For the last eight years, Trehon Cockrell-Coleman has sent an email newsletter chock full of events, resources and other information for the community.
The newsletter goes out to more than 400 people — all of whom have met Trehon during his decade in Tucson. While he was connected to all of these people, he knew they weren't connected to each other.
"That listserv was really my personal lifeline when I was a bachelor, before I was married, before I had kids," Trehon says. "I said, you know what? I need a channel of blessings instead of a reservoir of selfishness. I knew these people but they didn't know each other."
With $750 in their pockets last May, Trehon and his wife, Carmishun Coleman, decided to host monthly gatherings, dubbed Connections That Count, at the historic Dunbar Pavilion, 325 W. Second St. Connections That Count is the signature program of their organization, A Better Community (ABC).
The two started slow, committing to just three months of events, every Wednesday from 5-7 p.m., to see if the community would show up. Thirty people came to the May gathering. That number doubled to 60 the second month, then nearly doubled again to 109 by July.
"When we started in May, people thought we were crazy, that no one was going to show up at 5 o'clock on a Wednesday," Trehon says. "We've had an event that almost 300 people came to on a Wednesday. My slogan: Tucson is what you make it."
They've now hosted Connections That Count every month since, with an even bigger bash planned for 5-7 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 7. Their goal is for 500 people to attend what they're calling The Merchant and Mission-Focused Marketplace.
"I want 500 so those vendors can see the love and feel the love," Trehon says.
The February event will help kick off Black History Month, featuring a lineup of more than 30 all-local Black-owned businesses and nonprofits, including candlemaker PureLotus Scents, caterer Dre's Seafood and BBQ, gallery Blue Lotus Artists' Collective, baker Cute and Classy Krispies, hair salon Melvira's Hair Studio and Tucson Unified School District's African American Student Services.
Trehon says attendees can expect to meet creatives, doctors, dentists, lawyers, musicians — "you name it."
"It is important for (Connections That Count) to exist because when we moved to Tucson, we didn't know anyone," Carmishun says. "We have provided a safe place for people to come and create a connection."
"The last time we checked, the African American population in Tucson is 5%," Trehon says. "We did not know that so many people love Tucson, but they always feel like they wanted a safe space to come together. We ended up serving as a conduit of people coming together."
Each Connections That Count event has a different theme. The Colemans have previously hosted social mixers, live music and local nonprofits to share their mission with attendees.
"The purpose of ABC is to create a community. The reason we create these different themes is out of love and is out of what we wish we had when we first moved here," Carmishun says.
"We feel we have the opportunity to leave Tucson a little better than we found it," Trehon says.
"The biggest thing is we desire to provide an ecosystem for those that desire that ecosystem. You have to put yourselves in that system to allow others to be part of it," he says. "At bare minimum, we knew what it felt like to move away from our family, our friends, to start a better life, to start better careers. You desire community, you desire togetherness, you desire collaboration. If that's not there, you could complain — or be the change you want in the world."
Vendors don't have to pay a dime to participate in The Merchant and Mission-Focused Marketplace — Trehon and Carmishun even provide the tables and chairs. The two spent 48 hours texting and calling potential vendors days before the New Year, seeing if they'd be interested in joining the event, emphasizing to them that they wouldn't have to pay any kind of fee to be there.
Connections That Count is made possible in part thanks to Arizona Coalition for Change, who pays the venue rent at The Dunbar each month. The Regina Hart State Farm Agency is sponsoring The Merchant and Mission-Focused Marketplace.
The Colemans decided on The Dunbar to hold their events for two reasons: "We did not know anyone else that would take a gamble on us," Trehon says. With only $750 to spend, Trehon thought many venues would take the money and allow him to host only one event. Dunbar said he could host three.
"Dunbar is a hidden gem," he says. "Its history is big but you have to really go there and understand how big that space is."
For more than three decades, The Dunbar was home to Tucson's only segregated school. Named after African-American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, the school served Black students from 1918 until the state ordered desegregation in 1951. Now, The Dunbar's mission is to "honor the past, celebrate today and shape the future of the African-American community."
"You talk about the Tucson gem show, but The Dunbar is the true gem of Tucson," Trehon says.