(This summer, our Michigan team is working with GreenNation on the Green Economy Leadership Training program. This entry was written by GELT-er Ayoola White. Cross-posted on Solutionaries.net)

Green Economy Leadership Training (GELT) has been filled with varied challenges. One day we’re constructing raised beds out of wood reclaimed from abandoned houses. The next, we’ll discuss applications of permaculture and the dangers of nuclear power. Since we are constantly defining and redefining our goals as a group, our activities tend to be hectic. Last Friday afternoon, we took on yet another challenge: canvassing residents to find candidates for free home energy improvements.

Hitherto that sweltering afternoon our primary interaction with the Highland Park community involved people from the neighborhood coming to us. Kids helped us pull weeds and remove bushes. Adults sat in on classes, sometimes, or walked around, carefully observing our work. Friday was the first day that we, the participants of GELT, collectively went to meet the people we’ve been working to serve. Armed with clipboards, sign-up sheets, and flyers, we fanned out.

Upon reaching the first household in my assigned turf, the southernmost region of Highland Park, I was stunned to discover that the words I had so smoothly recited that morning were not so smooth anymore. It was as though I suddenly had no clue what I was doing anymore. Luckily, my inner nervousness and confusion didn’t flow outward enough to repel absolutely everyone, and I was able to gather a few signatures in the first hour or so. I eventually tweaked my spiel to something that was comfortable for me to remember. But still, in the journey between each door, I kept scrutinizing my tactics. Am I talking too fast? The way I stammer is so embarrassing! Am I saying too much? Did I forget to say ‘thank you’ to that last lady? Is there something in my teeth?

Even when I was able to overcome self-consciousness, though, I felt that there was a moderate disconnect between me and the people I visited. Thankfully, most were friendly, and no one slammed a door in my face, but the people appeared wary of me sometimes. Given my unfamiliar face and the clipboard I was carrying, perhaps I was mistaken for a census worker or a salesperson before I opened my mouth to speak. Some were incredulous that the home energy visit I was describing was free. Others seemed suspicious of me, and they asked me where I was from and whether I worked for a utility company and was trying to get them to switch their service. It was as though there were walls of thick glass separating us, sometimes, making communication challenging.

In addition to reflecting on my own actions those of others, I was also mindful of my physical surroundings. My canvassing partner and I covered a total of three streets in that afternoon. Each street had its own character, its own look. One street was filled with lovely houses and breathtaking gardens, but there weren’t that many people outside enjoying them. The next had houses that were shabbier, but more people were congregating and conversing on porches. The last one was a mix of the two. What a contrast from my neighborhood, where every house, every street is a copy of all the others.

Despite the many abandoned and decrepit houses I saw everywhere, I noticed that immense vibrancy existed among the pockets of squalor. People were walking around, greeting their neighbors. Kids played together and adults watched out for them. What’s more, there were plants growing EVERYWHERE. Lawns, left untamed, exploded with greenery. Leaves and vines grew out of stairs and floorboards. It’s as if millions of sinewy green hands are emerging from the ground to pull the houses into the earth. How ironic it is that places like Highland Park are often thought of as sites of urban decay, when so much growth is taking place.

Since our goal in GELT is community building, not gentrification, it is vital to tap into the positivity that already exists here, rather than assuming that we have all the answers and that we’re here to rescue the weak and the downtrodden. On Friday, we GELT-ers made connections through our canvassing work that I hope will evolve into a strong network of people who will shape their neighborhoods into comfortable, sustainable living spaces. Together, we’ve already gathered about 50 signatures from people who want to make their homes more energy efficient. From here, our impact shall grow.