Tiny Ideas and Big Impact

By Miah Gatzke

Many of us have seen homelessness. We have read the statistics in an article or watched reports on the news. Near campus, it is something that many of us may encounter everyday.

This issue sometimes seems as if it will remain unsettled into perpetuity. There are too few beds in the shelters and too many stigmas in the minds of the public. When we are so frequently confronted with the issue, it is almost easier to accept it as something that is and always will be. This conclusion leaves a bitter taste in your mouth, but any semblance of a solution seems neither existent nor possible.

Miah (in green) with her group at Occupy Madison

At least that was the case for me, until I enrolled in a Service Learning course called “Community Issues & Service Learning.” The class is embedded in the Community and Nonprofit Leadership (CNPL) curriculum but open to all majors.

Professor Sarmiento admits early in the semester that the course is meant to further complicate our perceptions of the world and the problems it faces. Although I had hoped to learn the answers to some of these community issues, I often leave class with even more questions.

My biggest take-away from the class, so far, is that community issues — like homelessness — are extremely complicated. They are the many symptoms of our society that stem from even bigger issues such as inequality, racism and poverty. My hopeless opinion of homelessness seemed to be reaffirmed as we uncovered more and more layers of history, policy and public opinion that brought the issue to its current state.

“But there is hope,” said Professor Sarmiento as a reaction to the look of communal concern throughout the class.

The hope that she spoke of is not something I have found in the classroom, but in the service component of the course in which we engage and volunteer with a local community partner. I found hope with four other girls in the CNPL major in a bright red workshop next to a village of tiny homes.

Occupy Madison, Inc. is a young organization that helps address the issue of homelessness through several projects and initiatives. OM Build makes tiny houses for people to live in, OM Goods builds and crafts products for sale to fundraise and OM Village is the growing community of the tiny houses. Their initiatives do not end there, as additional projects range from sustainable gardening to craft workshops onsite.

As students in a Service Learning course, my group and I were assigned to serve as extra hands to the volunteer-run organization and work towards certain deliverables desired by the Occupy Madison community. We help in many practical ways such as organizing and planning a Spring Plant Sale to take place in May, gardening and planting vegetables and facilitating craft workshops to build a larger inventory for the OM Goods store.

In turn, we are being accepted into the OM Village community and learning about the issues facing Madison. More importantly, we are learning what is being done about these issues and have the opportunity to be a part of the solution.

Occupy Madison has such a creative and innovative approach to community issues, that any excuse not to complete something becomes utterly irrelevant. For that reason, the unique project has caught the attention of communities across the country.

As different groups of community leaders approach Occupy Madison with dreams of implementing a similar project in their own cities, OM volunteers accept their questions with grace and offer help and support in any way possible.

Occupy Madison has even gone so far to be the subject of a documentary made by a group from Iowa who is facing heavy resistance from community members and policymakers while trying to start the project. The group came with camera equipment in hand and interviewed volunteers, residents, community members, and even students in our Service Learning group. Interviewees presented a slew of positive and honest comments about the organization and the impact the project is having on the community.

Occupy Madison, Inc., with their many projects and unique approach, has looked into the face of an issue and committed themselves to doing something about it. They serve as a model for cities across the country and for solution-searching students such as myself. This project has taught me to stop accepting issues as unsolvable. Instead, I want to take the necessary actions to address it — however tiny an idea may seem.

I encourage other devoted individuals of my generation to do the same. Stop waiting. The time is now to take action in our communities. Take the time to educate yourself on an issue and seek out organizations that are addressing them. Or present your own ideas. Assume responsibility for your surroundings and never accept a problem to be something that always will be.

I have learned so much about initiative and the power of community through my experience with Occupy Madison, and can’t wait to continue my learning through the end of the semester and beyond.

I look forward to May 7th, when the fruit of our labor (quite literally) can be shared with the community during our Spring Sale event. And I can’t wait for the next semester of students to pick up where we left off to continue the work and accomplish more milestones for the organization.

Thanks to my Service Learning experience with Occupy Madison Tiny Houses, issues like homelessness went from something that always will be to something that doesn’t have to be.

Miah Gatzke is a student at UW-Madison and a Program Assistant at the UW’s Morgridge Center for Public Service. As a Program Assistant, Miah greets visitors to the Morgridge Center, assists staff with projects and provides administrative support.