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Madelyn Lazorchak, Communications Writer08/29/2022

When Shane Sutherland joined the NeighborWorks Achieving Excellence Program, his goal was to identify opportunities to develop affordable housing in partnership with Black churches. "Being a Black-led organization ourselves, we wanted to work with the Black churches in our community," shares Sutherland, director of operations for Community Housing Development Corporation (CHDC). The challenge soon evolved, expanding to all faith-based organizations. 

Shane Sutherland smiles at the camera.Some of Oakland's churches had lost members when gentrification pushed them elsewhere or when COVID-19 forced them to stay home, Sutherland explained. Other churches faced funding issues. In some cases, predatory lenders were inquiring after church land, which CHDC wanted to prevent.
Meanwhile, CHDC had its own land struggles as the organization worked to build affordable, multi-family housing. "In the Greater Bay area, land is so expensive," Sutherland says. "Just to get an acre, you're going to pay over a million dollars and to find land to make our projects work was almost impossible." He'd hoped that by the end of his two years with Achieving Excellence, his organization could enter into a partnership with two churches. With his coach, Sutherland honed his approach and built his confidence.

"It was an idea whose time had come," says Doris Roach, Sutherland's coach during the program, which is now in its 21st year. "What's great about Achieving Excellence is that it's a structured process with a lot of really great tools. The coaching is a part of a larger structure, supported by additional education through Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government. Students get access to thinking in the business world that can be applied to their challenges. It's the coaching, the peer group, the cohort and the extended education that really make the program."

Today, Sutherland says, CHDC has signed memoranda of understanding with 16 churches. Meetings with more than two dozen other churches are in the works, he says. The planned developments range from 40 apartment homes to more than 100. CHDC will manage the properties. Churches will maintain ownership and the development fees will be split between CHDC and the churches. "The program has really grown," Sutherland says.
Friendship Senior Housing is the first development slated for construction, set to break ground this fall. The four-story, energy efficient complex will be built on land owned by Friendship Christian Center. Pastor Gerald Agee and his wife, Pastor Alesia Agee, grew up in Oakland and returned after college to start their church with the mission of addressing the issues in, as they put it, "the city we were planted in." They addressed addiction recovery and safety, Gerald Agee says, but they also wanted to address the effects of gentrification. "What could we do to stop the bleed of people being forced out of Oakland, particularly African Americans?" he asked. 

The Agees began talking with developers about affordable housing, "but they didn't know what was in my heart," Gerald Agee says. Once Agee spoke with CHDC, that changed. The two created a partnership, and are set to break ground this year. Other churches have been watching the results, Agee says.
Sutherland says support from Achieving Excellence made a difference in both his plan and in his confidence. "We bounced ideas off each other," he says. "The tools we got in the classes were phenomenal."

Sutherland joined the cohort to get leadership training he hoped will help him prepare for future leadership possibilities. Current Executive Director Don Gilmore is nearing retirement age, and CHDC continues to develop its talent pool as part of succession planning. Gilmore himself was in the second Achieving Excellence cohort nearly 20 years ago.
Sutherland says that though his cohort has graduated, alumni still call each other and their mentors with advice or questions. They share their expertise and skills, he says. "The program really got the wheels turning in my mind."

The next round of Achieving Excellence will accept approximately 50 senior leaders from community-serving organizations. The program incorporates one-on-one executive coaching, structured peer support, and cutting edge curriculum developed in conjunction with Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government – all focused on helping program participants address a major self-identified organizational challenge. NeighborWorks America is accepting applications until September Sept. 16. 


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