Treetops Collective: Connecting New Americans to a welcoming community

Asking for help, getting connected with a therapist, securing a stable job or transportation can all be difficult tasks. Imagine finding connections in a community you’re entirely brand new to, within a country where you don’t speak the native language. This is the reality for many recent immigrants. Treetops Collective is on a mission to create a more welcoming community to refugees, or New Americans. Through its leadership programming and community resource connections, this nonprofit aims to showcase Grand Rapids as the place where refugee women can create roots and flourishing families for years to come. 

Dana Krol, operations manager at Treetops Collective, says the organization, which will celebrate five years in March, began from a relationship. When Tarah Carnahan, executive director and co-founder, met a new neighbor, a new American woman, the pair became friends. “From that, kind of came this idea of how can we make Grand Rapids a more welcoming place, and a place where people who are now making this their new home can thrive?”

Krol says the organization is more than a nonprofit, they hope to be a cross-cultural movement connecting and investing in New American women leaders. One of Treetops Collective’s integral offerings is Concentric, a community development program. “It connects New American women to each other and also to other people and resources they might need in Grand Rapids,” Krol says. “It’s also an opportunity for New American women to grow their leadership. We have eight groups led by New American women. There are eight different language groups led by a woman within that language group.”

The leadership program is 15 months long, with eight chosen leaders to serve as connectors and allies within the community. They build a cohort of 20 families, and help navigate what it means to truly thrive in their new home of Grand Rapids, through comprehensive training in mental health, fundraising, project management, budgeting, asset-based community development, leadership styles and more. Leaders also have access to one-on-one meetings, professional mentors, networks, local resources, a matched savings program and compensation. 

Over the 12-month cohort, members meet within their groups and are paired with cross-cultural partners who volunteer their time. “We want them to build a relationship and friendship and help navigate what it looks like to make this place home,” Kroll says. Many groups enjoy spending time together, from going on walks and making dinner to learning and practicing languages.

“It’s been through different iterations and we’re really excited about what this could look like next year, as well,” Krol says. “This was our first pilot program of the concentric version.”

Treetops also offers a teen version of the Concentric program, focusing on New American youth and encouraging them to step up and lead their communities today and tomorrow. This 12-month leadership program features four women leaders who build a cohort of 7-10 teen girls partnered throughout the school year.

Krol says another way Treetops works daily to make Grand Rapids a more welcoming place is by not only listening, but also taking feedback and making connections. “We want to help create feedback loops, so different organizations and businesses can kind of see where some of the barriers are to their resources,” she says. “We listen to the women in our groups and leaders, and hear what consistent needs are, and also how we can start conversations with the different players in Grand Rapids to make that change. That’s part of the transforming community work we do.”

Some of the local organizations Treetops Collective Works alongside include the Refugee Education Center, The Literacy Center and Safe Haven. Discovering barriers, connecting women with resources, and working with organizations to make [resources] more accessible to the New American community is at Treetops’ roots. Krol says some of the frequent barriers they hear of include learning English, learning how to drive and accessing transportation.

During COVID, when looking at ways to remain connected, the Treetops Book Club was born. With a motto of ‘say no to the single story,” this club hopes to dismiss narrow preconceptions about certain groups, cultures and ideas. With the goal of broadening understanding of multifaceted individuals told through their unique, authentic voices, the book club encourages meaningful dialogue in the community. 

“We want to understand people who are different from us,” Krol says. “What we do in the Treetops book club is use it as a platform to authors who don’t come from the majority culture. They’re either written by new Americans or it’s a biography of their story. About every six weeks, we’ll have a virtual book club. There will be some reflection questions and discussion of what you read and learn.”

“We really enjoyed being able to help curate a list of books people can read,” Krol says, “when thinking about ways they can better learn about and understand their New American neighbors.”

When it comes to mental health access, Treetops Collective believes it is vital to creating a fruitful community. Their Amani mental health program focuses on connecting individuals with therapists that understand their life and their language. “Amani means peace in Swahili,” says Krol. We’re recognizing that access to mental health care can be really hard for New Americans, especially finding therapists that are both able to do that, or able to donate their time towards that, but also along with that, is interpretation.”

“What we’ve been doing is working to build a selection of practitioners that would like to work with the New American community. We’ve been compiling a list of people and also doing some lunch-and-learn series that helps them learn how to do therapy with an interpreter. We did one about learning about Afghan culture, with the influx of refugees coming.”

Through a partnership with Bethany Christian Services and therapists who are generously donating their time, Treetops Circles of Support has been offered in November and December. “Really it helps offer Afghan refugees a chance to come, talk about things they’ve experienced, and make connections with other people in their community,” Krol says. That’s another thing that we’re moving forward in, and that would be a part of what we hope for in the future.”

In 2020, Treetops worked with Kent County for its Welcome Plan, part of a task force dedicated to listening to New American voices to drive policy and provide services and opportunities for new neighbors. 

Treetops Collective also hosts a social enterprise makerspace within their building. Shoppers can browse different items including t-shirts, tote bags, tea and notebooks, all of which are designed, printed or created by local New American women. Sales go toward the shop, making more products, social enterprise internships, and Treetops Collective programs.

Looking forward, Co-Founder and Executive Director Tarah Carnahan says she hopes the organization continues to work together to benefit their neighbors. 

“My deep hope is that we, as a community, see ourselves and our neighbor, in the full recognition of our strengths and pain, and use our influence and the wisdom of our experience to better connect with each other for the benefit of each other, and ultimately the benefit of our city,” she says. “I believe that to build a vibrant, cross-cultural community, it will take creative and innovative approaches to change that are rooted in listening and the power of New American leadership. The more individuals have full agency, the more they can become independent and flourish in their new community.”

Photos courtesy of Treetops Collective

Literacy Matters is a series focused on the importance of knowledge, community resources seeking to remove barriers to access, and the value of our library systems to society. Literacy Matters is supported by Kent District Library. 

Sarah briefly lived in Grand Rapids years ago, before moving back to Lansing, but that West Michigan love never really left her heart. Through her coverage on small businesses, arts and culture, dining, and anything mitten-made, she’s committed to convincing any and everyone -- just how great the Great Lakes state is. Sarah received her degrees in Journalism and Professional Communications. You can find her in a record shop, a local concert, or eating one too many desserts at a bakery. If by chance, she’s not at any of those places, you can contact her at [email protected]
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