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Labeling Neighborhoods

Labeling has a great influence on perceptions, choices, behaviors, and even beliefs. Some communities are viewed only as places of significant poverty and high rates of violence. These negative preconceptions can have a psychological impact on both the residents and those outside the community. This can lead one to believe in a world that is simply broken or one in which heroes are needed to fix communities.

We should identify communities with nuance and empathy rather than use pejorative labels like crime-infested, impoverished, and blighted. Labels can be self-fulfilling prophecies. If someone is told that they are aggressive, they are more likely to behave in such a manner. Alternatively, if someone is told that they are kind, this is likely to influence their behavior in a positive way. A community should not be labelled as anything less than they are.

Society as a whole is stronger when we acknowledge the abilities and potential of our communities and is weakened when we become singularly focused on deficiencies. This is not to minimize the existing challenges but to posit those challenges in ways that point to our shared responsibility to address them. A concentration of low incomes in a particular community are not simply a result of low initiative or skill. There are social conditions that significantly influence these outcomes as well – educational options, infrastructure (sidewalks, lighting, parks), and access to healthcare to name a few.

So how do we best describe a community with a higher than average number of low income families? The adjective ‘underappreciated’ says it best. POLIS sees people, all people, as assets with inherent dignity. Under-appreciating assets is a failed opportunity. Non-profits regularly develop programs without asking those experiencing the issue first-hand what they might do to address the issue and their approaches and outcomes are made less effective because of this oversight.

Residents are the main assets in a community because they have the greatest vantage point for their community’s needs. Communities who may have not benefited from equitable financial investment tend to be rich in other forms of capital. For instance, a community known for having higher amounts of low income housing tend to have residents with stronger relationships among neighbors. Negative labeling would dismiss this very important thread in the fabric of a community.

By acknowledging the dignity of each individual in a community, regardless of the labels, the true beauty and assets of what everyone brings to the table becomes evident which positively influences the way we address any challenges.

Other descriptors that point to shared responsibility are ‘underserved’ and ‘underresourced’. POLIS uses a Neighborhood Stress Index and points to neighborhoods in ‘distress.’ Our hope is that this hints at both internal and external factors that make living there more stressful than in other communities.

However we choose to describe neighborhoods, it’s helpful to remind ourselves that no label will fully describe it and that there are unintended consequences to our labels. The best descriptors point to shared responsibility and are always aided by additional language that makes it clear that all communities have both needs and assets and that solutions to any challenges best stem from focusing more on the assets.

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Eatonville, Florida – Culture of Health Prize Winner 2018

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation collaborates with the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute to award the Culture of Health Prize to select communities. This prize focuses on marginalized populations who show commitment to working together to better their residents’ lifestyles and the places they live in. These commitments are evident in different fields such as health, education, and business.

Eatonville, Florida was one of four communities selected this year as a recipient of Culture of Health Prize out of nearly 200 applicants from across the country. Other communities that received this prize were: Cicero, Illinois; Klamath County, Oregon; and San Antonio, Texas.

The Polis Institute contributed to this success by deploying our community engagement model and developing resident leadership. This program is called Leadership Eatonville which prepares participants to utilize a growth mindset, project management, and asset-based community development to help the community achieve meaningful goals. Leadership Eatonville was first piloted in 2016 and has graduated thirty-two residents thus far. Financial support for our efforts was provided by Winter Park Health Foundation which has had a long-standing relationship with the town and, along with Florida Hospital, established Healthy Eatonville Place – an initiative that contributed significantly to the town’s Culture of Health Prize win.

The heroes of the story, however, are without a doubt the residents of Eatonville – the oldest predominant black community in America. These residents, 2,200 strong, were determined to make their community flourish by improving quality of life while maintaining the historical character of the city. Along with the help of churches, government leaders, organizations, nonprofits, associations leading various programs, projects, and trainings, Eatonville has realized great improvements over the past few years in terms of health, resident leadership and engagement, housing, education, local economy, and community development.

After the discovery of high rates of diabetes, the town of Eatonville decided to take actions to be a healthier place. Town hall, nine local churches, Winter Park Health Foundation, Florida Hospital, and the Orlando Chapter of the American Diabetes Association all held an important role in addressing diabetes in the city. This was achieved through several initiatives surrounding wellness services such as, health classes, and studies on how to prevent or fight diabetes.

The existing nine churches in Eatonville took part in this effort to make Eatonville flourish through high school sports games, diabetes prevention programs, food pantries, fitness classes, and after school programs. Additionally, a brand new school opened in August with the support of the mayor, the churches, and local businesses. They sought to fulfill the students’ needs during the school year. STEM was also incorporated throughout the curriculum. With a great desire to empower the next generation of leaders, Eatonville prepares youth for success with the help of local leaders, non-profits, after school programs, and churches.

Read more about Eatonville’s award on the RWJF site by clicking here.

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American Ideals and Broad Based Prosperity

During this year’s Central Florida Poverty Conference held in June, Polis Institute Founder and Director Phil Hissom shared his response to a report on American Poverty from the Council of Human Rights at the United Nations.

Hissom comments on three specific issues raised in the report: the number of children in poverty, income inequality and incarceration rates. He also compares these issues to the core American values of liberty, egalitarianism, and democracy. Since there is a belief that these values will lead to wealth production, he posits the following question: Can we create a more broad-based prosperity in America through our current set of ideals?

These American ideals imply that production of wealth leads to the greatest good. In light of this, Hissom turns his focus to the business sector due to its ability to produce the wealth that is redistributed through the government and social sectors.

During his discussion he weighs the issue of children living in poverty against the value of egalitarianism. He explains the importance of positive labels on children, the education and support of children, their parents, and/or other parties who are raising them.

Next, he addresses the issue of income inequality and compares it to the value of democracy. He discusses the immense gap between groups of people due to wealth concentration and how that affects our electoral process.

He then addresses the issue of incarceration rates while contrasting it to the value of liberty. He explains that America has the highest incarceration rate in the world and how the poor are disproportionately affected by this issue. Along with this, he explains the issue of discrimination in the workforce. Despite low unemployment rates, wages are not enough to sustain a practical living.

Hissom believes that those core values (liberty, egalitarianism, democracy) are important in creating broad-based prosperity, but only by taking them more seriously. He also suggests that there are two other values which need to be elevated: dignity and interdependence, which he combines into what he calls “dignified interdependence”.

Dignity is the fundamental value of the human being and should foster an honest appreciation of what everyone has to offer. He emphasizes the significance of affirming people for who they are: human beings with inherent dignity that stems from being created in God’s image. He believes our job is to help people use their gifts so that they can have an impact on other people. Interdependence embodies the idea of people coming together for the good of the community. We will only reach our greatest potential when we all come together and celebrate our shared successes.

Does it trouble you that America is near the bottom of the list of developed countries in terms of how well we are addressing poverty? This video explains how we can best make use of our fundamental American values to move up that list and, more importantly, change lives and strengthen communities.

 

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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.