Release date: 10/24/2016
NeighborWorks America trains community leaders and honors local heroes
Columbus, OH — NeighborWorks America recognizes resident leadership through its annual Dorothy Richardson Resident Leadership Award. Throughout the year, the organization works to strengthen resident leadership through the Community Leadership Institute and local activities.
The annual Community Leadership Institute strengthens the skills of residents identified by nonprofits as local community leaders and provides seed grants that help them execute on action plans when they return home.
NeighborWorks America, which creates opportunities for people to live in affordable homes, improve their lives and strengthen their communities, supports a network of more than 240 nonprofits, located in every state, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. Participants from around the country attend the Community Leadership Institute in teams of up to eight people chosen by NeighborWorks organizations.
At the institute on Oct. 20-23, NeighborWorks America recognized this year’s Dorothy Richardson Resident Leadership Award honorees. This year’s awards honor eight individuals from around the country for their contributions to their communities. The award was named for a Pittsburgh-based pioneer in the community-development movement who was the leading force behind the creation of the agency that eventually became NeighborWorks America.
“This year’s honorees are ‘change agents’ who lead others to a better situation and a better community,” said Paul Weech, chief executive officer of NeighborWorks America. “These community leaders are problem-solvers who overcome risks and difficulties to create solutions that are long-lasting and effective.”
About the honorees:
- Erika Cooper’s (Waterbury, Connecticut) brother was murdered in a senseless gun fight when she was just 15. In April 2007, she suffered a stroke, leaving her legally blind in one eye. She had to re-learn how to walk and talk, taking her out of commission for a year and a half. Later, she found out she has multiple sclerosis (now in remission) and then breast cancer. But she persevered. In 2010, she founded Uplifting a Life, essentially an “active parents committee” which aimed to stop talking about problems and start fixing them. When two murders shocked the town, Uplifting a Life organized marches, a symbolic way of saying “stop the violence.” In 2015, a year after her first march against violence, Erika completed Neighborhood Housing Services’ Resident Leadership Training Program and identified another community need: the deficient academic progress of the city’s youth. Erika responded by establishing the free Almost Home summer camp, with the support of 13 organizations. In 2016, the camp expanded to include an after-school program, and Erika has joined the Neighborhood Housing Services community-building staff.
- Don Feist (Great Falls, Montana) and other residents were living in a 22-acre manufactured-home community just south of Great Falls that was tied up in foreclosure proceedings and in such bad shape it looked and felt like a slum. Unsafe levels of arsenic were detected in the water. But then the residents fought back, creating a cooperative and, with Don Feist as president, assumed control of their community. The cooperative turned to NeighborWorks Montana for help, which also connected the members to ROC USA, a nonprofit that helps resident corporations buy their manufactured home communities from private community owners. Soon it had secured financing to purchase the land on which the community sat so the residents could run it themselves. The next step was to form their own water and sewer district so they could secure grants and replace the outdated infrastructure, which Feist accomplished with the help of state legislators and county commissioners.
- Deeqo Jibril (Boston, Massachusetts) has come a long way -- from fleeing a civil war in her home country of Somalia at the age of 12, to hosting an iftar (a meal to break the fast during the Muslim holiday of Ramadan) with leaders of the Boston Police Department and the FBI. In 2015, when an FBI agent shot and killed a Muslim man in front of a mosque in Roxbury, Deeqo, as founder and executive director of the Somali Community and Cultural Association, worked to bring the community together and focus on positive next steps. Deeqo organized a dinner with members of the Muslim community and law enforcement. She created a safe space for the dialogue needed to cope with the trauma and prevent violent reactions.
- Sandra Robertson (Cleveland, Ohio) helped create a garden the whole neighborhood could contribute to and enjoy. Sandra approached NeighborWorks member Famicos Foundation for help in obtaining one of the vacant lots in the community and together they transformed it into a vibrant community garden. Eleven regular adult volunteers and 13 youth grow vegetables such as beans, kale, collard greens and tomatoes at the garden, called Ashbury Sprouts. The garden has become an opportunity to teach local children a number of life skills.
- Manfred Reid (Louisville, Kentucky) is a widely recognized city leader, heading the revitalization of the Russell neighborhood in Louisville—once known as the “Harlem of the South”—and chair of the board of commissioners for the city’s Metro Housing Authority. On May 8, 1968, he and a few friends were roughed up by the police, about a month after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Protests erupted and he and five other men—who came to be known as “The Black 6”—were indicted for “criminal conspiracy.” Two years later, all six were acquitted. But the ripple effects were lasting. When the foreclosed “fixer-upper” in which he found refuge was condemned, he was placed in Beecher Terrace, the largest public housing complex still left in the country. He had hit the proverbial bottom. A turning point was when a woman at Beecher Terrace insisted he come to a meeting of the resident council. Manfred went to that meeting, became a leader, and when the housing authority put out a call for a resident to serve as the first such representative on the board of commissioners, he was recommended. Manfred joined the commission in 1999 and has served as chair since 2000.
- Maria Elvia Salazar (San Luis Obispo, CA) came to the United States from Mexico 11 years ago by bus with her 10-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son. They came to join her husband, who had traveled to the United States for a better income by harvesting lettuce, broccoli and other crops. Despite the lack of English language and her status as “new kid on the block,” Elvia enrolled in a class offered by her children’s school, teaching parents new to the country how things work. She looked for opportunities to learn and become a part of the community wherever possible, and joined groups at school and where she lived. When the local government decided to drop a bus route upon which many residents relied, she rallied the neighborhood, persuaded residents to sign a petition and show up at community meetings—and got the route reinstated, maintaining a vital resource for adults and children.
- Erin Sorensen (Boise, Idaho) moved with her husband into the Veterans Park neighborhood of Boise, and it was so “rough” he wondered why she was insistent it was a good choice. A few homes were clearly a hive of drug-related activity, police came in and out, fences were vandalized with spray paint and the school bus was a shooting target. A little more than 10 years later, Erin is the former board president for the Veterans Park Neighborhood Association, chair of the NeighborWorks Boise board real estate committee and a member of the local chamber’s Leadership Boise initiative. Veterans Park has improved so much that the current challenge is to avoid the negative effects of gentrification, thus pricing her family and others out of their beloved neighborhood. Erin is widely recognized as one of the reasons for the positive change.
- Debra Stanley (South Bend, Indiana) returned to her original home town of South Bend when she was 34 and found work at a local free health clinic for people without health insurance. Her growing interest in outreach and prevention led Stanley to approach a local AIDS service agency and convince the staff to allow her to build a volunteer program that included peer-education for youth. In 2003, Stanley founded her own nonprofit: Imani Unidad, which supported women and African-Americans with HIV and AIDS at a time when service for these populations was lacking.
More information about the Dorothy Richardson Resident Leadership Award honorees can be found at www.neighborworks.org/DorothyRichardsonAwards.
About NeighborWorks America
For more than 35 years, NeighborWorks America, a national, nonpartisan nonprofit, has created opportunities for people to improve their lives and strengthen their communities by providing access to homeownership and to safe and affordable rental housing. In the last five years, NeighborWorks organizations have generated more than $27.2 billion in reinvestment in these communities. NeighborWorks America is the nation’s leading trainer of community development and affordable housing professionals.