Here's how a weekly meeting in Ypsi has fostered community collaboration for over a decade

Almost every Monday morning for over a decade, a meeting at the Parkridge Community Center in Ypsi has been connecting individuals and community organizations to one another.
Almost every Monday morning for over a decade, a meeting at the Parkridge Community Center, 591 Armstrong Dr. in Ypsilanti, has been connecting individuals and community organizations to one another.

Anthony Williamson, who served as director of the Parkridge Community Center from 2012 until 2023, co-founded the meetings. He says he had a "spiel" for meeting newcomers, calling the weekly event an "informal but informative meeting about things related to everything Washtenaw County with a specific focus on the Southside of Ypsilanti." Participants agree that it's one of the most useful parts of their week, but nobody can quite pin down what makes the magic. 

Charles Wilson, community health promotion supervisor with the Washtenaw County Health Department and frequent Parkridge meeting participant, says it's because the meetings are so informal. You don't need to be vetted or issued a formal invitation to attend or participate. You don't have to stay for the whole meeting if you have a conflict. 
Washtenaw County Health Department Community Health Promotion Supervisor Charles Wilson.
"It's an open meeting, and just because you come to one doesn't mean you have to come to another," Wilson says. "If you're providing services in Ypsilanti for one month, go ahead and come to the meeting and make other folks aware of your initiative or service."

Williamson jokes that the secret behind the original in-person meetings might have been a limited quantity of donuts.

"I only ever bought that one little box of donuts," Williamson says, which encouraged folks to show up early for the meetings. 

More seriously, the meeting's success may have been due to Williamson serving as moderator of the meeting for over a decade. His demeanor was professional and friendly but he ran the meetings with a certain authority.  "Some of my friends say I'm mean," he says, but he notes that meeting participants never seemed offended when he reminded them their allotted 60 seconds are up.
Former Parkridge Community Center Director Anthony Williamson.
Williamson's sense of humor, combined with respect for everyone's time, assured every mover and shaker who showed up to the meetings that they'd be done in 60 minutes flat. Everyone was encouraged to stay afterward and chat as long as they liked, though.

In fact, sometimes a lot of the real work happened as people chatted for an hour or more after the meeting ended.

"It was a melting pot for all people to come speak about resources, either bringing them to you, or learning about them and taking them back out to help your people," says Ypsi community advocate Gail Summerhill.

What's going on in the neighborhood?

The Monday morning meetings at Parkridge grew out of an earlier meeting at Washtenaw Community College's (WCC) Harriet Street Center, an off-site educational site at 322 Harriet St. in Ypsilanti. Williamson says he opened the center to community groups that wanted to branch out, and one of the strongest networks to emerge from that space was the Ypsilanti Health Coalition.

Wilson says the coalition was born from Washtenaw County's health plan survey, conducted every five years. About a dozen or 15 health-related stakeholders would meet every Monday at 10 a.m. at the Harriet Street Center. That group eventually disbanded, but many of its members started coming to meetings that Williamson started hosting at Parkridge when he took over as the director of the community center in 2012.
A Monday morning meeting at Parkridge Community Center in Ypsilanti.
At that point, the focus broadened from only health-related organizations to other agencies addressing "social determinants of health" like education and jobs. The core group brought in  more stakeholders representing employment and housing agencies, as well as representatives from local schools and universities.

Williamson notes that the largest ever in-person group consisted of 55 participants. Even throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, when the meetings went virtual, the meetings still attracted 30 to 40 participants every week.

The power of connection: stories from participants

Wilson says he's made many connections through the Parkridge Monday meetings, including an opportunity to talk to high schoolers in Eastern Michigan University's Upward Bound program about careers in public health.

In turn, he tells public health students from local universities to check out the meetings if they're interested in community outreach and engagement.

"I tell them if they really want to find out what's happening in the community, the Parkridge Monday meeting is a great place to start," Wilson says. "It will give you an idea of not only what's available in the community but also contradicts this narrative that there isn't a group of stakeholders who have access to resources and are using those resources on the eastern side of the county."

Williamson notes that in 2018 and 2019, WCC was promoting putting an educational millage on the ballot in 2020. The college reached out to Williamson after finding out that support for the millage was extremely low on Ypsilanti's Southside. Williamson and various community groups that supported voting rights brainstormed and networked at the Parkridge Monday morning meetings to figure out how to offer voter education opportunities on the Southside. Williamson says surveys showed support for the millage jumped up more than 10 points after that campaign. 
Washtenaw County Commissioner Caroline Sanders.
Washtenaw County Commissioner Caroline Sanders remembers that the Parkridge Monday meetings were a great resource for her when she moved back to Ypsilanti and began working at Eastern Michigan University's community engagement office after having lived in Detroit for several years. 

"Anthony told me about the meetings, and I started going regularly almost immediately because they were just so chock full of information," Sanders says. "There's just no way you could gather that much information in an hour's time just out and about in the community."

An encounter with another regular attendee, Taryn Willis, connected Sanders to the Ypsilanti Rotary Club as well.

"She bugged me for six months to come to a Rotary meeting, and one time I finally gave in, and they lassoed me into being on that board," Sanders says.
Parkridge Community Center Monday morning meeting facilitator Loviesa Brown.
Beyond connecting individuals and organizations, Williamson says the meetings have also gotten people jobs, sparked collaborative programs, and provided leadership opportunities. While he was the original leader of the meetings, several other participants had a chance to facilitate the meetings both in-person and virtually when Williamson became busy with other duties around 2018 and 2019. Hosting duties would rotate among two other WCC employees, Liz Garaba and Loviesa Brown, the latter of whom was serving as Parkridge summer camp coordinator at the time.

Brown says she loved coming to the meeting each Monday. She knew so many people there that it felt like a weekly family reunion, she says.

"I loved having conversations about what we're doing and how we can work together to do more and make it bigger," she says.

A resilient community gathering

Williamson says he was afraid the pandemic-era emphasis on virtual events would kill the Parkridge Monday meetings, but they maintained momentum through the pandemic, and then morphed into a hybrid model that continues today.

"I've been pleasantly surprised how resilient this meeting is," Wilson says, noting that other meetings he'd attended representing the health department had faded away in the first few years of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

He says the meeting is egalitarian and informal. Its resilience, Wilson says, is related to its simplicity. 
Gail Wolkoff, Loviesa Brown, Cheryl Harvey, Jeanice Townsend, Creola Larkin, and Josephine Taylor at a Monday morning meeting.
"This could be a model that could be replicated, and should be replicated, in terms of getting stakeholders and thought leaders in the same space to talk about resources," Wilson says. "How many spaces have you been in where you can find out about a plethora of services being offered in your particular area, with an email that recaps everything if you missed something? That's the beauty of the Parkridge Monday meetings."

To be added to the mailing list for the Parkridge Monday morning meetings, email D'ette Walton at dlwalton@wccnet.edu.

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

Photos by Doug Coombe.
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