Giving Back On Giving Tuesday (And All Season Long)

Wondering how to give back to your community around the holidays? Lisa Etter-Carlson, co-founder of Seattle nonprofit Aurora Commons, has valuable wisdom to share on the best ways to understand and support non-profit organizations this time of year.
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A few months ago I was lucky enough to attend a fundraising dinner for a Seattle organization whose space and mission I was vaguely familiar, Aurora Commons. What I experienced and learned that evening inspired and motivated me in a unique way. In my previous life I worked in the non-profit world, I managed events and oversaw marketing efforts as both an employee and a Board Member. While the purpose of the evening and the nuts and bolts of the event were not foreign to me, what was new and compelling were the women behind the organization and the mission of their space. Lisa Etter-Carlson, co-founder of Aurora Commons, was gracious enough to speak with me about the evolution of The Commons, its mission and also to offer "volunteering" insights for those looking to spend some time with their community this holiday season. 

Can you first tell us what served as the catalyst for opening Aurora Commons?

In 2009, my husband and I found ourselves living next to an Aurora Avenue Motel and situated on a street where there happened to be a lot of folks who slept outside or in their vehicles. As we began to know our neighbors, we all desired a way to spend time together. 

Our community of friends decided that it would be a good idea to make our backyard into a community garden and then host weekly neighborhood barbecues. We spent the next three summers hosting anywhere between 40-100 people in our backyard for a weekly gathering of friends – some housed, some not. It shouldn’t be phenomenal, it shouldn’t be radical or counter-cultural, but it was – folks from all walks of life, creating and sharing a meal together, playing music together, enjoying one another.

Each summer our weekly barbecues would come to a screeching halt because of the rain and alas, we would have no place to gather. So, in 2011, we all rolled up our sleeves and renovated a junky old coffee shop on 90th and Aurora, behind what was then our home. We built it with our hands. 

We knew just a few things when we began: it needed to be beautiful; it needed to be designed to feel like a living room; we were not going to be a social service; and the kitchen needed to be open for people to use. We didn’t want to “serve” our friends who are unhoused – we wanted to stock the kitchen with food, and then allow our neighbors to make their own food.

We wanted all to feel welcomed. And, above all else, we hoped it would be a place where we humans live as though we belong to one another.

Simply put: we opened the Aurora Commons because we didn’t have any place to share life with our friends experiencing homelessness in our neighborhood. Now, almost seven years later, any program that has been created has been a direct response to the learned needs of our unhoused neighbors. 

Today, how do you explain the purpose of the Commons and the services you provide?

Aurora Commons is a welcoming space for our neighbors experiencing homelessness to rest, prepare a meal, connect to resources and collectively create a healthy and vibrant community. We seek to be a space for authenticity and conversation, to bring the wider community to the table to learn from one another, to be transformed by one another, and to embrace one another.

We dive into the messiness of what the day brings, we make food, share the table, grieve with one another and celebrate together.

Our programs include a twice-weekly Women's Only drop-in, when we offer the only safe, welcoming place north of downtown for women who are unhoused, drug-dependent and involved in street-based sex work. We have a relationship with roughly 157 women along the Aurora Corridor. Our Fella Ship, which happens once a week, is open only for men. We also have a Mobile Medical Clinic twice a month, when we offer free, onsite medical care to our guests through our partnership with Puget Sound Christian Medical Clinic. This year alone, 137 patients have been seen and treated. 

Our Harm Reduction program is a weekly, on-the-street syringe exchange in which we treat wounds and hand out clean syringes and Naloxone. Since April 2017, we have had 20 people report a successful overdose reversal using the Naloxone that we provide. That’s 20 precious human beings who are still alive, just from the simple act of handing out the life-saving drug. 

There's a lot more that we do and offer, too, like art therapy, laundry services, direct referrals to housing, condoms and wound care kits.

As someone who runs a service-based nonprofit, what would you say are your biggest struggles at this time of the year? What do you need most?

Our biggest struggle is how isolated and alone our friends who are experiencing homelessness, who are drug users and sex workers, feel in our society. It’s how dispensable they feel. It’s all especially compounded around this time of year.

Our greatest need is for each of us to be awake and attuned to one another; to need one another, to wonder about the other; for mothers and fathers to be intentional around not shielding our children from our unhoused neighbors but rather, lean into the uncomfortable nature of their very existence in our lives by interacting with “them.”

This is a lonely time of year for many people. We need one another always, but especially now.

During the holidays, many organizations receive an increase in interested volunteers, and some receive so many that they are unable to accommodate the people reaching out. What would you tell those who tend to use this time of the year for their volunteer service? Is there a better time of the year to volunteer? What could those people do (instead of offering hours) to help?

I’m glad you asked this. Volunteering is just an odd word in general. It makes it sound like such a task, such a thing to be conquered or accomplished. I think this a great example of a way that our cultural narrative of consumerism has co-opted something so beautiful and innate within us: our natural desire to be connected to those who are different than us, our need for one another, our co-dependance, our communion.

I guess I would encourage each of us to wonder about why we want to volunteer and then ask ourselves, what is your greatest need at this time of year? Then, out of our own needs, we cam find a way to connect. Because our own needs will guide us.

I think each of us has a unique inner wisdom, imagination and generosity that is much greater and richer than we could ever fathom.

How do you suggest people find an organization that best suits their interests and availability (either for time or money)?

I think context is really important. Where do you live? Where and who are the people in your midst who are hurting? Be mindful about what the best use of you is in this world. Don’t be someone else or be somewhere else. Be where you are; open your eyes to your surroundings and encounter the other.

That being said, our time and money are commodities that we all grip so tightly, myself included. Where are you being called to be stretched? Give and give freely. Give without control of the result. And give out of gratitude.

What are a few things we should all keep in mind when going into a service-based organization with regards to kind and respectful interaction? What do you wish all people knew prior to working with Aurora Commons?

Come ready to unlearn everything you’ve ever been taught! No really, I often say exactly that. If you’re anything like me, as a white, educated female, I need a task and I need to feel useful when I go into a service based organization! 

The hardest unlearning I ever had was when I went from being a case manager (right out of college) at a women’s homeless shelter in Chicago, to becoming the janitor at that same shelter after my internship was up. The women who stayed at the shelter schooled me! I was able to connect to them in a way that I never could as a case manager, because I found myself working alongside them, cleaning alongside them. They were kind enough to share with me what it felt like to always be “served” by people like me. They were generous with their stories, and they taught me that what they need more than anything is for me to be vulnerable with them and to need them as much as I think they need me.

So, I guess I would say: come in, plug in, be ready to unlearn your productivity and just be a human being in the presence of other human beings. Folks who have to be so dependent on social services need friends. They need you to share with them when you are hurting, even when you feel uncomfortable and don’t know what to say. 

Our neighbors who are unhoused don’t have the privilege of hiding their need – it’s out there in the open, just like their squats. Us housed people are privileged enough to hide our needs, struggles, addictions, failures, etc. because we have four walls around us, an education and jobs that adorn us, define us and make us shiny. 

I think the best way for us to be kind and respectful as we volunteer is to be real about our humanity and bring all of ourselves with us; to be afraid, be sad, be happy; to share our doubts, fears and celebrations. We have to allow those we “serve” to serve us, accompany us in our heartache and allow them to comfort us.

We have been lucky enough to witness some of the work that Aurora Commons does in our community. What is your long-term goal for the organization?

Right now, our goal is to continue to learn from folks with lived experience, because they are the experts, not me, not us. However, I will share that we are incredibly close to launching a weekly Women’s Reproductive Health clinic at the Commons in partnership with Harborview Madison Clinic, UW Medical and Puget Sound Christian Clinic.

But oh man, each time we receive money – like this last week, when the city of Seattle wrote us into their budget – I celebrate and freak out a little. What a sacred responsibility this is, and I want so badly to steward it well. And unfortunately the need is endless. 

Lisa Etter Carlson is grateful to be able to spend her days in her neighborhood at the Aurora Commons and at home with her husband Andy and two kids, Cedar and Kipling. Lisa is Co-founder of the Aurora Commons in Seattle, WA. Prior to that, she Co-founded the Green Bean Coffeehouse (a non-profit cafe). Both of these movements were created and are currently curated by a community of folks that, together, long to midwife spaces where precious human beings from all walks of life can live as though we belong to one another. Lisa has been awake and living with intention towards her neighbors who are unhoused, drug dependent and involved in street based sex work for over 15 years now. She is a Member of the Mayor appointed City of Seattle Adult Survivor Collaborative (ASC) and is a proponent of harm reduction, safe consumption facilities and loving absurdly

To support Aurora Commons directly, please go to the Give page on their website

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