Sarah Parmenter is NeighborWorks America's director of Community Building and Engagement. With more than 15 years in the field — 12 of them at NeighborWorks — she knows that powerful teams build strong communities. Throughout the NeighborWorks network, those teams rely on resident leaders — residents who know what the community wants and needs because they are members of that community; and they're willing to work to make their community better. At the end of October, NeighborWorks will present the prestigious Dorothy Richardson Award for Resident Leadership
to five resident leaders who have made a significant impact on the places they call home. NeighborWorks will also provide its annual training for resident leaders.
On the cusp of these events, Parmenter sat down for a conversation about what resident leadership means at NeighborWorks. Here are some of the highlights:
Tell us a little about NeighborWorks America's roots in resident leadership.
: NeighborWorks America's roots go back to Pittsburgh in the 1960s when a Black homeowner named Dorothy Mae Richardson
engaged her neighbors to address the impacts of redlining and disinvestment in their community. Richardson worked with a group of residents, mostly women, on fair housing conditions. She also organized sit-ins and sing-ins. She was comfortable being the face and voice of the work, and she was often talking to the press and knocking on the doors of the bankers. But she wasn't doing it alone. It was the whole community. Together, those neighbors brought about a public-private-resident partnership model for strengthening communities, which later inspired the creation of NeighborWorks America.
The triangle is the strongest shape in nature, so those three pieces coming together have true impact on community: The public investment, the private investment from local banks, and resident leaders — the third critical piece that held it all together.
As NeighborWorks has grown, resident leadership has been central. In the early 1990s, we made a big recommitment to our roots with the start of the Community Leadership Institute (CLI), where we train resident leaders and more actively support resident leadership. During the leadership institute, we present five residents with the Dorothy Richardson Award for Resident Leadership, named for Richardson and her work.
How do resident leaders make a difference in their communities?
: Every community is different — in their needs and in their makeup. But what I think is shared in common is that resident leaders show up and continue to show up. They are committed to place and they're committed to making their communities better for the people who live there. They look beyond housing and the buildings and look at all of the adjacent issues. We have resident leaders addressing everything from water management to access to greenspace to education. There's a huge range of things. In the last few years of the pandemic, we've seen how important the need for community connections is
, too. We're not meant to be isolated. We saw so many creative ways that residents brought people together
. Door decorating contests at multifamily properties. Drive-by parties in rural communities. Residents built connections and a sense of belonging with each other.
If not for resident leaders, we wouldn't have community and lasting change could not occur. Resident leaders build community. They get involved because of an issue they care about, and they stay involved because of the people who are leading the work with them.
How have NeighborWorks network organizations come to rely on resident leaders?
Parmenter: In a lot of communities, resident leaders are on staff at NeighborWorks network organizations, and NeighborWorks America has a board requirement: A third of the board of directors needs to be represented by residents in the community that the organization serves. Residents also play a really important role as volunteers. They coordinate and lead a lot of work. They start community festivals and monthly potlucks — opportunities where people can come together and build a sense of belonging. They also organize a lot of resources for others. Backpack drives for back-to-school. Gift drives for children around the holidays. Clothing drives. Residents see a gap and a need in their community and, when there's not another outside resource, they find ways to be creative to meet those needs.
We see residents play an important role in planning as well. As organizations create affordable housing, residents weigh in on the process and what the needs of the communities truly are. Residents are the ones getting their neighbors to planning meetings, listening and educating their neighbors, building trust and community buy-in. So much of the work of our network organizations would not be possible without the unpaid labor of resident leaders.
What are some of the attributes that you see in strong resident leaders?
Parmenter: Resident leaders are the people who show up. They are present for the community. They have life experiences that they bring with them, and that gives them everything they need to step into these roles. Sharing their stories is also a critical piece — sharing their voice and perspective. And they're able to rally others, too, to bring people together and work toward a shared purpose.
How does NeighborWorks America help train resident leaders?
Parmenter: NeighborWorks trained more than 5,000 resident leaders last fiscal year, and more than half of our network organizations are leading efforts in this work.
To support resident leaders, NeighborWorks America hosts a national Community Leadership Institute (CLI)
that we offer once a year, bringing up to 1,000 residents together, in person, for three days. They get to participate in training, networking and learning from each other. Then they take what they learn, go home and work on a project of their choosing for the next year. And NeighborWorks provides them with a $4,000 grant to help them get started. The CLI is a year-long investment; you're committing to work on a project with your neighbors for a year. The team aspect is critical. This work is done with others because nobody has all of the skills and resources to do it alone.
The CLI gives resident leaders a chance to meet others from around the country and it gives them a real sense of camaraderie. A community in rural Montana and a community in New York City may look like they have a lot of differences, but when we get them together, they will find they have similar challenges and leaders with a shared commitment. An event like this lets them know they're not alone. They're connected to other people around the country who are also leading change.
NeighborWorks America also has a leadership training program, Building Leaders, Building Communities, which is a resource our network organizations use in partnership with their residents at the local level. It brings resident leadership training to more communities, to more residents. The training is co-facilitated by residents; everyone is a learner in this space.
A new NeighborWorks America survey shows that only a quarter of residents feel that their voices are being heard. What are some ways to amplify those voices?
Parmenter: Affordable housing and community development organizations can make a big difference here — first and foremost by creating more opportunities for residents to step into leadership roles. That way, residents are already at the table when decisions are being made. The best way to start is by building relationships with residents — and by investing in those residents, providing training and space for them to grow and lead. When they can use their expertise to tackle the challenges that impact them the most, the whole community wins. And when they themselves can see real, transformative change, that's when they feel assured that their voices are being heard.