Town and Gown Partnerships:  East St. Louis Model

New Orleans        ACORN partnered with Ken Reardon and his team from various universities that he mobilized for the recovery after Katrina to create the Peoples’ Plan for the Ninth Ward.  His students and volunteers surveyed every property and assessed the level of damage and whether or not it could be affordably repaired, finding that the vast majority could be, and giving us ammunition to argument for support and redevelopment of our communities.  At that time almost fifteen years ago, he was the head of the Urban and Regional Planning at Cornell University, one of the largest such schools in the country.  Now he is in a similar post at the University of Massachusetts at Boston.  Talking to him on Wade’s World reminded me once again that in some ways we owed a debt for such a gift to his previous experience in building town and gown partnerships that actually worked in East St. Louis of all places when he was starting out his academic career as a young professor at the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana.

Partially, we were talking about Ken’s new book, Building Bridges:  Community and University Partnerships in East St. Louis.  I knew the book inside and out, having read it from front to back a number of times while editing it for publication at Social Policy Press, where it is now available, as well as from the excerpt in the current issue of Social PolicyStill, listening to him answer the softball questions I was tossing out in the interview, I was struck by the gratitude we owned the good people in the half-dozen communities in that broken and deindustrialized, largely minority city, forlornly peering across the Mississippi River from St. Louis, Missouri, an afterthought and stepchild of Illinois.

In the almost mythical origin tale of these hard-won successes in East St. Louis from affordable house, light rail, parks, and other farmers’ markets, Reardon positions the story on the backs of Ceola Davis, an outreach worker at a neighborhood center, and seven other women she assembled to convince the university to embark on what would be a several decades partnership.  Davis had already “been there, done that” with researchers, plan writers, hustlers, and thieves.  From the first meeting she laid out clear principles, that Ken can still recite, that dictated the terms and conditions of any project, and, and along with Ken and his students and the resources they were able to develop, ensured that it was marriage of equals that could bridge the divides of race, class, and the rest of it.  They were the following:

  • Local residents would determine the projects for the partnership’s work.

  • Local residents would be equal partners in all aspects of the planning.

  • The university would make a five-year minimum commitment to the partnership.

  • Resources and capacity would be developed for the community and money would be split 50-50.

  • A permanent organization to continue the work would be developed before the partnership would be terminated.

There were ups and downs, fans and foes of the projects, but the chance of any such partnership succeeding would be greatly improved by revisiting and committing to something along the lines of what Reardon still reverentially calls, the Ceola Accords.

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Nonprofit Confusion and BatchGeo

With Ken Reardon, Director of the Graduate Program in Urban Planning and Community Development at the University of Massachusetts Boston  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4ukgSjCZnM0

Boston    Running around Boston the last several days I’ve met great professors and students at Boston University School of Social Work, the Heller School at Brandeis, and the Planning Department at the University of Massachusetts at Boston.  It’s fascinating to hear what people are thinking when they begin asking questions after I tell them about ACORN, our history, our work around the world, and our current projects in the United States and abroad.

There are some surprises.  I still think of the election and the events of 2008 as evergreen in the political consciousness of generations given the seminal experience of seeing Barack Obama elected.  Undergraduate classes and some masters programs are composed largely of young people who did not vote in 2008, once you think about it.  In several classes I asked who had ever watched Fox News, knew who Glenn Beck might have been, recognized Andrew Brietbart, and the hands are few and far between.  The sting on ACORN by James O’Keefe?  Huh?  And, really, why should they know.  They are busy with their own lives and weren’t caught in the maelstrom of those times, even though they still feel like yesterday to me.

When it gets to nuts and bolts, talking about ACORN and my book, also named Nuts & Bolts:  The ACORN Fundamentals of Organizing, students of all kinds have been most fascinated at hearing the heresy that ACORN was not a tax exempt, 501c3 organization as classified by the Internal Revenue Source.  Notes are taken carefully when I rant about the transfer of responsibility from foundations, churches, and donors from policing their own grants to protect their wealth, by offloading the fiscal responsibility on their organizational grantees by convincing them to become tax exempt and curtail their activity in politics and advocacy.  They are shocked to find that the so-called expenditure limits by tax exempt organizations have never been established clearly by the IRS in hearings or regulations, but are just presumed by lawyers and others and passed on wholesale to active organizations, thereby changing their mission and practice.  They get an understanding that being nonprofit is more than enough and gives them flexibility and force.  I leave feeling like the excessive space I devoted in a chapter called, “Structure Matters,” was well spent, rather than distracting.

The other small takeaway that has resonated when I talk about the ACORN Home Savers Campaign is the growing membership in the BatchGeo fan club I’m organizing  When I explain the time saved that used to go into map work and 3×5 cards for literally hours before doing home visits in neighborhoods versus the pleasure of seeing lists downloaded into BatchGeo, a free app on your smartphone, that then shows a flashing blue dot, indicating your car, and the distance to the next house on your list, notes are taken and thanks are given.

Students like the stories, are inspired by the documentary, are curious about the philosophy and campaigns, but they are hungry for real skills and tools they can use that might make them successful or at least prevent mistakes.   And, I’m happy to see that nuts and bolts still matter!

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