Wednesday, 27 February 2019 16:30

Eleanor Moreno: Talking, listening, doing

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Eleanor Moreno. Eleanor Moreno. Courtesy Photo

Frankly, Eleanor Moreno’s story is colorful and eventful enough to be its own book, much less a magazine article. Organizer, activist, consultant, translator — Moreno can best be described as “heavily involved.”

She’s the chair of the Roosevelt Park Neighborhood Partner Committee, project manager at Kids’ Food Basket, director of community engagement at Other Way Ministries, and co-founder of CO2 Storytelling, which gives a platform to “real people” to tell their story.

It all began when she was a child, beginning in Chicago before moving to Grand Rapids, raised by a single mother who often relied on community services to take care of her four children. The family was “transient,” moving 27 times by the time Moreno was 25.

“My siblings and I used to have this really awful joke, that like, ‘Why do we even have to unpack?’” Moreno said.

Now, she has her hand in many of those community services, especially in the Roosevelt Park neighborhood. The path there was anything but cut and dry, however. Moreno initially opted out of college, instead spending nearly every day at the local library. A librarian took notice and suggested she visit Calvin College, then ended up paying for Moreno’s first semester of school.

At the end of college, Moreno’s mother became sick, so she took the first job she could find, working third shift at a potato chip factory. Again, she was offered help, this time from a woman at the Cook Arts Center who submitted her resume to SECOM Resource Center, beginning Moreno’s life in the world of nonprofits.

At times, Moreno feels like she doesn’t deserve it all, but anyone who talks to her would understand how her abundant love for the neighborhood earns her so many chances to lead.

How did that job transition from the factory to the nonprofit world go?
For three months, I did both. I would sleep about four hours, wake up at nine at night. I didn't have a car, so I would walk to the potato chip factory, which was like a 20 minute walk, then walk back home afterwards, go back to the office and do like a nine to five. I had to make sure that it was the right thing. I’m super fortunate that it was.

How did you end up impacting SECOM in your own way?
All these things started falling in place and we were able to bring in someone through Michigan Works, and that gave me time to just, ‘Alright, I just need to listen to people.’ I spent about a year sitting in my lobby just talking to people and building this relationship and asking the old question of like, ‘If I had a million dollars or if we had all the money in the world, what would you want to see?’ And people were talking about just the coolest things about growing food and selling food at low cost.

Through that listening and through some support from Calvin, we were able to analyze some of this qualitative data and show that people wanted to garden and people wanted to sell produce. So, that model that got created out of that listening is now modeled across five other sites in Kent County.

Is that one of your big focuses at the Roosevelt Park Neighborhood Partner Committee, creating these opportunities?
Yeah. Funny enough, that group actually started because of Habitat for Humanity Kent County. They saw this opportunity for this development on 5 and a half acres and that piece of property is now called Plaza Roosevelt. So, they saw this opportunity and kind of changed this narrative again of what would it look like if community came first. They had this forefront thought of, ‘Let's engage community at every process to envision what this piece of property could look like. Together, we can leverage our power and our donors and really make this what the community wants, and needs, and sees.’ So, now there's eight partners, eight developers at the table on top of NPC who meet monthly and all talk about this plaza.

Does NPC do anything else?
The great thing about NPC is, it blossomed out of Plaza Roosevelt, but that's not the end all, be all for this group. We came in and surveyed about half the neighborhood and said, ‘Hey, what's one thing you would change about the neighborhood?’ Interesting enough, it was things we didn't expect. And people were like, ‘Well, we want it to be cleaner.’ Well yeah, duh, that makes so much sense. So, now there's this initiative with NPC to clean the neighborhood and holding more than just the annual cleanup day. Like, what does it look like if we ask the nonprofits in the neighborhood to have trash receptacles in front of their buildings? So, we're all starting to have these conversations.

The way things are going, does it give you some hope or is there a lot of work to be done?
It's definitely both/and. I see a lot of the bright spots of hope that people are gonna listen to community. On the opposite end, there's the power holders or the executive directors, or the managers or the store owners who are like, ‘Oh, well, do you represent all of community? Who are you to say? Are you sure that's what people want?’ So, how do we change the stigma even of myself or the other co-chairs coming in and saying, ‘No, the community really wants this. And it's not just our voice, it's the voices of everyone else in this partnership and it's the voice of even our neighbors.’ People don't feel like they have power anymore.

When you talk about loving that neighborhood, what do you say you love about that neighborhood?
I think of the things that really make me smile. Like that neighborhood has the best avocado milkshake, the best. It's not like yogurt, it's like milk and actual avocados. And they use cane sugar. It's just the best. That neighborhood is so unique. There's 13 type of tacos in the summer. If you walk or drive down the main street, you hear these parrots and you know whose house it is, because they're super loud and you can hear them from my street and I live at the very end, off the main street. Or even thinking of unique people who live in that neighborhood. Like one of the ladies two blocks from me who makes salsa from the community garden and she just hands it out to everyone because she had too many tomatoes and jalapenos.

Or Zeke, the animal rescuer who always is saving cats and dogs, or takes them to CSNIP to get neutered. Or Charlie, who will come help shovel your snow for you or mow your lawn and doesn't want anything from it. Even though this neighborhood is a neighborhood usually not talked about, there's just so many impactful people who people don't hear about.

Anything else?
The only thing I might've missed about Roosevelt Park neighborhood, it's the only corridor in Grand Rapids with the highest population of Latino people, and that in itself is something no one really talks about in Grand Rapids, so how do you highlight that rich community, especially when it's usually like bypassed when other communities basically get money thrown at them?

So you would hope that readers and especially people in power would kind of be sure to give the same attention, love, and care to that neighborhood?
Definitely.

Do you have any kind of specific goals in the time ahead?
Yeah. I always say I try to kick myself out of a job, and I don't like being the center of attention. … I always think that I can move on to something else, but how do I show the young Eleanor that you don't have to work in the factory anymore. You can go do something cooler and be somewhere else impacting in a different way that we would've never thought of.

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