Building Neighborhood effort impacts Soulsville, USA

The Building Neighborhood Capacity Program is making a difference in Soulsville, USA with more than 30 community members of the Planning Team focusing on efforts such as crime and public safety, blight and economic development.
It can be argued that the only way for true change is for it to happen from within. Yes, an outside spurring action helps, but the real power for personal development must have a fire that is generated internally.

The same can be said for neighborhoods. In Soulsville, USA, the community that sits just southeast of Downtown Memphis, residents and neighborhood stakeholders are working together to bring about meaningful and long-lasting change.

It’s officially spurred on by the Building Neighborhood Capacity Program (BNCP), which grew out of the Obama administration’s Neighborhood Revitalization Initiative. That interagency strategy makes it easier for communities to access resources to transform underserved neighborhoods.

Community LIFT hired Rebecca Matlock Hutchinson to serve as Soulsville, USA Site Director, and she started her work in February 2015. A neighborhood resident, Hutchinson organizes the efforts. But the Soulsville, USA Planning Team consists of more than 30 community residents who play an important role.

Again, it’s back to that power for change and growth coming from within.

“I’ve seen an increased interest among residents to get involved in their community,” Hutchinson said. “Like me, many residents love Soulsville, USA and genuinely want to see their neighborhood thrive.”

When Hutchinson applied for the position, she and her husband, Dr. Noel Hutchinson, had lived in the neighborhood for 12 years. Her goal is to help residents learn to think outside the box, to understand and discover new and different ways of improving their community and to understand that they have the power to become change agents.

BNCP is a strategy for building the capacity of distressed neighborhoods to access and leverage public and private resources and to facilitate the alignment of investments in housing, education, public safety, health and economic development.

BNCP works to drive change from within the community in neighborhoods that historically have faced barriers to revitalization. The program launched in August 2012 to provide resources and assistance to two neighborhoods each in Flint, Michigan; Fresno, California; Memphis; and Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

The initial program covered Binghampton and Frayser in Memphis, as well as two neighborhoods each in the other cities. Soulsville, USA was selected in 2014 to join the second cohort of neighborhoods.

The neighborhoods have three goals: build capacity, design and implement a learn by doing project and develop a results-focused revitalization plan.

The hope is that at the end of the program, neighborhoods will have a revitalization plan with strategies that are informed by data and community knowledge about how to realize the vision.

Hutchinson’s work in Soulsville runs through September, and it engages the community thanks to committees that focus on three key areas: crime and public safety, blight and economic development.

Those areas were determined during a town hall meeting last June. Committees have worked on those three efforts and moving forward in 2016 will move those ideas into action plans.

The Center for the Study of Social Policy is BNCP’s manager. Working with the five federal agencies, CSSP selected eight neighborhoods in four target cities. Those federal agencies are the departments of Education, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, Justice and Treasury.

The hope is that when the effort ends this year, it will be just the start of sustainable efforts in the community by the community that will move the needle.

“The grant wants to make sure that while we’re doing big projects that take multiple steps they also want to make sure there are ways to keep residents engaged,” Hutchinson told the planning team at its monthly meeting on Jan. 11. “One way is the short-term learn by doing projects. They keep residents engaged. You do something quick on a Saturday and boom, they can say, ‘I did that’ and take pride. It helps build self-esteem and awareness that there is something going on in the neighborhood.”

Those learn by doing projects include planting flowers and finishing the rock garden bed that sits below the I Love Soulsville mural at Mississippi Boulevard and McLemore Avenue. Another could be painting murals on a fence that lines Chandler Park or painting iconic neighborhood residents on fire hydrants.

One of the other topics at the Jan. 11 meeting was an effort that is an answer to the lack of communication that had been identified as a need. Wilma Lewis Kelly has lived in the community since 2002. She joined the neighborhood effort in July, immediately diving into the effort to create the first newsletter.

SoulsvillePride had its debut as an e-newsletter in December. Plans call for it to come out every other month. Kelly worked with a team of volunteers and hopes to eventually turn its production over to a college student.

“It will evolve,” she said. “We want to empower the younger people to do some things. It will become better. We’ll talk about things that concern us like crime prevention, housing and community engagement.”

The newsletter communicates the typical community news, but it also does its part to instill pride in the neighborhood with content like a yard of the month. Four homes were chosen, photographed and included in the newsletter. In a way, it’s blight reduction that in part comes from community communications.

“This is all about building capacity and helping to promote pride,” Hutchinson said. “And it’s blight reduction, especially when you see those beautiful yards it will encourage others to do the same.”

Blight removal can help with economic and business development. Jeffrey Higgs is part of the group’s economic development committee and the Executive Director of the LeMoyne-Owen College Community Development Corp.

He hinted at much activity in 2016, from ongoing discussions to relocate the Aretha Franklin house within the community to a new Subway restaurant in the neighborhood. Talks ongoing at the EDGE board of incentives for inner-city small businesses is one more bright point on the horizon for the neighborhood, he said.

“We’ve never had tools like the Downtown Memphis Commission has to incentivize businesses on McLemore and Walker,” Higgs said.

Read more articles by Lance Wiedower.

Lance is a veteran journalist with more than 16 years of experience in newsrooms in the Memphis area as a reporter and editor, including most recently as managing editor of The Daily News. He regularly contributes to The Daily News, including a biweekly travel column, The Daily Traveler. 
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