Local Peace Economy

This Woman Is Trying to Make the World a Better Place, One Community Center at a Time

Inspired by Occupy Wall Street, Janet Wilson is helping transform vacant buildings into thriving community centers.

Photo Credit: Pueblo House

Five years ago, Janet Wilson was one of thousands of people who flocked to New York’s Zuccotti Park to participate in the Occupy Wall Street movement that would eventually sweep the country and the world. “It was life-changing to see people come together and pay attention to what was going on,” Wilson told AlterNet. “Young and old people were organizing together, and people were actually talking to each other. It gave me chills.”

Like countless others, Wilson sought to take the lessons she learned with her after she left New York. For her, this was buying an RV and traveling to 160 Occupy camps across the country. “I stopped everywhere and talked to people,” she said. “I was exposed to the whole movement.” 

That’s how she ended up in the town of Pueblo, Colorado, a steel-producing city of just over 100,000 that lies in the desert south of Denver. “I was on my way to Denver and stopped in Pueblo where I was trying to get a hold of the Occupy Pueblo people. We were there for 20 minutes and a guy saw my RV,” said Wilson. “He told me to come see his neighborhood. I said, hop in, let’s check it out. I walked down the street and could see boarded-up houses and a community garden, where someone had made a beautiful display.”

After zigzagging across the country, Wilson says she was moved to linger in Pueblo to see if she could give back to the neighborhood she had been invited to. When a man who owned a boarded-up building on the block she visited donated the building to her in 2012, it set her life on a new course.

Members of the Occupy the Roads Foundation gathered with Occupy Pueblo and decided to transform the vacant brick building into a community center. A large team of community activists and residents cleared out the trash, cleaned up the interior, and with the help of a grant, fixed the roof and the electrical system, and painted and decorated the interior. The process is captured in the following video:

That building would eventually become Pueblo House, a community and arts center for children. Today, Pueblo House hosts music and open-mic nights, teach-ins about gardening, classes about healthy cooking and food and community cleanup days. Its official mission is to “empower the local community through education, music, art and gardens, technology and media.”

“I use the Pueblo House for doing homework, I play there sometimes. I play music and we do art,” Chacee Martinez, who is 10 years old and lives next door, told AlterNet. “I like going there and it's really fun, because of all these things they put together for kids my age.”

Wilson said, “Our focus is on the kids and giving them a creative avenue to figure out where their passion lies.”

As in cities across the country, children in Pueblo are hit hard by poverty and inequality. According to the 2016 report from the Colorado Children’s Campaign, 25 percent of children in Pueblo County are living in poverty, and the county is suffering a significant jump in its population of homeless students. Census figures reveal that 19 percent of the general population lives at or below the poverty line.

Meanwhile, the same nationwide social ills that drove the Occupy movement persist into the present day. A paper published in May by economists Michael D. Carr and Emily E. Wiemers, from the University of Massachusetts in Boston, found that soaring inequality in America has been accompanied by a jump in upward mobility since the early 1980s. According to their findings, those who earn modest incomes in their first jobs are likely to remain trapped in low-wage work for decades. And a report released in July by the Economic Policy Institute found that in 2015, CEOs in the largest U.S. companies make an average of 276 times the annual pay of the average worker.

Wilson’s tactics model just one approach to poverty and inequality through the repurposing of vacant or under-utilized buildings. Years before Occupy, the Miami-based group Take Back the Land was organizing to block evictions and helping families occupy homes vacated by foreclosure in 2008.

“There’s all these vacant homes while there are people literally across the street sometimes sleeping in parks and in empty lots,” Max Rameau, a Miami-based organizer with Take Back the Land, told Democracy Now in 2008. “So, Take Back the Land is identifying vacant government-owned and foreclosed homes. We’re going into them, we’re cleaning them up, and we’re moving homeless families into those homes so that they have a place to stay.” 

The organization Homes Not Jails dates back to the early 1990s, when activists responded to San Francisco’s crisis of poverty and displacement by housing the homeless through direct action, including transforming vacant properties into squats.

The Pueblo House takes a more formal route, collaborating with educators, musicians and artists, with 45 local elementary school students paying a visit last year to take part in outdoor activities at the center. Meanwhile, organizers are working to convert two other properties: one into a music and art house, and the other into a media center with a recording studio and radio station.

For Wilson, who directs the Occupy the Roads Foundation, fostering a supportive environment for creativity is key. “Society doesn’t value music and art, people say it’s frivolous,” said Wilson. “It’s not. We should embrace everything that people do as an important part of society.”

“I can't change what's happening in the White House, but I can affect a corner of Pueblo,” she continued. “If I can affect five kids’ lives, I can feel like I’m doing something useful. And I’ve met a lot of really good people.”

Sarah Lazare is a staff writer for AlterNet. A former staff writer for Common Dreams, she coedited the book About Face: Military Resisters Turn Against War. Follow her on Twitter at @sarahlazare.

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