We Develop Community

I shared this brief reflection at the 2015 NEAR Annual Community Luncheon on April 21.

There are several notable reasons why Near East Area Renewal is building with such momentum and solid outcomes on the Near Eastside legacy. But, for the moment, I want to focus on just one. NEAR is moving forward because of vision that puts community first. Here’s what we mean.

Community development is a familiar enough phrase and description. If you say “community development,” we do that. Lots of organizations do community development. As a nonprofit, we invest in housing and economic development in a low-income urban community where the market doesn’t work very well at the moment.

But what NEAR is really into is developing community.

How we parse the phrase makes a significant difference.

This difference is embedded in our 2014 Mission Statement: “We develop community as we create great places for neighbors.”

In whatever we do, we want to be cultivating relationships, crossing barriers, building bridges, making room, fanning the flames of authentic community.

Bricks and mortar are a means to a greater end: relationships and a sense of place that says, “this is my home.”

In the end, great housing doesn’t make a community inviting; relationships do, care does, a deep-down sense of belonging does.

We put community first. This defines how we plan, how we build, how we engage.

Every time we take an abandoned house and restore it for homeownership, our goal is community.

Every time we take a vacant lot and build a new home on it, our goal is community.

Every time we participate in a neighborhood association meeting or host a monthly NEAR Neighbor Forum and wade into the sometimes maddening but invigorating mix of grassroots decision-making, our goal is community.

When we revive the legacy of Caulk of the Town and engage neighbors to weatherize their neighbors’ homes, our goal is community.

When we instigate the first-ever Near Eastside Food Summit and follow it up with some hell-raising neighborhood foodies, our goal is community.

When we double-down on our efforts at creative place-making in St. Clair Place—a neighborhood no one wanted to move into 5 years ago and which is now gaining national attention—our goal is community.

When we advocate for public policy changes that make employing our ex-felon neighbors the rule instead of the exception, our goal is community.

And when we go out of our way to declare that every customer and guest is welcome at every Near Eastside business regardless of religion, race, gender, or sexual orientation, our goal is community!

Lots of organizations and qualified professionals can do community development. Near East Area Renewal takes the challenge—the dare, the hard work—of developing community.

We invite you to take this challenge with us.

Developing community cannot be done by one group or neighborhood or sector. We’ve all got a part to play. We’ve all got an uphill task to accomplish.

In community, everybody is an asset, everybody counts, everybody contributes, everybody gets dirty. And everyone who gets dirty developing community belongs and grows!

[Photo by Matt Belsaas]