At the Community Engagement Center, there is a room off the hallway. It’s a small room, perhaps 6 feet wide and 8 feet deep, and it contains a table and four chairs. In the building’s former life as part of a church, the room had been set up as a small prayer chapel, and the sign that says “prayer room” is still mounted over the doorway. We haven’t gotten around to removing it yet, and pretty much the whole community calls it the prayer room.
The prayer room is the room where much of the actual work of our Center gets done, because it is the one room in our entire building where you can shut a door and have a private meeting. The weekly one-on-one meetings with staff members happen there, as do meetings with would-be volunteers. It is the place we go when we need to have a private conversation, like when two staff members disagree and I am brought in to mediate, or when I need to have a conversation with a guest about the way he acted toward another guest. Sometimes guests use it as a meeting place with their caseworkers or peer support specialists.
It’s also the room where we interview potential employees, so for the last three weeks, I have been spending a ton of time in this little room. We have interviewed ten people for the Director of Operations position, some of them multiple times. Every meeting has happened in that meeting room. So it probably makes sense that I have a couple of stories that happened last week in that room that sum up life here in our community for me.
We are without a lot of storage, and this room has the only door that locks, so sometimes we stick things in there to deal with “later.” Sometimes this leads to awkward situations. Recently, a volunteer stuck 20 sleeping bags in there, blocking most of the floor, just minutes before I interviewed an applicant.
The applicant looked at the pile of bags on the floor, then looked at me and asked, “Where are they supposed to go?”
I looked back at her. “If you are hired, it will be your job to decide that.”
“Oh,” she said. “So right now, they just get stuck in here, and you just deal with it?”
“Exactly. We just deal with it.”
Later that day, another applicant sat in the same chair as all the other applicants had before her, staring at the same wall of sleeping bags we’ve amassed without comment. She was asked to share with us, as far as she felt comfortable, a personal story from her childhood that was meaningful to her. (This is a great question, by the way, as it tells you a ton about the person you are interviewing.)
She got emotional during the telling of her story (which is fine), and she reached for the box of Kleenex on the table (which is there because lots of people get emotional in that room). As she pulled the tissue from the box, we all suddenly realized that it wasn’t tissue she held, but the paper towels that normally go in the bathroom towel dispenser. Someone had refilled the tissue box with rough, brown paper towels.
She laughed, and we all laughed, and it was a little embarrassing, and then we went on with the interview. But inside, I wasn’t just laughing, I was swelling with pride. A guest had seen that we were out of tissue in the box, realized we had no more tissue, and used their creativity to solve the problem. And didn’t even feel the need to tell anyone.
In other words, for the ten minutes it must have took for that to happen, the guest took ownership of the problem, and, within the limits of their capability, solved the problem.
They owned the problem, and then solved it. That is how you know someone feels as if they belong. That is how you know you have developed community. At that minute, in the middle of an interview, I knew that this crazy experiment we have created here, works.
So on that day, we didn’t look our best to someone who was new to our community, someone who may well become a part of our community. But it is better she learn now that we are not always pretty, or neat, or well organized, but we are always a community. And that is OK with us.
Related: Sometimes This Stuff Works