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‘We need this now’: Columbia Community Care Peace and Justice Center searching for permanent location

After a difficult year filled with loss, Columbia Community Care leaders are focused on creating a community for Columbia-area residents as they continue their search for a physical location for the Columbia Community Care Peace and Justice Center and announce a detailed plan for the center’s structure.

Columbia Community Care, a nonprofit founded in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic to assist with collecting and distributing needed food and personal items in Howard County, announced its plans to expand the organization to a community center in November.

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Especially after two of her students died this past school year, Columbia Community Care founder Erika Strauss Chavarria, a community activist and Spanish teacher at Wilde Lake High School, said she’s determined to find and acquire a physical space for the center as soon as possible.

“It has been a year of youth death. We know the community center will make the difference between life and death for our community,” said Strauss Chavarria, 39. “If there’s anything we learned in the pandemic, it’s that Howard County is not immune to the problems of inequity.”

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Makenna Burns — a program manager with Columbia Community Care and executive director for Equity4HC, a nonprofit that provides support to underserved populations and advances racial equity in Howard County — has been working with the group since March 2020. Burns, who attended Oakland Mills High School in Columbia, said she feels the push for a center like this one from her generation.

Burns, 20, said a center like this could help end the compounded trauma so many Columbia residents experience. She said she’s inherited a lot of the trauma from her father losing friends to violence during his youth; now, she’s losing friends of her own.

Now she, her father, Daniel Burns, president of Equity4HC — the fiscal sponsor for Columbia Community Care — and Strauss Chavarria are using recent difficulties as motivation, laying the groundwork for what exactly they’d like the center to look like so when the logistical pieces of a physical space fall into place they can continue their work.

They are hoping to find a centrally located space with easy transportation or within walking distance from the Wilde Lake area in Columbia.

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Columbia Community Care has created a model for the center with five pillars for collaborative ownership: water, agriculture, housing, banking and energy. The group will educate community members on how to work in those five industries. For example, right now the group is in the process of developing its own credit union, which would give community members hands-on, experiential learning.

“Everything our community members will be engaged in will be directed toward those industries that are essential to our daily lives,” Makenna Burns said. “While they also serve as infrastructure for a community, city and region, [the pillars] are strategic because we know [we can lead] in those industries.”

Daniel Burns, 47, said they’re working to create a green-collar industry, those employed in the environmental sectors of the economy, for individuals who have traditionally been left out.

“Imagine a young person who gets educated, trained and employed in an industry that is essential for our existence,” he said. “You now add value to your community in an incredible way.”

Burns said by establishing the community center on those five pillars, they’ll be able to build generational wealth for community members because they’ll have an investment in the work they’re doing.

“Our model intends to redirect those resources, and we want to redirect them to community members who have traditionally been excluded,” Burns said. “[Creating] programs and services that will educate and employ community members in areas where they can actually acquire wealth.”

Within the center, there will be four focus areas of community engagement, services that will be run directly at the center: food and farming, education mentorship and entrepreneurship, health and wellness, and workforce development.

“Those four focus areas of engagement we believe will support the community in a holistic way,” Burns said. “The programs and services will serve both the community and the individual.”

The plan for the physical center includes offering arts, sports, community gardens, supplemental education, a library, youth programs, community activities, a food pantry and kitchen, classrooms, a peace room and potentially a clothing closet.

Despite the present lack of physical space, Columbia Community Care has already started some of the programming. On Saturdays, it gathers community members at Freetown Farm in Columbia to garden. The group is growing the food it can then distribute through Columbia Community Care sites that are still running after starting at the beginning of the pandemic.

When the physical space comes to fruition, the program will evolve into an intergenerational program, Burns said, where young children can garden with older adults in the community and learn from one another.

“They grow something we can sell, and they’re telling stories along the way,” he said.

The group acknowledges that to get a physical space, it needs not only financial support but political and social capital as well.

“People still don’t believe that we can do it,” Burns said. “We are ‘othered’ and pushed to the margins, and we know that we’ll have to create revenue streams. That’s why we created the five pillars.”

After a difficult year, however, they say they’re going to keep pushing — they see the need now more than ever.

“We’re ready and here to do the work. We’re just hoping that people will listen,” Burns said. “We don’t want to do this forever. We want this to be a solution.”

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