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.

Can Public Spaces make Healthier Communities?

I recently read an article by Alex Smith, Can restoring Parks lead to better health in Wyandotte County, it mentions Waterway Park as an example of a park making a comeback in downtown Kansas City, KS. What is not mentioned is that the revitalization of Waterway Park was made possible by nonprofit agencies, grant funding, a few thousand hours of volunteer labor and summer programming.

IMG_1996wCommunity Housing of Wyandotte County wrote grants, recruited volunteers to plant trees, add landscaping and install benches, put in a bike rack and nighttime illumination. Added wheelchair accessibility, started walking clubs, and provided weekly Art classes in the summer. They also partnered with the Latino Health for All nonprofit organization to help fund a soccer field. The parks department installed workout stations and the YMCA held soccer clinics and IMG_1997wprovided personal trainers to help residents get the most benefit from the stations. Free Wheels for Kids, another nonprofit, held clinics and helped bring bike races to the park. Today Waterway Park is a shining example of what a neighborhood park can be when the residents and community organizations are engaged in community building.

 

So the question remains, Can restoring Parks lead to better health in Wyandotte County? and the answer is yes, they might, but they will have to be designed to invite people in. There should be places to sit, shade for hot days, water for drinking and restrooms so you can take the kids. They will need things to look at, things that move and grab one’s attention. They will need activity, programming for exercise, Art, educational opportunities, events. They will need to serve as outdoor community centers for the surrounding neighborhoods.

0730_1156wRestoring our parks is a great idea and can help some residents live healthier lifestyles but what is going to lead to a healthier Wyandotte County, is healthier neighborhoods. IMG_2725awAvailability of fresh vegetables and fruits in these urban neighborhoods through urban farms, gardens, and the availability of healthy snacks at neighborhood stores. Developing progressive vacant lot policies, addressing vacant structures, dealing with unethical slumlords, and engaging new residents to get involved in the greening of their community. Getting young kids involved in gardening, beekeeping, and recycling at school and at home.

IMG_2807awRestoring the health of our neighborhoods will have the biggest effect on the health of our residents and especially our children. 0504_4049wThey deserve clean streets, safe pathways to school, fresh produce, programmed parks and more adults showing them the way.

The ART SQUAD goes to Hollywood!

The ART SQUAD goes to Hollywood!

Actually they didn’t but I did go to the NeighborWorks Conference in Los Angeles last month to give a presentation about CHWC’s Art Squad and all the wonderful things they do for our neighborhood but lets start from the beginning.

It all started nearly 4 years ago when I took the Community Organizer job at Community Housing of Wyandotte County here in Kansas City, Kansas. My goal from the first day was to engage youth in our community through the Arts and to help them use Art as a tool to engage their community. First there were after school Art classes about creativity, technology and self-expression. We started an Art club and quickly had a small following.

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