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.
It’s the summer of 1966 at the University of Texas: A typical college campus day with young adults strolling across the courtyard, chatting about the latest hot topics, loosely clutching textbooks in the heat, and perhaps fewer students than normal due to it being a summer session. Claire Wilson James and John Fox are names you might not know, but they are two of the survivors of a mass shooting by a lone wolf that left 16 dead and several wounded on campus that day. There are a myriad of articles related to this tragic moment in American History and even a documentary called “Tower” that details it from a unique perspective.
After the shooting, psychiatrist Dr. Stuart Brown was charged to examine the mental state of the shooter. What he found consistently both in the shooter, and in 26 other convicted murderers in the Texas State Penitentiary was a severe lack of free play during their childhood. It led Dr. Brown to carry out extensive research on the long-term effects of play on people. After examining 6000 subjects trying to quantify the effects of play throughout childhood, Dr. Brown found that those who experienced more play had similar characteristics as adults: light-heartedness, empathy, optimism, hopefulness, and adaptability. As he put it all these traits “seemed to be a by-product of their playful time together.” Dr. Stuart Brown went on to found the National Institute for Play which now specializes in ongoing research related to this topic.
The Polis Institute works to infuse strategies like this into the distressed neighborhoods we serve. One example is our weekly Diverse Word gathering at Lake Lorna Doone Park in Orlando where we create opportunities for play through poetry and games. At this weekly event, I recently experienced a twofold revelation as it relates to the game of chess.
I heard from a volunteer about an OCPS Title One middle school team that had ranked highly in a chess tournament. This led to me research the effects of playing chess on academic achievement, and the outcomes I came across were astounding: chess exercises both sides of the brain, increases creativity, memory, problem-solving skills, reading, concentration, and the list goes on. I began to teach myself how to play with the hope of becoming a cheerleader of sorts for chess and thus change the world! If only it were that easy, right? But I do feel like I’m on to something.
The second part of this revelation was that chess is played every day at Lake Lorna Doone Park. I know because I have seen it with my own eyes, and have been crushed by opponents in this game of intense logic and strategy. It then dawned on me that the game of chess just might be the greatest common denominator across existing social structures where we work in 32805.
The Polis Institute utilizes both our own research and experience, combined with leading studies, actionable solutions, and best practices to seek the welfare of the city. While there are no silver bullets to solving complex social issues and championing human dignity, playing a game of chess with our neighbors can increase our community’s social, emotional, and intellectual resources.
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.
The Polis Institute is a non-profit organization that aims to remove the barriers that prevent experiencing long, healthy, fruitful and dignified lives. Many of these barriers stem from concentrated poverty, but there are additional barriers, both physical and metaphoric, that manifest in a variety of ways. We at POLIS use and develop research around the best practical ways to engage with people living in areas of high distress, and help design long-term solutions for the well-being of their community.
Approaching global systemic issues very locally, over a long range of time, is not a popular model in our fast-paced, instant gratification society. But taking time to get to know people, and deeply considering their expressed desires and visions of what could be, can be effective on a grander scale than imagined.
Conventionally, city sidewalks and city streets met at the right angle of a curb. No harm in that, right? You just step on and off. However, for Edward Roberts, confined to a wheelchair and iron lung after contracting polio, that six inch curb was a major hurdle. As a student at UC Berkeley in the 1960s, he became a disability rights activist, and led a movement to create curb cuts, or ramps, to allow sidewalk access to people with wheelchairs. Curb cuts had existed since the 1940s when they were created to assist disabled WWII vets, but were not in common use or well known until Roberts and his classmates worked to design solutions for a local, small, underserved group of people with limited mobility.
With decades of effort, and the benefit of national attention to the accomplishments of this growing movement, the 1990 ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) was passed, mandating curb cuts everywhere – removing barriers to wheelchair access to city sidewalks and the cities themselves.
My point, however is not that a small group won a victory that serves them alone. It is that a much larger and unanticipated group of people also benefitted from the well-designed solution of curb cuts. Anyone pushing a baby stroller or a grocery cart, riding a skateboard or bicycle, can use a curb cut. Curb cuts help call attention to an intersection’s crosswalk which increases pedestrian safety, are easier to shovel clear in the snow, and are more navigable for the very young and old. When people concentrate their efforts in assisting the overlooked, and solving just a single problem, it can open a whole new world of opportunities for all of society. The Polis Institute desires to be an Ed Roberts in the world, who in slowly serving and designing solutions for the one, would benefit the many in cities across the United States and the world.
I know a guy named Stanley who needs a job. He’s in his forties and does not have a great resume or work ethic. He has some health problems. He seems to get hurt on the job a lot and has tried to sue more than one employer. He quit high school in the 10th grade but eventually earned a GED and joined the military. He characterizes his time in the military as the best time in his life. Since then, he has been out of work just as often as he has been employed.
Stanley has tried out some job training programs but none have helped him get or keep a job. “There are just certain types of people we are not equipped to help,” said the director of one such program. I was a little surprised to hear him say that since I knew the program was started some years ago to help people exactly like Stanley. The director went on to explain how his organization had made a conscious decision to focus on people with fewer issues than Stanley seemed to have before adding, “and we have been expanding rapidly ever since.”
I have heard explanations like this before. A non-profit starts out trying to reach the most hurting and marginalized in our midst but as the frustrations of dealing with the harder cases collide with the desire to grow the organization, they raise the bar on who they are willing to help. In some ways, it makes sense. Why spend 90% of your effort to help 50% of your clients achieve 10% of the desired outcomes? Focus on those who are ready and equipped to move forward and you will see the fruit of your hard work pay off more quickly while watching your programs grow and funding increase. Seems like a rational choice.
But what about Stanley?
There is a big difference between helping people get a job and helping a particular person get a job. When you help people get a job, you weed out the Stanleys until you find someone easier to work with. But when you try to help Stanley get a job, everything changes because he continues to matter to you whether he gets a job or not. If Stanley is more to you than a client – if he’s a friend, a family member, or a neighbor – you continue to invite him to social gatherings while he’s looking for work and after he gets fired from another job. You celebrate successes with him and empathize with his frustrations. You share your story with him and listen to his story. You laugh with him and cry with him. If Stanley is just a client, your relationship with him ends when his progress in your program ends.
We all need more friends in our life than we need program directors. We need more neighbors than case workers. And we need more family than we need professional care givers. That doesn’t mean that we never need professionals in our life or that it is somehow wrong to secure their help. What we all need is someone who will love us and encourage us even when we don’t make the best choices. It’s just harder for professionals to continue to be that loving person when we don’t get with the program or make our payments.
Neighborhood focused, place-based work ascribes higher value to neighborly kindness and familial care than professional help because it is more in line with our long-term interests and basic needs. There is certainly room for professionals to help but that help should be temporary and leveraged in ways that clearly support one’s long-term interests. It also means that one should expect limits to what professionals will be willing to endure.
I’ve known Stanley for a few years now. He needs a job. Although his wife is working, they are not quite making it and they may have to move out of the neighborhood they love so much. Their neighbors love them too. He and his wife regularly help their elderly neighbors with shopping and yard work. They participate in community meetings and helped start a community garden and newsletter. If they moved, it would really be a loss for the community.
Stanley also really wants to work. He says he feels better about himself when he’s doing something productive and actively contributing to the family’s finances. He hasn’t done well in the manual labor jobs that he typically gets and thinks if he tries another route things will improve. His self-confidence is really low and he’s not convinced that he can do other, non-labor-intensive jobs but he is willing to try. In sum, he could use professional help to learn some new skills and he might benefit from some professional counseling as well. But Stanley, like all of us, is most in need of unconditional love and support that only family, friends, and neighbors provide.
POLIS began piloting a program called Job Support Services earlier this year to help Stanley and 190 other people in his community who are out of work but looking for a job. The program helps residents apply to one of six employer partners who have agreed to give hiring priority to participants. Employers are willing to do that because we have assembled a team of volunteer residents and supportive partners who will help these applicants become great employees – child care, transportation, and encouragement will be provided.
We have also partnered with larger training and job support programs like the one mentioned at the beginning of this article. They can still focus on specialized services that help people get jobs – resume writing, job interviewing skills, technical skills – while the resident volunteers provide the type of emotional and tactical support that will eventually help Stanley secure and keep a job. POLIS is providing professional design and support services during the pilot phase. When this phase concludes, our support will transition toward a resident-run program that helps ensure that everyone in the community that wants a job, has a job, and that when particular people like Stanley lose jobs or struggle to find work, friends and neighbors will be there to offer encouragement and connections.
Barbara and her daughter are one of our core MVP Families. They look forward to every meeting and haven’t missed a single one. Last week, when Barbara didn’t get the reminder text for the upcoming meeting when she expected it, she called our Family Engagement Coordinator, Shawn, to make sure everything was on track and to see if he needed any help.
To these core families, MVP Families is becoming a very important part of life. In the past two sessions, families have built goals together beginning with academic goals for the children. They have also worked on two family goals – a health and wellness goal and a financial stability goal. Barbara is focused on reading more with her daughter so that she “learns the right words and is ready for school.” She has also set goals to eat healthier and to secure more hours at her job at Vacation Lodge.
One of the most important aspects of a life well-lived is the discovery and pursuit of one’s own goals and aspirations. For those of us who practice Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD), this is a fundamental part of the work – helping residents of a small geographic area leverage their skills and networks to realize their dreams. Connecting the dreams of particular residents to one another and those shared dreams to the overall transformation of a community is where the work gets exciting.
As straightforward as this sounds, this type of emphasis is quite rare. There are a few reasons for this, most of which are not bad. First, funding sources for programs tend to want to know what you plan to do before they give you the money. Makes sense. But then, that’s what you have to do. And if your grant was written to improve health outcomes in a community whose stated priority is jobs, then you have a conflict on your hands. The solution to this is to simply include a discovery phase for grants and to allow some ability to adjust to what is discovered.
Similarly, non-profits tend to get started to address a single, specific issue like homelessness, employability, school grades, or blindness to name a few. They then scale their work as they successfully help their clients address the issue. When the potential client-base is a city of over 200,000 people or a county of over a million people, a non-profit can continue its march towards excellence and success because it can and will focus its attention on those clients most amenable to what they have to offer. When the client-base is the residents of a particular neighborhood of 1,500 people, everything changes. And the business model of most non-profits simply will not survive that scale.
The solution to this is quite simple. Simply create a program whose sole purpose is to help the neighborhood residents establish and meet their goals while bringing in specialist partners who can help the residents succeed in particular areas. The biggest challenge to this is establishing sufficient trust to allow people to share their goals in the first place. Asking people what they are hoping to achieve in life is way more personal that asking them to show up to a cooking class. And this is one of the reasons that organizations don’t tend to do this type of work – it takes a very long time to build trusting relationships. But that is what we all need and desire in life.
We call this a Resident and Community Support Program after a program run by the East Lake Foundation in Atlanta. We are implementing a similar program on behalf of LIFT Orlando called MVP Families. Pictured above is Porcha, one of the core members of the program. The other day she took me aside to tell me how grateful she was for the program. She has now established her own goals for her family and is getting to connected to the best practices and some programs to help achieve these goals.
Here’s some of the numbers (as of Oct. 2016):
Total MVP Families: 55
Avg. GPA: 3.192
Over 2.0 GPA: 93.3%
- Children’s Academic Success 100%
- Family Relationships 90%
- Health & Wellness
- Eat Healthier 37%
- Exercise More 41%
- Reduce Stress 26%
- Family Stability
- Improve Finances 74%
- Stabilize Housing 22%
- Improve Transport. 15%
For the past 21 years, Florida Citrus Sports (FCS), has been investing in youth enrichment in Orlando through a program called “MVP Summer Camp.” This year the camp is being extended to a year-round program called “MVP Families.”
Through the combined efforts of FCS in partnership with Lift Orlando, Florida Blue, and the Polis Institute, the program is seeking to engage families in the 32805 neighborhood. Program objectives include assisting students with college acceptance and scholarships, developing community leaders, strengthening the bonds between parents and children, connecting families with other families, and setting and achieving family goals.
Once a the month, leading up to the MVP summer camp next summer, a dinner will be prepared for and by MVP Families program participants. Child care will be provided, allowing space and opportunity for meaningful discussion among the adults in a holistic approach to community transformation. The first of these meetings will be on Tuesday, September 6, 2016 at the Frontline Outreach Youth and Family Community Center (3000 C.R Smith St. Orlando, FL 32805) from 6:30-8:30pm.