"Are you all really going to do any of this?"
The young man looked me in the eye, and effectively took me to task as a representative for the DC Promise Neighborhood Initiative (DCPNI). I was there helping the initiative with its neighborhood retreat, leading a discussion with residents as part of a broader effort to engage the community. The young man awaited my response. It seemed that others shared his skepticism. With knowledge of previous fleeting efforts to improve their neighborhood and the wariness of outsiders that came with them, these concerns were not unfounded.
Startled by the earnest but piercing question, I paused for a beat and told him why DCPNI was different: “This isn’t just on me; it’s on all of us to make this work!”
I went on to say that unlike other programs he may have come across, DCPNI was here to stay and was committed to making a difference for an entire generation. This means that we would continue pushing after the fanfare had died down and the fancy gatherings subsided. Nodding his approval, the middle schooler, along with classmates and neighbors, affirmed that he was in it for the long haul.
Early that chilly Saturday morning, over 60 youth, parents, and other residents of Northeast D.C.'s Parkside-Kenilworth neighborhood gathered a mile out of the District at the National 4-H Youth Conference Center. Along with several dozen volunteers, organizers, researchers and undergraduate students from Georgetown University, these community residents participated in a series of events to help shape the focus of the DC Promise Neighborhood.
Shuttled in from their Northeast DC neighborhood to the nearby Maryland suburb, community residents arrived to find a complimentary breakfast and a diverse group of volunteers greeting them with rousing applause. From the beginning, the event had the gravitas and energy of a Sunday morning service. Prayer, testimony, and tears filled the room throughout the event.
In concurrent sessions spread across the morning and afternoon, groups of about 20 youth and community residents huddled with volunteer facilitators and others to discuss the strengths, challenges, and opportunities facing their community. Students from Georgetown University assisted by manning whiteboards for all participants to see and taking more detailed notes for DCPNI staff. This guaranteed that all questions, comments, and concerns would be communicated to the initiative’s leadership and ensured that local priorities would be reflected in the program’s implementation.
Serving as a discussion leader for sessions on safe schools and communities, I had the opportunity to engage with a number of residents from the Kenilworth and Eastland Gardens neighborhoods about some of the most urgent priorities for the Promise Neighborhood. First, we discussed the assets in the community that could serve as a strong foundation for the Promise Neighborhood.
Getting the ball rolling, I asked “what do we think our biggest strengths are in the community?” Without missing a beat, most in the room replied “the people!” Consensus seemed to be that Parkside-Kenilworth’s biggest strength is its committed residents— the supportive and responsible adults throughout the neighborhood, many without school-age children of their own, who treat all local youth as their own.
Next we talked about some of the challenges that we hoped our collective efforts would address as the program took shape. I heard a number of sobering concerns about safety in and out of school. The primary concern voiced by youth throughout the day was that students lacked safe passage to and from school. Gangs from other neighborhoods have been known to cause trouble around campus grounds, and students didn’t feel like they had too many places to hang out after school hours. Some of the adults present also mentioned that there are serious health concerns about some hazardous waste dumped in the area that had yet to be removed.
Finally, we shared ideas about how DPCNI could tackle the issues we discussed. There were a number of solutions suggested, most of which entailed further community involvement. One example was the hosting of community forums that would bring local elected officials together with residents to encourage more dialogue on pressing public safety issues. Another idea offered was the hiring of more police officers and/or crossing guards that could provide a visible deterrent for destructive activity around youth. Discussion participants also supported the idea of organizing a push for more local facilities that could provide constructive and safe spaces for youth.
After the afternoon discussion wrapped up, one adult and one youth from each of the sessions presented to the entire group. With kids cheering their friends on and parents showing their appreciation for each other, stakeholders of all ages shared solutions they helped create and elected to share. Applause filled the room as honest feedback, commentary and suggestions came from those who know the neighborhood the best.
For the youth especially, it was clear that the discussion participants were proud of their contributions and excited that their input was valued. One young woman participating in my session was selected by her peers to present for the group, but was a little hesitant since she lacked public speaking experience. After my first request she shot back at me. “I can’t do it! Why don’t you ask one of the other adults to present!”
I replied, “you just did a great job sharing your ideas with a room full of twenty people. What difference does a few more make?” After a bit more cajoling and encouragement from the group, we eventually convinced her to take the mic in front of the room, and the next thing she knew she was confidently sharing the group’s thoughts with scores of people. Her presentation was met with applause and was wrapped up with a look of accomplishment.
DCPNI’s leadership clearly believes in securing community buy-in during the planning process. Including neighborhood residents in the process builds trust and gives people a better understanding of the new services that will be offered. Local residents can provide critical insight into community challenges and priorities, holding deep ties to the neighborhood that sometimes date back for generations. Perhaps most importantly, it empowers residents to take an active role in the transformation of their communities.
To close the day, the retreat leaders passed the microphones to anyone in the room who cared to share some closing words. Heartfelt thanks were expressed and folks who participated in different capacities showed enormous amounts of appreciation for each other. One stirring moment came when a parent who had recently returned to post-secondary education got the microphone. Facing the silent crowd, she shared that “although I was undecided about what I would be studying, today has left no doubt in my mind that I want to major in education.” The emotional revelation was met with an embrace from those around her and more warm applause from throughout the room. Testimonies like these were evidence of the impact the Promise Neighborhood effort is already having on its community residents.