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.

One vacant lot at a time!



HipstamaticPhoto-514740072.919446wOne of the things we hear the most in these older neighborhoods downtown are complaints about vacant lots and vacant structures. Properties are left abandon for any number of reasons. Families move on, people pass on, records are lost and courts are full of property disputes. The bottom line is when owners don’t take care of these properties someone has to and generally that falls on city governments. It cost cities hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to cut grass, remove trash and tires that get dumped on unoccupied parcels. Owners can be fined but unless they live in the county you can’t do a lot more, especially if they pay their taxes. Claiming property for the greater good through eminent domain requires approval by the state legislature.

HipstamaticPhoto-519751680.590378wAt the end of the day, residents are left with eyesores at the very best, a place for mischief and a signal to all that pass, no body cares what their neighborhood looks like. The city has to spend valuable dollars on chronic conditions one handful at a time. Neighbors are left to complain, make calls, have a meeting or sometimes just take the bull by the horns and drag him to the finish line.

HipstamaticPhoto-519759709.533889wIt’s  not easy but it can be done and cities are wanting to move these properties from their land banks and their delinquent tax lists but more importantly, residents don’t want and shouldn’t have to settle for a ‘swiss cheese’ neighborhood riddled with vacant, overgrown, decaying properties and structures. This isn’t just the cities job, it is every bodies job to make our neighborhoods what we want them to be. In order to do that, you have to talk to each other and organize around your concerns, let people know what you want, but don’t stop there, make a plan.

HipstamaticPhoto-519765476.776466wTry to find properties next door, down the street or by your child’s school. Close to other assets that you can build off of and they can benefit from your work. Some cities have adopt-a-lot contacts that are renewed each year. Citizens or neighborhood groups can use the lots for community events, gardens, play areas or dog parks, and if they grow tired of maintaining it in a few years, it goes back to the city – no harm done. It could be a great way to expand your property lines and it’s value by picking a vacant property adjoining yours.

HipstamaticPhoto-520371609.346943wYou can check on vacant structures at the tax delinquency office. See if they qualify to be moved into the tax sale where you or someone else can buy it. Form partnerships with neighbors to buy these structures, fix them up to sell or rent. Then you can not only control the condition of the property you can also meet new neighbors before they move in and start a neighborhood business to fuel other projects, offer small grants to support a local project. Or you can complain, make calls, email public officials, and have a meeting.

IMG_5902wThe images you see here are from a project that we took on to improve a vacant lot across the street from Splitlog Farm and the M.E. Pearson elementary school. We have worked with many partners over the years but for the last couple of years, we have been working with YouthWorks who provided us with fresh crews morning and afternoon of energetic and inspirational teenagers that offer their services because they believe that they can make a difference by helping others.

IMG_5918wIMG_5786wYouthWorks provided about 800 hours of volunteer labor over the last month,  HDR of Kansas City provided the funding and HDR Denver gave us the design to turn this weed bearing lot into an outdoor classroom and pocket park for the kids and their families. It’s a start, one vacant lot at a time.

Meet Diosselyn Tot, Community Mobilizer for CHWC

I have been very fortunate to work with a lot of young folks, mostly teens, during my time at CHWC. They are the engine of the 2,000 hours of volunteer service every year. They are the ones that work side by side with me in neighborhood alleyways, in schools, parks, and at all of our CB&E projects in the Grandview Corridor. They knock on doors, dig post holes, plant flowers and gather up all of the disguising things that people discard from their basements, cars, and pockets. Not always a fun task especially in the heat of summer or the cold of weather.

There have been many, but the original Art Squad holds that special place in my heart. They were the first to buy into using Art as an engagement tool in neighborhoods, to attract other youth, and help residents address social concerns. They did the grunt work of involving neighbors, cleaning out vacant storefronts, cutting brush and turning the soil at our urban farm. They are amazing, but since the beginning nearly 7 years ago, 1 has moved away, 2 are in college, 1 has graduated and is gainfully employed. Which is all good and they still help out when they can.

Then there is Diosselyn Tot, the first person I met under the age of 30 when I started at CHWC. She was 15 years old, a volunteer, answering the phone, filing papers, and cleaning out the refrigerator. I asked her one day if she wanted to get out of here and do work in our neighborhoods. She said yes and we have both been in these neighborhoods ever since. She helped build our first community garden, recruited other youth, passed out fliers and was one of the founding members of the Art Squad. She has worked with me for nearly 7 years, as a volunteer, as part of our summer youth program, and for the past 2 years as a part-time employee.

Diosselyn has been an amazing and essential member of the team. She has taken responsibility for all of our Art programming including the EPIC Clay Studio. She works tirelessly to organize residents to work together, and address their concerns. Communicates with all of our neighborhood leaders, mentors youth and can even fill in at the coffee shop in an emergency. She is invaluable to our mission. Diosselyn graduates from KU this spring and plans to come on full time at CHWC.

Diosselyn has fostered several projects over the last few years and today I want to share her latest. As part of her curriculum work at KU she developed a website to promote Community Building & Engagement projects and programs in the Grandview Corridor, the most densely populated and poverty-ridden, per square foot, neighborhoods in Wyandotte County. Here is the link to the site:

   Community Solutions

A time to give thanks

It’s that time of year when I always try to draw a close to the past year and think about what went right and what went wrong, what I should change and what I should back away from, but this year I want to focus on giving thanks. Giving thanks for life and breath. Giving thanks to my family, that doesn’t always appreciate my humor nor my opinions, but always have my back and grace me with their love.

I want to give thanks for everyone that passes through my life each day, friend or foe, antagonist or protagonist, each enriching my life in their own way. I want to give thanks to the place that I was born in, Kansas City, Kansas. A blue collar town for sure but a place where neighborhoods exist. Where people talk to each other, host BBQ’s, welcome thousands from the surrounding neighborhoods on Halloween, have Christmas lighting contests, support the local schools through volunteerism and come out in droves to mourn our fallen. It is a unique place for sure.

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I want to give thanks to the organization I work for, Community Housing of Wyandotte County, for giving me the freedom to develop a new line of business, Community Building & Engagement, that didn’t exist before. For the last 6.5 years, I have been given the opportunity to use Art as an engagement tool to enlist youth and challenge youth to use Art as a tool to address social concerns in their neighborhoods. Conduct Art classes on street corners, in gardens, parks and even on an urban farm.  It has been 6.5 years of talking with residents, government employees, and non-profit organizations to focus on projects that engage residents, help them define what they  want in their neighborhoods and work towards achieving their goals.

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I want to give thanks for all of the young folks that believed they could make a difference. That they could be agents of change in the place that they live. I want to give thanks to all of the funders and individuals that have made donations to support the cause. The teachers that have allowed pre-school children to visit a small urban farm next to their school where they learn about plant science, grow vegetables, eat fresh berries, talk to the bees, and harvest fresh organic produce for their classmates. I want to give thanks to all of the partners that have been a part of making so many things happen that just didn’t exist before.

spfw5spfw10I want to give thanks to our young CB&E team, and the 400 plus volunteers that help us each year to create low-risk environments where neighbors can meet and get to know each other,  like the EPIC Clay Studio on Strawberry Hill, or the Community Garden in the St. Peter’s neighborhood,  Waterway Park,  Splitlog Farm in the Bethany neighborhood, and most recently the coffee shop, A Cup on the Hill,  on Minnesota Ave in our downtown business district/Riverview neighborhood. They are all different and unique projects in the Grandview Corridor.

I want to say thanks to all of the interesting characters that come to our Friday morning coffees to make new friends and share stories about life experiences. I also want to give thanks to all of those that wrote stories, took pictures and made videos of our projects and helped us promote the cause. Like the one shared below giving tribute to the programs and some of the folks involved.

It has been a rewarding 6.5 years for me, for my mind, for my heart and for the love of my community. So what happens next? I can’t really say, but if there is one thing I know — there is plenty of work left to do and I want to give thanks for that too!

Click to view video   Meet Steve Curtis

 

 

Community Engagement through Urban Farming

Last year two of Community Housing of Wyandotte County’s (CHWC) neighborhoods achieved their Quality of Life Goals set forth in the Neighborhoods Now program. CHWC has built affordable housing, provided Home Buyer education and conducted a Community Building and Engagement program lead by the Community Organizer and the ART SQUAD, a group of neighborhood youth that use ART and creative thinking to address neighborhood concerns, creating community spaces for residents to meet, mingle and learn.

Continue reading “Community Engagement through Urban Farming” »