Like most things, it can mean something different to all of us, from organizing residents to setting quality of life goals or sharing information about community services. The possibilities are endless. Often times Community Development Corporations have a separate line of business for Community Building & Engagement work. Some organizations outsource these services. In some cities, the local government employs CB&E services to help organize residential populations around major projects or developments. Housing authorities embed organizers in housing complexes to survey tenants about their concerns or to arrange programming services for continuing education, employment certifications, or financial services.
The point being that most community service organizations see the value of having a strong CB&E team to help citizens accept change and to actually involve them in the process so that they are empowered. Engaging residents in the process of change in a neighborhood is paramount to its sustainability. The old saying ‘build it and they will come ‘ isn’t always the reality of projects that are conceived from remote desktops in offsite locations. Change in a neighborhood takes time, residential investment, and trust of those involved in the process.
CB&E teams have different approaches to resident engagement. Some conduct hours of meetings with lots of discussion and role-playing. Others have a more ‘boots on the ground’ approach by embedding mobilizers that work to energize residents and volunteers to take on projects that address their concerns. Cleaning alleys, abating gang scripting and turning vacant lots into neighborhood greenspaces. Each neighborhood is different and may require different types of projects or programming. Some neighborhoods have other assets that you can partner with to increase resources and manpower. Cookie cutter approaches seldom have long-lasting results. These projects require continued support until neighborhood structure is strong enough to endure changing populations, values, and concerns.
Over the last 7 seven years, I was given the opportunity to create a separate line of business for CB&E programming at CHWC. As part of the strategic plan, we identified five neighborhoods in the urban core of Kansas City, KS. These neighborhoods are the most densely populated and poverty-ridden per square mile in all of Wyandotte County. It also has important assets like government offices, schools, and parks. The area is bordered on two sides by major business districts. We branded the residential neighborhoods as the Grandview Corridor and set goals to develop engagement projects in each of the five neighborhoods.
With a small staff of 2.5 FTE’s, some occasional seasonal youth employment and over 2,000 hours of volunteer help each year we were able to work with residents to build a community garden that is now operated by residents. Neighborhood youth started a graffiti abatement program to paint murals in alleyways that tell stories about the area, the property owner, or community messages about recycling, eating healthy food and resident concerns. Today they have painted over 50 murals in the Grandview Corridor.
We then added enhancements to Waterway Park like trees, benches, landscaping, lights, a soccer field and programmed the park with walking clubs, Art classes, and community events. Drawing over 100 people a day to enjoy exercising, relaxation and family activities. The park serves as a model for a neighborhood park and outdoor community center.
The following year we created the EPIC Clay Studio in an empty storefront and a sculpture park next door with a stage built by the KU School of Architecture. Two years later we constructed Splitlog Farm. Working with preschoolers to grow food for their school and their community. In 2015 we opened, A Cup on the Hill, the first coffee shop in downtown KCK providing great coffee, friendly service and a gathering place for residents and business owners. All of these projects have had bumps along the way but in the end, each has been a unique approach to community engagement.
In the fall of this year, NeighborWorks America held a retreat in Kansas City to tour our sites and begin to build a case study that will serve as a model for Arts, Culture, Creativity, and Placemaking for their National Training Institute. We couldn’t be prouder and we couldn’t be more thankful for the support of CHWC in making it happen.