McElroy House Featured in Arkansas Times Big Ideas Issue

Illustration by Bryan Moats.

Illustration by Bryan Moats.

We were recently featured in the Arkansas Times annual Big Ideas issue featuring readers’ ideas on what can make Arkansas a better place to live. Our submission was accepted and featured in the 2014 issue. You can read it in full below or click here to read ours and other ideas via the Arkansas Times. 

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When most people think of community centers, they imagine a large, modern building with glass double doors and an indoor basketball court. Such recreational facilities are an important part of any town, but we also need other shared spaces in our communities that nourish local culture and civic life.

In early 2015, the McElroy House: Organization for Cultural Resources is slated to open a small community center in Dardanelle that will serve as an idea hub for Pope and Yell counties. It will be a home for small skill-sharing workshops led by community members, a living room for socializing, and a place for parents, elders and children (in both English and Spanish-speaking communities) to gather, share concerns and ideas, and learn from one another.

Back in 2006, I had the opportunity to work with Michael Morrow, the man behind the West Kentucky African American Heritage and Research Center in Russellville, Ky. Morrow and other members of his community researched the area’s history and genealogies dating back to slavery and worked collectively to renovate and preserve structures dating from the 1700s. (White people often take for granted how easy it is to research our own histories. At the same time, we often forget the importance of knowing the everyday stories of our community’s deep past.) As I watched Morrow turn near-dilapidated houses into places of fearless learning, I began dreaming of returning to my hometown of Dardanelle and exploring what it can mean to dig into the past with the goal of working toward a new kind of future. Together with Marie Williams, a Dover native who recently received her MA in history from Arkansas Tech University, we’re working to create a community idea hub for our section of the River Valley.

The McElroy House is built on valuing our landscape and cultural resources, exploring how the past informs the present, and creating partnerships across generations, races and cultures. We work to find commonalities between working class communities in urban and rural areas across Central Arkansas. We believe in exploring the past for the sake of the future and the importance of deep listening and collective action.

So far, our work has focused on researching and documenting local oral histories and creating community-based media pieces for print and radio. Soon, though, we will open a community center in the house from which our organization gets its name. Built in the 1940s, this home once belonged to Lloyd and Golda McElroy, former tenant farmers and chicken plant workers who raised their family in Yell County. They were everyday people, living in a simple house, and their histories are similar to many others’ in the community.

We’ve worked with the University of Arkansas Community Design Center to create a low-impact parking lot that will reduce water runoff, and we’ll explore ways everyday people can rethink our relationship to this most important of resources. We’ll cover the grounds in perennials donated from area gardens and native plants that attract bees and butterflies. We’ll cultivate vegetables in partnership with a local heirloom seed saving group that is working to ensure our regional vegetable varieties are around for generations to come. We believe that even small amounts of food production can reduce food insecurity in low-income communities; in a largely low-income state, people in both rural and urban areas have been engaging in resource conservation and so-called “green living” for generations.

We plan to hold workshops on everything from understanding the local election process to making herb tinctures, from anti-racist dialogue to knitting classes to developing initiatives for creating locally based incomes. Community members will suggest topics, and our offerings will grow to reflect a diversity of needs and voices. We want to bring people together to explore history, even the difficult stories we all need to learn in order to work across divisions of race, class and culture. We don’t know exactly where this will lead us, but that’s the point. We want to create a space, both conceptually and literally, to bring people together so we all listen deeply to one another and find ways to learn from our past in such a way that plans for our collective future.

Our center isn’t about acquiring big grants for sustainability initiatives or complicated programming. It’s about starting where we’re at, rethinking our approaches to living and working spaces, and honing the skills of our grandparents for our current needs. We want our center to be a working example of how even the simplest structure can be a place to harness rain, grow a little food and rethink local resources for the benefit of all.

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