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Friendship houses: Community Renewal of Pottawatomie County makes friends with neighbors

By Vicky O. Misa Vicky.misa@news-star.com (405) 214-3962 Twitter: @Vicky_NewsStar
The Shawnee News-Star
In a partnership between the Absentee Shawnee Housing Authority and Community Renewal, a Friendship House — the second one of its kind in the city — is under construction at the southeast corner of Main Street and Bryan Avenue in the Rolling Hills South Addition on Absentee land.

Citizens across America are proving that the country is not as hopelessly divided as the headlines may lead one to believe. USA TODAY Network reporters are bringing forth examples of how citizens are working across perceived divides to address differences between conservatives and liberals, promote listening to neighbors with opposing views and to solve issues such as racial inequities and gun violence. The USA TODAY Network is reporting on these “Strange Bedfellows” as part of Hidden Common Ground, a key component of USA TODAY’s unique local-to-national coverage of the 2020 presidential election.

Shawnee, Okla. — It's a simple concept that packs enough potential to wipe out a complex problem worldwide. 

Community Renewal of Pottawatomie County, an intentional caring program, has been active in central Oklahoma for the past few years, gaining momentum as it purposefully knits the community together.

The idea is to re-establish neighborhoods by rebuilding trust and relationships.

Society has transitioned into a stigma of clinging to negative assumptions and fears of the unknown.

The community needs to reclaim some things that got lost in the name of privacy, Executive Director Brandon Dyer said.

“Most homes now have a great back porch surrounded by privacy fences,” Friendship House Director Travis Flood said. “People no longer hang out on the front porch and visit with their neighbors.”

Former-Care Team Coordinator Jan Tipton said when trust has been taken away, parents are afraid to let their children play outside –– everyone is looked at as a threat –– and that creates a really negative impact.

Not everything unknown is necessarily a threat.

Flood said, “We have to put a name to that person. It totally changes the way we interact with them.”

Everyone ought to live in a community where they are safe and cared for, Dyer said.

It's just a matter of treating everyone with dignity and respect, he said.

Trained volunteers — now numbering in the thousands (156 Block Leaders and 4,230 We Care. team supported by staff) — have laid important groundwork for the community’s social connectedness, resulting in heightened resiliency and collective efficacy — the benefits of which are being reaped now during this difficult time for the community, she said.

“Everyone has the capacity to care,” Dyer said. “Peoples' differences don't have to play into it at all.”

Flood and his family lives in Shawnee's first Friendship House, which immerses them into that neighborhood; they have a stake in what goes on there –– a personal investment.

“He's in the fight right there with them,” Dyer said.

It makes it real.

Flood said it's not the same as sending a random someone –– a person from some unrelatable socio-economic background –– around, pointing fingers, saying, 'We're going to fix you.' 

There's no judgement or condemnation.

“It's a support system. We are asking how can we help?” Flood said.

The home features a community room where neighborhood meetings and after-school programs are held.

Most recently, during weeks of a shelter-at-home directive to combat spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, the local nonprofit  faced an especially specific hurdle — how to boost social connections while the world nearly shut down all personal interaction.

“We have to appreciate the irony of our own existence in this interesting and difficult time,“ Community Renewal Communications Officer Erica Bass said. “This work is even more important now than it was, because of the need to isolate for the safety of our greater community.”

The Hidden Common Ground project is supported by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Charles Koch Foundation and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. Ipsos conducted the public opinion research and the Kettering Foundation is a research partner for the initiative.