In our new Citizen Placemaker series, we’ll be chatting with some of the folks we meet in our travels and through our online interactions to learn about the amazing and inspiring work that they do, and to see how creating great places goes far beyond the physical spaces that make up our cities.
This brings us to Matt Lechel (@mlechs), a community change agent in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Matt is one of the founding board members of the IDEA Association, a non-profit that works to create structures that improve community health. On the clock, he works as the executive director of Kalamazoo Collective Housing (an affordable housing cooperative that works to develop neighborhood leaders and engaged citizens) and as an event manager for Volunteer Kalamazoo, where he organizes community days of service, specifically focusing on neighborhood safety initiatives. We met Matt on Twitter, and were impressed by his deep level of community involvement. So now, without further ado…
What is it about your place (city/neighborhood/block/etc) that inspires you to do the work that you do?
Kalamazoo is filled with incredible art, bright music, a growing and somewhat progressive downtown, and for the most part, people who seem to genuinely care about making the place they live better. Kalamazoo is also filled with some fascinating juxtapositions. The city is home to award-winning innovators in the field of anti-racism training and yet some neighborhoods are still so racially segregated that, at times, I wonder how much progress we’ve really made since the Civil Rights Movement. Kalamazoo is a community of truly amazing philanthropy and community investment, yet a huge chunk of that wealth was made through extremely negligent pollution of the Kalamazoo River. My motivation and curiosity stems from a desire to understand why these conflicting truths exist, and what we can do differently or better to fix them.
Probably wherever I called home, I would still have an insatiable desire to work in whatever small ways I can. But I do think Kalamazoo offered some special inspiration to me, particularly in terms of its cultural and political community. As I began my journey to understand and know Kalamazoo (which is ongoing and mostly a learning experience), the real inspiration came from the people I met. I found people at the end of nearly every discovery or realization I made waiting for me with open arms, saying, “Glad you’re up to speed Matt, we could use your help, dig in.” In a town like Kalamazoo, it feels like every door is open; it just depends on if you want to step through it or not.
It sounds like your route to community involvement was very organic. Can you say a bit about what kinds of things you saw happening around Kalamazoo that led to the creation of the IDEA Association?
There was a coffee shop in Kalamazoo called the Strutt that likened itself to a public cafeteria—and it wasn’t that far off. People flocked to The Strutt: artists, bohemians, poets, weirdos, hipsters, square dancers; it was such a vibrant cultural hub. As someone who works in the nonprofit/social entrepreneurship field, I started to think about the impact this place was having. This bar was a haven for artistic expression, group planning meetings, drawings and poetry—it was probably one of the most important places that existed for some locals. That’s an important and empowering realization: that “Places” don’t have to be formal, long-standing institutions; in fact, sometimes the best places are ones that sprout up out of nothing and lack traditional forms of structure or policy.
IDEA Association was created in an attempt to help fill the gap between art, culture, and social progress—and support the creation of organizations that improved Kalamazoo while operating outside of those traditional structures. We started organizing these weird, unique events all over Kalamazoo where we would have live music, participatory community art projects, and we would survey attendees, asking all sorts of questions about what the most important relevant social issues were to them, and what solutions they knew of or imagined.
You describe what IDEA does as “participatory project design.” What exactly is that, and how has it worked in past projects?
Strengthening connections between cultural experiences and social problem-solving was only one part of the work we wanted to do. We wanted to accomplish something tangible. For the first few years, we batted around lots of ideas about how participatory project design would manifest itself. Eventually, through our work with the Kalamazoo Community Foundation and O.N.E. Place, we realized that there are many people seeking to do amazing work in our community who lack 501(c)3 status, and are thus ineligible to receive even small grants. On top of that, many nascent groups struggle with communication and organizational development issues—some of the very same issues IDEA had worked through. As a result, we began to serve as a fiscal sponsor to emerging grassroots projects in town.
An early success project is the Open Roads Bike Program. Open Roads was started 36 months ago by Ethan Alexander and a couple of neighbors who saw a problem on their street in Kalamazoo’s Edison neighborhood and wanted to make a difference. They started hosting weekly “Fixapaloozas” in Ethan’s garage. Pretty soon, kids and parents alike were coming to check it out, neighbors started to donate bikes, and by the end of the summer every single kid on the street had their own bike—and the skills to fix it themselves. Open Roads considered becoming their own 501(c)3 nonprofit, but decided they’d rather focus on doing what they love: working with kids, fixing bikes. This past summer, through fiscal sponsorship with IDEA, Open Roads got a significant grant from the Kalamazoo Community Foundation that took their program citywide.
We’ve found that there are so many people just like the Open Roads crew, who are outrageously talented and simply want to make an impact. They just need some of the community’s resources pointed in their direction. We help them identify and go after those resources.
One of our key Placemaking Principles is that “you can’t do it alone.” How important is collaboration in your efforts to improve Kalamazoo?
For me, collaboration is just a way of life. When someone brings me a new idea, the first thing I want to do is connect them to everyone in town who cares about similar issues. And Kalamazoo feels like a small enough place that you can literally get to know every single person in it if you try hard enough.
While collaboration can feel forced these days as it becomes a mantra for foundations and funders, when it happens organically and cooperatively, it’s so obvious and simple. IDEA’s fiscal sponsorship work is collaborative by its very nature. There are these really fantastic Zen-like moments when we’re meeting with various partner organizations. We’ll have 10 people in a room, all of whom have these grand visions, but only $1,000 in seed funding. People start to realize the immense amount of resources it will take to achieve the impacts that match their visions, and finally someone will speak up and say something like, “Hey, all of our resources are so limited…shouldn’t we be asking ourselves what investments we can make together that serve all of our collective needs?” And then they create these masterful program collaborations that incorporate several emerging grassroots projects instead of just one.
If you could give one piece of advice to people who are interested in tackling challenges in their communities but aren’t sure where to start, what would it be?
Start today. Just show up. Start showing up and don’t stop showing up at community events, neighborhood watch meetings, nonprofit board meetings, city commission meetings, art shows, local concerts, political rallies. Volunteer at events related to the things that you are passionate about; sometimes you’ll be invited to participate, sometimes you’ll have to invite yourself. Just remember that there is no one more qualified to impact your community than you.