Polis Institute designs solutions to social problems by valuing the perspectives of everyone with a stake in addressing the problem. We serve our three stakeholder groups (Residents, Investors, and Service Providers) in a parallel process —as facilitator— in order to achieve goals that bring the greatest benefit to those directly impacted by the issue, often the local residents.
In 2015, Dr. Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, president of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, issued a statement that “a child’s life expectancy is predicted more by his ZIP code than his genetic code.” In the United States, the 12th richest country in the world, there are neighboring ZIP codes that have a 20-year difference in life expectancy. That should give everyone pause. It should make us all ask why this is the case … and then move to do something to change it.
The most common factor in neighborhoods with relatively lower life expectancy is lower than average income levels. Low-income neighborhoods tend to have less healthy amenities (e.g. bike paths, sidewalks, access to fresh produce, parks, and exercise facilities), while also having more conditions that are antagonistic to health (e.g. factories, traffic, brownfields, and crime). Add to that mix the fact that opportunities for advancement are often stymied through chronic stress, overly restrictive housing and employment policies, and underperforming schools for the next generation.
“In the United States, there are neighboring ZIP codes that have a 20-year difference in life expectancy.
That should give everyone pause.”
And yet, these very neighborhoods are filled with people fully aware of their dignity and worth; people with talent and passion whose gifts are far too often neglected or ignored. This costs all of us something. This is precisely why place-based philanthropy is so vital — we need the people who live in these neighborhoods to be a part of strengthening our cities and making the world a better place.
This is an excerpt from our 2017 Annual Report.
The Polis Institute (POLIS) is an applied research non-profit that was founded to improve the way we help one another. Our mission is to champion human dignity by designing solutions to the social problems that infringe upon it. We envision a world in which most people enjoy the fruit of their labors in long and healthy lives.
We focus on improving distressed neighborhoods because research points to this approach as the most strategic philanthropic investment. We facilitate partnerships with residents, investors, businesses, civic leaders, and non-profits to simultaneously address issues in education, housing, employment, health and wellness, overall aesthetics, and safety.
To achieve success in this comprehensive approach, we deploy our Stakeholder Accountability Model that brings four key groups together to address these issues: 1) residents; 2) philanthropic investors; 3) service providers; 4) academics. The unique four-fold benefit of POLIS is that we simultaneously help each of these important groups.
We work primarily in Metro Orlando. We have developed a Neighborhood Stress Index to monitor progress in the 100 most distressed areas of the region and have established a goal to propel this important city into the 90th percentile of American cities for well-being as measured by Gallup (currently in the 68th percentile) through neighborhood revitalization.
1. Residents: We work directly with residents of distressed neighborhoods to help them achieve their goals. Through margins in our consulting and training efforts, we can deploy 100% of your donations to serving this population in these three key areas:
o Families: The difficulties of raising a family are compounded by the stressors of poverty. We coordinate a program called MVP Families that serves 100 families who live near Camping World Stadium to strengthen relationships in the home, meet family goals, and help the children succeed academically.
o Leaders: Community leadership transcends the interests of any one organization or institution to benefit an entire community. We have developed training and coaching services to cultivate this talent in residents which has resulted in initiatives such as Leadership Eatonville, West Lakes Partnership, and the East Winter Garden Alliance.
o Underemployed: Distressed neighborhoods are full of people whose talents are underappreciated. We engage residents in a four to six-month program to develop marketable skills while benefiting their community. To date, over 100 people have participated in this program, earning an average stipend of $2,700 while improving skills in computer literacy, communications, event planning, management, graphic design, meeting facilitation, data entry and analysis.
2. Philanthropic Investors: We improve the way philanthropic investment is deployed by providing consultation services and research to foundations, large non-profits, and local government. We work with some of the most influential groups in the city because their perspective, passion, and creativity is vital to solving our most complex issues. We currently work with Winter Park Health Foundation, Town of Eatonville, LIFT Orlando, City of Orlando, Florida Hospital, Florida Citrus Sports, Orlando Health, Haddock Family Foundation, and many others.
3. Service Providers: We improve the way that non-profits and other service providers serve their constituents through leadership coaching, volunteer training, and metrics. We also facilitate constructive partnerships to serve communities. Our primary volunteer training, Dignity Serves, has been used by hundreds of organizations to improve their service efforts. Our non-profit partners and clients include: First Presbyterian Church of Orlando, Hebni Nutrition, Jobs Partnership, Healthy Eatonville Place, St. Luke’s United Methodist Church, and Kaley Square.
4. Academics: We improve academic models through our applied research on theories of social change that originate in top-tier institutions such as Collective Impact (Harvard), Asset-Based Community Development (Northwestern), Human Centered Design (Stanford), Action Research (MIT), and Thriving Cities (University of Virginia). We facilitate the involvement of local academics from Rollins College, Valenica College, and University of Central Florida by helping place doctoral students in community settings and by collaborating with administration and faculty.
Working with these four groups, POLIS has helped guide the Metro Orlando philanthropic community towards place and asset-based approaches to addressing concentrated poverty since its inception in 2009. This shift has resulted in tens of millions of dollars of investment in local neighborhoods, high levels of resident engagement and participation, and dramatic improvements in the lives of specific families and whole communities. Impacts include significant reductions in crime, improvements in educational outcomes, increases in affordable housing units, families exiting poverty, town charters modernized, reductions in chronic health problems, healthier infrastructure, career advancements, and more.
Board of Directors:
Dan Sherfield, Board Chair, Summit Church
Scott Lee, Elevation Financial
Jessica Jetton, Care for AIDS
Julie Zaiback, Adventist Health System
Ryan Norman, Vistana Signature Experiences
Amanda Ward, Rollins College
Please read our annual report, view our organizational profile at the Central Florida Foundation, or contact us for more information.
Back in 2006, I started an open mic in Orlando, FL called “Diverse Word.” I was a 23-year-old idealist who thought my city could use some diversity within the art of spoken word poetry. It became a success in terms of vision actualized, attendance, and the profit it brought to the local café that hosted it. I heard story after story of how meaningful this open mic was to patrons outside of the obvious enjoyment of free entertainment.
At the ten-year mark last year, I sought to document some of those stories and realized how important it was for forums like this to exist. I heard things like, “I was diagnosed with cancer and I came to the open mic to see how other people dealt with their issues. It was therapeutic for me and I have since been cancer-free.” I’m not saying that poetry cures cancer, but creating a safe space for expression does allow for the sacred spaces of human dreams and desires to be heard and tapped into. The positive outcomes from that expression were a byproduct of the original intent.
Something unique happens when people regularly gather together and express their dreams and desires. I noticed it at my open mic nights. And I learned it while working in communities for Polis Institute. It led me to initiate an open mic arts night that includes music at Lake Lorna Doone Park. We are interested in seeing how this and other opportunities for community art and dialogue will transform this public city space and hopefully create a more welcoming environment for children and families. We’ve collaborated with ArtReach Orlando, and on the Southwest corner of the park, under the broad shade of a tree, set up a blank canvas with paint. What effect will this have on the nearby schools and residents in 10 years?
Amanda Burden is a former NYC city commissioner who now consults globally to improve urban public spaces. She believes that cities must have enjoyable accessible public space to thrive, and has described them as “the glue that holds a city together, and…make[s] people want to live in a city and stay in a city.” In a Ted Talk on the subject, she summed up her philosophy with the thought that “a successful city is like a fabulous party. People stay because they are having a great time.”
As the community of Orlando develops and strengthens all parts of our city, it seems to me that our direction should be to help people have a great time! At a truly fabulous party, everyone gets a turn on the dance floor and the DJ takes all requests. Intentional opportunities for artistic expression can invite in people that don’t always have a voice in the life of the city.
Join us on any given Tuesday for the fabulous party of expression known as Diverse Word: from 4 to 6pm at Lake Lorna Doone Park and from 7:30 to 10pm at Dandelion Communitea Café.
Former basketball player and U.S. Senator Bill Bradley once said, “Leadership is unlocking people’s potential to become better.” So true. You could also say the same about a community. While leadership is certainly not the only ingredient in a community becoming better, it is easily the most important. And it is surprisingly undervalued. That may because the type of leadership we often see, particularly in struggling communities, is authoritarian and self-serving – the opposite of what Senator Bradley extolled. And so people grow suspicious of the very idea of leadership and learn to distrust the leaders that they follow – often by default. This persists even when the efforts of these leaders do not result in improvements or the unlocking of potential.
Polis Institute is adding a certification course in Growth Leadership to our training lineup in order to meet the need for more effective, other-focused community leadership. I am very excited about the pilot class that is being facilitated by Dr. Bahiyyah Maroon in Eatonville, Florida. Last night was the second of six classes in the series that will conclude on September 26th. The sense that potential was being unlocked before our eyes was palpable as the group shared positive stories of people living out moral principles – such as integrity, respect, and kindness – that are the foundation of the training. Early next year the program will be available to others who want to apply valuable leadership skills in their communities.
Best practices, baseline demographics, asset mapping, developmental evaluation, long-term impact monitoring – everything we do is based on sound research. Read our 2017 Annual Report.
2017 Neighborhood Stress Index Map:
Historical research projects:
- Thriving Cities (2013-Present): Led by University of Virginia’s Institute for Advanced Studies of Culture, POLIS is contributing the Orlando Profile and providing feedback on the developing matrix.
- Seeking the Welfare of the City (2006-2009): The initial POLIS research on the culture of service in Central Florida. This core research project identified 100 distressed neighborhoods and a model to alleviate this distress.