Winning over naysayers
Any plan to revitalize a community, no matter how well-intentioned, has the potential to attract critics. Some may be vocal enough to disrupt your whole effort.
That’s what happened in 2009 to Virginia LISC and its partners after they launched a comprehensive community development initiative in the Greater Fulton area of Richmond.
Spencer Jones, who had been a key voice against past injustice, has become a leader in making Fulton's history part of its redevelopment.
The launch coincided with a move by the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority that reignited a forty-year-old controversy over the destruction of the impoverished but historic African-American neighborhood of Fulton.
A group of former Fultonites, led by an outspoken and passionate man named Spencer Jones, continually raised objections to the planning process and monopolized meetings “speaking for the community in addressing all the anger, the pain and the injustice,” recalled Veronica Fleming, senior program officer with Virginia LISC.
In 2009, Richmond's housing authority had just sold land to a private developer to complete the final phase of redevelopment for Fulton, one of three neighborhoods in the Greater Fulton area.
In the 1960s and early ’70s, the city had razed Fulton with a promise to redevelop it with affordable housing for displaced residents. But the plan was delayed for decades following a flood in 1972.
And when federal money finally did flow in a decade ago to build affordable housing, the original residents were not given priority to return to the community.
The whole process not only removed their homes, “it also destroyed neighborhood services—grocery stores, movie theaters, drug stores, private family businesses," Fleming explained.
Peter Fraser, one of the vision day facilitators, helped turn a frozen process into a productive conversation.
Adding insult to injury, a group of former residents that had met outdoors almost daily at the site where their homes once stood, even organizing large annual reunions for old neighbors on the site, had just been run off the land by the new private developer.
The anger over those events, both recent and long-past, sparked heated remarks at the initial community planning meetings, which drew both displaced Fulton residents and those from the integrated middle- and working-class neighborhoods of Fulton Hill and Montrose Heights.
Although the area had a solid group of community leaders, they had never acknowledged the impact of the renewal plan on Fulton, and the group at large dismissed Jones’ views. “‘We’ve been hearing about this for years. We’re sick of it,’” was the attitude, Fleming said.
But LISC and its partners pursued a course that ultimately transformed critics of the planning process into valued participants and the dismissive attitude towards Jones’ group into respect. Fleming said they kept some key guidelines in mind.
They did their homework.
Before Virginia LISC launched its planning process, staff researched the Greater Fulton area, gathering not only demographic data but the stories of the three distinct neighborhoods, including Fulton, and the important players, including Spencer Jones.
Had they not known about the failed attempt at urban renewal and its devastating impact, “we would have alienated an entire neighborhood,” Fleming said.
Community organizer Jason Sawyer took the time and effort to listen to all sides in the discussion about Fulton's future.
They hired a community organizer who listened.
A community organizer hired by the lead agency skillfully recruited residents for the initial planning. Through one-on-one meetings, he built a rapport with Spencer Jones and other community leaders by seeking them out, setting up one-on-one interviews and listening with genuine interest to their stories.
“He was a very caring person, very easy to connect to and was just fearless about stepping out into the community and connecting with the diverse populations,” said Fleming.
The lead agency knew to look for an organizer with experience, flexible enough to meet residents on evenings and weekends and “trained to honor the diversity of communities they will work in,” she explained. “If they don't, they risk alienating leaders the community and that could set your project back years.”
They hired skilled facilitators.
With tensions at a boiling point, community meeting facilitators needed considerable skill and trust to keep the group on track. The facilitators selected by Greater Fulton’s lead agency had experience building consensus within diverse organizations.
They also took time to meet with residents outside the meetings and get to know them. To better educate themselves about the community and how its physical layout contributed to segregation, they organized a bike tour for themselves and the lead agency.
“They were willing to be engaged in the neighborhood rather than just popping in for a meeting,” Fleming said.
In response to the anger expressed by Jones and the Fultonites, facilitators took a respectful and action-oriented approach. Had the larger group continued to dismiss them, their opposition would have only grown worse, Fleming explained.
They were willing to do more than listen.
The facilitator invited Jones, as his group’s leader, to state his issues and concerns and then helped the group as a whole to craft as an appropriate response.
Facilitators led the group to realize that they needed a committee to develop projects honoring the Fulton community’s rich history and acknowledging the injustice it had suffered. The Legacy Workteam was born, with Jones as its chair, and the children of former Fultonites making up most of its membership.
They recruited the right partners.
To support the Legacy Workteam, LISC, the lead agency and a city council representative worked with the group to identify partners.
Today, Spenser Jones is a dynamic leader in the Greater Fulton's Future initiative.
A professor from Mary Washington College who is an expert in oral history, was offered a contract to conduct interviews with residents older than 80 from all the Greater Fulton neighborhoods, with a grant from LISC. A local museum joined the workteam and offered to house the oral history collection.
Another partner, Councilwoman Cynthia Newbille, who represented Greater Fulton, initiated discussions with the city that led the housting authority to set aside a portion of the Fulton redevelopment area for a memorial park to honor the historic community that had been decimated.
Councilwoman Newbille also recommended Storefront for Community Design, which led a series of community workshops to help residents design the memorial park. The city even agreed to allocate $100,000 towards the park’s construction.
Today, Jones is a dynamic leader in the Greater Fulton's Future initiative. In addition to chairing the legacy group, he also serves on the initiative’s steering committee and is a leader on other projects, such as voter registration drives.
In fact, Jones’ passion has built the commitment of outside partners and residents. “He’s been at virtually all the meetings and knocking on doors,” Fleming said. “He’s been really effective in gathering volunteers.”
More than a dozen members of Spencer’s once adversarial group are also active participants in Greater Fulton’s Future, noted Fleming. “Folks who could have blown this initiative up are full partners with us.”
Posted in Engaging, Richmond, VA