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.