Interview with ‘Our Children’s Future’ Advisor, Jamila Walida Simon

Groundswell Center is thrilled to continue to partner with our Children’s Future. Groundswell Intern, Maggie McAden, speaks to the Our Children’s Future Advisor, Jamila Walida Simon, about her journey into this work and initiatives supporting the West Village Apartments in Ithaca, NY.

Maggie: How did you get connected with the West Village apartment community?

Jamila: So I earned my graduate degree in 2010. I started the grad program in 2004. And then in ’06, when my coursework was finished, I went to work for Cooperative Extension New York City. I finished up my degrees over the course of the next couple of years. When I returned to Ithaca, I wanted to continue working with extensions. I had worked on a five-year federally-funded project with Cooperative Extension New York City. I had a fabulous experience there. And I thought, there was a potential for all Cooperative Extensions to be similar. And I learned pretty quickly that not all of the extension associations, because we have a decentralized system within New York state, that they weren’t all the same. But I did see that there was an opening for Cooperative Extension in Tompkins County. And it was for the 4-H Urban Outreach Program at West Village. 

One of the things that I did as a graduate student, just to get acclimated to the area was I rode, the TCAT bus line, every single bus line to see where it went. And the bus that took me up to West Hill, and its endpoint was the hospital, Cayuga Medical Center, was the bus #14. And so as I was traveling on bus #14, I noticed that there was a housing development on the hill. 

At that time, the bus stopped on the outer road at West Village Place, and I could see from the road that there was a larger structure that was there. I would come to learn that that was West Village Apartments. Almost a sight unseen—and not having a lot of relationships in that community—I accepted a position with the 4-H Urban Outreach Program, and I was hired as their program manager. I pretty quickly got to know and love the folks in that community, which is why 10 years later, my work still continues. My advocating still continues in that neighborhood, pandemic or no pandemic. That’s just a place that I found to really be welcoming and to be a home of mine. 

I started running after school programming, and pretty quickly ended up with 55 kids after school between our split session programs. We ran a neighborhood-based program, so the kids got off the school bus and enjoyed an after school experience. But what I provided was much more than just after school. It was really a way to help young people to thrive in that community. And in particular, because there was a lot of stigma, and there’s still is currently a lot of stigma attached to living in that neighborhood. West Hill is home to lots of homeowners and apartment-dwellers who are renters. There are no churches, there are no supermarkets in that space. There’s a lot of unfinished construction projects there. 

I started off programming and had a really great relationship with Jon Raimon who served as the Service Coordinator at the Lehman Alternative Community School and began to follow Ithaca College, Cornell, TC3, Ithaca High School, and Lehman Alternative Community School students come through my program. As one person, I couldn’t work with 55 young people by myself, but I could train a cohort and a cadre of leaders and volunteers to come in and help me to run programming. My commitment in that community was to make sure that when young people came to us at five years of age—that’s the earliest that they can matriculate with our after school program as a cloverbud—that they would be reading to their parents within six months, and that they will be reading at or above grade level. 

This year, for the first time, another set of youth leaders have graduated from Ithaca High School. Young people that I remember were really eager to join my program, but they were four years old, so they’d have to wait until their fifth birthday, and on their fifth birthday, they celebrated and they came to the 4-H program and that was really a huge part of their growth and development. And I would later come to work with them again as they moved into high school, but that’s how I came to know and love the West Village community. I was there to serve as a program manager, I was also there to help families to learn about the school to prison pipeline, about what healthy eating is, and how they can infuse that into their everyday lives. Ways in which I could support families, mainly single-parent households, with whatever challenge they had if they were wanting to have a pet, but they were in a space where it wasn’t pet-friendly. They were wanting to have a worm bin or a garden. And so it just grew and expanded. 

In the latter years of me doing my work, I put together a number of community cafes, which came under fire pretty quickly by the apartment management group. Because they saw that as me organizing tenants. And they saw that quite frankly as being threatening. And so our program was asked unapologetically to leave and we unapologetically left, because we didn’t want to be in a space where our work wasn’t being championed because it was being championed by the people who matter the most to us, and those were community members. 

During that time, in that transition to out of the space of holding our program in the West Village Community room, we continued our partnership with the Lehman Alternative School and began running programs there, and block parties.

When I transitioned to full-time work at the university, through the Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research, when I began working with the state 4-H Program, I asked my supervisor if I could keep one part of my old job. And part of that was to really think about how we run programs. Right now, we run programs in silos. And so while I’m a Youth Development Specialist, at the heart of my work is really community development, helping to grow capacity within communities, through working with young people, and while we consider those folks to be youth development professionals, there’s also a role for the entire family. And so I asked if I could start a Parent Engagement Program. And that was great. I had a partnership with the Cornell Public Service Center. And that was an incredible experience. And the first day that parents came, they said, “We know you Jamila. But we don’t know your partner, Amy from the Public Service Center, and we need to know what her values are, what her intentions are.” All things that we talked about in after school programming and that parents were relying on. Not just taking any old service, but really pushing people to share what their intentions were before starting the work. She shared her intentions. Then the youth knew that I was coming to programming, and so they kept coming. Although the programming was targeted for parents, we expanded it to work with the whole family. And at that particular juncture, we were paying community members to offer meals, and the parents were there in a space for the very first time tuning alongside their kids.

We work with students at LACS, and they were helping those young people with their work and also designing projects and programs themselves. And so there’s three major things that we learned during that time. Number one, when I was running after school programming, we always did a door to door campaign to find out, in particular, what families in the community wanted to see young people in that neighborhood doing. By and large every summer, they would say they wanted the young people to get out of the community and see other things. So we did that. We honored that every single year. This time, when we were asking what community members wanted to see, they wanted to see a feeding program be born, so that if young people were coming to after school, they were going home with their homework done, but then they would also be fed a meal for the night, and their parents could focus in on helping their kids get a good night’s sleep, checking in about what happened during the day, ways in which they could be helpful – all these different things that we sometimes take for granted because we feel like the role and responsibility belongs to families, but all families aren’t set up in the same ways. 

And so when we thought about how we could contribute to that, we talked a lot about food insecurity. And so we did a survey with ACS students, and in the community, to find out how many food insecure families work. And then we took our own actions to see physically what it was like in order to be able to receive services. So what we learned was that by and large, by the third and fourth week of having some subsidies or being offered food assistance here in Tompkins County, that families were out of funds. The families had to make really hard choices about what things they bought. Am I buying something that’s filling for my kids and maybe not as nutritious because it’s cheap, and I can make it last longer? And we didn’t want families to have to make these critical decisions about their nutrition and their health. And ultimately, it comes back to us as a community to really be able to think strategically about these things.

And so at that time, after doing our research and seeing that all of the pantries essentially located in downtown Ithaca, and that for the most part, most services are located in downtown Ithaca, there were no satellite operations. And that the food pantries, often were not dignified spaces where people were uplifted. We wanted to contribute in a way and to do something different.

And so at that time, Our Children’s Future was born. And because we live in the land of nonprofits, we didn’t want to just form another nonprofit, so we asked the Village at Ithaca if they would serve as our fiscal sponsor, and they agreed. They graciously agreed, and we began doing the work. We created a monthly food distribution project, it’s called GIVE. And that acronym stands for Giving Involves Virtually Everyone. Giving involves every single member of our community, right? So it’s not just what we give it’s how we give, right? So we always give an offer, an opportunity, for families to be able to take what they need, take what their neighbors need, without question. 

DigNity Community Garden at West Village Apartments

So if you feel like your family needs some dessert, by all means come and get 10 desserts. If you feel like your family needs fruits and veggies, or your neighbor could use some more bread, as long as you can consume it, you can take it, and we always welcome people in that way. And that’s the stark difference from other distributions where it’s frowned upon, or is limited in terms of the number of things that you can take. Or you can only take for your own family. You have to provide documentation that you’re making a certain amount of money in order to access resources. We just wanted to have people access resources. And so we did a number of things. We asked people what to grow in the garden space when that was put together. We invited community members to build with us. We strategically spent time thinking about how we could make it so only Black and Brown folks would be at the center of the work. 

And we centered the families that we were working with. So their experiences were at the center of all the work that we were doing. And that’s been the way that we’ve carried on that work. The other two things that families had a strong interest in, were making sure that we maintained a space where families would be safe, making sure that there were family-centered activities. And so prior to the pandemic, we would always host garden parties, work parties, opportunities for families to come help with the shed, put in picnic tables. Opportunities for families to harvest with us and to make sure that we had dignified spaces for food distribution. At other times, we hired local community members to take the surplus of the food that we were offering to make a small appetizer that could then be shared. Or to share recipes, to give us feedback. Tell us what things were working for them what things weren’t working.

Maggie: It sounds like it’s inherently people-centered and about building really strong relationships. So, I was also wondering, how did you and how did Our Children’s Future first become involved with Groundswell?

Jamila: Well, so a number of years ago, the former executive director, Joanna Green, began to shift some of the work that Groundswell was doing, and looking strategically for partners to work with. And I remember thinking to myself, “Oh, boy, right, this is gonna create some more work, right?” 

So one thing that I’m always conscious and aware of is, you know, white allies have great intentions. But it has to be more about intentionality and really about how you strategically partner and really actively listen in to your counterpart, right? So with accountability partners, it’s great to want to do something and to have ideas. And I think initially, some of those ideas included having members of Our Children’s Future join the board, at Groundswell. And for me personally, I tend to move to action, or wanting for folks to move into action, because that’s the base in which it’ll tell you what people’s intentions are, right? So if we can’t work side by side, on a project, if we can’t do more than just the bare minimum in terms of sending a check or fundraising, then the intention is still status quo, right? It’s still to maintain the systems that are in place. 

When we move beyond those things, and we think radically about the ways in which we can extend our privilege to other people, we do dramatically different things, right. We use our address, right, to really advocate for families so that now the spaces between Chestnut and Abbott Lane is a revolutionary space where renters are growing food to feed themselves. I no longer have to own land, I no longer have to own a home in order to be able to do that. And now I’m also leaning on partner organizations like Groundswell to help with expertise. I have a small garden myself, for the first time I’ve owned my home for five years now, I planted fruit trees when I first arrived, some made it some didn’t. But this is the first time that I actually have my hands in the soil of land that I own. 

At West Village, there was an underutilized growing space called West Village Gone Green. And people were sort of like, well, how come you can’t use that space? How come that space is not good enough? For one, it was a long battle between one resident who really uses the space as their own personal garden. And two, with 235 units, we had to have a much larger space to grow food for everybody that’s there so that people would have access, increased levels of access. It meant that when we put out the call to West Village families, to say, “Hey, take a snapshot of your most recent food bill, and circle the things that you don’t want to purchase again that we could potentially grow.” This is what sparked the DigNity Community Garden.

It meant that families could access fresh veggies and use their dollars more effectively. It meant that our partners at Groundswell were then looking for grants that we could actively partner on, having the conversations, helping us to build those relationships with Home Depot, for example, so that we could get our shed installed, as a working grant  with a local community member who is also a veteran, so that we could get the things that we needed. It means that I use a lot of my own personal money to finance some of the projects because I believe in them. It also means that I’m listening intently to community members, and then I’m translating those things for our partner organizations like Groundswell.

We work very closely with Elizabeth Gabriel, and also Liz Coakley, and countless others that are a part of the organization and also a part of the board to say, “Hey, these are the pieces that we want to move forward.” So currently, right, we have a need to make sure that we have a space where folks can sanitize their hands and also a need to hold water. So we’re in the process of partnering also, with Ithaca Children’s Garden. They gave us their blueprint for how they put together their handwashing station. But now we’re partnered with Groundswell to actually do that build, we’d put out a call to community members. And because of the pandemic, people are a little more reluctant to work closely together with people that they don’t know. And they don’t know what their status is. And so Liz said, “Hey, I see that we haven’t found anybody yet. Would this date and time work for you? Of course. And and so that’s how we’ve partnered together.

Yeah, it was almost two years ago now that I hosted a self-care festival where the proceeds would come back to programming. And so we’ve had money in our coffers for the last couple of years now, in order to be able to do programs, to purchase bags, to finance a water station. And also to potentially hire members of the community to manage that mini garden. Well, it was actually a mini farm space, not even a garden. 

And so, the young people, when we first saw the space and we were gifted, man, we’re going to be here digging for a long time. And we laughed really hard about that. And so, you know, is there a way for us to turn that into a bright spot? And one of the kids said “we’ve been talking a lot about digging, and we’ve been talking a lot about dignity of having hands in the soil and a hand in food production”. Young people will now be able to say, “This cauliflower that I’m eating right now or the strawberries, I picked them less than a block away from my house, right, or right next door to my home.”

Maggie: It gives young people back their autonomy.

Jamila: Yeah, that’s, that’s incredible. And that’s what a partnership with Groundswell means. It means that they’re firmly committed while people are watching and even in the times when people aren’t watching, to make sure that other members of the community have and maintain their dignity and their right, and access to fresh fruits and vegetables, but also that they maintain their dignity in a space that was never really designed or meant for them.

Maggie: It’s standing in solidarity but not intervening in spaces. I was wondering, is there anything at all that you’d like to add to any  of our conversation today? 

Jamila: Well, I just want to say that, sometimes, partnerships start on a rocky road. And it really, I think depends on who’s at the helm of leadership, and also what spaces we are in our own personal development. Sometimes we’ve had to walk away from partners and say ‘maybe spend some more time with other white allies figuring it out and come back to us’. And certainly that is a part of the history that Our Children’s Future had had with Groundswell. But in the times when folks really understand what that gift of grace is, and they do the work, and then come back, that really helps to strengthen and renew the work that we all get to do together. 

And so I’m super grateful, as I know many West Village families are super grateful to Groundswell. While there’s really not a face or a name for the work that happens, people do come to expect that the work happens. And so even during the pandemic, we’re still continuing to do that work. We’re still continuing with our partnerships. We’re still continuing to help families to thrive and to blossom, and to feel loved and supported.

But in that cycle of liberation, right, we just have to be really honest about where we are in those cycles, so that people know how to interact with us. There was a lot of time when I felt really angry about the work that was and wasn’t happening. And there were times that we had to let go of volunteers who felt like we weren’t moving fast enough. Because the relationships were really at the center of the work and not necessarily the work. And that’s a hard space to be in because nobody really wants to be in a space where they lose volunteers, but all help is not good help. And if we don’t do the inner work then that work that we’re projecting to do in the world, loses every single time and so I’m grateful to the leaders at Groundswell who took seriously us saying that the organization had work to do, and that folks individually had work to do. And then we could come together and do this much larger collective action.