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Meet a Neighborhood Change-Maker: Joni Laney

Editors Note: Center for Transforming Communities (CTC) is grounded in the belief that every Memphis neighborhood includes people who have dreams for their neighborhood and who are willing to invest themselves in those dreams. Throughout 2018 we will profile some of these change-makers so you can get a glimpse of the incredible people CTC works alongside. This profile includes a Q&A with a long-time West Binghampton neighborhood leader, Joni.

What is your connection to your neighborhood, Binghampton?

My connection to the neighborhood began in 1997 when the pastor of what was then Everett Memorial Church asked me to start an after-school program for neighborhood kids. I began by going door-to-door to invite children to the program and was astounded, even back then, by the diversity of the neighborhood and the hospitality of everyone I met. I told my husband, Billy, that this neighborhood was unique in Memphis. We moved here in 2002 after conversations with our four children. They immediately loved the life and vitality – soccer games in the park, conversations on the street, constant activity of youth up and down the block. Many of the kids they met attended Central as they did. We have all loved living here. We have been involved in Caritas Community and later Caritas Village. We have hosted vigils and marches and Good Friday pilgrimages; we have canvassed door-to-door numerous times; we’ve had drumming circles and cook-outs and music on the yard next to Caritas House. The gardens, REP, CTC, MIA, the various churches who worship in the Commons have all added activity and flavor to what is an amazing space in this city.

Why do you care about the future of Binghampton?

I care about preserving the life and vitality and diversity of this neighborhood. To me that means not allowing developers to gentrify all the housing, insuring that families to want to buy homes are able to, making sure that vacant and derelict properties are rehabbed responsibly, maintaining what has become cultural, racial, economic diversity in a city where that is hard to find. There are not many places where children play on the playground and different languages are spoken or where people who gather up fruits and vegetables on Food Pantry days all have on the clothing of their home countries – the bright colors of Africa, the weaves of Nepal, the slippers from Vietnam, where my neighbors bring over hot tamales when there is sickness or celebration, where we know the people up and down the street and all of us together have taken care of Mr. Moseby and Charlie and Germany and Guy and Tina and Sam and Lou. Where soccer games mix all the soccer-lovers together no matter where they are from. Where people can gather at the Village for music or for a party or for learning, besides the good food.

What are some of the things you do to transform your community?

My work in the community is a little of this and a little of that. I try to provide resources and presence to my Latino neighbors. I try to work on housing issues so that we can slow down gentrification. I try to meet folks who are living here and hear their stories. I pick up trash every morning when I walk my dogs. I water the McMerton gardens and share the produce with the food pantry. I give rides to people. Nothing transformative in and of itself but perhaps bits of nourishment to deepen the community here.

What are some of your proudest accomplishments as community leader?

There have been so many - I think of the vigil after the Lopez brothers' deaths, I think of the worship at the park after a baby was beaten to death in the neighborhood, I think of community meals where we all celebrate the gift of this place. I think of the Shalom meetings where neighbors are finding their voice and becoming involved in making things better. Perhaps the most powerful experience for me was being present during the ICE raids last summer, having my phone out and recording the officers, trying to talk to them and see their documents, showing our terrified neighbors that we were standing with them, we were not going to let them simply disappear. There was a small group of us but we just wouldn't leave. We stood there witnessing until the dark-windowed vans pulled away. That to me is community.

What has CTC done to help you along the way?

CTC has provided the process for neighborhood empowerment. We have learned how to identify assets and gifts we can offer each other; we have dreamed boldly; we have chartered steps to make those dreams reality and then we have gone to work. I don't think that would have happened without CTC's expertise, resources, space and time. It was the perfect storm of their gifts and our energy and the connection has been generative, life-giving. The very process built community between us and broke down barriers. During the first meeting, for example, when the fellowship hall was overflowing with neighbors of all ethnicities, one of the Latino women stood up and asked, "How many of you will stand with us when they come for us?" We all raised our hands and made that commitment to her and to our neighbors: We will stand with you. That's what CTC enabled. That's why this work is so crucial.

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