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The Building of Good: A conversation with Karen Gager

If you’ve spent time working for nonprofits, chances are you’ve come across a break room refrigerator magnet with the quotation: Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has. The quote is attributed to anthropologist Margaret Mead. Whether Mead ever uttered those words is subject to debate, but the passion and validity of their meaning is not; although, change for the good rarely happens without support.

Insert Karen Gager, executive director of PVD-based 134 Collaborative, a 501(c)(3) that unites nonprofits and like-minded programs and services under one roof — the roof of Mathewson Street Church in downtown PVD, to be specific. “We are building collaborations for social good,” says Gager. “That’s our tagline.”

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Can you explain the connection between 134 Collaborative and Mathewson Street Church?

The organization was started by the church to oversee the secular programming happening in the building. For years it was overseen by a church member, then the church decided they wanted to have a separate entity with a separate staff; that’s where I came in.

How did you get involved with this work?

I’m a clinical social worker by training. I have a master’s degree in Social Work and back in 2000 I was laid off and this consultant opportunity came along. An organization was looking for someone to evaluate the programs happening in their building and see what else could take place. I interviewed for the position and was hired as a consultant. Then they got funding to hire an executive director and asked me to step into that role.

How would you describe the programs and services you offer?

Most of the programs I’d categorize as social justice or social action programs that serve underserved populations, whether it’s people who are food insecure, housing insecure or financially insecure. Many folks are on disability and not able to work full-time jobs; some have substance use challenges. 

Programs and services we offer need to fit into our mission, which is to bring together social justice and social good organizations and their communities under one roof. They need to fit into that mission and have a willingness to be part of a collaborative. Sharing spaces, working together, supporting one another, those are some of the criteria we look at.

We also have folks who are not necessarily part of the collaborative but rent space in the building such as our black box theater. For example, Brown/Trinity MFA program rented that space and used it for a directing class and some rehearsals. 

What does “community” mean to you? 

Community to me means diversity, people of different backgrounds and experiences coming together to learn from each other, to support one another, to have conversations with each other. Certainly you can have challenges and disagreements, and you may not be on the same page all the time, but community is also an opportunity to figure out how you can work together and respect each other’s opinions and thoughts.

What do you think are the needs RI communities need answered most? 

Homelessness and mental health services. We have Oasis Wellness & Recovery Center in our building and they provide peer-to-peer support for people who are facing mental illness challenges. They have a drop-in center, as well as virtual support groups. As a clinical social worker, I completely agree that there needs to be more mental health services and support for everyone. And not only for people who are homeless or going through other challenges in their lives, but for our whole community, we need a place to go when we’re in need of support.

Having access to affordable food, particularly with sky-rocketing food prices, is definitely another big need. And, opportunities for creative expression and opportunities to engage in conversation are just as important. They’re not necessarily considered basic human needs, but they absolutely contribute to a person’s well-being. As a clinical social worker, I think it’s therapeutic. It’s a kind of counseling in a different venue. Sometimes people just need to share their story in order to heal and move on from trauma. It’s important to tell your story.

Do you ever think about hope? Are you hopeful for the future?

We need to have hope. If we don’t have hope then what motivates you? Hope is essential.

I like the saying: Take it one day at a time. A lot of the folks use that phrase when they come in. Take it one day at a time. And I think that’s a great phrase to keep in mind. Today may not be a good day, but tomorrow can be a better one.

To learn more about 134 Collaborative, including information on its upcoming silent auction, dinner, and fundraiser, Dining for Downcity; how to rent the black box theater; and, how to join the collaborative, visit 134collaborative.org or contact Karen Gager at 401.331.1069.

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