Last month, a small convoy of status-quo-disrupting activists and entrepreneurs, led by New Sun Rising’s Scott Wolovich, departed Pittsburgh for Southwest Ohio to meet with Dayton Collaboratory, its founder, Peter Benkendorf, and his posse of righteous rabblerousers.

The goal: gather folks doing good work from places not so different, and see what sparks may fly.

Wolovich invited me one month prior over coffee at Grim Wizard, two blocks from the former “Work Hard Pittsburgh” freelancers cooperative where we first met. “Scott from NSR,” as our co-op’s fiscal sponsor, frequented the space and offered thoughtful counsel and a friendly smile to our scrappy, idealistic entrepreneurs.

I asked if he was interested in coverage of the journey. He said he wanted me present for the experience, to maybe take some notes, and after everything unfolded we could see if there was a story to be told.

I caught a ride westward with Laura Totin Codori, founder and CEO of compost startup Worm Return. Seated shotgun was her second-in-command, Jess Kusten, a ‘21 Carnegie Mellon grad and fellow true-believer in the importance of organic waste diversion. The pair kept a green bucket in the trunk for any apple cores and banana peels we might generate along the way–worm food for later, and the type of devotion to sustainability one would expect from people organizing Pittsburgh’s first green-collar cooperative

Edgemont Solar Gardens. Photo by Glenna Jennings.

Frankie Harris and SaKyah Harris, of the Ujamaa Collective fair trade boutique, rode along with Scott, while Ron Gaydos, another Work Hard fixture and the cooperative development director with the multistate Keystone Development Center, rounded out the worm mobile.

Peter was calling this a “learning journey” for “positive deviants.” What I didn’t fully appreciate yet was that Peter and Scott began to use Positive Deviants as a label in 2022, as a framework to connect unconventional change agents and explore principles of community transformation.

In the meantime, I didn’t know what to expect. 

“Are you ready to join the cult, Brian?” asked the worm lady, between drags of her American Spirit. We were running late, trying to tie up obligations so we could arrive unencumbered, ready to listen and learn. Whatever we were getting into, we trusted Scott's intentions. If he thought there were good people we could learn from, we were in. And as we would hear so often in the coming days, things only move as fast as the speed of trust.

From L-R: Top Row: J. Thomas Agnew III - BOOM Concepts; Frankie Harris - Ujamaa Collective; Ron Gaydos - Keystone Development Center; Kelly Brown; Peter Benkendorf - Dayton Collaboratory; Brian Conway - Pittsburgh Independent; Sharon Hawkins - HEATT; SaKyah "Kyah" Harris - Ujamaa;  Taylor "TJ" Johnson - Healing Arts Dayton. Bottom Row: Scott Wolovich - New Sun Rising; Laura Totin Codori + Jessica Kusten - Worm Return; Dr. Karen Korn. Photo by Glenna Jennings.

We arrived in a city just as big as Pittsburgh but with half the population, and none of the hills. Peter and co. welcomed us to the Collaboratory with open arms and local beer, and in that downtown Dayton storefront, between bites of pizza, our communities collided.

The back half of the Collaboratory was filled with West African oil paintings reminiscent of Seurat, and whiteboards scrawled with words packed as densely as Ben Ibebe’s brushstrokes. Amid the flurry of text, a quote from R. Buckminster Fuller, which Pete says encapsulates their ethos: “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

That sentiment was represented by Frankie and Kyah of the Ujamaa Collective marketplace and cooperative nonprofit for Africana women and artists. Kyah is their inventory specialist; Miss Frankie, her grandmother, explained that Ujamaa, the fourth principle of Kwanzaa, means “collective economics,” embodied by their motto: “we lift while we climb.”

J. Thomas Agnew, co-founder of Black arts collective BOOM Concepts, rounded out Pittsburgh’s contingent. He calls BOOM a “swiss army knife” for its versatility; coincidentally, it’s the same term Scott often uses to describe New Sun Rising. BOOM connects artists with resources and opportunities, he explained, while reflecting on ten years of advocacy, cultural disruption and placemaking, from the arts district storefront they aspire to purchase.

From Dayton: Glenna Jennings, the shutterbug, U. Dayton professor, and food justice advocate with Desert Kitchen Collective. We heard how Karen Korn made the leap from academia and anthropology into an online cannabis education. And Peter told us about the Collaboratory’s Community of Well-Being Initiative, which tracks and measures what it means to be a thriving community. 

By the end of our roundtable, a template had emerged: Inequity exists and so I advance change in the manner I’m best suited for, in spite of the challenges, because people deserve better. 

Or as Laura put it: “I got tired of complaining.”

Edgemont Solar Gardens. Photo by Glenna Jennings.

United over common cause, the conversation shifted to The Barrel House, at the suggestion of Richelle Brown, the sex educator with a shock of purple hair, who heads up LGBTQ+ Health Initiatives for Public Health of Dayton. She taught us about the Rubi Girls, the comedic drag troupe who raised $2 million for HIV/AIDS and LGBTQIA-related causes in Dayton, and the city’s legacy of redlining.

Friday morning began at the Edgemont Solar Gardens in historically disinvested West Dayton. “Black elders leading growth and community opportunities,“ Thomas posted on social media. Organized by the Greater Edgemont Community Council, the garden has been active since 1978. Today, with most volunteers past retirement age, the challenge becomes finding a new generation to carry on their greenhouse work.

From there, we traveled to Gem Street Market, where Lela Klein, co-founder of Co-op Dayton, showed us firsthand the potential and peril of community ownership. Opened in 2021, the co-op market has well over 5,000 paying members, and includes a deli, specialty and organic products coffee shop, even a teaching kitchen and community space in what was once a food desert. Our resident co-op guru, Ron, took special interest, having worked with groups in Pittsburgh’s Hazelwood and Homewood neighborhoods to pursue similar community-owned markets in food deserts. 

Next we heard from Sharon Hawkins, a former nursing professor and community activist who who leads the Health Equity Activation Think Tank. Previously, she worked with Black doulas via the TRIBE Collective, a cooperative that seeks to improve birth and early childhood outcomes in the Dayton region, where just five years ago Black newborns and infants died at a rate twice that of white babies. 

“Mama Sharon” says she takes inspiration from a Cornel West saying about listening first to the people most impacted by a problem when trying to better it. She called her fellow advocates a group of “misfits” whose bond only grew at “speed of trust.” A lifetime of Black women’s narratives and sagas being distorted led her to become skeptical of media coverage, and she said that it is incumbent upon white journalists to use their privilege to counteract ongoing biases and harmful narratives.

After lunch from the deli, we meditated at the House of Healing Arts and took group photos. Then, at Westside Makerspace, a “member-led, almost-cooperative,” we made mugs, and met the Irish journalist Stephen Starr, who spun up Dayton’s Journalism Lab with help from the Collaboratory, where he and other volunteers help community members hone and pitch their stories for local and national news outlets.

Photo by Glenna Jennings.

That evening, on the way to dinner at the cooperatively-owned Fifth Street Brewpub, we crossed paths with a man named Jim, out tending to his garden. As soon as the Collaboratory came up, Jim said “oh, you know Pete,” and presented us with flowers, roots and all, that he yanked right out of the ground. 

For some, the night ended with a bourbon at The Century; others, a beer at Toxic Brew. We learned about DIY skateparks being done with Rhymesayers entertainment, funded by sales of the Aesop Rock single “Pumpkin Seeds.”  And we heard about the city’s critical role in the development of funk. Over those last few hours we met our new friends’ partners and children, and bid our first goodbyes.

No matter which side quests we took Friday night, all of us made it to breakfast early Saturday at 2nd Street Market. Kelly Brown, the Dayton-via-Chicago accountant who first joined us Thursday evening, said it was the best place in the city to people-watch. And as we checked out local farm stands and food stalls, while people from all walks of life went about their business, we reflected on our time together and some of the recurring themes we’d take away with us: empathy, solidarity, and humility, as we seek to uplift the well-being of our communities.

We hugged goodbye and vowed to return for another Collaboratory production, Dayton’s Porchfest, later this August, and there are already plans for a Dayton visit to Pittsburgh this fall.

Before we’d even left Ohio, Peter sent along a gracious email to thank us for our visit. He singled out Miss Frankie and some words she shared when we first met–“You are never too old to learn and never too young to teach.”

Publisher’s Note: New Sun Rising and Grassroots Grantmakers generously underwrote the cost of the trip for all participants, as well as the time to write this article. They retained no editorial control over its content.