By Rev. Dr. Shelley D. Best, Director & Chief Curator of The 224 EcoSpace
“One day my soul just opened up.” – Iyanla Vanzant
Eleven years ago I was minding my business, driving down north-main street in Hartford, on my way to service at Metropolitan A.M.E. Zion Church. Then I woke up. As Iyanla Vanzant says, “my soul just opened up,” and the neighborhood I had driven through many times before came into focus in a new way.
In the Spring of 2002, I had participated in a roundtable put together by the Annie E. Casey Foundation for a project led by Dr. Drew Smith called, “Beyond the Boundaries: Low Income Residents, Faith Based organizations and Neighborhood Coalition Building.” The project was designed to: “assess the connections between congregations and low-income families (specifically families in low-income housing complexes) by means of a survey-based and interview-based process. Then the goal was to bring together faith leaders and low income residents to talk about issues. The hope was that the connections between faith-based organizations and low-income residents would be strengthened through bridge building action steps in each of the projects target neighborhoods.” Hartford’s north end was one of those target neighborhoods.
At the round-table we talked about churches and the lack of interaction with poverty in ways I had not considered. It was reported that:
- Approximately 60 churches exist within one mile of the north side low income complex and 10 within one mile of the south side low income complex;
- 15 percent of the churches are small, 33 percent are medium-size, and 51 percent are large;
- 84 percent of these churches are predominantly Black, 3 percent are predominantly White,
- 3 percent are predominantly Latino, and 9 percent are highly diverse;
- 71 percent of these churches indicate that three-quarters or more of their members currently
- live further than one mile from their house of worship.
These facts were things I saw all the time, but didn’t really see. Like many ministers in the area, I remained faithful to my work without the impact I had hoped for. Then one day it happened. I was driving down the street and it hit me. How can we have almost 60 faith communities within a mile radius of the lowest income area in the city of Hartford and yet we have very little impact outside the walls of the church? I wondered how we could walk outside the church and go about our business and not transform our neighborhood by faith.
This awareness caused me to venture down a path that has informed my work at The Conference of Churches for the last 13 years. As my eyes were opened I became compelled to find out why more churches were not impacting the community outside the walls of the church. Through our research we came to discover that most ministers are not trained in the skills needed for public ministry like: community organizing; economic development and public policy. While leaders want to have an impact, they just don’t know how.
This led to the creation of The FaithWorks program of The Conference of Churches. We began with a statewide capacity building seminar in 2003 which was attended by over 400 faith and neighborhood based leaders across Connecticut. The Conference was held at The First Cathedral in Bloomfield, Connecticut under the leadership of Archbishop LeRoy Bailey. At this historic event, then Governor John Rowland signed an executive order establishing The Connecticut Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood partnerships with The Conference of Churches appointed to staff the effort.
We believe that just because things are destitute today does not mean they must stay that way. Leadership makes the difference.
How to move from Community Vision to Action
1. Really see things as they are. We can all get used to traveling through painful places on automatic pilot. We get so used to seeing destitution we stop seeing possibility. In order to move from Community Vision to action, you need to really see what is around you for what it is and know that there are always positive possibilities.
2. Know that Urban Revitalization Requires Leadership. Cityscapes are changing all the time. New buildings go up. New initiatives are launched. Funds are released from government entities to developers to make new projects happen. The way these ventures happen is someone steps on the stage as a leader. These individuals are not necessarily invited in. They claim the space of leadership with confidence, boldness and tenacity. If you want to see your city, neighborhood or block change, you need to be the change agent.
3. Understand yourself as a leader. If you are the one with the vision of what things “ought to be,” you need to lead the charge to make the change happen. There are all kinds of leaders with all kinds of skills. Know your strengths and weaknesses and work on them along the way. We each only have one life to live. Why not leave a legacy of positive community change.
4. Seek Knowledge and Mentorship. One of my favorite phrases is, “Can I pick your brain?” It never fails. If I can get a meeting with a leader in any area, they are more than willing to share their wisdom and expertise with me. During the last nine years I have been actively pursuing my passion for faith-based community development. I did not know much about how to acquire property or transform it, but I am a great student and I know how to recognize successful people. Most people are willing to share their expertise with you if you just ask. One of the best ways to enter the field of faith-based community development is through the case study method. When I learn of successful ventures, I make it a point to take a field trip to visit the program, facility or initiative to learn from the leader. We call it the case study method. Then, let your imagine take off and see what you can create in similar fashion. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.
5. Don’t be afraid to ask. One of the greatest barriers to any goal is overcoming the fear of asking. One of my fundraising coaches, Judith Green of Netmark Associates told me by spelling out the letters, “If you don’t A. S. K you don’t G.E.T.” If you need help, ask. If you need money, ask. If you need direction, ask. If you need partnership, ask.
6. Claim a city block. You have to start somewhere. Let your passion lead you. Claim a city block and open your eyes. See the hope in it. See the need. See the possibility. Then get to work.
7. Develop a plan. Get the help of the best thinkers around you and develop a plan. This will give you a sense of direction. Sometimes you need to follow the steps and sometimes you need to be nimble because different opportunities present themselves.
8. Cultivate Partners and Stakeholders. To turn nothing into something requires a lot of help. Take the time to cultivate meaningful relationships. Be the kind of person that people want to work with. People have lots of choices about how they are going to spend their free time. When it comes to the work of faith-based community development you won’t have the cash to get things done – but the cache to get things done. I have learned along the way that the only reason you need money is to get things from strangers. Therefore, you need to learn how to make a lot of friends.
9. Encourage yourself. There are going to be times when the job gets hard and you need to encourage yourself. As long as you don’t give up you will make progress.
10. Work your plan. Write your plan down and work it. The 224 EcoSpace has gone from vision to reality because we take on every challenge by having a plan of attack.
11. Hold on to Faith. No matter what you are faced with, hold on to faith. Dreams become reality when you have the faith to believe the impossible is possible.