Archive for May, 2012

Forum to unite West Philly Block Captains for skill building, networking on August 4th

May 17, 2012

In August, Block Captains from West Philadelphia have an exciting opportunity to network and develop their skills as community leaders and advocates.

The West Philadelphia Block Captains Forum on August 4th, will bring together about 100 block captains across West Philadelphia for a day of leadership development and building connections. This day-long workshop will then set the stage for a semester-long pilot “Block Captains Institute” with 20-25 dedicated block captains.

LISC supports comprehensive community development efforts in West Philadelphia through an initiative called SCI West. As part of our Connecting Citizens effort, SCI West is working with the Partnership CDC and the Neighborhood Advisory Council (NAC) office to organize the Block Captains Forum and pilot the leadership development “institute” for block captains in West Philadelphia.

The tentative workshops at the Block Captains Forum will help Block Captains:

  • Learn how to use the INTERNET to find resources for your community;
  • Learn how to participate in key ZONING and planning decisions in your neighborhood;
  • Develop a community SAFETY strategy and identify partners who can help;
  • ENGAGE and lead neighbors to participate in neighborhood improvement;
  • Learn how to use city services to improve a VACANT properties; and
  • Access resources and tools for managing an EMERGENCY

Corridors Connect underway – business associations across West Philly work together to strengthen their corridors

May 17, 2012

Business owners and leaders representing seven commercial corridors across West Philly have come together to build the capacity of their respective business associations. The program is called West Philadelphia Corridors Connect (WPCC) and is being led by The Enterprise Center’s Retail Resource Network and a team of partners convened by SCI-West. The collaborative effort of business associations, business owners, corridor managers, and CDCs from different parts of West Philadelphia distinguishes this initiative.

WPCC is an innovative program that incorporates hands-on support for individual business leaders, a business leadership training certificate program from partner Drexel University, and capacity building for leaders from seven neighborhood Business Associations.

One major goal of the endeavor is to increase the bottom line for businesses along West Philadelphia corridors. To do that, WPCC partners aim to strengthen the business associations representing those corridors, ensuring there are effective entities working actively to improve conditions, engage businesses, and attract more customers.

Algernong Allen, owner of Elena’s Soul (4325 Baltimore Ave) and board member of the Baltimore Avenue Business Association, said “Our overall goal is to increase retail traffic, which in turn increases revenues for the businesses.” The Baltimore Avenue Business Association is moving in a positive direction, he said, but the organization still needs help getting more organized, increasing its membership, and improving the image and visibility of the corridor. “[Corridors Connect] offers us that opportunity by bringing consultants and people who have taken their business associations to the next level, so they have been through the same process that we are going through,” Allen explained. “They can offer us formalized advice, practical experience, and encouragement to move us in that direction.”

Building the capacity of businesses and Business Associations on the ground will create a strong foundation for corridor and neighborhood revitalization. By identifying each corridor’s needs, the program hopes to attract additional public investment and increased private partners for future corridor development.

“We are kind of still in an incubation period. We have good membership – it’s last count was over 70, and they’re all active, and we’re working together of one accord,” Art Williams said about his association, the 52nd Street Business Development Corporation (BDC). Williams, who owns a salon called The Art of Beauty, says the program is helping the 52nd Street BDC work toward its goals. “Where I would like to see things go is that the BDC would be a model for other business associations in the area. I am hoping that we will be able to change the perception of people about shopping on 52nd Street. And, in the far future, I hope that we have our own initiatives for cleaning, security, and things like that.”

Business associations will leave the program better equipped to attract members and raise funds, according to Derise Stovall, Retail Support Specialist at The Enterprise Center. “There have to be some benefit to belonging to the business associations. Businesses need to see growth and opportunities in joining.” Stovall would also like to see business associations empowered to identify and attract a mix of businesses to fill vacant storefronts.

Corridors Connect goes the extra mile by bringing leadership from different corridors together. According to SCI-West director Iola Harper, strengthening connections across corridors is a viable strategy for economic development. “It’s not just consumer driven, but also relationship-driven,” she said. “The additional value that this program brings is in building social capital.”

In this way, different corridors have the opportunity to share successful strategies and even collaborate on corridor initiatives. “In the long term, there’s lots of potential for well-organized, large-scale cooperation among the groups,” said Allen. “The highest potential for economies of scale is marketing, perhaps a centralized administration, and the facilitation of fundraising opportunities.” For example, participants will use lessons about joint marketing to develop new cross-corridor marketing.

The Business Associations are also looking into collaborative fundraising and group purchasing for things like lighting and security cameras for multiple corridors. Williams said, “Once things are settled down in my little universe here at 52nd Street, I would love to get more involved with 60th Street and other corridors that are neighboring.”

The neighborhood-wide collaborative can more easily take advantage of city-wide services, which will have greater impact on multiple corridors. Moreover, the diverse group of stakeholders will be well-positioned to advocate for policies that benefit neighborhood businesses and districts.

Moving toward a collaborative model requires a change of mindset for businesses who are used to competing with each other. “We understand a few things that have never been present before, and one is that we are not competing against each other,” Willaims said. “We have to focus our attention on making people want to spend more time on our business corridors.”

West Philadelphia business associations, business leadership, corridor managers, and CDC’s are all working together to make the project successful. Each party was invited in early on to help determine the program’s overall goals, suggest training topics, and recruit participation among corridor businesses. The collaborative held a focus group dinner at Drexel University on March 15th in order to incorporate the essential input of business leaders and corridor managers into the implementation of WPCC.

“I think the dinner was a great way to elicit our feedback in creating a program that would fit the needs of the people going through the course,” said Allen, “so that the result is a tailored framework as opposed to a standard cookie cutter model.” In this way, business association leaders are engaged as partners in implementing the program, in addition to being participants and clients.

The first session was held on April 25 on Drexel’s campus. Guest speakers David Feehan of Civitas Consultants LLC and Laura Schwartz of Regional Housing Legal Services spoke to the participants about structures and strategies for governance that allow a business association to be sustainable. The session explored financial controls, organizations best practices, and the core functions of a business association.

Ali Hossain, a member of the 52nd Street Vendors Association who participated in the two sessions so far, said, “My goal is to get as much information I can get and also to learn as much as I can and then pass it on to the other vendors.” While Hossian appreciates the opportunity to help strengthen and lead his organization, he hopes the pilot program can expand to include more participants: “Only a couple of people are getting the knowledge… I think everybody should be involved with this program.”

Williams agrees that more businesses and association members need access to the information. “It’s really hard to get business owners out into a room right now,” he said. “[Corridors Connect] at least allows myself or any other person in leadership to come learn and take it back to the nest and share the information.”

Corridors Connect is a collaborative effort among a great group of SCI-West partners: Philadelphia LISC, The Enterprise Center, Drexel University Center for Public Policy, the Partnership CDC, People’s Emergency Center CDC, University City District, the Philadelphia Commerce Department and the Welcoming Center for New Pennsylvanians. The collaborative aims to develop this pilot project into a replicable and scalable program, building on its projected success in West Philly as well as working with business associations in new parts of Philadelphia. Allen and other participants are hopeful: ‘Like any prototype, it takes iterations of work to make it scalable and replicable. I think we’re at a good starting point.”

Task force lays foundation for resident-driven civic association in Mantua

May 17, 2012

A group of 14 engaged residents have formed the Mantua Civic Association Task Force to begin laying the groundwork for a civic association in Mantua.

The goal of the task force is to create a civic association: an active body that would meet regularly and publicly to provide residents information about activities in Mantua. The civic association would also provide an opportunity for residents to give input and take action around issues affecting the neighborhood.

SCI-West is supporting the task force with the help of a facilitator. So far, LISC and SCI-West have worked to strengthen the We Are Mantua! Choice Planning Initiative by convening key neighborhood stakeholders and hiring a community organizer to engage residents in the planning process.

At a task force meeting, members worked to craft vision and mission statements.

Many Mantua residents, task force participants reported, have historically felt isolated from each other, closed out of the community decision-making process, and disconnected from information about changes in their neighborhood.

“We don’t get information about development in Mantua,” said resident Joseph Walker, who is participating in the task force. Without a civic association that has recognition from developers and the city, Mantua residents are left uninformed on development decisions. “When developers come in to the community they do not have a specific organization to come to, so they’re not sharing information,” Walker explained. “By the time we get the information it’s already been through zoning, and it’s too late for us to decide to approve it or go against it.”

Residents realized through recent planning meetings of We Are Mantua! that their individual frustrations were shared by many of their neighbors. “Everybody seems to be on the same page,” Walker added. “We are creating the civic association so that when developers come to the area, this will be the organization where they get permission, where community members can be informed.”

The task force is excited about the prospect of a resident-driven organization for other reasons as well. The organization could help the community address the needs of residents, advocate for community health, share the area’s vibrant history, and set a collective vision for the neighborhood. Youth member Brandon Pembleton said, “The civic association is supposed to be used for standing up for the rights of the community, to make sure that no one is misinformed, to make sure that everyone has the right information.” Through engaging residents, leading projects, connecting with city departments, and communicating with elected officials, the new organization hopes to address the priority issues and champion the recommendations identified by residents in the We Are Mantua! planning effort.

Speaking with one voice: What a civic association could do

The Mantua community faces significant challenges, from rampant crime to recent school closings, unemployment to a proliferation of vacant and abandoned land. Yet its location– its proximity to Drexel University and Center City, with connections to Fairmount Park, the Philadelphia Zoo and the Schuykill River—makes the area poised for redevelopment. The challenge is using community transformation to benefit existing Mantua residents, without pricing them out of the neighborhood or altering the community’s identity.

“There are multiple issues in Mantua: issues of poverty, low graduation rates, housing – you name it, we got it,” said task force member Gwen Morris. “All of these are urgent concerns. That is a challenge for whatever this civic association turns out to be.”

Morris decided to move to Mantua over 30 years ago because residents here were organized and empowered. Now she’s working with the Civic Association Task Force because she hopes the community association would allow the neighborhood “to galvanize our resources and organize our resources in a way that is effective for the entire community.” She envisions Mantua as “a community that is safe, clean and self-reliant, and empowered to make decisions in the best interest of all – those are the pieces that make a community viable.”

Residents participating in the task force are especially concerned about the availability of affordable housing. They worry about the proliferation of rental housing, the declining affordability of homeownership units, and the loss of existing homeownership as a result of debt, tangled title, tax delinquency, and other issues. “When people don’t know what to do, they can get their homes taken away,” Walker said, adding that a civic association could provide information and resources to help preserve homeownership.

The president of the neighboring Powelton Village Civic Association attended the last task force meeting, to begin sharing ideas, providing guidance and building a collaborative relationship. Residents learned that in the more well-off Powelton Village community, only 12% of the homes are owner-occupied – the rest is rental. “That’s our fear as a community – we see a lot of rental housing going up, but none for the people who reside here,” explained Morris. “It’s real clear that they’re for students: low- and middle-income families can’t afford them. There is no new development that addresses the issue of homeownership.”

An established Civic Association with widespread community engagement and support, good leadership, and appropriate recognition could ultimately help the community influence development decisions. “Part of what was standing in the way of progress in Mantua was the fact that they weren’t organized,” Morris explained. “I think its important for the community to be able to demonstrate that we are organized and we speak with one voice.”

We Are Mantua! organizer Donna Griffin is hopeful that this will allow the community “some input and negotiating ability and say-so about what’s happening in their community in terms of development.”  Griffin explained that the new Civic Association in Mantua will have the opportunity to become a Registered Community Organization (RCO) with the City of Philadelphia. With this new structure, any developer who submits an application for any kind of construction in Mantua would have to notify the local RCO within a seven-day period and present their intentions at a public community meeting. In addition to increasing community awareness, the RCO would be able to pass a resolution about the proposed development to influence the city’s planning decisions.

The Civic Association also aims to serve residents, providing them with information and resources, leading initiatives, organizing projects, and establishing a “central location” for residents to connect. Walker said, “It will be a hub for resources and information, and a center for our outreach.”

We make the road by walking: Setting up the civic association

In the meantime, the Civic Association Task Force is charged with shaping what the civic association’s roles and responsibilities will be, developing rules of membership and governance, and creating the overall framework and structure of the civic association.

“For a number of years, there hasn’t been a group that is resident-driven,” said Evette Banfield, who is facilitating the task force meetings. “There is a sense that in the past residents were more unified as a neighborhood and they want to rebuild that and reclaim that for themselves.”

The Task Force is working with Banfield to build capacity, exchanging information and ideas with other civic associations, and meeting regularly (every other week) to complete the structure and set of job descriptions before elections on June 19th. “We’re learning how the process works, what it takes to form a separate association, and who it’s supposed to benefit and how,” Walker said.

Banfield, who has worked to support various community building initiatives for over 10 years, says she tries to create opportunities for residents to express their views while also facilitating a process where their intentions and their ideas for an organization become a reality. Among other things, she is currently helping the residents identify a vision for their neighborhood and articulate a mission statement for the association.

The group will also work to get the word out among the community, informing residents about the Civic Association being formed in Mantua, responsibilities of the available leadership positions, and overall membership criteria. “We are very intentional in terms of determining how many youth should be part of the civic association, businesspersons, as well as residents,” Griffin said. “We’re looking for a comprehensive as well as full representation of community stakeholders on the task force.”

Youth from Da Bottom 4… (DB4), the youth advisory committee for We Are Mantua!, are also serving on the task force. As far as the age range, the civic association is a diverse group,” said Pembleton, who is part of the task force “to give youth insight and opinion.” So far the group has been very concerned with involving the youth, Pembleton said. “I was shocked to see we – DB4 and the civic association – have the same goals in mind.”

Finally, community residents will elect who they would like to be leaders among their Civic Association. Those selected leaders would then undergo additional capacity building as a representative body for Mantua in an attempt to minimize some of the challenges with setting up a new organization.

In for the long haul: The latest in a long process of organizing

A HUD Planning Grant provided the local public housing site Mt. Vernon Manor with resources to support a neighborhood planning process rooted in community engagement. In February, We Are Mantua! started bringing together residents from across the neighborhood to begin addressing community challenges. The diverse, inter-generational and multi-cultural group has since been developing a set of priorities and recommendations for community improvement.

In the long run, the Mantua Civic Association can work to increase resident civic engagement and improve the quality of life for all Mantua residents. “Many Mantua residents don’t believe that things will change here,” Griffin explains, “so this is a big step in communicating to the community at large that we can organize and become the voice of Mantua and influence what happens in our community.”

Mantua youth organization hosts free HIV testing

May 17, 2012

An organization of youth from Mantua, known as Da Bottom 4… or DB4, hosted a HIV screening for Mantua residents on May 10 and May 15. Approximately 50 people showed up at the West Philadelphia Community Center to be tested on those two days. BEBASHI, a full-service HIV/AIDS case management agency in Philadelphia, provided the free testing.

Vinte Clemons, an intern who has been recruiting youth age 14 to 24 to the organization, said, “Awareness has to be present to take action.” Clemons and other active members participated in the testing to set an example, donning DB4 shirts and handing out fliers about the organization.

DB4 was organized as the youth advisory committee for the We Are Mantua! planning initiative. Youth in the new organization have contributed to the planning effort and to a number of projects targeting young people in the neighborhood. They look forward to becoming an independent and sustainable organization, working to bring opportunities to Mantua and advocate for neighborhood youth.

“Community Connectors” street teams trained in door-to-door resident engagement

May 17, 2012

On Wednesday, May 16, Philadelphia LISC and its partners celebrated the graduation of three teams of “Community Connectors” – 40 individuals in total – at City Hall.

In April, teams of residents in Eastern North Philadelphia and West Philadelphia came together to learn how to reach out and engage their neighbors effectively in community development.  These “Community Connectors” will form Street Teams who go door-to-door to connect face-to-face with community residents, bringing them valuable information about resources, events, and services in their communities and gathering invaluable data and feedback from a grassroots perspective.

The Community Connectors program was initiated by Philadelphia LISC and will be implemented in its two Sustainable Communities Initiative neighborhoods: West Philadelphia (SCI-West) and Eastern North Philadelphia (SCI-Eastern North). The graduation will signal the end of the Community Connectors’ training, and the beginning of their community engagement work.

Cristina Gutierrez, a teacher and resident of Eastern North Philadelphia who is participating in the Community Connectors training, explained, “The whole purpose of this is to prepare the community members and give them good resources on how they can engage others and try to achieve common goals for the betterment of our communities.”

The program grows out of a model Community Leaders street team pioneered by The Enterprise Center CDC in SCI-West. By knocking on every door in Walnut Hill, TEC_CDC’s street team has helped residents stay engaged during the neighborhood’s planning process and beyond. Street team members have also helped residents sign up for programs and services to help improve their lives.

Community Connectors completed the Enterprise Center CDC’s “Community Leaders” training program.

“People need to get more involved,” said Taylor James, a 22-year-old Community Connector from the Belmont neighborhood in West Philly. “Going out and talking to people is a good way to start giving out information that could really help people. I am making an effort to try to change my community,” The program does not solely benefit community members; street team participants receive part-time income and an opportunity for personal and professional development.

In SCI-West, the team will begin their outreach by completing a door-to-door survey throughout the Mantua community, supported by the People’s Emergency Center (PEC). The survey will collect invaluable information for the community-driven HUD Choice Neighborhoods planning efforts and the ongoing community engagement strategies of SCI-West and PEC.

“The Community Connectors team informs residents about changes and resources in their community. Even more importantly for us, the connectors offer a tangible way to learn from the community,” says SCI-West Director Iola Harper. “Anyone can give out information, but getting feedback from residents is what is really exciting.”

The Community Connectors team in Eastern North Philadelphia will help implement the Quality of Life Plan that residents and organizations throughout the target area put together last year with support from LISC and Asociación Puertorriqueños en Marcha (APM). The team will engage a diverse group of residents to develop committee structures and activities and implement action-oriented campaigns and projects.

“This community has put together an incredible vision for a better future and is ready for action,” says Marangeli Mejia-Rabell, the community organizer for SCI-Eastern North. “With the Community Connectors, we can engage more residents and support them to build a better neighborhood.”

In both of LISC’s Sustainable Communities target areas, the Community Connectors street teams are part of a larger resident engagement strategy supported by the Knight Foundation. This strategy, called Connecting Citizens, aims to maximize the availability of relevant and credible information, enhance the information capacity of individuals, and promote public engagement by strengthening an information infrastructure.

“People need access to credible, relevant information in order to improve their lives, better their communities, participate in the process of governance, and feel a sense of connectedness with their environment,” says Jamie Gauthier, Program Officer at LISC. “Community Connectors will provide one piece of a comprehensive information infrastructure that will give communities more power to choose and help build a brighter future.”

Components of this strategy are underway in both SCI neighborhoods. LISC and its partners are building on the successful SCI projects that serve to connect and inform residents, like Digital Connectors and the existing SCI social media tools.

Both SCI sites will employ a comprehensive social media platform, using accessible technologies in coordination with computer labs and digital literacy training. The project will link residents with SCI’s organizing efforts, information, and resources in real-time – on the SCI website, blogs, Facebook pages, Twitter feeds, Flicker photo-streams, and YouTube accounts.

The training will be completed by April 12, and the Connectors will start work almost immediately in their neighborhoods. Gutierrez said, “I envision a place where the children that I teach have a safe place to grow up.” She is looking forward to getting started: “I am excited to learn how to encourage and motivate people to just get together and do things… It is our community. This is something we have to do together.”

Mantua residents & Philadelphia LISC team up for playground rejuvenation

May 11, 2012

Working to create a beautiful and safe community, 25 Mantua residents spent April 20th sprucing up their favorite community playground at 33rd and Wallace Streets (called “Bumpety Bump”) by painting walls, weeding beds, and planting flowering plants for kids and neighbors to enjoy.

Among the volunteers were residents involved in the We Are Mantua! neighborhood planning initiative supported by SCI-West and Philadelphia LISC, 7 youth members from the Mantua youth advisory committee “Da Bottom For…” (DB4), Drexel University students, and 4 staff from the Philadelphia LISC office as part of LISC’s nationwide Day of Service. Primex Garden Center provided discounted perennials and annuals for the event, and the West Philly Tool library lent us tools for the project.