Caylee Dodson is one of USA TODAY’s Women of the Year, a recognition of women across the country who have made a significant impact. The annual program is a continuation of women of the century, a 2020 project that commemorated the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage. Meet this year’s winners at womenoftheyear.usatoday.com.
Caylee Dodson has managed to bring people and organizations together to achieve “a big, crazy, impossible dream” – to open the market at EastPoint, a must-have grocery store in northeast Oklahoma City, which was widely considered a food desert.
In 2020, non-profit organization RestoreOKC, of which Dodson is the executive director, partnered with grocery chain Homeland to open a small market on the property that houses RestoreOKC’s headquarters and urban farm in the Creston Hills neighborhood. This temporary grocery store filled a niche at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020 and for some time thereafter.
The store, Dodson said, started as a dream with 16 high school students from Northeast Academy, who worked with Restore OKC.
“That’s where our city farms started,” she said. “We own a five-acre city farm that produces food that is now sold in this store. It was these 16 high school students who were interns at our city farm who dreamed of going from ‘seed to shelf.’ we did – which is just plain wild.”
This little neighborhood market got Dodson and his neighbors dreaming of something bigger. . The EastPoint Market, stocked with fresh produce from the urban farm of RestoreOKC, opened in April to much fanfare and continues to draw people from nearby neighborhoods, as well as other parts of the community.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Women of the Year: Caylee Dodson of Restore OKC helps build community bridges
Caylee Dodson has embraced the Oklahoma City community by developing relationships and creating opportunities across the city.
Addison Kliewer, Oklahoma
RestoreOKC is a community development ministry in northeast Oklahoma City.
I’m a kid born and raised in Oklahoma City. My husband Josh grew up in Stillwater, Oklahoma – it’s my home. We landed in St. Louis for graduate school and in a wonderful, wonderful “God’s turn of events” we were blessed to be the (white) minority in a (predominantly black) community for about 10 years . We lived there, went to school, and landed on the staff of Restore St. Louis, an organization with a very similar community development ministry (to RestoreOKC) focused on racial reconciliation that was 38 in the middle- city of St. Louis.
To say it completely changed our world and our outlook would be the understatement of my life. It was pivotal and we just wanted to see what it would look like in an Oklahoma City context.
Well, in 2014 Michael Brown was shot and killed in Ferguson, Missouri. It was one of what seemed like a never-ending tale of police shootings against black men — and our city of St. Louis just fractured. Around this time, a group from Oklahoma City asked to come visit us in St. Louis to see what we were a part of at Restore St. Louis.
We said absolutely. We wanted people to come and see what we were going to see, which is that unity is possible and that communities actually need each other – that when we work together, the impossible is no longer impossible. Eventually we were asked to come back to Oklahoma and help run something like what we were doing in St. Louis.
Sixteen high school students had the dream of this store. We were asked to do something in partnership with the Northeast Academy to continue walking with the students we had met before at their school.
Many of them were already sort of faced with a decision about whether to continue their education after high school or help generate income for their household.
These interns worked on our city farm, grew things in our greenhouse, and grew food in our production area. We have a sister farm in Dallas that we visited in 2019. We loved it because it was a community-run, community-owned market. We came back and put it in our five-year plan.
In five months, the only grocery store in our community closed its doors with only 48 hours notice to neighbours. After this store closed, most of our neighbors had an hour to three hour commute to another grocery store. We were picking up neighbors left and right coming off the buses with bursting grocery bags.
We started making emergency food distributions in our parking lot. Then we got our neighbors together and asked if we should convert a metal storage building on our property into a pantry.
They said no because they didn’t want food pantries because they had food pantries in their community. What they wanted was a grocery store. Thus, this small metal building of 1,200 square feet was converted into a market on our property.
When we really started dreaming about this space, we brought in college and high school interns and our Community Advisory Board chair, Ms. (Pamela) Walters, to meet with architects. It was just a building shell at that time, an old car garage.
We thought, ‘What could this space be?’ The trainees said they wanted it to be a kind of “Gratty Whole Foods”. They said, “We want this store to be more than a store, we want this to be an experience, a place of community, a place to belong, a place where you walk in and say ‘Wow, this is beautiful. . We want it to reflect us and our community because often when we walk into Whole Foods we may not feel like we belong, so could we.
It’s an anomaly to me that we believed this crazy big impossible dream could come true and to achieve it in six months, from inauguration to grand opening, was really crazy. And in that time frame, raising $1.4 million to make it happen was just unreal.
Mark Jones, who was CEO of Homeland at the time, was kind enough to think about what it would take to serve this community, think outside the box, and start dreaming with us.
Black Lives Matter, churches, for-profit entities, non-profit entities, government, city, state – just a list of people you wouldn’t normally get together to collaborate on a unique project who have come together to achieve the impossible.
It is a living miracle in 3D and an absolute testimony that unity is possible and when we all come together, when we all bring our privilege, there is nothing impossible in our communities.