Ryan Smith says he grew up sheltered in the suburbs of Grapevine, Texas, and experienced community at his church where he participated in events several times a week. But he says that in the last five years, following graduation from college, he’s never known the names of any of his neighbors. It’s as a volunteer at the CommonWealth compost lot and a handyman in the CommonWealth community that he’s found the neighborliness he experienced in his church community.
At Oklahoma Baptist University, in a class on anthropology Ryan was introduced to the understanding that community impact, the power of change, can happen in a neighborhood. “Still, I didn’t get involved for a lot of years,” he says.
At the same time he was learning about the impact of community, he was also beginning to question: Where does food come from? Who’s making it? Who’s harvesting it? What are the conditions for growing food? “At twenty-something, it was more about ‘Can I eat it?’”
After college, Ryan and his wife Mary Ann both worked in Oklahoma City in child welfare. Those were mentally and physically draining years. The couple moved to Austin so that Mary Ann could study for her master’s degree. Ryan worked at Habitat for Humanity. “New construction was exciting, but rehabilitation, like building a wheelchair ramp, solidified for me what it means to be a neighbor.”
In Austin, Ryan also worked for AmeriCorps and volunteered at a commercial farm that supported AmeriCorps. “I began to see, ‘OK, this is real food. This is what we should be eating instead of super huge, watery tomatoes.’”
After two years in Austin, the couple has returned to Oklahoma City for Mary Ann’s PhD work at the University of Oklahoma. “Now Oklahoma City feels like home,” says Ryan. “Now I even love this place. I don’t want to move. It’s funny how quickly things can change—just by being involved in a neighborhood.”
Ryan came to CommonWealth to help Lia garden but got involved in the compost operation and now is one of the team leaders. “Composting showcases the problem with food waste and distribution and gardening for soil, not plants. I’m becoming a dirt nerd.”
“It’s almost a religious experience here,” he says. “Growing up in this day and age, my life was really like a hermit on an island. It was lonely. And what a waste of communication skills. There’s so much more to offer—and the neighbors offer to you. It’s a draw coming here each week, hearing people talk about their days—not only about politics, but their lives. I look forward to hear what’s happening to everyone this week.”
As the composting operation has slowed down recently, Ryan, a handyman, has been helpful in tackling the fix-up to-do list around the farm. “It’s a kind of service project,” he says.
A singer and baritone ukulele player, Ryan has joined the CommonPlay evenings of music started recently in the community. “It’s the easiest way to decompress,” he says. “I get lost in strumming three simple chords.”
Ryan and Mary Ann not only shop now as often as possible at farmer’s markets, they are growing some of their own food, from seeds they germinated themselves. They have a compost pile (“Zero waste food.”) and Ryan is learning about foraging from the rich selection of wild plants around the CommonWealth neighborhood.
Now, he says, “not only do I know the names of people in the CommonWealth neighborhood, I know the names of people in the neighborhood where I live.”