Robin Le Baron in New York
August 17, 1996
One of my first opportunities to see community building at Banana Kelly occurred in early August, when I went to a bazaar organized by trainers Diane Francis and Isabella Nieves. Community building is a central theme in Banana Kelly's work: their ultimate goal, many BK staff members say, is not rehabilitated housing or high paying jobs, but a thriving, sustainable community. I learned that Saturday that community building can be fun-in this case, it involved lots of dancing and coconut cake.
I found the events taking place under a large yellow and white tent on a vacant lot beside a Banana Kelly building. The weather was overcast and sultry, and it was a relief to step under the entrance, festooned with a riot of multicolored balloons, and into the shade. Two long lines of tables ran down the length of the tent, piled with food and things for sale. In the open space between the tables adults stood and chatted, children chased each other around, and everyone ate.
I talked with Diane Francis at length about the event after it had taken place. Diane, like so many other people at Banana Kelly, amazes me with her dedication and energy. She works at creating tenant associations in several of Banana Kelly's buuldings, and is involved in other projects, like a comunity garden and a Banana Kelly newsletter, as well.
She and Isabella organized the bazaar, she explained, largely as a way of helping residents develop potentially marketable skills, such as cooking and sewing. "My goal was to let tenants have an opportunity to utilize what they had made in their homes and the skills they might have," she said.
I wandered up and down the tent and found evidence of the residents' talents on display on all the tables. Some vendors were selling things theyıd made themselves, including crochet work and jewelry. Others offered health products, videotapes, cassettes, or clothes. And then there was plenty of home-cooked food: barbecued chicken, flavored rice and beans, hot dogs, and a table full of cakes and cookies. I stopped at the last table and enjoyed a slice of rich coconut cake.
Francis and Nieves wanted to find a free space for the bazaar, so that the vendors could take home what they made. "I wanted them not to have to worry about overhead - tables, chairs," Francis said. "Once they feel they can do this, then it's time for them to say: "I can pay for this because I am making all this money."
The tent turned out to be the perfect solution. A local resident had set it up to provide space for a sort of outdoor mall and encourage local business. As he explained during the afternoon, he also hoped it would be a site for chess lessons, poetry readings, or other community events.
The day wasn't only about commerce. Over the course of the afternoon many Banana Kelly residents gave performances on a low stage set up at the far end of the tent. Two groups of young women gave dance performances to enthusiastic response from the crowd. Others got up and sang. Diane presented several residents with awards for their contributions to the community. The rest of the time music played from loudspeakers beside the stage.
"I wanted everyone to be a part of this," Diane told me. "There are so many people out there that have so much talent, so much gift from God &$45; they should show their thing."
I was impressed by the fact that the bazaar was put to so many uses simultaneously. A table equipped with voter registration materials stood at the tentıs entrance. And people were asked to make contributions to the family of a young girl who had been badly injured in Santo Domingo by a hit and run driver.
People seemed to have fun, but no one more than the children. They cut, pasted and painted at an activities table, threw balls at a big velcro target, and skipped rope in the central aisle. Near the end of the afternoon, a few kids got up on the stage and began to dance. Before long their parents came to join them, and the stage was filled with people turning, swaying and stepping.
The bazaar illustrates many of the strengths of Banana Kelly's work. It drew from existing resources - the vacant lot, the tent, the creative potential of residents - and turned them into assets. It promoted local business efforts and community economic self-sufficiency. And people had fun.