by Anna Schmiel, AmeriCorps VISTA serving at the Northside Economic Opportunity Network (NEON)
As the Community Engagement Coordinator at the Northside Economic Opportunity Network (NEON), I work directly with community members. Most days are spent talking to business owners and local community leaders, connecting them with our Business Development Team, and entering the data I collect into my many spreadsheets. I love this mixture of qualitative and quantitative work and getting to collaborate with so many different people each week.
However, with so many businesses to talk to I must quickly pass along the businesses I’ve connected with to one of our business advisers. The fast-paced nature of my work often leaves me wondering what progress these businesses have made. Have they met with an adviser? Have they restructured their business plan? Are they making more of a profit? I meet with the Business Development Team to recommend businesses they should personally follow-up with, and they often let me know the progress they’ve made, but these meetings and follow-up take time that we sometimes don’t have.
Just like starting a business, establishing a strong relationship with an entrepreneur takes patience. Not seeing your hard work pay off right away can sometimes make you lose your drive and feel weighed down by repetition. You can forget that the work you do is part of a larger goal and that the repetition is how you can slowly unscrew the unjust economic system that makes your job necessary in the first place. This system is so well-established that it takes repeated outreach with entrepreneurs and other stakeholders to amass enough support to stand a chance of dismantling it. Trust needs to be built, and with so much history behind why this system favors some people over others this isn’t going to happen overnight. Continuing to dismantle such a complex system can seem like foolhardy work. When you focus on the task at hand, however, you’ll see how manageable it actually is to unscrew it bit by bit, especially given that when one part falls, the rest follows.
I’m someone who’s hyper-focused; when a task is in front of me, I forget to look up to see the progress that’s been made. That’s why I was so excited to help organize the first annual Toast to Northside Business awards. NEON partnered with the West Broadway Business and Area Coalitions (WBC) to give out three awards to businesses that play a vital role in the Northside. The nominees were submitted by the public, and at first I was worried there wouldn’t be enough engagement. I was so wrong. We had many nominations come in, with people even emailing their nominees after the deadline.
Turnout to the event was equally impressive. The large Gathering Space next to Sammy’s Avenue Eatery was so packed with people that there weren’t enough chairs for everyone to sit. The atmosphere was alive with chatter; people asking each other questions that went so much deeper than just “Minnesota Nice.” All the nominees received raucous rounds of applause and proud smiles. Representative Fue Lee and Council Member Phillipe Cunningham were there to present the awards. The level of respect for each and every individual in that room was a breath of fresh air.
This pride in community reminded me what my everyday work is for and why helping to grow small, local businesses is so important. The more ownership residents have in their own community, the more pride they’ll have in it. That’s why dismantling the system doesn’t scare me, because there are so many wonderful resident-owned businesses to take the place of all the chains that dot the Northside. These businesses meet residents’ needs because they’re owned by residents. They aren’t just looking to make a buck, but, rather, to improve their home.
Taking time to celebrate achievements isn’t something I’m used to. I’ve always been so quick to move onto the next thing. With an issue as crucial as community wealth building, I’m especially bad at taking time to acknowledge all the work that’s already been done. Organizing the Toast to Northside Business awards put this into perspective for me. Events like this should always be a part of community engagement, since bringing community together to celebrate wins creates a stronger network for change. I saw the importance of celebrating the good, since focusing just on the many barriers and the seemingly impossible task of removing them makes it difficult to feel hopeful.
By celebrating those individuals who’ve already done this, you find the necessary inspiration and support to carry on. Being reminded of all the people who are working towards my same goal made it feel achievable.