Community Champions: 3 Moms Celebrate the Vibrancy of NE OKC - MetroFamily Magazine
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Community Champions: 3 Moms Celebrate the Vibrancy of NE OKC

by Erin Page

With the passage of MAPS 4, the vibrant community of northeast Oklahoma City will receive an overdue economic boost. Three moms who live and work in this culturally rich, historically significant part of our city share their passion for celebrating and elevating this close-knit community championing diversity and inclusion.

Chaya Fletcher

Restaurateur and educator 

Chaya Fletcher grew up in northeast Oklahoma City, as did her parents and grandparents before her, bolstered by a close-knit community where neighbors know each other deeply, kids’ laughter rings outdoors and rich culture permeates. She knows that her experiences as a child and now raising three sons with husband Michael don’t always fit the stereotypes others might have about the area.

“The wealth gap is so huge on the east side, and people associate lack of wealth with lack of community,” said Fletcher.

Fletcher is a third generation Oklahoma City Public Schools educator, teaching culinary arts at Star Spencer High School. Her education from Oklahoma State University and culinary school, experience as a restaurateur and vast knowledge of the metro’s restaurant scene provide her students real-world value. Fletcher will open her second restaurant, Kindred Spirits, this month in the East Point Development at the corner of NE 23rd Street and Rhode Island Avenue. The family-friendly destination will serve her take on the history of soul food.

Kindred Spirits was inspired by the book Kindred by Octavia E. Butler, and the restaurant is founded upon the story of the African American experience in Oklahoma, past to present.

“The concept was born out of a desire to create a culturally-relevant gathering place in the epicenter of Oklahoma City’s predominantly black neighborhoods,” said Fletcher.

Fletcher opened her first restaurant, Urban Roots, in Deep Deuce in 2010. After a new owner took over the building and it didn’t make financial sense to stay open, she reluctantly closed it in 2015.

“The building was built for entertainment in a time when Deep Deuce was the only place black people could live,” said Fletcher. “That story was very intentional, to hold on to some of our historic roots in that neighborhood.”

Fletcher says gentrification has made it hard for black-owned businesses to survive there, with community members pressed out of a neighborhood they created.

“Black culture, and northeast Oklahoma City, are often overlooked and undersold,” said Fletcher.

While Fletcher acknowledges revitalization and development gaining traction on the outskirts of northeast Oklahoma City, the center of the community, specifically where Kindred Spirits will be located, has looked virtually the same her entire life.

Northeast Oklahoma City has not experienced the broader renaissance other districts have enjoyed, and Fletcher is hopeful Kindred Spirits, the East Point Development and MAPS 4 will help create space where diverse groups of people are working in community.

“I remember when no one felt safe going to the Plaza District after dark and now you can’t get a parking space,” laughs Fletcher. “I hope it will be that way for NE 23rd and Uptown. Northeast Oklahoma City is going to get the investment dollars it has deserved and missed out on for a generation.”

Fletcher and her neighbors have seen housing prices rise as more individuals and families realize the benefits of the community. A graduate of Northeast High School, Fletcher calls the relocation of Classen SAS to the Northeast campus one of the most prolific decisions made in generations, encouraging further development and new residents.

Fletcher looks forward to plans for park beautification, improved neighborhood accessibility and the redevelopment of Douglass Recreation Center as part of MAPS 4, giving kids more opportunities to feed their interests. A mainstay in Fletcher’s childhood, the Ralph Ellison Library continues to provide expansive educational and connection opportunities for kids and families from surrounding neighborhoods and beyond.

Passionate about providing opportunities for kids to be engaged artistically and academically, Fletcher helped launch a free annual STEM fair through her presidency of the local Jack and Jill of America chapter, a mothers’ organization nurturing the next generation of African American leaders. She also serves as a commissioner for the Metropolitan Library System.

Though Fletcher says life gets a little easier as her boys get older, there are times she has to remind herself just to push through to get everything accomplished.

“My husband will come home and say ‘thanks for being supermom today,’” quips Fletcher. “But that’s all moms. We’re all superheroes.”

While she and Michael have raised their boys to understand and appreciate the rich culture and history of their community, most important is that their children learn to stand in their own truth, not to base who they are on others’ opinions. Fletcher lives those words herself, ever mindful of the tight-knit, inclusive community that’s been there for her all along.

“The east side is in my DNA and has made me the person I am,” said Fletcher.

Learn more about Fletcher’s new venture at kindredspiritsokc.com

Caylee Dodson

Director of Restore OKC

Caylee Dodson hasn’t lived in northeast Oklahoma City for long, but she has become ingrained in the community, and the community in her. After growing up in northwest Oklahoma City, Dodson earned a journalism degree from Oklahoma State University and masters in arts in religion and cultures at Covenant Theological Seminary in Missouri. She spent nearly 10 years in ministry in St. Louis, helping women transition out of prostitution and addiction.

In 2014, Dodson and husband Josh were called to return to Oklahoma City to help local churches begin a reconciliation, justice and mercy ministry similar to Restore St. Louis. They met Ernest Odunze, who grew up in northeast Oklahoma City and would become the second director of the nonprofit they’d start together, Restore OKC, which is founded on relationship-based, community-driven redevelopment.

“We know that northeast Oklahoma City has a long story of injustice,” said Dodson. “My neighbor was 10 when it became legal for black families to go north of 23rd Street. Living history is still so present. It’s not hard to learn this side of our city, but it’s not often taught, so if you’re afforded the privilege of not knowing, you likely don’t.”

Before solidifying Restore OKC’s mission, the Dodsons moved in and got to know their neighbors, especially enjoying programming at the Ralph Ellison Library with their two kids. Soon after, Dodson says, the state of Oklahoma cut childcare subsidies, devastating their community made up of many single parents.

The work of Restore OKC began in the summer of 2015 helping a community servant feed and care for 125 kids a day at the library so their parents could work. Programs have continued to evolve, from starting a business to provide jobs for single moms to helping neighbors with home repairs and affordable housing.

“We listen and then work together to leverage whatever resources we can behind the community because they know best,” said Dodson.

By placing volunteer care teams in Britton, Martin Luther King and Thelma L. Parks elementary schools to support students and teachers, in addition to providing professional development, schools have seen a 37 percent increase in teacher retention and a decrease in student suspensions.

More than 700 pounds of fresh foods have been harvested from Restore OKC’s 5-acre urban farm, created to engage and employ middle and high school students, provide a fresh food market for immediate neighbors and generate income in wholesale sales to other local stores and restaurants.

“You see the news personify store closures, food deserts and frustration, reinforcing stereotypes, when what we saw was a community coming together,” said Dodson.

Every second Saturday when Restore OKC hosts work days at their farm, volunteers come from all over the metro, kids included, to pull weeds, complete home repair projects for seniors and make friends. Dodson delights in that opportunity for her own children to serve and have friendships with kids from a variety of backgrounds.

“I have a neighbor who talks about progress in ways I can’t even understand,” said Dodson. “I would be angry, and that does exist, but for the majority, [there’s an attitude of] we have overcome, and there’s richness and strength cultivated, for better or worse, in the face of oppression. I want myself and my kids learning that all day long.”

It can be challenging for the mom of two to turn off work mode, which is why Fridays have become sacred family time, punctuated by trips to Science Museum Oklahoma and pizza dinners. Dodson ensures they make the time and space as a family to process emotions stemming from friends who don’t have a home or a neighbor who needs a new roof to the concepts of racial injustice and white privilege.

“Privilege itself is not a dirty word,” said Dodson. “We all have been given a series of gifts and [it’s about] what we choose to do in terms of how we steward those gifts. I hate that privilege makes such an impact on how we experience life, and I grieve that, but with the privilege I do have I can work to create change. It’s not white savior-ism; that will never heal anything. It is solidarity.”

Most important for Dodson as it applies to her work and raising her children is that all humankind shares the broader purpose to seek justice and offer mercy.

“I want my kids to know you don’t have to be in ministry or nonprofit to make a difference,” said Dodson. “It doesn’t matter what your job is; you can use any platform to go out and love people well.”

Learn more about Restore OKC at restoreokc.org.

Maurianna Adams

Executive director of Progress OKC

Maurianna Adams can look back on her childhood in northeast Oklahoma City and pinpoint the people and events that inspired her career in public service. Whether for the holidays or a typical dinner, her home was full of family, neighbors and anyone in need of a hot meal.

“My family served the families who were underserved,” said Adams. “It made me realize how important neighborhoods are and how valuable it is to open your door to individuals that have less than you. My family modeled that, and that is a reflection of the broader northeast Oklahoma City community.”

After earning her bachelor’s degree at the University of Oklahoma and master’s degree in public administration from the University of Central Oklahoma, Adams has spent the past 10 years supporting community revitalization and public health. As executive director of Progress OKC, she brings a wealth of knowledge about leveraging the assets in communities to support the overall health of its citizens.

At Progress OKC, Adams’ focus is the development of affordable housing, promoting economic development opportunities and enhancing the quality of life for residents. The nonprofit organization was founded in 2015 to support and revitalize Oklahoma City communities that have experienced significant disinvestment. Over the years, leaders have narrowed their focus to northeast Oklahoma City, both because it’s missed out on reinvestment dollars and because its rich history is often overlooked, plagued instead by often misinformed stereotypes about violence or drugs.

“When you look at the northeast renaissance taking place, there are public, private and faith-based entities coming together to address economic and social gaps, like food security,” said Adams. “Those activities are happening every day, those stories just haven’t been elevated to the degree they deserve. There is a strong sense of community and camaraderie.”

As northeast Oklahoma City continues to gain ground as a hub for families to live, work and play, Adams says it’s critical to preserve the culture and history of the community, particularly honoring the legacy of African American contributions. Simply flooding neighborhoods with investment can cause displacement of the very people who built the community, so initiatives supporting minority-owned businesses and preserving historic buildings will be key. Adams has a vision of desegregating poverty and providing diversity in housing and income, which research shows to be positive for current and future residents alike.

“We need to do this in an equitable, thoughtful and intentional way,” said Adams. “We’re creating homeownership opportunities that are affordable for current and future residents. We’re working to bridge career opportunities between northeast Oklahoma City and the Innovation District and downtown and exploring ways to support small businesses.”

Community leaders were instrumental in discussions about MAPS 4, which will have a significant impact on northeast Oklahoma City.

“Residents have a vision of what they would like their community to be,” said Adams, “and opportunities for them to be involved in the planning process are beneficial.”

Adams now lives in Edmond and as she realizes the luxury of simple amenities like sidewalks where her son can ride his bike and courts to play basketball, she wants the same for her neighbors in northeast Oklahoma City.

It’s not always easy to transfer from executive director to mom, or vice versa, but Adams strives to be 100 percent present while at work or at home. The Adams family reads together daily and weekly the trio does something new, cooking a new recipe, visiting a new restaurant or seeing a new movie. The family regularly attends cultural festivals throughout the metro, the Asian District or south Oklahoma City some of their favorites, to understand how those neighborhoods have helped shape the city as a whole, a practice Adams encourages all families to consider.

Just as family members did for her, Adams is instilling in her son the importance of public service, with Adryan regularly volunteering and attending community events with her. The 7-year-old has developed a passion for fighting homelessness.

As Adams considers the blessings in her own life, she dreams of a city where no matter where someone lives, they have a fair opportunity, and she’s determined to do her part to bring that to fruition.

“It’s not only your genetic code that determines your life expectancy, it’s your zip code,” said Adams. “What strides would we make lessening the 18-year life expectancy gap between particular urban and suburban zip codes in our metro area. Life and the quality of it, no matter where you live, are essential to making a healthier, happier city for all families.”

Learn more about Progress OKC at progressokc.org

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