When Cynthia Ford came to Community Matters in Lower Price Hill, she just needed help getting an ID.
She got her ID — and connections to opportunities to use her skills for the good of the neighborhood.
“In our old model, we would have helped Cynthia get an ID and then not see her again until she needed something. However, the ID was just the beginning of our story,” Executive Director Mary Delaney says.
Cynthia shared that she is a jewelry artist, and Community Matters connected her with our Lower Price Hill Arts Collective, which she now leads as the Resident Artist. She launched Learning Labs, a space for neighbors to share their creative talents, and also the Neighborhood Action Team to work on food access and affordable housing advocacy in the community. Most recently, she was elected as the president of the community council.
“Needing an ID turned into the discovery of a talented community leader and champion for equity in our community,” Delaney says.
Organizations across Greater Cincinnati are using this model of community organizing and engagement to foster social capital. Building relationships and increasing community connections allows organizations across the region to maximize the impact of place-based investments and improve their neighborhood’s quality of life.
“Often in neighborhoods, people are trying to make their day-to-day work. Looking out for that broader community vision — that’s hard,” says Valerie Daley, Associate Director of the Community Building Institute of Xavier University. “A community organizer can help people see that working together they can achieve the things they really want.”
Building relationships, making connections. This is the heart of the work being done by community organizers across the region, though the day-to-day to-do list and schedule is never the same.
They’re planning community events, carting supplies, and working the crowd. They’re creating Google spreadsheets of neighborhood contacts and sending email newsletters. They’re making phone calls to get residents to meetings and making home visits to help people navigate bureaucratic processes. Community organizers do their work over coffee and in living rooms, in conversations on sidewalks, and in boardrooms.
“They are the ambassadors of the work of the (community development organization),” says Emma Shirey, CBI community building associate. “It’s a both-and: They are ambassadors for the organization and ambassadors for the residents … It’s making residents understand they have power.”
When Greer Aeschbury joined the staff of Working In Neighborhoods as the community engagement coordinator, she spent six months meeting with more than 100 people, listening to their concerns and hopes for their neighborhoods: South Cumminsville, Millvale, North and South Fairmount, and English Woods. Over and over again, trash came up.
“None of us have enough power individually to change a neighborhood. We can go pick up trash every day, but we can’t, individually, change the system to stop the dumping,” Aeschbury says. “Money and people are the two big sources of power. We have to bring people together to make up for money … The work is done by residents at the end of day. I’m just bringing them together.”
Talking to residents and really listening lets organizations uncover the needs and resources of a community. Community plans are created — and changed — through these relationships.
“You have to be flexible, open to have a community organizer on staff,” Daley says. “You can’t predict what comes out of it.”
In Covington, the Center for Great Neighborhoods had heard for years from residents that the old lumber mill on 12th Street was a blight. So when the chance came to buy the property and redevelop it, the Center took it.
But that wasn’t the end of the conversation, placemaking director Sarah Allan says. The Center surveyed the community and had focus groups to determine the best use for the building, which opened in 2016 as the Hellman Creative Center, a home to artist studios, the Center’s offices, and more than 3,000 square feet of public gathering space.
And still the conversations continue, with community events and programming aimed at bringing in new voices and faces to the Center.
“It’s sort of never-ending, if you’re doing it right,” Allan says.
Organizations often measure the work of community engagement in event attendance, people contacted, or surveys completed. But social media counts don’t always tell the whole story, says Patrick Cartier, community engagement and communications manager for Avondale Development Corporation.
“You have to know people,” Cartier says. “You can put up a flyer on Facebook to have a resident meeting, but if you don’t know anyone, nobody’s going to show up.”
Sometimes the value of a community organizer — a person whose job it is to really know a neighborhood and its people — is found in hard-to-measure moments.
It’s the instant Tia Brown, community engagement coordinator at Seven Hills Neighborhood Houses in the West End, realizes that she’s spent a whole week helping people navigate code enforcement citations and it’s time to make a call to City Hall to see if there’s a bigger issue to be addressed. It’s the coffee meeting when someone asks Price Hill Will community coordinator Samantha Conover for help designing a logo and she can pull from memory — and her trusty spreadsheet — contact information for a graphic designer in the neighborhood. It’s the constant conversations about the neighborhood needing a grocery store that lead to request-for-proposals from the Walnut Hills Redevelopment Foundation.
“A CEO, the CFO, they have other jobs. They don’t necessarily have the time to say, ‘Let me get down and dirty with you.’ A community organizer has that time, and you need that component to make your services better,” says Aprina Johnson, community engagement coordinator in Walnut Hills. “We give resources to let other people do good things in the community. We create bridges for people of any kind to have access.”
The series, Community Stories, is supported by LISC Greater Cincinnati. Learn more at lisc.org/greatercincinnati.
LISC supports contributing journalist, Hillary Copsey. Read more stories about community development from Hillary here.