Neighborhood Impact: Investing in Lived Experience to Build Power and Create Change
This article was written by Angel Brown, United Way of the Greater Triangle’s Manager, Neighborhood Impact.
In my childhood, I grew up close to many people, places, and things. I was in close relationship to my father, a single parent who emigrated from Jamaica. He cooked dinner for me and my brother every night, and never missed any of our sporting events. I was close to walking trails that wove in and around my neighborhood. I frequently ran these trails in the early mornings or walked our dog on them after dinner. I always knew there was value placed on where I lived based on my proximity to parks, well-resourced schools, and manicured community spaces. In southeast Texas, what we could not walk to, we drove to. Often when we drove, I passed areas along the highway that did not look like my neighborhood at all.
There were whole sections separated by chain-link fences. Tall grass and weeds had overtaken fields where children used to play. Buildings abandoned torn-down so long ago that the front porch steps now led to nowhere. Yet sometimes I would spy a front porch where two people were sitting, still having a conversation. As we passed these places on our drives, I would ask myself: how did things get like this and how do I fix it?
I did not grow up proximate, close, or neighboring many communities devastated by housing, highway, or state-level policies. I never knew what the conversations on those front porches were about. I did not know the history behind the divestment of what I saw. I am learning, just because the people don’t know what happens within the borders of a community, doesn’t mean that the area is not valuable. These communities, neighborhoods, and the individuals inside are there and have been for generations, contributing to our society. Many of these communities in Durham, Wake, Orange, and Johnston County hold a depth of historical richness. They were firsts and lasts of accomplishments, beginnings and endings of days, and examples of inspiration for many. But they no longer reflect the flourishing of what once was, or what could be. So we ask ourselves: how did things get like this and how do I fix it?
I often think back to my childhood in Southeast Texas and driving along the highway. If I had gotten out of my car and asked those two people I saw on their front porch what is right and what is wrong with their neighborhood, they could tell me. Just like I would be able to tell them if they asked me the same question about the neighborhood I grew up in. When people live in communities for generations, they see things that people who are not from those communities (even the ones with good intentions) do not see. However, the conversation does not go like this:
What is right and good in your community?
What is wrong and troubling in your community?
What do you think is the solution?
Okay, let’s do that.
I have volunteered with non–profits and given money to foundations who have seen these communities and neighborhoods and swooped in to try to “fix” them. And while basic needs have been met in the short-term, most decision-makers and funders trying to “help” these communities did not grow up in these neighborhoods. Many times, we (people outside the community) have gone into neighborhoods, conducted studies with external measurements of success, created definitions of issues (without acknowledgement of assets), and offered expert solutions out of our perspective; however, we have been short-sighted. People with lived experiences in these communities are the experts to the solutions. As Kerwin Pittman, founder and executive director of RREPS (Recidivism Reduction Educational Program Services), says, “the people closest to the pain, need to be closest to the power.”
If we have not trusted the local community leaders in the past, what does it look like to empower them now? If we have not asked people on the ground what is right and wrong, how can we use our platforms to hear their definitions now? If we have not valued and funded people with lived experience, how can we invest in their expert solutions now?
The time to pivot is now.
This is the work of Neighborhood Impact at United Way; empowering neighborhood leaders to define what is right and wrong in their communities and decide on the solutions.
Instead of asking myself, let me ask you: how did things get like this and how would you fix it? In all my degrees and accomplishments, I was not taught to look at lived experience as an indicator of expertise. But as a life-long student, I am learning to ask new questions. By relying on the skills, talent, and creativity of neighborhood leaders and community organizations to define and decide on the solutions for local problems, we can build power, create change, and make significant, neighborhood impact.