What is Community Building & Engagement and why does it matter?

 

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.

Taking the right-hand turn

 

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When people talk to me about the life they are living I often hear the tones of desperation in their voice and general frustration in their inability to change the course of the life they are living. They may feel trapped in a sensitive family matter, an unfulfilling career, or the constant rollercoaster ride of an emotionally toxic relationship. They soon have self-doubts about who they are and if they can change the situation.

We all experience these imbalances, disruptions to our vision of the good around us and even the good we do for others. So we accept the good and the bad as a norm, modify our own expectations, take a left turn, adapt and survive. We keep turning left at every bump because that is what we know. Once you do it a couple of times you decide that it’s not too bad, you made it – right? You survived the hurt. That is what we do as humans, adapt and survive, because we know that space, we know the good, the hurtful and the effect on our mental health but we turn left anyway. It is known, it is sometimes predictable, but what it is not, is change.

 

IMG_6760wChange itself can be disruptive. Right turns lead to unexplored spaces, the unknown. As domesticated humans we want boundaries, we want instructions to the rules of the space. How we will be perceived if we act ourselves. What will we be rewarded for and punished for in this new place? We want to know how to adapt and survive. In reality, these new spaces are an empty canvas awaiting the instruction of the life that you are about to build. You set the rules of engagement for the people that bring you disappointment and those that bring joy. You set the rules for the career you want. You set the rules of your life and if you don’t, someone else will.

It all sounds pretty simple but in fact, both are challenging. A lack of resources, family support, or a whole range of other issues can create obstacles to moving on. Taking the right-hand turn is a bit like jumping out of a window hoping you can figure out your landing before you hit. If you are stuck, some planning and determination could help muster resources and support to allow you to change course. If you take the right turn, planning might allow you to pull the cord in airspace that you want to operate in. If that doesn’t work you may feel the impact of the ground, but so what, you already know how to adapt and survive.