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  • Great Lakes Urban

Community Pioneer: Meet Robin Klay

Community leader Robin Klay has lived in Pioneer Village for the past four years. Having worked and lived in places like West Africa, Japan, and Mexico, she has gained a diverse and global perspective that she brings into her community connecting in Holland, MI. After retiring from teaching at Hope College in 2010, she has spent a lot of time contributing to her neighborhood through forming connections and volunteering. We were able to talk with Robin about her life, work, and her recent endeavors with the residential cohort that she formed called Pioneer Neighbors.

How did you get involved in community work?

I used to live in the Westcore neighborhood, the community group which I helped to create. Alleyways were being neglected, so I worked with neighbors to bring life to them. We painted the backs of garages and replaced weeds with flowers, making them places where people could walk safely. I am very open to getting to know other people and making improvements. This is just who and how I am.

What was something that you learned while living and working abroad?

I have learned that people love to tell their stories. One area I lived in was a very rural part of Oaxaca, Mexico. The people there are from diverse backgrounds, including a lot of Indigenous people and Afro-Mexicans. Living in a remote village, these people often imagine that they are not important to the broader community. But if you ask them to tell you their stories, they are very happy and willing to share. When I was there with my students, involved in their daily lives, our hosts realized that their lives were interesting and important. They were shaping better futures for their communities and indeed the world. It’s inspiring to see people who don’t believe they have remarkable lives come to realize that they actually do.

How did what you learn impact the work you do now?

I have found a lot of similarities between foreign communities and the people here in Holland. They too have very different and interesting backgrounds and are very willing to talk about their lives. It has been exciting to learn about our neighbors and to find out who is actually living behind those doors. People find joy in sharing their stories, as we delight in hearing them. The process starts with getting to know each other, and then something deeper comes out of that connection. We begin to care and look out for one another.

Tell me about the work you are doing now.

I live in Pioneer Village Condos. Last winter, I met Jonna Johnson and learned about her experiences in community development. We began talking about how I could make some connections with people in the condo area. Jonna’s work with Great Lakes Urban covers an area that is too big to call a neighborhood, but we thought that a nucleus of a neighborhood could start here, in the condos. Eventually it could expand beyond that.

To start, I literally went door to door to each of the 72 condo units with a flyer inviting those interested to help create opportunities for mutual sharing of our talents and meeting neighbors’ needs. We quickly discovered that all of us felt like strangers in our own neighborhood, even though some of us have lived here for years. There hadn’t been ways to connect us, and communication was cumbersome, because the Condo Association Board would not share the email list with residents. This is just one barrier we are trying to change so that there is a system in place that allows us to contact each another.

What are some other changes you are hoping to make in Pioneer Village?

This condo association has been around for almost 40 years, and they have typically wanted to keep doing things the same way. However, we recently had a condo association election in which we got two people from our Pioneer Neighbor’s group elected who are open to change. This is a wonderful thing, because now we can look forward to making some improvements in terms of communication tools, possible landscape changes, and more. We are also working on a system for safety checks and a plan for providing meals when they’re needed.

One thing that we did already is start a game night in a grassy area shared by the condos. It was great fun, although some complaints were made to the Board about it. We were not told what the complaints were, but there was clearly some pushback here. There are also many restrictions that have made it difficult to introduce changes. For instance, we were thinking about putting in some benches for common use, and decided to put out a few chairs to see if anyone would use them. After less than a day, I was getting repeated calls from the Board saying, “You must remove the chairs now, they are against the rules!” So, I removed them, but first I promised myself that we would find a way around this. And we will.

Has there been anything surprising about this work?

I have been pleasantly surprised by the way that people have taken great interest in getting to know each other. Residents have started to recognize others in their community and strike up conversations. One woman, who lost her husband about a year ago, wanted to find something new to do. She joined our Pioneer Neighbors group and offered to write up biographies so that people could get to know something about each other. She interviews a person for about 20 minutes and then writes up something really engaging. These brief insights about a person help neighbors discover mutual interests and create opportunities for new and deeper friendships.

Why do you think connecting with the community is important?

Ultimately, humans are meant for friendship. There are also a lot of extremely talented people who haven’t yet found places where they are needed. A lot of people whom I have engaged with–especially while living abroad–have been waiting for years for someone to ask them to share their knowledge, experience, and values. I think that’s the case with a lot of us; we are waiting to be asked to be a part of something meaningful and to share our experiences. That’s what these connections allow us to do.

What advice would you give to someone that wants to start connecting to their community?

It’s important to show your neighbors that you are interested in getting to know them. If you are living in an area where this is a safe thing to do, I suggest going over to your neighbor’s house and knocking on their door. Saying “hello” to those around you is the best place to start.

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