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Middletown Green Community Center Proposal

(New Vision for 51 Green Street)

February 8, 2018

www.middletowngreencc.org

51 Green Street has to change. Wesleyan University has decided that it no longer wants to play the leadership role at the Green Street Center, announcing it will not continue supporting Green Street once the University’s current lease of the building (from the city for $1 a year) ends June 30, 2018.  Funding will remain available, however, to support community work.

Many community members, both from Middletown and from Wesleyan University, have come together to form the Green Street Task Force to create a new type of community center in this building (proposed name:  Middletown Green Community Center).  A greatly expanded vision is necessary to make this happen, because much of Green Street is underused.  We propose that Green Street expand its mission and become much more than primarily an arts education center and an afterschool program.  We propose a new center with 3 interlocking spheres of activity: Technology, Health, and the Arts (reimagined to include increased participation from various ages and socioeconomic groups).

First, we propose to take over the leadership role from Wesleyan by forming our own nonprofit to run Green Street within the next 18 months.  Second, we propose that instead of immediately abandoning Green Street, and pulling out all its financial support, that Wesleyan slowly cut back its funding over several years, thereby giving the new community center we are creating a chance to get on its feet.  Third, we also propose that the City of Middletown continue leasing the building for $1 per year, but now to us, the new nonprofit that will inhabit 51 Green Street.

The Green Street Teaching and Learning Center, in partnership with the City of Middletown and the North End Action Team, opened its doors to the community in January 2005.  People from the North End wanted a community center.  Stakeholders sought ways to stabilize a community suffering from violence, drugs, transience, and landlord disinvestment.  These problems, as well as economic despair for many low-income residents of Middletown, still grind down many parts of our city, not just the North End.

The first act necessary to keep Green Street alive—in a modified form—is for a new community organization to assume sole leadership of Green Street.  Several people have stepped forward to develop the leadership of this new nonprofit:  Jeff Hush, chair of the Middletown Green Community Center and founder of Food & Movement Therapy (famtusa.org), Rob Rosenthal (NEAT and Wesleyan), Dar Williams (singer/songwriter, author of What I Found in a Thousand Towns, Wesleyan alumna 1989), Dr. Mike Kalinowski (Blue Zones Project and Middlesex Hospital), Gary Wallace (NEAT and Middletown Police Captain), Rachel Hedrick (also founder of famtusa.org, whole-foods chef  and clinical yoga teacher at several CHC locations), Banning Eyre and Sean Barlow (founders of Peabody-award-winning Afropop Worldwide and Wesleyan alumni 1979), Kris Kolstad (corporate fundraising advisor), Joan Hedrick (founder of the Women, Sexuality and Gender program at Trinity College and long-term Middletown resident), Chris Chenier (Digital Design Technologist and Prof. of Art & Design, Wesleyan Univ.), Katie Hush (professional fundraiser in NYC), Cookie Quinones (NEAT and currently working at Green Street), Jennifer Kleindienst (Sustainability Director at Wesleyan University and Chair of Middletown’s Clean Energy Task Force), Chu Ngo (owner of Lan Chi Restaurant on Main St. and United Way), Gail Thompson-Allen and Rolande Duprey and Christy Billings (Russell Library), Brandie Doyle (Interim Director, Russell Library), Rob Eason and Kristina Kelly (Food Not Bombs), Andy Dykas and Andrew Kelly (Close the Gap), Grady Fitzpatrick (landlord on Green St. and chair of Close the Gap), Hallie Blejewski (MAC650 art gallery on Main Street and professional grant writer), Julia Faraci (Middletown Commission on the Arts), Marc Pettersen (MAC650 gallery), Glenn Martin (fundraiser), Rhea Drozdenko (Wesleyan alumna 2017 and Civic Engagement Fellow there), and a group of twelve Wesleyan students who believe passionately in the community that gathers at Green St.:  George Perez, Katie Toner, Jessi Russell, Rose Shuker-Haines, Lance Williams, Sankriti Malik, Mikaela Carty, Vera Benkoil, Noah Kahan, Gabe Hurlock, Ben Daley, and May Klug.

More than 30 community members came out to a Middletown Advisory Council meeting on November 30, 2017 to support our proposal to keep 51 Green Street as a community center.  A petition on Change.org has been circulating (signed by more than 200 local people) asking President Roth of Wesleyan to continue to support a community center at Green Street.  40 people (most of them from the list above) attended our last meeting, hosted by Russell Library, on Feb. 1, 2018.  Dar Williams has created a letter of support for our project, signed by 500 Wesleyan University alumni, and sent to Middletown’s Mayor Drew and all the members of the Common Council.  Dar is leading our first fundraising project, aiming to raise between $50,000 and $100,000 by the end of 2018.  Between December 2017 and February 2018, articles about MGCC have been published in the Hartford Courant, the Middletown Press, and the Wesleyan Argus.

Green Street provides a bridge between Wesleyan students and the community.  Many low-income Wesleyan students “depend on Green Street to earn their work study” (Wesleyan Argus, Oct. 30, 2017).  Low-income students at Wesleyan share their skills, collaborate with, and build a more inclusive and abundant local community along with low-income Middletown residents.  Approximately 3,000 Middletown residents use Green Street in some capacity per year.  Fifty Wesleyan students and 20 Wesleyan faculty participate in Green Street activities each year, typically as teachers or mentors.  Wesleyan University invested over $1 million for the renovation of the building and has subsidized the annual program with over $2 million over the last 10 years.  It makes sense for both town and gown for Wesleyan to continue to play some role in the new Green Street Center.

Much of Green Street is underused, except in the afterschool time slot.  That is why we want to expand its mission to include, first, a much wider age range than primarily elementary school kids, and, second, a broader set of programs that serve more of Middletown, bringing together people from very different populations within the city.  In one space, our three new spheres—Technology, Health, and the Arts—will create “positive proximity” (as Dar Williams writes in 2017):  “When people transcend the myth that proximity means conflict and invasion of privacy, they gravitate toward finding ways to integrate the talents and skills of their community members.”

The city seeks ways to spur innovation and entrepreneurship; social service agencies face the perennial problem of a lack of programming that attracts teenagers, as well as high unemployment among low-income teenagers and young adults; the tech industry estimates a shortage of one million software developers over the next ten years.  Why not train up local residents, starting very young, to become IT professionals?  We can start this process by adding instruction in technology, digital literacy, and design thinking to Green Street.  This would provide Middletown residents--from elementary and middle school children to teenagers and adults—with the opportunity to learn 21st century skills that are in high demand in our technology-driven economy.

Middletown has just been awarded a grant of $450,000 from the Federal Reserve Bank (the “Working Cities Challenge” grant) “to reduce the percentage of single-parent families living at or below the federal poverty level from 35 percent to 20 percent over a ten-year period.”  Middletown Green Community Center is being developed specifically to help Middletown tackle this huge challenge by assisting in two ways:  through quality educational afterschool programs to take the burden off single parents who want to work and through career training in our three interlocking spheres of Health, Technology, and the Arts.  We plan to be a strategic partner in Middletown’s push to reduce local poverty.  Resilience, sustainability and equity are the words that best describe our mission.

Green Street’s size (12,000 sq. ft., with 12 rooms in its current configuration, many of classroom size or larger) allows us to easily interweave collaborative hands-on project-based learning.  Our Tech center can be added to the building in such a way that it only takes up one third of the space, leaving the rest of the space for Health and Arts programming, and for a safe space for youth and other community members.  A computer lab at Green Street will have the great advantage of Wesleyan volunteer and work-study students and Wesleyan faculty to provide small group attention to Green Street participants. With the introduction of the new IDEAS minor in engineering and design at Wesleyan and the campus-wide push to expand design and digital offerings across the University, Green Street stands to benefit from new courses and student interest in public engagement.

There are a range of existing curricula that have been developed by groups such as the Technovation Challenge, Girls Who Code, Project Lead the Way, and MIT’s Scratch Foundation that will serve as models for this new programming at Green Street. We can readily support a rich portfolio of such programming by tailoring our current offerings to better serve digital literacy, technological and creative competency, and design thinking to our youth population.  We can also help eliminate computer illiteracy in local low-income adults; this tech illiteracy makes their lives hell when it comes to dealing with city, state, and federal bureaucracies.

New areas of Tech instruction can include: programming for students of all ages, electronics and robotics, digital design and prototyping, digital arts and graphic arts.  For this new Tech budget, what is needed is: first, approximately $60,000 to set up the computer lab in Green Street; second, approximately $40,000 to establish and equip a maker space; approximately $150,000 per year for upkeep, staff, and programming, if current funding remains.  We have started the process of assembling a list of potential funding sources for Tech activities, both capital and operational:  United Technologies: Natural Leadership Programs (link) ; Autodesk Foundation: (link) ; Intel Foundation: (link) ; Comcast Foundation (link) ; Honda Foundation (link) ; GE Foundation (link) ; Lockheed Martin (link) .  (Full list of 31 potential sources available; first draft budget for our new Middletown Green Community Center to follow in early 2018.)

The Health sphere will include food and movement programs to build health in many of Middletown’s vulnerable populations; famtusa.org has been developing, implementing and running these kinds of programs across CT since 2011. The Blue Zones Project (National Geographic) is an already existing model of how we can build a healthier Middletown; Dr. Kalinowski, a member of our steering committee, is the leader in bringing this project to our area.  Wesleyan’s student-run Long Lane Farm (and other organic farms like Forest City Farms) will play a large role in working with our new community center in building health and promoting food justice and food security locally.  Two key local community programs—“Double Dollars” (for half-price vegetables and fruits) and the Farmer’s Market by ION—are both floundering and need to be revived, with much more outreach into the community about their benefits.  Working with Amazing Grace food pantry to teach low-income residents (whose rates of diabetes are much higher than wealthier Americans) about how to cure Type 2 Diabetes is central to our health programming at the new Middletown Green Community Center.  We also want to bring in speakers (Eric Adams, Brooklyn Borough President, and Eugene Roman, who came from Illinois to our Native Feasts last week are two examples!), who can serve as role models after curing themselves of diabetes using food and movement (see Dr. Neal Barnard’s Program for Reversing Diabetes, 2007).

Both the Health and Tech spheres provide many future opportunities for fundraising for our new community center, as they are growth industries with very wealthy corporations and foundations attached to them.  There are two brand new programs being launched, even as we speak, by Middletown’s Clean Energy Task Force (Jeff Hush is a member):  Sustainable CT and CHEER, bringing renewables and energy efficiency to low-income housing.  Both these initiatives can be integrated into MGCC’s program and its mission of career development for local youth, and even, perhaps, into its building at 51 Green Street.  The ground has already been prepared for developing sustainability programs in the area:  on November 29, Middletown High School held its first ever “Sustainability Fair”—a huge success with both teachers and students—and CETF had a table there.  The Common Council of Middletown passed a “resolution” on December 4, 2017, to make Middletown the first town in CT to join the Sustainable CT program.  These opportunities create new funding possibilities, not available to the arts.

In the Arts, we need to establish relationships with Wesleyan alumni who have been very successful in reimagining American culture:  people like Banning Eyre, a member of our steering committee, whose voice is frequently heard on NPR.  Arts/Tech intersections we can introduce are: first, serious chess instruction and competition to our program (led by Fred Carroll, whose radio show, “The Homeless Report” on WESU in 2006 and 2007 is still fondly remembered by many locals); second, poetry slams in local schools (see the documentary about Chicago’s school slams, Louder than a Bomb).

From its opening in 2005, the old Green Street center was supposed to become its own nonprofit, and that never happened.  Our proposal is to create Green Street as its own nonprofit, with its own new identity (Middletown Green Community Center).  Green Street requires new management and partners who will help support programming and staffing there.  Wesleyan alumni in Middletown are stepping up to partner with community members.  We have gathered new partners and will continue to seek out groups that serve our community, making it “healthy, durable, resilient, just and prosperous” (David Orr).

(An earlier version of this proposal was passed unanimously at a Green Street Task Force meeting on Dec. 6, 2017 at 51 Green Street, Middletown, CT; 17 members were present; their names are available on the minutes of meeting.  This current version of the proposal is, in all key particulars, the same as our Dec. 6 version, except now there are more names of supporters and partners attached and more details about future programming.)