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Curb Cutting: How Solving Problems for One Group Helps us All

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.

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MVP Families: Family Highlight

barbaraBarbara 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.

 

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Helping Residents Pursue Their Own Goals

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

Children:                                98

Avg. GPA:                               3.192

Over 2.0 GPA:                       93.3%

Established Goals:

  • 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%

 

 

 

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Using Art to Visualize Community Assets

Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD) involves leveraging what a community has to offer so that it can move itself towards a desired future. A first step in the process is typically some kind of inventory of what is there – talents of individuals, programs and facilities, informal groups, property – the whole nine yards. This information is captured, analyzed, and visualized so that connections can be made and initiatives can be created that benefit the community. The product of this inventory is often called an asset map.

Art is a great way to visualize these assets and can serve as a nice complement to the more common options of a tabular list or a map. The most useful asset maps include all three – artwork, a database, and on dynamic online map. All three can depict the same information but are just displayed in different formats, each with its own appeal. The tabular data gives you just the facts, the map shows you where assets are, and artwork provides emotional and narrative content.

This video describes an art project that POLIS led as part of the LIFT Orlando project:

 

The project described in the video above was fairly complex. POLIS was contracted by LIFT Orlando to do the asset mapping project and hired ArtWorks to do the creative process with the children. There was a lot of planning to conduct the sessions in four different locations that included a school and three community centers. There were expenses to pay and significant expertise from the ArtWorks staff to guide the students through the process. But the end result was amazing. The art from the kids was inspirational and aligned very closely with what over 1,500 adults had said in door-to-door surveys.

The survey information was entered into a database which was also loaded into a GIS (Geographic Information System). But the information was also visualized in a more artistic way, or at least a graphic way. This involved loading the responses into an online word cloud generator called WordItOut (there are several) that produced a graphic of all of the recorded words of responses to the survey questions. The more frequent the word, the larger the word in the graphic.

Three of the questions that POLIS asks during its asset surveys are depicted below followed by example word clouds from the LIFT project.

What is your favorite thing about the neighborhood?

likemost

 

What would you do to make the community a better place?

makebetter

 

What is something that other people say you are good at?

goodat

 

These representations of what people say or imagine invoke much more of an emotive response than merely hearing a statistic or seeing a dot on a map. Data and maps are very helpful but less structured graphic and artistic representations of community assets can be especially helpful for unlocking ideas and vision – which are essential to making positive change. These images are presented at community meetings, along with stats and maps, to help build initiatives that are most likely to engage community interest and provide a tangibel community benefit.