The Huddle: Community Driven Change

March 30, 2016

By: ArtPlace America

We’re excited to continue our new blog format: The Huddle. As anyone who’s journeyed through our ArtPlace website will see, we have a very diverse group of funded projects that make up the ArtPlace family. But as with many large and dispersed families, it’s often hard to connect with one another.

The Huddle recaps conversations where our ArtPlace funded projects and organizations came together to talk through topics, get advice, and perhaps even gossip a little. After each one we will use these blogs to recap the insights, questions, and provocations from these conversations.

This round featured a conversation with Nia Umoja of Cooperative Community of New West Jackson, Erik Howard of Young Nation Detroit, Aaron Bartley of PUSH Buffalo, and Sophie Constantinou of Citizen Film on the question: “How are community members coming together outside of formal organizational structures to drive local change?"

At ArtPlace, we look for projects that embrace collaboration and recognize that effecting change in a community is most meaningful and lasting when that change is driven by the community itself. During this week's Huddle conversation, our panelists discussed their roles as conduits for change and how engagement with their communities led to change that was driven by the community.

"We see community engagement as a pre-condition to community-driven change," Nia Umoja, the lead organizer and creative director of Cooperative Community of New West Jackson (CCNWJ), explained. "We think of our work as community-led, not just driven. It's led by the residents who live here. But community engagement has to happen first."

Nia has led by example. She moved her family into the neighborhood (an 8 block area of west Jackson, Mississippi) where her organization now works to build a "sustainable model using abandoned property resources and the skill-sets of its residents."

After knocking on a lot of doors (and even getting "cussed out" a couple times) Nia slowly gained the support of her neighbors. After learning that 90% of the area’s residents had agricultural skills, CCNWJ started building what has become the 1.5 acre Grenada Street Folk Garden.

"They started hesitantly," she said. "They told me, 'Nothing's gonna change, this is always gonna be the hood. People have been talking about doing something in this neighborhood for a long time. You don't understand, you just got here. This is the worst neighborhood in the city.'”

“But as we progressed through this process of continued engagement we started to break down these value perceptions people had about their own space,” Nia continued. “Trees started to come down off the site where we built our farm, which had been the neighborhood dumping ground for years, and other neighbors came on. Before you knew it, people were helping out and picking up trash. Then the attitudes started to change. It moved from us pulling people along to people saying 'Okay, why don't we do this now?' That’s how it became community-driven."

Our Huddle panelists have consistently emphasized that building trust within the community is paramount, and this conversation was no different.

"The fundamental thing is time," Aaron Bartley, the executive director and co-founder of PUSH (People United for Sustainable Housing) Buffalo told us. "Are you a temporary idea or initiative, or are you able to show, over time, that things that have been planned by the community will come to be? If you stay and build those relationships over time then there's more trust."

Like CCNWJ, PUSH Buffalo works towards its goal of creating strong neighborhoods with quality affordable housing by acquiring parcels of property themselves. While CCNWJ has purchased 56, PUSH Buffalo has over 100. Not only does purchasing property ensure a long-term commitment to a community, it also helps lower-income areas transition out of what Aaron calls "extractive economies".

Instead of those properties becoming another predatory lending office or high-cost rental furniture store, they can be designated to meet specific community needs like green affordable housing, facilities for storm water management, or even gardens.

So once a community has been engaged, once people have accepted that a particular organization is there to act as a conduit for real change, how do you ensure ownership of that change rests within the community?

"The key," Erik Howard, co-founder of Young Nation, a Detroit nonprofit dedicated to promoting opportunities in the arts for young urban youth, explained, "isn't to lead and then hand it over, but to be sharing that leadership from the beginning. Even if you're passionate and you're a self-starter, you don't do anything by yourself. You're not a wave until there's a group with you."

"When we talk about leadership with our young people, we talk about 360 degree leadership," Erik continued. "We talk about the importance of staying humble enough to get under somebody if what you're trying to learn is important enough to you. You also have to have enough sense of responsibility to step up and support others when they're seeking help. And then there's the importance of peer leadership – leading across when there’s no hierarchy."

Even when leadership roles are shared, community engagement can't turn into community-driven change until people understand that a given project is truly in their hands.

Sophie Constantinou, a documentary filmmaker for Citizen Film who helped create the Green Streets recycling initiative in San Francisco, explained:

"[People need to know] that you're not going to ‘take over’. As an artist, there's often a sense of 'I'm making something beautiful for you.' Instead, we said 'Show us your beauty and we'll help craft it. But at the end of the day it's yours and it belongs to you and you'll take care of it.”

“I remember, I was out weeding these planters one day and from around the corner of the property, I saw someone stick their head out of a window and say, 'Hey! You! What are you doing?' and I said, 'I'm weeding! I'm just taking care.' And he said, 'Okay good, 'cause that's ours and we don't want people messing with it.' I spent years trying to see this happen and that moment sealed the deal. I felt like we had done our work right."

It’s a difficult balancing act, but when organizations can demonstrate their investment in a community and act as a means by which residents can gain a sense of agency, community-driven change isn’t just achievable – it’s inevitable.

What are your thoughts on community driven change? Is there any advice or models you’d offer from your own experiences?