4th Annual Contest Looks to Seed Positive Change

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The Creating a Stronger Community Contest (CSCC) is back for a fourth go-round.

Launched in 2011 under the auspices of American Democracy Project (ADP) at UWO, the CSCC fielded 35 proposals in its first three rounds, from groups-in-the-making, student organizations, established local nonprofits, and individual people pitching a variety of ideas related to local food, the arts, youth empowerment, anti-poverty strategies, sustainability, bringing diverse groups together, and more.

A screening committee representing CSCC sponsors ranks the applicants and chooses three to five finalists each year. All applicants, however, are invited to represent their project and network at promotional tables before and after a banquet at UWO, where the groups that have the chance to square off at the finals event at Becket’s Center Court later in the week are announced.

Roughly 60-100 people have turned out for the each of the previous finals events, coming together to mingle and chat with the project representatives, eat Becket’s appetizers, hear reports from winners, and listen to each finalist’s five-minute pitch and then some live music as they weigh their options. Most importantly, attendees come to choose the winner, as a nominal contribution ($5 or $10) allows people to vote for the project of their choice. These contributions are added to what has already been raised from local sponsors, allowing the winner to take home more than $1,500 each year, with additional seed money awarded to the second and third place projects, as determined by the votes of attendees.

Previous winners have gone on to create and build local initiatives that are making their mark in Oshkosh. The Oshkosh Food Co-op group won the inaugural event. According to former President Bridgette Weber, who submitted the initial group’s proposal to CSCC while still an undergrad at UWO, “The Creating a Stronger Community Contest really gave the Oshkosh Food Co-op leverage during the most vulnerable stage of the process, the beginning. We received $1,750, which was crucial aid in helping to cover some initial marketing and promotional materials, and most importantly our initial legal fees.”

co-op logo

Weber went on to explain, “It also gave us confidence and initial community support that put us on the map.” The Co-op has been officially incorporated as a member-owned cooperative and has more than 130 members and a completed community and market study as it works towards creating a full-service, community-owned grocery store in the central city.

Growing Oshkosh took first place in the second year of the contest. While it had a location, some solid plans, and a board of directors in place, it was a fledgling urban farm, built upon Oshkosh native and UWO alum Dani Stolley’s vision of producing food, flowers, fish, jobs, and hope, which she honed through extensive training at Growing Power in Milwaukee. Stolley noted after the victory, “It feels absolutely amazing to have won the Creating a Stronger Community Contest – not just because we won, and not just because it means I’ve come full circle as a kid growing up in Oshkosh, going to school in Oshkosh, graduating from UW Oshkosh and now Growing Oshkosh – but also because this is a win/win/win for the entire community.”

growing oshkosh fish

Since then, Growing Oshkosh has created numerous raised bed gardens, a sizable composting system, and hoop houses for year-round aquaponics and horticulture on a brownfield (contaminated former industrial site) near the mouth of the Fox River on the city’s east side. They grow and sell a variety of sprouts and other produce at the summer and winter farmers’ markets and to restaurants and stores in Oshkosh, while working with local schools to produce their own gardens. Stolley noted that they will be building a Children’s learning garden at the farm this spring and having Farm Fun Friday day camps this summer. Growing Oshkosh also recently acquired lake perch and hope to be able to market mercury-free, local fish in the near future.

Helping Owners Maintain Equity, or H.O.M.E., won last year’s contest. Steve Kaiser, one of the group’s founders, described their mission as follows: “By providing home maintenance services, H.O.M.E. will help improve the safety, security, weather efficiency, and quality of life and health for low income homeowners and the community.” The group had met with numerous agencies and organizations to determine the need for such a program and used the $546 in cash they took home from the contest finals and the $995 they later received as a check to successfully launch their initiative. Kaiser, in his six-month progress report back to CSCC noted, “The program is designed to assist low income homeowners with repairs to their homes. The target projects are focused on homeowners below 30% of the county’s median income. We are able to keep costs low because the individuals who perform the work are all volunteers. While we ask the homeowners to assist with paying for the materials, we will supply them at no cost if necessary. 100% of any monies donated for the materials or labor costs go directly back into the program to help future homeowners.” They took action quickly: “Through the end of 2014, we were able to assist 19 homeowners with either home repairs or direction and assistance with finding someone who could assist them if we could not,” indicated Kaiser. A couple examples of their work include providing materials to a disabled man (leg amputation) so he could correct his plumbing issues and have running water and resurfacing a deck and steps that someone had fallen through for a disabled woman, relatively simple projects that have a big impact on the people involved.

HOME photo march 15

Not only have the winners gone on to succeed, but second- and third-place finishers have as well. The Growing Seeds of Change urban community garden used its seed money to begin operations on Jefferson St. in central Oshkosh, and has since raised additional funding and expanded, allowing numerous local residents without their own land to grow food. Party.0, an organization that holds sober off-campus parties, brought a number of students out to the finals event two years agao, and a recent front-page article in the Oshkosh Northwestern highlighted their success. According to their website, “In Fall semester of 2012, Jake White and Steven Vanevenhoven decided to create a place for their friends to have fun, meet new people and even get a little crazy but weren’t pressured to drink or do drugs.  After just one month they were getting over 150 students to each party, attracting nationally known sponsors and receiving attention from statewide media outlets.  They did all of this with only $750 from a community contest and NO funding from their university.”

Last year’s second-place winner, Neighborhood Kids Crew, is working with a group of students from a Quest III Environment & Society class at UWO this spring. They plan to begin implementing their proposal to have Oshkosh kids work together to do yard cleanup and native planting projects for people in their neighborhoods. Kids came up with the idea, and the hope is that they will drive the project, with the assistance of some older college “kids”, who will get their hands dirty on tangible community improvement projects while helping to mentor youth. “I think it’s a good thing,” said project originator Tizita Van Auken, age 8, “because we’ll get to help the environment, and it’ll get kids outside—instead of playing video games all day—learning about nature.”

Another winning project from 2014 was initiated by Janine Wright and Tracey Robertson, who held monthly Community Movie/Discussion Nights to address topics of social diversity. These events, according to Robertson, “validated the need and the desire in the community to have conversations on a larger scale and to a broader audience.”

Tracey MLK Event 2015 - head titled

Since then, Robertson has gone on to co-found and act as the executive director for Fit Oshkosh, a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization dedicated to increasing the racial literacy—“the capacity to address the issues and implications of race in conversations and social interactions”—of residents of this area. She and Fit Oshkosh co-founder Dr. Jennifer Chandler conduct research and advocacy work and offer workshops, training, and speaking engagements to local businesses, nonprofits, faith communities, educational institutions, and local government. Increasing racial literacy is important work in a historically homogeneous area like Oshkosh as it becomes more diverse and committed residents strive to make it more inclusive.

What other good ideas are out there, which could make a positive local impact with a little seed money and publicity? CSCC is currently seeking proposals, and anyone from the area can apply. The contest takes place in late April, coinciding with Earth Week at UWO. A link to the short, simple, online application is found at the ADP webpage and due by 11:59pm on April 19. The Earth Week banquet (where finalists will be announced) is happening at UWO’s Reeve Ballroom on the evening of Tuesday, April 21 at 6pm, with the finals event at Becket’s Center Court from 7-9pm on April 23. Once again, more than $1,500 has been raised in advance, from sponsors including ADP, the Earth Week Committee at UWO, Oshkosh Area Community Foundation, UWO Foundation and the Philosophy Department at UWO, but the contest organizers would certainly appreciate additional contributions. Even better would be a record number of attendees at the finals event to chip in a few bucks and help pick the winner.

It will be exciting to see what emerges from the CSCC this year.

Learn more about the contest here.

 

Photos courtesy of Oshkosh Food Cooperative; Don Stolley/Growing Oshkosh; Steve Kaiser/H.O.M.E.; UW Oshkosh

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About Author

Paul Van Auken

Paul Van Auken has been a member of the sociology and environmental studies faculty at University of Wisconsin Oshkosh since 2007, after completing a Ph.D. in sociology from UW-Madison. A native of Iowa but resident of Wisconsin since 1999, Paul conducts research on issues related to neighborhood, community, land use planning and access to public space, sustainability, and teaching and learning. He also practices public sociology, regularly writing a column called “Shortening the Distance” for Oshkosh Independent.

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