Empowerment project will include community in decision-making
For College of Social Work professors Darcy Freedman and Ron Pitner, Tuesday evening’s kickoff celebration for the Community Empowerment Center (CEC) in Columbia’s Gonzales Gardens and Lyon Street neighborhoods was the first step in bringing months of planning into fruition.
The CEC, which is a collaboration between the College of Social Work and the Columbia Housing Authority, aims to address residents’ concerns through “community-generated, community-level, community-engaged projects” Pitner said.
The project began in earnest last year when the research team distributed cameras to 18 residents throughout the neighborhoods and asked them to highlight the state of their communities by capturing images of their problems and their strengths. The pictures were showcased earlier this year on campus at the McKissick Museum.
The center will address these issues by providing residents with the opportunity to apply for three $12,000 “mini-grants” funded, along with the rest of the project, by a $650,000 grant Freedman and Pitner, the project’s co-primary investigators, received from the Kresge Foundation. They opted to let ideas emerge from the community, said Pitner, because “we believe that any intervention that’s going to be sustainable has to have a buy-in.”
Pitner added that projects such as these “typically are top-down” in that they are determined by researchers, but this project will be “community-generated.”
Speaking at the kickoff event, Lyon Street Community Association President and life-long resident of the neighborhood Marvin Heller expressed his excitement for that aspect of the project.
“I’m really encouraged by what the Community Empowerment Center is bringing here,” Heller said. “They’re not coming here telling us what we need; rather, they’re coming here asking us what it is we think we need and helping us get to that point.”
The effort will begin with weekly grant-writing workshops in October and November in the center’s office in the Gonzales Gardens housing complex, continuing as grants are awarded in February of next year and as the group works to establish an advisory council of residents to collaborate with the center’s staff of paid employees and volunteers.
Pitner and the center’s director, Stacy Smallwood, himself a doctoral candidate in the Arnold School of Public Health, didn’t know where their mini-grant funds would ultimately be awarded but offered as examples projects like improving the neighborhood’s public parks to encourage more residents to use them, creating art displays and engaging the area’s youth and mothers.
The group of about 60 residents who gathered had a range of concerns for their communities and hopes for the project.
Doris Cook of Gonzales Gardens was worried about the area’s gangs and the heavy traffic on Taylor and Gervais streets, Millwood Avenue and all Columbia arteries along which children play and live.
Grace Harley of Felton Street emphasized the need for jobs in the area and hoped that the project will help “keep kids out of trouble.”
Smallwood expressed broader goals for the project, hoping that it would “show [residents] that they do have a voice, that they can exercise it and that, when they come together, they can do amazing things.”
The project’s funding will end in 2013, but Pitner, Freedman and others intend for the center to outlast its initial grant. Pitner noted that the group is seeking additional funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and hoped that the process of applying for mini-grants will give residents experience applying for other grants in the future.