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LISC NYC believes that investing in the next generation of leaders is vital to the future of community development. Every summer, through a partnership with Prep for Prep and generous funding from LISC Board member Lisa Cashin, LISC NYC runs the Cashin Community Development Fellowship to place high school and college students in summer jobs with community development corporation (CDC) partners and LISC. At their placements, students gets hands on experience in program development, community advocacy, and neighborhood engagement. At the end of the summer 2018 cycle of the program, we asked students to reflect on their fellowship experiences and provide their most important feedback to community development professionals. As always, we were impressed by their insights. This blog post from two of our 2018 Cashin Fellows, Adaku Nwokiwu and Tatijana Ollivierre, captures their thoughts on the power of language around the issues of gentrification and community development. Adaku supported communications, development and programs at LISC NYC and Tatijana supported youth and education programs at St. Nicks Alliance, a CDC based in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
As Cashin Fellows, we've become familiar with CDCs, LISC, and community leaders trying to enact change through community development, specifically in underserved neighborhoods. Many of us come from neighborhoods that have endured a history of disinvestment and as such, we’ve been confronted with the current transformations taking place around us. This summer has uniquely put us on two poles of the situation: to be both of these “disinvested communities” and to also be part of the efforts to refortify these communities.
Consequently, having footing on both sides and comparing how we discuss our own changing neighborhoods, we as Cashin Fellows have taken note of some of the language used on the community development end: neighborhood change, displacement, and population migration. As members of some of the communities LISC and CDCs work with, "gentrification” has been and is what we are living through.
On a personal level, three years ago, my family moved out of Briarwood, Queens into a house with more space for much less. The greater Jamaica area, though often overlooked, is one of the handful of neighborhoods in Queens that’s relatively affordable within the grand scheme of New York. But leading up to and in the wake of my family’s move, I began to notice gentrification taking root: Chipotles and Starbucks cropping up where they had never been before, articles deeming it a “hot neighborhood” which it had never been considered in the past. In the years to come, I want to return to my hometown, ideally live in or near it. But one of my main concerns is how difficult it’ll be to afford rent that will certainly be higher than what my parents found too expensive. And even more, I fear that it’ll be difficult to rejoin the community if its demographics and “culture” are overhauled. It’s with this in mind that I read terms like neighborhood change and fill in the word gentrification. I think that as a lot of youth are experiencing this, we see it as valuable to use direct language to address what’s happening in low-income communities.
Language can become technical, and impersonal, to the degree that it is almost evasive and out of touch with what a population is enduring. Displacement, population migration and neighborhood change frame only the effects of gentrification, and do not provide any context as to the cause. Conversely, just the root of the word “gentrification,” builds in consideration of who’s performing the act and of who and what is bringing about these effects. And more importantly, the word “gentrification” often elicits a strong emotional reaction and in doing so, does what the aforementioned words do not: it adds a valence to the reconstructing of our homes. It encompasses the element of emotional and social “displacement” that comes with having your own community re-established around you.
This summer I have been learning how to write grants in order to secure funding for community development initiatives. Grantwriting has given me a look into communications and taught me to be specific about the aims of a program and its progress, as it’s the only way to pique a funder’s interest. This has given me a glimpse into the way we edit language to make it fit an audience.
Though the word gentrification has been around for half a century, in my short time, mentions of the word have been limited to our Cashin orientation and neighborhood tour. The word also hasn’t made its way into many of the reports where it’s been applicable. I’ve observed that this can sometimes translate to submitting reports and grant proposals that don’t label the challenges to affordable housing as gentrification, though they fall under this umbrella.
There is a gap between the language that is acceptable for a funder and the language that someone of the community, especially youth like us, would recognize and empathize with. The priority area of a funder may include initiatives within the framework of “neighborhood change,” but the priority area for community youth, for Cashin Fellows, is reclaiming our neighborhoods, finding ways to keep our families, our histories, and our cultures in place.
It is important to acknowledge that just as much attention and effort that goes into appealing to funders, should be spent on resonating with the residents of their initiative target communities. Often the people interested in enacting change in communities are residents of those communities. It’s for this reason that it is essential that CDCs maintain appropriate language when interacting with residents of affected communities as well as their staff. As interns at these various CDCs, we offer the invaluable skill of being able to directly relate to the communities we affect because we are of those communities. The drive that we have to enact some amount of change in the eight weeks of time we had this summer stems from wanting to see our own communities refortified and supported in any and all ways necessary. Who better to make the change than those who need it to happen the most?
One of my main projects this summer involved data intake and analysis of surveys to measure parents’ opinions of the impact that the afterschool programs run by my placement site, St. Nicks Alliance, had on their children. This project allowed me to see how the work of CDCs can be measured in a tangible, small scale way. My job was to assist in distributing surveys to parents and to talk them through the process of filling them out when necessary. The surveys asked parents about their children's sense of safety in the program, the responsiveness of staff, the program's general accessibility, and whether they believed the program delivered positive outcomes.
After helping to distribute surveys at the first site, I quickly noticed that they weren't accessible to all parents because of language barriers. I concluded that the impact of these afterschool programs could not be accurately measured if the surveys only targeted a specific demographic of parents, and that it would be best to make them as accessible as possible to many different types of people. I decided to translate the surveys into Spanish, so that Spanish speaking parents could partake in the process and have their voice heard as well.
After analyzing the survey data I was able to conclude that the overwhelming majority of responses were highly positive: the comments were full of praise for both the staff and programming at the various afterschool sites. However, I was also able to reflect on the overall process of survey collection and how effective it truly was.
On one hand, the surveys offered parents optional anonymity so that they could truly speak their peace, and provided a quick and succinct tool for their feedback. On the other hand, the time and location of the survey collection was not ideal. Parents were targeted when they were coming to pick their child up from afterschool or summer camp, a relatively high speed time of the day both for them and the site staff. While we got a fair number of responses, it was evident that most parents did not feel the need to take time out during this hectic part of their day to respond to the survey.
After regrouping with one of my site supervisors about the process, I realized that the best way to collect meaningful data was through focus groups. That way we could analyze responses from specific sub-groups of people: for example, those whose children always come to afterschool, or those who only come occassionally; parents who tend to pick up their children themselves, or those who have another guardian pick them up. This would help us match solutions to problems that specific sub-groups raised. Ideally, we would collect data through a series of focus group conversations with parents where they could effectively voice their opinions on the survey questions.
I concluded that while it is understandable to administer program surveys so they offer anonymity and don’t take up too much time for those being surveyed, there are drawbacks to that approach. Nevertheless, the surveys were a good overall measure of how parents view the afterschool programming offered by St. Nicks. It is my hope that next year's Cashin Fellow continues to make these surveys as accessible as possible for the organization's new cohort of parents, and continues to think of of effective ways to measure the impact of St. Nicks's programs on the families it serves.
View more information on LISC NYC's Cashin Community Development Fellowship and capacity building work here.