"Passion is very important"
Step 1 to Resilient Communities/Resilient Families --- the selection
This is the first in a series of articles about the Sustainable Communities initiative by Boston LISC, called Resilient Communities/Resilient Families.
Other stories in the series: "Creating 'neighborhoods of promise' " and "Boston mayor: Comprehensive community development is "what we should be doing"
On Sept. 28, gunmen raided a home in the Boston neighborhood of Mattapan. They took drugs, cash, a safe and other items. Then, they marched the occupants --- Eyana Flonory with her toddler son Amanihotep and three men --- out onto Woolson Street and gunned them down.
The two-year-old and his mother were killed, as were two of the men. One man was left critically wounded.
The quadruple murder shocked all of Boston, and it jolted the Mattapan community.
Neighborhood groups, historically at odds with each other, became passionate about finding ways to come together to wrestle control of Mattapan from drug dealers and other violent criminals.
"Passion is very important," says Geeta Pradhan, director of programs for The Boston Foundation. "The will and the desire to make a difference."
Elizabeth Gruber, the chair of the Boston LISC advisory board, and Bob Van Meter, the Boston LISC executive director, were on the selection committee for Resilient Communities/Resilient Families.
The fervor of Mattapan leaders to face their neighborhood's challenges were more than evident, Pradhan says, when she and other representatives of the Boston affiliate of the Local Initiatives Support Corp. (LISC) met with them less than a month after the killings.
That meeting was one of a series of site visits that LISC staff and board members, such as Pradhan, held in city and suburban communities in the space of three days.
The visits were part of a four-month process to select participants for LISC's new $2.8 million Resilient Communities/Resilient Families initiative, focused on resident engagement and comprehensive community development. LISC representatives met with local leaders who had joined together to submit bids for a place in the three-year initiative.
Elizabeth Gruber, chair of the LISC advisory board and a senior vice president at Bank of America, says the sessions were often surprising and enlightening --- boosting the chances of some neighborhoods and hurts the odds of others.
"Who was at the meeting sent a message," she says, "and how they interacted with each other. Their interactions face-to-face were very telling. It was interesting to see if they listened to each other."
In Mattapan, an often-overlooked community on the southern edge of Boston, Pradhan says she was amazed at the emotion expressed by leaders.
"It was fantastic --- the passion that came pouring out," she says. "Everyone started to talk about their experiences. It was a transformational moment."
As it turned out, that passion made a big difference when the LISC selection committee decided which neighborhoods would take part in Resilient Communities/Resilient Families.
Announced Dec. 2, those neighborhoods are:
--- Codman Square/Four Corners. Lead agency: Codman Square Neighborhood Development Corp.
--- Roxbury/North Dorchester. Lead agency: Nuestra Comunidad Development Corp.
--- Mattapan. Lead agency: Mattapan Family Service Center
"I don't think we would have ended up with Mattapan if we hadn't felt the emotional intensity of the people in that room," says Boston LISC executive director Bob Van Meter.
"Not everything hunky-dory"
The selection process began in late July when Van Meter mailed an invitation to organizations throughout Boston and its suburbs to apply to participate in Resilient Communities/Resilient Families.
The focus of the initiative --- backed by The Boston Foundation, The Hyams Foundation and the Barr Foundation --- is to give local residents and agencies "resources to both articulate community priorities and act on those priorities in a comprehensive way," Van Meter wrote. Those resources will total $600,000 for each neighborhood over the three years as well as technical assistance from LISC staffers.
Although, within LISC, these projects are known generically as Sustainable Communities initiatives, affiliates have developed their own local brand --- such as Neighborhoods First (San Diego) and NeighborhoodsNOW (Kansas City).
In Boston, the name Resilient Communities/Resilient Families is based on the reality that perfection isn't going to be attainable.
"We recognize," Van Meter says, "that not everything will be hunky-dory in these places, but we hope they're better."
All of the communities selected for Resilient Communities/Resilient Families face significant challenges:
Mattapan Family Service Center
--- Mattapan is one of Boston's most distressed communities with two-thirds of its households considered low- and moderate-income. In addition to African-Americans and Haitians, the neighborhood is home to immigrants from 20 or more African nations. Among Boston neighborhoods, Mattapan has long had the highest percentage of overcrowding --- 13 percent in 1990 and 10 percent in 2000.
Dudley Square in the Roxbury neighborhood
--- In the central Boston neighborhood of Roxbury/North Dorchester, nearly a quarter of the residents live below the poverty line. They also experience high rates of childhood diabetes, low birth weight, heart disease and teen pregnancy. Half of the residents are African-American, and 21 percent are Hispanic. In Boston, African-Americans earn a median income of $35, 686, or just 69 percent of the white median income of $51,688. For Latinos, it's $30,665.
Gail Latimore, executive director of the Codman Square Neighborhood Development Corp. stands next to a neighborhood mural.
--- Codman Square/Four Corners and nearby communities in southwestern Boston have the highest rate of foreclosures (35 percent) in the city as well as one of the highest unemployment rates and one of highest crime rates. Three-quarters of the residents of this area are African-American or African/Caribbean, while another 16 percent are Latino.
"It's a great word, 'resilient," says Gruber. "It recognizes that people go through tough times and bounce back, and, even after you bounce back, you're going to have tough times again. You become stronger as a result of an effort to overcome adversity."
Recruiting leaders and building consensus
A more detailed plan of the effort, written by Van Meter, states, "At the core of our theory of change is that public participation in decisions that affect communities is essential for achieving better communities."
Boosting that participation --- which also includes recruiting a wider array of leaders --- requires the ability to pay close attention to what people say.
"When people are genuinely listened to, they respond positively," the plan notes. "Therefore, a key to a successful community process is well-supported community organizing and coalition-building, and for the organizers and leaders who undertake this work to be well-trained in the techniques of one-on-one/relational organizing."
"It all starts," says Gruber, "with listening to people --- not talking, just listening. People need to be heard, and people need to listen to each other."
Recruiting new leaders and greater resident participation --- the next step in the process --- is only part of the task. Residents from every corner of the community then need to come together and work together to develop a common vision for improving the quality of life in the neighborhood based on what they see as priorities. Not what funders see as the top needs, not what government officials see as the top needs.
These priorities and the strategies to address them are then spelled out in a detailed revitalization plan, specifying who will do what and when those efforts will be done.
It becomes, through the commitment of individuals and organizations, a community contract.
"For people to really improve their lives, they need to feel empowered to take more control of their own lives and their own community," Gruber says.
"That's the most important aspect of the whole initiative, and it's the biggest wild card. You don't know what's going to come out of the community engagement process."
Making a difference
"Where can we make a difference?"
That was the central question as the LISC board and staff members analyzed, evaluated and discussed the seven strong applications that were submitted.
Would putting money into a neighborhood unnecessarily replicate efforts already underway? On the other hand, was it possible to dovetail funding with other investments in a community --- such as transit-oriented development --- to get a bigger bang for the buck?
Did the leaders of local agencies understand and embrace the need to recruit more leaders, particularly from under-represented populations? Could organizations in a neighborhood work together?
That was a worry with regard to Mattapan where the substantial Haitian-American community and the large African-American population often seemed to live in separate worlds. Could any agency bring everyone together and lead --- but not boss --- the effort?
Initially, the plan had been to select two neighborhoods for Resilient Communities/Resilient Families.
The proposals for Codman Square and Roxbury/North Dorchester were solid, Van Meter says, but the selection committee debated Mattapan's readiness.
"There was a very strong sentiment that Mattapan needed to be part of this," he says. "Geeta and Liz both felt very strongly that Mattapan had a compelling case of why this was the right moment and a chance to overcome historic divisions.
"This is a community, coming together, and they're asking for help. It felt like it was the right thing to do, even though there were risks and challenges."
So three were chosen.
And now Van Meter is scrambling to nail down another $600,000 in funding. In just a couple weeks, he was able to arrange for as much as $150,000. Finding all the additional money "seems do-able," he says.
A lot is at stake, and not just money.
"We're nervous," says Gruber. "We're sticking our toe into scary waters. We want it to work out well, and we know there are a lot of unknowns."
But she adds, "It's been exciting."
Posted in Engaging, Boston