Obama - Promise neighborhoods

President Obama requested $46.7 billion in discretionary funding for the federal Department of Education for fiscal year 2010 to carry out his vision for combining education with other social services through the creation of 20 “Promise Neighborhoods” in the United States. For those of us who see the world through the eyes of the poor, this initiative has the marks of justice and equity which we believe are clear priorities of the Obama Administration – even if difficult to negotiate and stay on course.

The Promise Neighborhood is one of Obama’s signature initiatives aimed at eradicating poverty and creating a culture of opportunity for children living in poverty neighborhoods. The neighborhood where the Little Sisters reside in North Dorchester/Roxbury, Massachusetts was one of the 20 neighborhoods selected throughout the United States.

To understand the significance for the Little Sisters and the diverse community of which we are a part it is important to know something of our history in this neighborhood. 
 
 
History of Neighborhood
 
In 1947 the Little Sisters came to the North Dorchester/Roxbury community at the request of Richard Cardinal Cushing, who had a great love for the poor. The neighborhood was then filled with struggling low income immigrant families from Western European origins and we provided home based nursing services, created programs that addressed the educational and holistic needs of families, and organized families together to advocate for supports that would move them from crises to stability.  Poverty was very different in those days – because there were concrete paths for families to move beyond poverty to economic security and fulfill the American dream. Our economy was entrenched in a labor intensive market, and capital was national. Wage earners could get wages with benefits to support their growing families – and many of these families moved up the economic ladder and out of the neighborhood. 
 
The late 1960ties through 1990ties reveal a very different picture. Families from diverse countries, cultures and languages flooded our neighborhood coming from Puerto Rico, Latin America, Haiti, the Caribbean, Cape Verde and many African American families emigrated from the South. Our Dudley Neighborhood became and still is on of the most multi-cultural neighborhoods in Boston. But economic situations had changed in the 60ties and 70ties and worsened in the 1980ties and 90ties. Poverty looked very different. We now found ourselves in a capital intensive market and capital was transnational. Multi-generational poverty was growing and the low wage job market shifted to retail and service jobs. People with linguistic and cultural challenges could not be accommodated. We soon had the reputation of being one of Boston’s poorest neighborhoods. 
 
The neighborhood became a prime target for gentrification which translated into “move the poor out” and move those with means in – those who wanted to reside close to the City of Boston. The neighborhood literally burnt down. There was a fire every night set by absentee landlords to accelerate the evacuation of poor families. The carnage left gapping empty lots everywhere. And the fact that we had 12 Trash Transfer Businesses in our neighborhood resulted in people come in from all over the City and dropping their trash: tires, boilers, washing machines, spoiled food, etc. Our neighborhood became like one big garbage dump. 
 
The cost of housing accelerated so that a multitude of families became homeless, sleeping in cars, in waiting rooms of hospitals etc. Families couldn’t get jobs – couldn’t afford housing, and had to rely on meager public benefits to survive. The home of the Little Sisters was surrounded by empty lots filled with garbage. The LSA’s made the decision to open the doors of their home and invite homeless families to live with them. We became one of Boston’s first emergency shelters homeless women and children. We called ourselves PROJECT HOPE. Hope stood for house open people enter.   
 
  
HOPE: House Open People Enter
 
 
Then we all came together as families, neighbors, friends in our diverse neighborhood in a grassroots movement to form a planning and organizing entity called the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative. We solicited support from neighborhood organizations, from funders, from the City of Boston and created a process and movement which has led to the creation of an urban village and a physical revitalization of our neighborhood. We came together and dreamed about a new kind of neighborhood. We created a plan and continue to organize others to implement both this plan and our neighborhood. 25 years later we see the dramatic results: 
 
Trash transfer stations are gone 
Garbage and trash are removed from empty lots and replaced by affordable housing
We now have more affordable housing that most communities in Boston – and kept affordable through a community land trust
There are community gardens, playgrounds for kids, community centers, green house, food projects and so much more.  
Our Dudley Street Community has literally worked miracles in our neighborhood. We have managed to transform the physical infrastructure of this neighborhood. This whole movement has been facilitated by the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative Board, a diverse group from every race and culture, plus our organizational partners and churches. 
The Little Sisters were founding members of this initiative. We still remain active on the Board of Directors. We built the first housing in the neighborhood, limited equity co-operatives self managed by the families who own them; we created a quality and nationally accredited child care program and trained over 75 women to run their own family child care businesses. We build the first LEED Certified, environmental green building on Dudley Street and so much more in collaboration with our neighbors.   
 
These are great achievements recognized around the country as a “best practice” model of community economic development. Yet there is so much more to be done. The creation of the physical infrastructure, though impressive, is not enough. We need to focus upon the human development of families in our own neighborhood and our low income poverty neighborhood comprising over 24,000 people have these demographic characteristics in common: 
 
Very young population 17.3% under seven years of age 
Girls and young females under 17 comprise 28.1% of the population; young boys 17 or under average 32% 
Area primarily composed of families 70% compared to Boston 47%; 36% are female headed families with children
Per capita income less than half of that of the City of Boston
There is a disproportionate number of homeless families when contrasting with the City of Boston and State of Massachusetts
High levels of unemployment
Almost 1/3 do not have a high school diploma 
Highest asthma hospitalization rates in Boston; serious health issues affecting children and youth – high % of children are low birth weight 
Significant number of children has been reported with a learning disability. Several hundred children have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder
Increasing number of children do not complete high school and many have poor test results throughout primary and secondary school 
 
We now need to focus upon our human capital and transform these demographics staring with the children. 
 
OBAMA MOVES AHEAD ON “Promise Neighborhoods’
 
OBAMA has provided us with a solution to begin with the children and create opportunities for transformation.  
 
We now have the Boston Promise Initiative (pictured in the graphic above) which is a comprehensive place-based collaborative planning effort to ensure that every child (approximately 6,300 in total) in the Boston Promise area is successful in reaching his or her educational goals, entering post-secondary learning programs and ultimately transitioning to a successful adulthood all within the context of a healthy, vibrant community. 
 
To accomplish this, DSNI as the lead agency is convening hundreds of community stakeholders (parents, community and faith based organizations, large and small businesses, schools and universities, government agencies) to build a shared understanding of our challenges and our pathways to improving educational outcomes for our children.
 
These strategies will :
a) be built on promising or evidence based practices
b) align with DSNI’s core principles of action, which are centered on resident leadership 
c) be tracked with a commitment to developing and using rigorous data analysis to understand both progress and challenges/obstacles. 
 
We embark on this new challenge fortified by our 25 year history where we see concrete signs of the physical transformation of our neighborhood. We bring to this new moment of our history the same passion, commitment, energy, hope that our community in collaboration with a multitude of others will target the goal of human transformation. As stated by a resident from our community “It can be done in our neighborhood. It is not easy, but it can be done”.
   
The LSA’s and the laity engaged in mission with us are actively involved at every phase of the Boston Promise Neighborhood Initiative. Our families, staff, board are on Committees addressing homelessness, housing, workforce & jobs, education and quality child care. Project Hope’s strategic plan is integrated into the BPI plan. We are very excited about this opportunity and grateful for the leadership of President Obama.  
 
Margaret A. Leonard, June 2011
24/10/2011
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