Tera Couchman on becoming a part of the community
“Over the last seven years, I’ve worked at three different housing projects in Portland,” says Tera Couchman, of the Village Gardens a 60,000 square foot agricultural project of the Janus Youth Programs in Portland, Oregon. The group at Village Gardens is nearly 35 percent black, 20 percent Hispanic, and 20 percent immigrants. “Personally, as a Euro American, the lessons that I have learned from working as a part of such a diverse community have been transformative,” Couchman says.
Couchman says that it was important to be invited into the community. “It’s also key to work with community members as opposed to doing things for the community or to the community,” she says. The paid staff members from the community include 10 adults and 10 youth. Three of the staff members and two volunteers are “invited,” from outside the community. Couchman says that all volunteers and staffers go through a screening by community members. “We are intentional with the language and power structure of our work,” she says. “We honor the invitation.”
“We run a farm business and community gardens that gives people opportunities to put their strengths into action,” Couchman says. The work has pulled people together who may not have had the chance to work together before. Couchman illustrates the changes that happen when people get a chance to go in the trenches together when she talks about a woman who had been employed with program for years. The staffer said, “I used to hate immigrants because I thought they got everything given to them. Now I realize that we all struggle.”
Couchman says that she has learned many lessons from her work. But one lesson stands out. “When there is a big difference in privilege levels, be fully aware of the impact of the power and influence you walk in with,” she says. “If you are not aware of the power you have, you will abuse it.”
“If you are holding your privilege in check, you can begin to build trusting relationships,” she says. “And that trust creates some safety for people to call you out when you do something disrespectful.”
This kind of progress and partnership doesn’t happen overnight. Couchman says it takes at least a year for those who are open to it and are willing to learn from each other.
“I have learned so much about shared humanity, family and what survival means,” Couchman says of her work. “I’ve learned to celebrate everything including the learning and the failures.”
For more information on Tera’s work go to:
Interview with Andrea King Collier