Seeds of Promise seeks sustainable neighborhood

March 26, 2010
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A new program is quietly rolling out in southeast Grand Rapids in the neighborhood surrounding Dickinson Elementary school, a low-income neighborhood.

The program is Seeds of Promise, a community initiative that hopes to “transform neighborhoods by promoting collaboration and community stakeholder partnerships,” according to its mission statement.

“If we can begin changing the culture, how people view themselves, and lifting up their self-esteem, then they are going to understand that they can open up a business,” said Ron Jimmerson Sr., a member of the steering committee and practitioner with Quest Sustainable Solution, a diversity training company of Cascade Engineering.

“What you’ll see also is we’ll probably have more of our graduating students remaining in the area. We want to be able to keep them in this area and show them there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.

“By changing the culture of the individuals, you’re going to see the city change,” he said.

Jimmerson pointed to statistics showing that millions of dollars leave the neighborhood annually. Seeds of Promise wants to help spur entrepreneurialism and attract businesses and shops to the area.

“That’s job development. That’s business development. That’s all the things that really help Grand Rapids,” he said. Jimmerson mentioned that Family Dollar had exited the area citing a high theft rate — something he believes can be drastically reduced. That’s where changing the culture of the area comes in.

With a voluntary steering committee containing representatives from Cascade Engineering, Grand Valley State University, United Way, Lighthouse Communities, and others, Seeds of Promise will focus on the “social responsibility” arm of sustainability’s triple bottom line, which also includes economic vitality and environmental stewardship. By focusing on social responsibility within the Dickinson neighborhood, Seeds of Promise believes it can create a cultural shift that will lead to a more economically vibrant neighborhood and a more prepared work force.

“As part of (Cascade Engineering’s) culture, we try to look to see where we can make positive change in the neighborhood,” said Jimmerson. “That’s where our employees are going to be coming from. If we change the culture and attitude of the people, then that means Cascade is going to get a higher quality worker.”

Many programs that work to transform neighborhoods do so by planting trees, building new schools and resurrecting old buildings. While these efforts have an impact, Seeds of Promise has found that it doesn’t change the neighborhood’s culture, and that means new schools and revamped buildings still may be vandalized. In essence, investing in the environment before investing in the culture is putting the cart before the horse.

“Currently, the culture is that when you plant a tree or (build) a new building, the kids come along and destroy it. We’re looking at that at two of the new schools that were just built,” said Jimmerson. “When you begin changing the culture of the people and their attitude, and allowing them to take ownership of their neighborhoods and communities, you’ll begin to see that dwindle down.

“People have to be in control of their communities, respecting their communities and one another. If we don’t do that, we’re just going to be throwing away dollars as we have been, because we haven’t seen any huge progress.”

One of the goals of Seeds of Promise is to bring services and programs that already exist elsewhere into the Dickinson neighborhood. For example, boy scouts and girl scouts are popular programs that tend to wither in the inner city. More than 30 organizations like the scouts have signed on to Seeds of Promise on a “best-efforts basis,” meaning they have no legal obligations but will be held accountable.

Two other unique aspects of Seeds of Promise are its Local Leadership Council and its Discovery Team. The Local Leadership Council is made up of residents of the neighborhood who set the direction and boundaries for neighborhood programs and activities, said Jimmerson. The Discovery Team’s main responsibility is to conduct “deep listening” to find out what the neighborhood needs and wants. The team then creates strategies that use current community assets to answer those needs and wants.

Seeds of Promise will bring in other elements such as customized family mentoring and after-school programs that mix activities such as scouting and karate with learning. The after-school programs will run later in the evening after most programs end. Jimmerson said that many parents work late shifts and are unable to attend to their children during those late evening hours. As a result, that’s when those kids tend to get into trouble.

Although Seeds of Promise is in phase one of three, its roots go back to when Grand Rapids implemented the Community Sustainability Partnership.

“(Seeds of Promise) started about 18 months ago,” said Norman Christopher, director of sustainability at Grand Valley State University and a steering committee member. “It was an outgrowth of our Community Sustainability Partnership.”

The partnership consists of 190 organizations that have signed on to help develop sustainable communities. Five other areas in West Michigan have formed their own partnerships: Muskegon, Holland and Zeeland; Spring Lake and Grand Haven; and Kalamazoo, Battle Creek and Portage.

“(The partnership) includes things like cities and municipalities, so when you do that, you have to have representatives from the public sector, the private sector, the academic sector and the service sector,” said Christopher. “All of those are a part of the 190-plus members that have signed on to endorse sustainability guiding principles in their planning and operations on a best-efforts basis.”

The Community Sustainability Partnership works at a city-wide or community level, while Seeds of Promise works on a neighborhood level. At the community level, it could be said the CSP has been successful. For instance, Grand Rapids is a national leader in LEED-built buildings and was named by the United Nations as a Regional Center of Expertise in Sustainability, the first city in the U.S. to obtain that designation.

“It is the same principles being applied, but instead of at a community level like the CSP, it’s being applied on a neighborhood level,” he said. “The idea is these partnerships are what everybody is trying to form. How do you form public sector, private sector, academic sector, and service sector partnerships? That’s the beauty of the CSP.

“Then the question is, if we have these going in Grand Rapids, how do you drop it down to the level of a sustainable neighborhood? The key question is, if sustainability works, it works at the top of the (wealth) pyramid and at the base of the pyramid. For us, that was looking at an area inside Grand Rapids that had significant issues dealing with poverty, education and attainment, etcetera. That was how we focused in on bringing a partnership approach to a sustainable neighborhood.”

Seeds of Promise is still mapping out its second and third phases. That is partially due to the organization’s commitment to listening to the neighborhood it is serving and responding to its needs.

“We will work together and be mutually accountable. Most of the work we’re finding that’s successful is shared capital. It’s not being driven by grants or other programs. What’s unique about Seeds of Promise is that it’s driven by grassroots needs and wants of the community.

“Basically, what we’re trying to do is to afford the community the opportunity to say what they need, then allow the partners to align the services through shared capital. It could be volunteers, in-kind contributions where people in organizations would work together to respond to the community needs,” said Christopher.

“It’s not like we received a grant and walked in saying, ‘We received the grant; here’s the program.’ We’re asking the community and the children in the community what they need. That’s much different.”

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