Monday, March 31, 2014

Dorothy Richardson legacy extends to next generation

Dorothy Richardson
By Brian Levinson, senior regional public affairs and communications adviser (Midwest Region)

The legacy of Dorothy Richardson, whose efforts to save her Pittsburgh neighborhood led to the creation of what is now NeighborWorks America, has special meaning for one member of the NeighborWorks network.

Born and raised in Pittsburgh’s North Side, Tanisha Rush is proud of her ties to the city and her old neighborhood.

“The pride comes from knowing that the area used to be plagued with deteriorating housing and is now a vibrant neighborhood that includes new residential properties and restored historic homes,” she said of the area just north of downtown Pittsburgh. “It’s completely different from what it used to be.”

The neighborhood that Dorothy Richardson fought to preserve is now home to the Andy Warhol Museum, Heinz Field (where the Pittsburgh Steelers play) and PNC Park (Pittsburgh Pirates), as well as many other attractions.

“When I was growing up the area was primarily black and low-to-moderate income, with quite a few Section 8 housing projects and a lot of crime,” Rush said. “It started to change in the late ‘90s, which meant uprooting a lot of residents. The city saw the area’s potential because of its proximity to downtown and the nexus of all major transportation arteries.”

Rush moved from Pittsburgh to Cleveland nearly 20 years ago after graduating from college, and ultimately became a Community Reinvestment Act officer with a major bank. Her responsibilities included working with community-based organizations throughout northeast Ohio, including network member Neighborhood Housing Services of Greater Cleveland.

Tanisha Rush with
Lou Tisler, executive
director of NHS of
Greater Cleveland
“NHS of Greater Cleveland always stood out to me … knowing that Cleveland was one of the epicenters of the foreclosure crisis and seeing NHS helping so many residents,” Rush said. “NHS of Greater Cleveland was always there, so I’m honored to have an opportunity to serve on the board.”

Rush joined the NHS of Greater Cleveland board four years ago and went through an orientation in which Relationship Manager Angela Rohs presented the NeighborWorks history.

“When Angela started giving information about NeighborWorks and how it started and telling the story of Dorothy Richardson, my heart started pounding,” Rush said. “I said to myself, ‘that’s where I was born, how did I not know this,’ and I had an epiphany. I realized that NeighborWorks was ‘born’ in my neighborhood.”

Today, Rush is chair of the board of NHS of Greater Cleveland. However, she regularly makes the two-hour drive back to the North Side because her parents and many other relatives still live there. Many of her cousins, who had to move when the North Side started to revitalize have all “made their pilgrimage back,” Rush said. “Everybody lives within walking distance of each other.”

Rush said her service to NHS of Greater Cleveland is her way of giving back, not only to Cleveland but also to the North Side.

“My situation is very unique from a lot of my family. They didn’t get to walk the same path I walked. They are still living in affordable housing, still in need of assistance (in Dorothy Richardson’s old neighborhood), so it is only right for me to serve in any way that I can, and how fitting that I have gone full circle and can now serve NHS of Greater Cleveland.”

Rush adds, “I think serving NHS of Greater Cleveland is the ultimate reward. I’m associated with an organization that is really helping to make an impact on the community. I think of all the homebuyers we have educated, the free tax preparation services we have provided, and the number of homeowners we have created … Then I multiply that by all of the NeighborWorks organizations throughout the country. This is all happening because of this one woman in a neighborhood who launched this grassroots effort to say our homes are worth saving, our people are worth saving.”

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Is your town in the media ‘crosshairs’? Two more tips on taking your story back (Part 2)

By Pam Bailey, NeighborWorks America blogger

The alarm Ludy Biddle from NeighborWorks Western Vermont felt when she awoke one morning to see her town labeled the epicenter of a “heroin epidemic” in The New York Times was not unusual. Many other community developers have faced the challenge of re-branding a neighborhood even while the media highlight the community’s flaws. In Part 1 of this two-part post, Biddle and others recommended anticipating the challenge by agreeing on a collective narrative and refusing to repeat the negative. Read on for two more “tips from the trenches.”

Re-claim your narrative with positive stories

Instead of countering negative portrayals in the media, Biddle and other “crisis veterans” recommend focusing on your assets. That’s exactly what Pablo Korona did for the city of Rockford, IL. In 2011, both Forbes magazine and The Wall Street Journal listed it as one of America’s 10 most dangerous cities; even “The Daily Show” chimed in, calling it an “urban wasteland.”

screen shot of Our City, Our Story website
Around the time that the negative publicity was peaking, the Rockford native was working for an advertising agency where he was doing promotions for various city institutions. Korona felt the work he was doing for the company wasn't fully living up to the town’s slogan (“Real. Original.”) Instead, he struck out on his own, raising nearly $9,000 through the crowdfunding site Kickstarter to launch a website called Our City, Our Story. Its mission: “We tell the stories that if you live in Rockford, it makes you glad that you do. The stories that if you’re from Rockford, they make you proud to be. The stories that if you’ve never been to Rockford, they make you want to come here.”

Today, the site features a series of 19 video “episodes,” such as one that introduces the people who work at Forest City Gear, a local company that manufactured parts for the motorized vehicle used by NASA to explore the surface of Mars. The video has proven so popular that it alone has attracted more than 500,000 views. More are in the works.

“Sure, Rockford has problems, but we are so much more,” says Korona. “I wanted to share those stories – not with slick slogans, but in real voices. Authenticity trumps ‘polish’ every time.”

Of course, Korona also happens to be the kind of skillful video producer who can shoot in a “covert” style, in which it’s as if the camera isn’t even there. With the help of Korona’s equally savvy use of Facebook and Twitter, the website has generated rave reviews from The Washington Post and Fast Company, along with independent funding to keep it going. However, what is most exciting to Korona is the organic growth of “Our City. Our Story” beyond the website. For example, the local housing authority has hired Korona to teach residents themselves the art of authentic storytelling through moving pictures.

“I keep getting calls from people saying ‘you have to do a story about this and you have to do a story about that,’” Korona says. The intensive training program will teach residents how to tell those stories themselves. (If you want to learn more about the lessons Korona’s project offers for your town, register for the Louisville NeighborWorks Training Institute, where he will be a featured speaker at the May 21 symposium, “Telling a Purposeful and Powerful Story: Communicating for Maximum Impact.”)

Our City, Our Story is not designed to get media attention, although it certainly has. But if that is what you’re after, consultant Andy Goodman says to remember that “it’s not enough to have a good story.” In addition having a genuine news angle, the coverage that attracts an in-depth treatment and a large volume of “shares” taps into a broader theme.

“Certain stories really take hold in the public consciousness because they piggyback on a larger narrative,” explains the founder of The Goodman Center, whose mission is to help good causes reach more people with more impact. “If you want to replace one story with another, you must shift the frame of reference, from one resonant narrative to another.”

So, for example, the broader narrative behind the media coverage of Rockford and Rutland is that towns with high unemployment, foreclosures and related problems are like mini failed states. The job of Biddle and Kobana is to usurp that underlying theme with stories that demonstrate the amazing resilience that keeps those towns – and the vaunted American “spirit” -- alive.

Don’t get distracted! 

Two girls from the Northwest neighborhood of Rutland
contribute their "community gift" by offering their
ideas for the town via a questionnaire and agreeing
to volunteer.
Negative publicity is often unfair and incomplete, and very frustrating for staff members who are toiling in the trenches. However, Biddle and her team are not allowing the continuing fallout to distract them from their work in the neighborhood to create a better future. Whereas others on a “Project VISION” team created by the city to focus on the neighborhood are working on safety, health and employment, NeighborWorks of Western Vermont’s role is to encourage and re-enable homeownership in the troubled Northwest neighborhood.

The organization had sent eight members of the Project VISION team to the NeighborWorks America Community Leadership Institute in Sacramento last October, and this month, the “seed money” received by the participants was put to work: Thirty-five community volunteers spread out over the neighborhood to map its historical, personal, professional and physical assets, such as its Victorian-style architecture. Later, when the mapping project is done, the volunteers will continue on as a community association to plan activities to preserve, expand and celebrate those strengths.

Meanwhile, to reverse the blight and increasing density in the neighborhood, NeighborWorks of Western Vermont is submitting a request to the state for a community development block grant to take over 10 of the houses in the Northwest neighborhood; some will be demolished and rebuilt and others will be rehabilitated. To build excitement, the organization has partnered with the local Green Mountain Power company to transform one of the homes into a model of energy efficiency. In the planning stages is an announcement ceremony at the model house with Sen. Bernie Sanders.

“The home is owned by a local teacher and her husband – the type of people everyone would like to have as neighbors, and totally opposite to the portrait painted by The New York Times,” says Biddle. “We think it will serve as an example others will want to emulate. Check back with us over the next four years; this neighborhood is just beginning to re-discover its strengths!”

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Is your town in the media ‘crosshairs’? Four ‘tips from the trenches’ for re-claiming your story

By Pam Bailey, NeighborWorks America blogger

It’s every community developer’s PR nightmare. You’ve targeted a neighborhood for improvement and are making headway, when suddenly you wake up one morning to see the community described on the front page of The New York Times as “fighting a heroin epidemic so entrenched that it has confounded all efforts to combat it.”

That’s exactly what happened on Feb. 28 to Ludy Biddle, executive director of NeighborWorks of Western Vermont, and her team. The Northwest neighborhood of Rutland, a rural town of 16,000, had long been plagued by a high concentration of unemployment and poverty, and the resulting blight. Many of the community’s once-beautiful Victorian homes had been acquired by absentee owners and carved into dense, virtually single-resident-occupancy apartments. Among the negative consequences of the town’s challenges was drug abuse, fed by typically out-of-state dealers. The problem had become so serious that it was a major theme of Gov. Peter Shumlin’s “State of the State” address.

However, Biddle’s organization and others have been working hard to reverse those trends; in fact, when it surveyed more than 200 randomly selected residents in the neighborhood door to door last summer, it found that 58 percent were somewhat to very satisfied to be living there, and 85 percent were willing to invest time as volunteers to improve the neighborhood and its image.

Rutland volunteers Jenifer Dufresne and Sheila Nicholes
canvas the Northwest neighborhood for the
community survey.
“If we had not participated in NeighborWorks’ Community Impact Measurement project by conducting the survey, we would not have had any data to show that the neighborhood has strengths as well,” says Biddle, adding that the research, which uses tools designed by the Success Measures initiative at NeighborWorks America, will be repeated in three years to track progress in the neighborhood over time. “Our experience has really proven the value of taking the time to assess community-level attitudes. The timing turned out to be ideal.”

But how do you capitalize on the good work you’re doing when the media are telling a different story? The New York Times article was widely shared on Facebook, with the mayor’s son even hearing about it while skiing in Colorado. Soon, reporters from media ranging from Fox News, to Rolling Stone, to Al Jazeera were calling. In addition, state-level officials are further highlighting the issues faced by the city; on March 17, Sen. Patrick Leahy held an unusual “field hearing” in Rutland focused on “Breaking the Cycle of Heroin and Opioid Addiction.”

Biddle and her colleagues are not alone. Many other organizations working in distressed neighborhoods have faced similar challenges. Here are some “lessons learned” from Biddle and her Rutland colleagues, as well as other community-development professionals who have survived to thrive after PR crises:

Shape your story in advance – with collective buy-in

 “The first instinct of people who are doing good work, such as the police department, is to talk about it. It’s human nature,” says Marcia Nedland from Fall Creek Consultants, who was retained in 2013 as part of a team charged with advising the city’s re-development agency on strategies for revitalization. “But it’s important to distinguish between your plan to fight crime and the image you want your community to have among potential homebuyers, for example. Stories in the media about your heroic efforts to catch drug dealers may make you feel good, but they will scare away people who are contemplating moving there.”

Paul Singh, senior manager with NeighborWorks America’s Stable Communities Initiative, agrees, saying his team advises organizations to separate “internal stories” from external ones. “Internally, you need to address deficiencies directly and celebrate the work that you are doing. But that is not necessarily what you talk about ‘outside the family.’ Externally, it’s important to promote your assets.”

To help nonprofits create strong brands for their communities and re-build market demand, the initiative launched a Neighborhood Marketing Program in 2012. Through the program, NeighborWorks America is helping 16 organizations across the country implement marketing strategies designed to bolster neighborhood strengths and counter negative perceptions. Seven to 10 more communities will be chosen in 2014.

Don’t repeat the negative

If adverse publicity does occur, you don’t always need to respond! “For many people, the first inclination after a story like the one in The New York Times is to respond just as publicly that ‘most Rutland residents don’t use heroin.’ But what people will remember is the reference to heroin – so you’ve just reminded them of what you want them to forget,” says Biddle. Her organization and the other members of the city's neighborhood-revitalization team (called Project VISION) agreed to turn down the requests flowing in for further interviews on the subject.

Of course, saying “no” to media interviews doesn’t mean not responding at all. Mark Dohan, executive director of the Twin Cities Community Development Corporation (TCCDC) in Fitchburg, MA, recalls when a sensational murder occurred last summer in his town’s Elm Street neighborhood.

New logo for the Elm Street neighborhood, showing a tree with broad roots.
The new logo for the Elm Street
neighborhood in Fitchburg, MA.
“The area had been plagued by crime and foreclosures, but we were making good progress in building and selling new houses to reverse the blight in the neighborhood,” says Dohan, whose organization participates in the Neighborhood Marketing Program. “Then came this front-page news. We had to respond; after all, any death is a tragedy. But we decided to deal with facts on the ground, not in the media.”

To acknowledge the loss of human life and help the neighborhood heal, the TCCDC helped to organized a vigil that allowed residents to come together and restore a sense of connectedness. And in the fall, the TCCDC held its first neighborhood-wide open house, attracting an influx of real-estate agents and potential homebuyers. The new logo for the marketing program: “Elm Street: We’re Building a Neighborhood.”

“We went back to the media that covered the neighborhood in the wake of the murder, but after a little time had passed, and with new stories about what’s happening in our community,” says Dohan. “We are re-claiming what defines us.”

In the next blog post: two more lessons from the trenches of PR crises – taking back your story, and preventing disruptions from distracting your team from its work.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Inspired by CLI, teens open ‘clothing closet’ to fight bullying

By Pam Bailey, NeighborWorks America blogger

Bullying is painfully common on school campuses everywhere – with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimating that one in four high school students are victimized, and more than two-thirds are witnesses.

Among the frequent victims are children from low-income families who can’t afford to dress in “trendy” clothes. That’s particularly a problem for the immigrant farmworker families served by the Cabrillo Economic Development Corporation (CEDC), whose children must attend school alongside wealthier students in California’s Ventura and Santa Barbara counties.

Patty Suarez is interviewed about the anti-bullying campaign with a radio reporter.
Patty Suarez (left) talks to a local radio reporter.
“Bullying often starts when someone judges your appearance,” says Patty Suarez, an 18-year-old who lives in one of CEDC’s 22 rental communities. “Like, I saw one girl get harassed because she wore knock-off boots. So the kids in my youth group decided to do something about it.”

Youth engagement is a core focus of CEDC’s community-building program. The organization has nurtured a youth-leadership group at each of its rental properties,  with activities ranging from lobbying the city council for better access to mass transit in their neighborhood to a mural-painting project that brought together different generations within families.

“We ask the youth what they care the most about – what they like doing, what they think needs improvement in their community,” says Juliana Gallardo, a community building manager who first joined CEDC in 2009 through the AmeriCorps VISTA program. “Then we help them focus on an activity they choose.”

In 2013, CEDC’s community-building team worked with youth leaders at the organization’s Villa Cesar Chavez property to start an anti-bullying campaign, including “flashmobs” to raise awareness at local events, after participants began reporting problems at school.

“My parents couldn’t pay for new clothes, because they have to pay for so many other important things, like food,” Vanesa Palomar told a local newspaper, describing how fellow students snickered at her worn garb. “Sometimes one of them would get laid off, or they wouldn’t have work for a few days. They worked really hard, but it wasn’t enough.”

To explore ways to fight bullying, a group of youth visited an organization in a nearby town that offers a similar "closet" of donated clothes.
A group of CEDC youth visited another organization
that sponsors an anti-bullying teen clothes closet in a
nearby town.
Suarez’ group at the Fillmore Central Station Apartment property soon joined in. Then, CEDC took the youth on a field trip to an organization in nearby San Luis Obispo that had developed a unique response to the same challenge: a “closet” of donated, fashionable clothes for youth who couldn’t afford them otherwise. They decided to start their own version of the project, which they call PACT (“providing accessible clothing to teens”).

To help the teens develop the organizational skills they would need to initiate and operate the program, CEDC sent the team to NeighborWorks America’s Community Leadership Institute last October.

“It was pretty cool to meet older people who are so interested in helping communities. More people care than I thought,” Suarez recalls. “They were surprised to see kids at the conference. But they were very welcoming.”

The trip to the conference in Sacramento helped give the teens the confidence to launch the project, and they began visiting yard sales as well as soliciting donations via community flyers and social media. “The response was so great that we literally filled up the back of a large truck,” says Gallardo. “And the donations keep coming in.”

The youth sort the clothes; any items that aren’t appropriate are given to a local homeless shelter or other charity. In January, the PACT teen closet opened in the community room of the Fillmore apartments. However, the complex is five blocks away from the school, and the youth want its services to be available to everyone in need under the age of 18 living in Ventura County – not just their building’s residents. So, PACT is re-locating to the Big Brothers Big Sisters mentoring room at the town high school – complete with an open house on April 12. Open twice a week for two hours each day, PACT is totally run and staffed by the students -- offering an ideal exposure to the skills required for entrepreneurship, with plenty of opportunity for job training.

 “We’re even partnering with a local organization that places students age 16-21 in internships. PACT will be a host site,” says Gallardo.

According to Suarez, PACT has become so popular that it has taken the “sting” out of wearing second-hand clothes. PACT clothes are cool!