Milestones often spark memories of where we’ve been and how we got to the milestone being celebrated. In honor of the 5th anniversary of Treetops Collective being granted 501c3 status, we asked two women who were instrumental in that move to take us back to those foundational moments and the collective vision that sparked the formation of a new kind of community here in West Michigan.
Dana Doll (DD) is a co-founder of Treetops Collective and was the first Executive Director until she departed for a new opportunity in family philanthropy at the end of 2019.
Tarah Carnahan (TC) is a co-founder of Treetops Collective and the current Executive Director, moving into this role in March of 2020 after building our social enterprise work for over three years.
We asked each of them specific questions about the past and present at Treetops Collective to remind us all of this history as we pursue the next five years and beyond.
When you first started Treetops Collective, what did you hope the impact would be? What were you trying to accomplish?
TC: My deep hope was that our community would have a better awareness of how we need each other, and that we would grow in our connection and care for each other.
DD: My hope was that this would be a lasting community where refugees and New Americans could find belonging. Watching what my siblings went through who came as refugees 22 years ago and then working in refugee resettlement 12 years ago, I saw that resettlement does not equate to belonging. Resettlement is the lifesaving work of assisting a New American with the basic needs in order to survive here-a place to live and to work, a medical home to receive healthcare, a school for their children to grow.
Belonging is different. It’s that moment when a woman is able to offer her own gifts to her new community, when she has a deep understanding of her new neighborhood and has agency to use her voice, reach her goals, and take the next step that’s right for her. It’s when she no longer feels like a perpetual recipient of hospitality but a fully participating member of her community. It’s social capital-having people to call on in both good and bad times. Belonging is sometimes hard to ‘measure’ in our non-profit mentality, but it makes all the difference in our quality of life as humans.
There are a lot of nonprofit organizations in West Michigan - what gaps did you see in what was already being done?
DD: We have two excellent organizations in Grand Rapids who provide the crucial work of resettlement and one organization who focuses on education. Though they also enhance their work with philanthropic support, they are primarily federally-funded to do one job and to do it well, and that’s the work of resettlement I described above.
There are also several highly effective community organizations birthed out of the many nationalities Grand Rapids is lucky to be home to (both as immigrants and refugees) like the Bhutanese Community of Michigan, the African Collaborative Network, and many others.
Tarah and I saw Treetops as a third kind of space. Though Treetops has always had programs with meaningful and measurable outcomes, we were also drawn to Dr. King’s vision of the beloved community, where we draw together diverse people with varying backgrounds to solve problems together, in solidarity and mutuality. This happens in small groups of individuals as well as the convening of organizations.
Creating this community included the hard work of building diverse streams of revenue through enterprise and donations with people who are truly invested in the ‘collective’ so that as our world continues to change quickly, so too can Treetops’ response, something that is hard to do when you’re primarily funded for a contract for services.
My hope is that Treetops is forever a place where the ethos of the beloved community is lived out both through individual leaders from diverse backgrounds as well as the convening of organizational partners, all with a vision of making Grand Rapids a place where we can all find belonging.
TC: We have historically been a city that welcomes refugees, but some of the narrative needed reframing, to emphasize the strengths and resilience of new neighbors and what a gift they will be as neighbors. Nowhere in the city was there a focus on the long-term belonging and cross-cultural connectedness of women.
There were also a lot of assumptions that when someone had arrived they were on track for success, that they had left “the hard place” and now were in America where anything is possible. Although there is opportunity, the ability to access it fully requires language and social connections that are nearly impossible to cultivate when you arrive in an environment where you need to immediately survive, outside of every context you have ever known. There were gaps between refugee resettlement services ending and an individual actually having access to information, choices, and building a sense of confidence in her ability to navigate this new place and make it home.
We also have a value of creativity that guides our work, not just through products in our social enterprise, but through a hopeful imagination of solutions that are possible to long-standing problems. There was a lack of innovation in partnership with New Americans, and leaders of those communities were often not in the room.
What parts of the vision you set out to fulfill have you already seen accomplished?
TC: Unlikely friendships have been formed that wouldn’t have been made anywhere else in the city. People who felt isolated and struggled to make this place home, whether they were a transplant from Seattle or Chicago OR resettled from the Congo or Burma, this work has created a sense of holistic belonging for our people throughout West Michigan.
We’ve also seen a shift in perceptions of the types of jobs or capabilities New Americans possess, and we’ve encouraged individuals to see their influence and ability to make change at a local level in the midst of a mounting global refugee crisis. Businesses are recognizing their power to spread welcome and celebrate the talent and expertise of New Americans through their hiring practices and public communications.
We have continued to center women and that feels really important, and we continue to hear that this is something that makes Treetops unique.
DD: The work of belonging and creating a beloved community is never finished, but I’ve been able to experience the fulfilling of that vision from our early days as a co-founder and continue to see it fulfilled as a donor and a friend of Treetops today. We started Treetops with visionary leaders who once arrived as New Americans themselves and built our first cohorts of women and teen girls with intention and excitement. I witnessed women from different cultures but a shared background of displacement carrying both each other’s joys and challenges together. I witnessed lifelong friendships born between New Americans and long-time residents of West Michigan. We had the great privilege of participating in big and small milestones, from graduation parties to celebrating citizenship, from gaining driver’s licenses to mourning the loss of our loved ones together.
Another part of the vision fulfilled was purchasing a physical space in 2018 for Treetops to make its home and grow this community. This was only made possible through generous members of this beloved collective.
Since leaving Treetops, I’ve had the honor of watching some of the first members of the teen girls group become dynamic team members of Treetops who are making their mark at a young age. Treetops’ Concentric program embodies so many of our original hopes and dreams as co-founders. I am thrilled to watch Treetops continue to evolve as it grows.
What were the major lessons you learned in the early stages of forming Treetops?
DD: It’s hard to describe the numerous and steep learning curves you experience in a non-profit start-up—practical areas like accounting, finance, fundraising and HR, to the bigger and more important questions of vision, co-creating with each other, and taking an asset-based approach to this work. Given the many steep learning curves, my first major lesson is to find yourself a cofounder to build with. I hit the jackpot by meeting Tarah when Treetops was nothing more than a glorified hobby and a visionary Word Document on my computer. We met when I had a toddler and a newborn and she was very pregnant with a toddler in tow. It was such a gift to meet someone with the same heart for this work but a complementary skillset.
Another major lesson I learned is that workplace culture matters. Like all teams, we failed each other plenty of times and had some hard-won lessons, but there was a true spirit of recognizing each other as whole people and loving each other right where we were.
TC: That there is NO arrival. Every goal leads to the next one and there is no settling in; there is always something to refine, build, or consider. It’s imperative to take a long-view of the work, and recognize that the solutions our community needs will take concerted effort and constant adaptability (and a sense of humor).
The reason we so often don’t see progress on big issues is because there is no vision for another way, or a redemptive imagination for the beauty that can be cultivated through broken systems, and the whole collective working toward that mission together. Nothing is possible through a single organization, leader, or idea.
Why are you, Dana, still connected to Treetops as you’ve moved on to other work in the community?
DD: As a donor and an advocate, this mission and vision of Treetops will forever be close to my heart, but more importantly, I have deep respect for the Treetops team and their heart behind their work. They live the mission out with their whole life, not just during the workday. Treetops remains our top monthly and annual giving priority for our family, and we continue to cheer them on. I hope my energy and resources forever support a vision for a future Grand Rapids where New Americans aren’t just welcomed, but truly thrive here.
Tarah, what has it been like to see this vision continue to grow and change in your time at Treetops?
TC: Tiring ;) And fulfilling. I am often unsettled and impatient because I see possibilities that aren’t possible today and I want all the pieces to come together to create a community that is vibrant, celebrating culture and people’s diverse strengths, and ensures that no neighbor walks alone. But when I really stop to reflect about all that has changed from writing initial ideas on post its on a dining room wall while holding a one-week old baby and managing playing toddlers at our feet, to the movement that has legs today it brings me so much joy and gratitude. All of this work has been done alongside SO MANY wonderful, committed, smart, creative and caring people who believe in this vision too!
Dana, what has it been like to see this vision continue to grow and change since your time at Treetops?
DD: I think all leaders struggle with this feeling, sometimes it feels like pride and sometimes it feels like fear, that it all rests on your shoulders. Though I had many reminders throughout my time as Executive Director that none of this would have existed without the whole collective lending their time, insight, leadership, and resources, there is nothing like stepping away completely and watching Treetops thrive to be reminded that these types of movements are bigger than any person or any team. It truly takes a community.
We started Treetops with the desire to never be beholden to a major institutional funder, because one of our greatest values was to listen to the people and communities we were here to serve. It can look like taking a group of Rwandan teenage women to a local commissioners meeting, giving a grant to a New American business startup, bringing together services and resources for new Afghan arrivals, and sometimes it looks like a baby shower for an expectant mother. The nature of this work is emergent, and not prescriptive. I knew when I left that Treetops would continue to change and evolve, but my hope was that listening would always be at the heart of its programs and activities. Their Concentric program and other programs show that they’ve gotten even better at listening to the community and I’m excited to see what’s next.
Tarah will be sharing more about our vision and hopes for the next five years at Treetops next week. Tune in then to learn more about where we hope to be in 2027 and how you can help this community get there!