Meet Our Newest Blog Contributor, Alissa Nelson

On Christmas Eve, I rode a quiet bus from San Francisco’s Mid-Market area, with its fraught juxtaposition of Twitter-led tech firm wealth sharing sidewalks with the mentally ill homeless, to my job near Candlestick Park which had just hosted its last final 49ers game, thus closing a chapter in the equally fraught history of the historically African American Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood.

Stevenson Street, in San Francisco’s South of Market.

Riding the 8X Bayshore Express down the 101 gives an unparalleled view across the city’s eastern half, the Edwardian multi-family homes marching in lockstep from the flats of the Mission southward up the slopes of Bernal Hill and west to the base of Twin Peaks. Along the dry slopes near the Potrero public housing projects, agave plants sprout lewd flowers while cactus fruits ripen to a blush. Cities are like this: wild and unkempt and beautiful, defying the order we attempt to impose on the physical space.

As a new contributor to The Handbuilt City, I am so excited to have the opportunity to present some of my thoughts as a community development practitioner on the social, physical and mental health of communities. It’s so rare that we have the opportunity to engage in a thoughtful discourse about the values behind the work that we do and the principles that guide us. In my relatively short time in direct service work, I have found that being open and honest with my clients and community members about my motivation helps to construct a frame from which to think about how to move forward.

In 2003, I moved to St. Louis after nearly my whole lifetime in New England. I expected that the detour from my coastal trajectory would be brief since I was there for a PhD, not to start a life or raise kids. After a couple of years of getting increasingly involved in the civic life of St. Louis, my goals began to shift, I quit my grad program, and my partner and I purchased a home at the height of the housing boom, expecting an easy flip in a few years.

When the great crash of 2008 happened, we found ourselves underwater on a mortgage, the for sale signs in our neighborhood looking more and more like white flags of surrender to the great economic meltdown. I began to learn more on my own about the horrors of inequality, manifested in people’s bodies as health disparities. Ever the problem solver, I decided to go back to school for a master’s in social work and public health, gaining experience in community organizing, coalition-building and public policy research along the way.

After a summer stint back in my birthplace of Oakland, I decided that I wanted to move back west. So I packed up to work in a public housing project in San Francisco as a social worker. For a big-picture person, this type of work is a huge challenge. But I feel like this experience has fundamentally shifted the way that I work with and within low income communities and communities of color, and I think that it’s very important that I share my experiences with my peers and colleagues who wish to do the same.

I believe in working towards solutions. I believe that those solutions should be equitable and sustainable. By working with shared goals in mind, we can all come up with solutions.

While we all have part of a solution, making them equitable and sustainable takes three things: a problem-centered approach, by which we focus on meaningful metrics and outcomes; community-driven decision making, and making certain to elevate the voices of marginalized peoples; and a collaborative approach that builds bridges across sectors and disciplines to impact multiple outcomes.

Solutions should be: Problem Centered

Community development issues have a tendency to balloon. Many problems appear so impossibly interconnected that it becomes impossible to figure a way out of the tangle of weeds (poverty anyone?). But sometimes pulling a single thread, however small, can unravel some of the issues.

When you focus on discrete problems, individuals and communities can begin to make progress towards goals that had initially seemed too large to tackle. This helps to build consensus around issues that arise and momentum to continue to work together. Oftentimes, low-income communities themselves wind up being considered manifestations of the most intractable problems. The north side of St. Louis, the south side of Chicago, San Francisco’s southeast: all cities have a wrong side of the tracks. Neighbors and civic officials alike often end up working to push out rather than help to navigate a way out of the poverty, crime, and unemployment.

By looking at problems with measurable outcomes, success can be measured. Community empowerment thrives on accumulated small positive changes in pursuit of a larger goal. Individuals can see their place within the larger community, and how their acts as individuals can multiply through collective action.

This past summer, one of my coworkers launched a small beautification program in the community where we work, hiring 21 neighbors to pick up trash and cut grass. Participants were unemployed, some convicted felons or former drug addicts, high school dropouts and graduates who hadn’t made plans for after they got their diplomas: generally people who are seen as part of the problem in public housing communities. They quickly moved from picking up trash to planning more complex projects. They identified problems like an unused park – a problem as much spatial as it was social – and then worked together to identify steps to take towards a solution,  planting vegetables in the corner of the park, making sure that space was welcoming by trimming low-hanging limbs that got in the way of using the grills and building a path. After the 8 week program was completed, over half of the participants were working or in GED programs, and the rest have remained engaged with the community center’s programs.

Solutions should be: Community-Driven

Academics are experts at pointing out problems. They have access to data sets and GIS and they are there to tell you that your kids are more likely to have asthma if you live in a low-income neighborhood. That data is absolutely essential to move decision-makers and drive policy. But if you just spent the night in the emergency room because your child was having an asthma attack after a particularly active day for the lead smelter up the road, then data starts to feel hollow.

That is not to diminish data at all. But before prescribing solutions to communities and families, it is vitally important to listen openly and honestly to the people who you want to help. They live in those public housing units and dilapidated homes that you want to improve. They can point out every single problem to you and they are very aware of the causes. What they are less aware of is the magnitude of the problems that they face, and bringing data into the picture can help to give residents the platform on which to elevate their stories and build coalitions to advocate for positive change. Now they can find those other parents of asthma sufferers and work towards environmental improvements that will help everyone.

It is also important to remember that everything that was old is new again. Just as people in their 20s and 30s are pushing back into cities seeking our grandparents’ opportunities and the problems that arise mirror the ones that that drove our parents to the suburbs, the changes that we propose in response are often ones that have been tried before. When listening to people’s problems, remember to ask what they have done to try to solve them. Did it work? If not, why not, and what was still good about those failed interventions? If yes, what worked best, and what things should change? We have a lot to learn from past successes and failures. But the best people to tell us are often going to be the people who live this day to day.

Solutions should be: Collaborative

It sometimes feel like the most obvious thing in the world to say that we should work together to make things better, but it turns out that this looks very different on the ground. There are so many turf wars in the community development field that it starts to mirror the chaos and the drama of the communities around us.

Collaboration should be horizontal and vertical. At the nonprofit where I work, our clients are just as important a stakeholder as our funders. Our government should be as responsive to the needs of citizens as we are expected to respond to policy shifts. And thoughtful responses are preferable to fast ones: as much as it might seem like a person wants an answer when they’re standing in front of you, being good at follow up will do more to build trust over the long run. It’s hard to resist the temptation of just telling someone what to do because they’re standing in front of you yelling and you just want them to stop. If we wait and listen, we’re more likely to hear the actual need being expressed and ways to move forward. Resisting falling into the professional “expert” roll keeps me honest.

To that end, I am always looking for opportunities to learn about what works, and I will use this space as a way to explore how communities are working to heal themselves from the ground up. I’m looking forward to being part of the conversation.

Leave a Reply