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The Anatomy of an Inclusive—and Successful—Community Partnership: Q&A with Thomas Wyatt

Thomas Wyatt, a researcher, urban planner and 2019 Rubinger Fellow from Flint, Michigan, discusses what it takes to forge cross-sector partnerships that can achieve authentic community change. A prime example: Flint’s University Avenue Corridor Coalition brought residents and institutions together to reduce a neighborhood’s entrenched blight and crime when nothing else could.

Thomas Wyatt is an urban planner, community organizer and researcher at Kettering University in Flint, MI. From 2015 to 2018, he managed a $1 million Innovations in Community-Based Crime Reduction (CBCR) grant from the Department of Justice (LISC was the technical assistance provider for the grant program). The project brought residents together with neighborhood organizations to ease crime and blight in the area around the university. Its resounding success was in large part due to a cross-sector partnership. Launched in 2012 with 15 organizational members, by 2018 the University Avenue Corridor Coalition (UACC) included more than 80 partners covering four neighborhoods.

As Kettering’s new full-time director of neighborhood and community services, Wyatt now manages the UACC. For his Fellowship project, he is interviewing participants in similar alliances across the country—and creating a practical guide for building the inclusive coalitions he sees as vital to authentic, lasting neighborhood revitalization.

First of all, what defines a cross-sector partnership? Who has to be involved?

I’ve haven’t written out a definition, but I’ve always thought that it should involve every component that makes a specific community. So there’s representation from the faith community and residential communities and businesses and institutions.

Whatever is in the community, you want that representation. Because if you don’t have it, some part of the community is going to feel left out or they’re going to start something that could be competing. There’s always the potential for friction.

As you’ve observed, residents can come to feel cynical about community development initiatives that come and go. Can a solid ongoing partnership like UACC combat that problem?

Absolutely. In places like Flint, you had—and continue to have—a lot of resources pumped into the community to improve it. Institutions or components of government get a notification that there are resources they can apply for, and some just craft what they think needs to happen in the neighborhood, in-house. It’s almost creating an industry out of nonprofits and grants. So the community is really sensitive to that. Especially when they get surveyed over and over; they’ll say, “We answered these questions four years ago.”

Thomas Wyatt
Thomas Wyatt

Building an inclusive neighborhood partnership that can manage these efforts creates transparency around what’s going on. It squashes rumors and miscommunication and strengthens the reputation of all parties involved. And it also gets people excited.

Sometimes just running your own life (or organization) can seem like more than enough to do. How do you inspire people to come out for a cross-sector meeting or activity?

One thing I hear again and again is people are really tired of meeting just for the sake of meeting: everyone gets an assignment and they come back the next month and nothing’s been done. At UACC we’re really fortunate to have “eds and meds” that have liaisons like myself. So I can assure people, “I get paid to push forward projects that you as a resident have identified as a priority.”

Also when UACC meets it’s really kind of high-energy and fun. It’s TED-style talks on anything from the Flint Children’s Museum to a new Cycle Fest that’s happening. Last month we had somebody come and talk about Opportunity Zone funding. The presenter sent me her slide deck, and it was for people that were going to invest. I called her and said, “I think you only need these five slides, and here’s why.” People come, they’re fed, they get to participate, they do planning exercises at tables. And we have kind of pub-style trivia.

UACC, as you say, is lucky to have the participation of some established anchor institutions. Any insight on how to get a partnership going in a neighborhood with less capacity to start with?

You always look for low-hanging fruit or quick wins. You ask people, “What do you like about the neighborhood?” and maybe they’ll say, “I love that the neighborhood has density and I live so close to people.” “What do you not like about the neighborhood?” And maybe that’s the fact that they don’t really know the people nearby or feel threatened by some of them. Ok, so let’s create some opportunities for people to get to know each other. That’s a great place to start, something fun, a block party maybe. Because life in the neighborhood isn’t just about challenges and struggles.

Some cross-sector partnerships have strong institutional participation but are weaker on engagement of actual residents. How much resident involvement is enough? Is there a standard?

I think it really comes down to putting an honest and best effort forward. Our [UACC] coalition is seven years old and we’ll still get residents who say, “I don’t feel like my voice is heard because your meetings are at 12 o’clock.” It was started mostly with institutional partners and a few neighbors who were retired or worked at home so they could attend a lunchtime meeting. So we started attending neighborhood association meetings too. We used social media heavily, newsletters. We try to use every angle that we can. You can’t catch everybody. If we had evening meetings, we’d lose 9-to-5 businesses, for example. You look to see that you’re doing everything you can.

How has the Rubinger Fellowship enhanced your work?

The fellowship has provided space in my workweek to take a deep dive into community partnerships and how they work, and it has enabled my own institution, Kettering University, to explore new, innovative opportunities to be a part of the community. It is timely that this project has come about, because here in Flint we have a robust partnership looking to invest significantly in the University Avenue Corridor. My research thus far has helped to provide some insight into what other communities with similar partnerships are doing, what they have learned, and what they would do differently. 

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