The Common Good
May-June 1995

A Community of Integrity

by Susan Meeker-Lowry | May-June 1995

Building hope in the inner city of Boston

Streets of Hope is a great book not only because it tells the inspiring story of the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative (DSNI); it's also instructive for organizers and activists who know the importance of working with, not for, people-a difficult distinction for many organizers. And even when we think our group or coalition represents all constituencies, the fact is it often falls far short.

DSNI is a truly unique, participatory, community-based organization initiated in the early 1980s. The Dudley Street neighborhood in Roxbury, Massachusetts, is one of the nation's oldest neighborhoods (dating back to the 1630s). Today it is home to approximately 15,000 African Americans, Latinos, Cape Verdeans, and a few whites. During the 1970s, the neighborhood experienced severe economic and political disenfranchisement. Land prices plummeted, buildings were abandoned, and fires raged, often set by absentee owners to collect insurance.

When the fires stopped, there were about 1,300 vacant lots, representing the largest single concentration of vacant land in Boston. These lots became unofficial city dumps, a breeding ground for rats and a hiding place for criminal activity. The neighborhood was "redlined" (denied loans) by banks, while ill-conceived housing projects fell into disrepair.

DSNI, a joint effort of community service organizations and the Riley Foundation (a charitable trust), came on the scene in 1985. The organizers of the first meeting almost blew it: They presented a plan for revitalization to almost 200 residents in attendance, most of whom felt powerless to make changes, but hoped they were wrong. Rather than thanking the planners, residents told them, "We don't see the community here." They wanted to know why they should trust the organizers, and particularly the Riley Foundation.

Interestingly, DSNI founders really thought they werethe community. Several organizations representing various constituencies participated in creating the plan. Nelson Merced, one of the initiators of the effort and director of La Alianza Hispana, recalls being "motivated by speed and expediency." He believed the "organization of organizations" was representative of the community. Yet when they were asked at the meeting, "How many of you people up there [on the panel] live in this neighborhood?" only one hand went up.

HOW OFTEN does this happen to well-intentioned activists-thinking you've done it right only to have it backfire? How often are organizers motivated by "speed and expediency" only to find out they weren't as careful and inclusive as they meant to be? Many projects fail or fall short of expectations and possibilities precisely for this reason. It's disempowering both to the organizers and especially to the community being "done unto." As Bill Slotnik, director of the Community Training and Assistance Center, a group that works with DSNI, said, "Most non-profits are based in communities, and are not community-based. Those are two different things."

DSNI organizers really listened to what the community told them during the meetings that followed. And residents didn't give up either. A new governing structure was set up, giving residents a majority on the board and designating a specific number of spots for each of the neighborhood's four major cultures.

Medoff and Sklar skillfully detail how DSNI built (and keeps) its neighborhood base of support, and empowers residents to take charge of the organization and their community. From the first major project (cleaning up the vacant lots and streets), to being the first non-profit in the country to be granted eminent domain powers (enabling them to secure a land base), to creating a land trust to hold the land, to building their first houses, DSNI is a model of community involvement, participation, and achievement. A neighborhood that had basically been written off as hopeless is definitely back on its feet and on the way to becoming the community residents envisioned back in 1985.

There is still a long way to go. Bringing businesses that can provide needed services and jobs to the neighborhood will be a tough challenge. But residents have proven to the city and, most important, to themselves that they can do it; success, in time, seems inevitable.

Sue Beaton, DSNI's development director, puts it beautifully, "We're learning how to be a better community together. But whether we look perfect at the end is really not, to me, the issue. It's how many people have participated along the way, who gets the benefits of whatever we can accomplish together, and how do we hang together and not get co-opted in the process....I would like us to be a community of integrity."

If you're looking for a hopeful, practical, and well-written book, check out Streets of Hope. If you work with a community organization and would like it to be more inclusive and effective, this book is a definite must.

SUSAN MEEKER-LOWRY is a free-lance writer living in Montpelier, Vermont.

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