The next generation of city builders

The New City Builders program is training future community development leaders for Memphis neighborhoods. Through hands-on workshops and mentoring with established CDC directors, the program shepherds participants through the complexities and intricacies of community development work.
In the late ‘90s, a group of advocates got together for the purpose of supporting the community soldiers in various neighborhoods who were pounding the pavement, hammering the nails and putting in the sweat hours to lift up their neighborhoods in the form of community development corporations. This group called themselves the Community Development Council of Greater Memphis (CDC), and since then the CDC has developed a number of programs that aim to support their fellow neighborhood development corporations, redevelop vibrant, sustainable neighborhoods in Memphis and create policy, engagement and capacity around this revitalization.

Over the years, a recurring question kept popping up concerning who would follow in the footsteps of these advocates and take the reigns when it was time to retire or move on. Who would lead the next generation of community development?

Enter Jim Kovarik.

When Kovarik joined the CDC a year ago, he was charged with answering this nagging  question. What he came up with was the New City Builders (NCB). Just as the name suggests, NCB is a program geared toward grooming the future community development corporation leaders of Memphis.

The program kicked off in March of this year with eight inaugural students from the network of 33 neighborhood corporations tied to the CDC.

“We asked the executive directors of 15 high capacity CDCs to nominate someone from their organization, and we got seven. We added one more from a specialized organization,” Kovarik, the capacity builder for the CDC, said.

The group meets once a month for six months for workshops on some topic relative to directing a community development corporation. Workshops are taught by local community development corporation executive directors themselves.

“We wanted it to be based on the actual work of the CDCs,” Kovarik said.

So far they’ve hosted five workshops, including finance taught by Robert Montague, formerly of the Binghampton Development Corp.; housing presented by Steve Lockwood of the Frayser CDC; and board training by John Bazzanella of the Alliance for Nonprofit Excellence.

“The first workshop was on financial statements, which we can all use in our organizations, and to get the input from someone like Robert Montague is great. He’s been in the financial world a long time,” said Noah Gray, who was promoted to Executive Director of the Binghampton Development Corp. after joining the NCB.

Another arm of the curriculum offered in the new program includes hands-on experience at other community development organizations besides the ones where the pilot "students" work.

Rebecca Hutchinson, Site Director of Soulsville USA through the Community LIFT program, spent time working with Lockwood at the Frayser CDC to see what community development work in his neck of the woods looks like.

“It was really good to see firsthand what others are doing, to see that others are out there doing good things with limited resources and that we’re all out there trying to help our constituents,” Hutchinson said.

“We have a tendency to work in our own silos. It was great to get back out there and do these site visits and see how others approach the same things we’re working on,” Gray said. “You get a chance to see that we’re all in this together in an effort to reduce disparities, bring justice and make an impact on the quality of life by addressing issues throughout our city.”

The last workshop of the pilot NCB program will be held in this month, but work for the graduates won’t quite end there.

Kovarik plans to continue efforts with his first class through the Project Limbo program. The eight NCBs will work with Neighborhood Preservation, Inc. and city blight mediation attorneys Brewer & Barlow PLC to research vacant and abandoned properties throughout Memphis in an effort to inform strategies and policy for better future property investments in
blighted neighborhoods.

In addition to prepping community stewards for future leadership positions in their neighborhoods, the NCB served as a great networking tool for the class.

“The relationships built between these eight people has been just phenomenal. You can see them in a position five or 10 years from now, and they’ll still be friends,” Kovarik said.

“It’s a great curriculum. It’s great from a training perspective, and also from a collaborative perspective, especially in the long-term push to move the needle in community development,” Gray said. “Now we can utilize these relationships we’ve developed with other CDC leaders.”

“You can’t beat it. I was able to network with my colleagues and see what they were doing while adding to my skill set, which will enhance whatever work I’m doing and add more value to my community,” Hutchinson added.

Other students in the 2015 NCB class included Charia Jackson with Frayser CDC, Velma Maclin with the Promise Corporation, Jared Myers with The Heights Development Corporation, Amy Schaftlein with United Housing, Crystal Chopin with Oasis of Hope, and Tameka Greer with South Memphis Alliance.

Kovarik says he plans on creating one NCB program per year with the same curriculum offered to a new set of members each year. He says he should have the new class picked in December with the first workshop kicking off in February of next year.

“As the CDC matures, we have to think about who we want sitting at the table when we have a meeting with the city,” Kovarik said. “This has been nice to be shepherded through the complexities and intricacies of community development work. It’s a hard job.”

Read more articles by Lesley Young.

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