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Developing community leadership to meet local challenges


Gary Pollio, Executive Director, Interfaith Community Housing of Delaware

Challenge: In struggling parts of Wilmington, Delaware, neighborhood engagement was low and emerging community leaders were under-resourced. The city's most impoverished areas were represented by those who wished to take on the challenges, but needed training to help them overcome bureaucratic hurdles and gain access to vital resources.

A group of black men and women hold up certificates

All too often, neighborhood revitalization is governed by those outside the community. But research and practical experience demonstrates that successful and sustainable revitalization must be rooted in support from community members, residents and stakeholders. Transformative community revitalization efforts must include the engagement of local residents to be truly successful and avoid gentrification-triggered displacement.

Wilmington, Delaware, has its share of challenges in need of a transformative approach. In the last census, nearly a third of the population and a quarter of families were below the poverty line. About half of residents under the age of 18 and 17 percent of those 65 and older were living below the poverty line.

Meanwhile, the city's at-risk neighborhoods are populated with resident leaders whose enthusiasm is untapped. Many self-identified community leaders are frustrated by bureaucratic hurdles and lack of resources, organizational skills and training. Many also have reasons to not trust "the establishment." Moreover, in transient/rental-heavy communities, such as Wilmington's West Center City, it often is difficult to sustain lasting working relationships.

Thus, with funding from NeighborWorks America and the Laffey-McHugh Foundation, Interfaith Community Housing of Delaware implemented a pilot Resident Leadership Development Academy in 2015. The goal was (and is) to encourage resident engagement and develop leadership skills in those living in Wilmington's at-risk/in-need communities.

A group of adults students sit around a tableUsing the NeighborWorks "Building Leaders, Building Communities: A Resident Leadership Development Curriculum," we introduced the academy with the goal of empowering graduates to implement local improvement projects, thereby encouraging enthusiasm from neighbors and fellow community members. Upon graduation from the academy, community leaders applied for and were offered grants of up to $1,500 each to implement a project, and each leader was encouraged to recruit five neighbors to assist in implementation.

Here are some highlights from the results:
  • Twelve residents from four of Wilmington's most at-risk communities enrolled.
  • Ten of the 12 participants (83 percent) graduated.
  • Nine of the 10 graduates (90 percent) completed and submitted grant applications for community-based improvement projects. All grants were approved and awarded.
  • Additional funding was granted to a young resident videographer to create a short film that will document the implementation of the community-based projects.
  • Four neighborhoods benefitted from graduate projects: West Center City, Quaker Hill, East Lawn and North East.
  • To date, seven projects have been completed. Three are still in progress as of this writing.
  • Feedback from academy graduates was nearly 100 percent positive.
Among the projects, two are art-based (mural and film), two involve beautification, two focus on youth voices, and one each related to disability awareness, public safety (lighting), community signage and overall community engagement.

One of the ripple effects was increased resident engagement in four of Wilmington's most at-risk communities, due to the mandate that each of the graduates engage a minimum of five neighbors.

The goals of engaging 12-15 residents and implementing10 community-based projects both were met. However, project staff members all agreed we underestimated the time and attention graduates would need to implement their projects. While the majority of the graduates implemented their projects with little assistance from ICHDE, a few needed a little more "hand-holding."

A related lesson learned was that computer and technology skills did not parallel the enthusiasm and dedication of some of our graduates. To remedy this gap, in the future we will deploy an intern to assist graduates of the next academy when needed.

Another improvement in the future will be more rigorous evaluation of successful leadership development. NeighborWorks America has developed a tool as part of its Success Measures Data System to assess changes experienced by resident leaders involved in leadership-development activities. This tool is now available to all NeighborWorks America affiliates (such as ICHDE) and will be used for the next academy.

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