs a community outreach position. It could use a marketing division. Most times, these jobs are split between 2 or 3 people. But these are dreams. What I hope is that the Exchange House continues to be the unique, welcoming space that it has grown to be. The values of the space are strong and visible. We believe in coexisting and creating space for human beings to come together, see one another, and stay connected. I’m so blessed to have served the Exchange House in 2019 and I am proud to be a part of its extended family.