Strangers living together in a community in transition

September 1, 2013 

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Billie Mallory, shown in front of her East End home, is "a reluctant community activist."

HERALD LEADER

Choosing to move to the East End in 2005 to be closer to my employment as a social worker, I soon became involved with the M.L. King Neighborhood Association as a way to learn about the neighborhood.

I also became involved in social and economic justice issues of poverty, homelessness, drug abuse and related criminal behaviors in a dramatic way by living in this historic community that is struggling to survive these scourges that so commonly affect neighborhoods in economic and social decline.

One cannot live north of Main Street and not be confronted with these issues on a daily basis. You can deal with them either through blame and denial, or in the reality of trying to make a difference and become part of the solution. I chose the latter and began working with the homeless and other fringe populations through the Americorps program.

Later, I moved to the HOPE VI housing development and became actively engaged in the William Wells Brown Neighborhood Association and the inception of the East End Small Area Plan, which led me to become a reluctant community activist.

A lot has happened in the last decade. In addition to the HOPE VI project, there are the new William Wells Brown school and community center, the rehabiliated Lyric Theatre and Charles Young Center and some emerging businesses. The area plan aided in driving government incentives, grassroots efforts and community initiatives. More importantly, it instilled hope for recovery and revitalization of this historic East End community.

However, failure to create a renewed community identity and lack of developing intentional, meaningful relationships has created a missing link in this redevelopment.

There is great distrust among longtime residents who fear gentrification of their historic neighborhoods. Newly arriving residents represent greater diversity in race, income and values that bring physical and economic impact, as well as changes in everyday life as it was known and cherished.

Thus, we have a community in transformation made up of strangers living together with no shared history or values and no common sense of identity.

This must change if we are to survive as a community — we must embrace this diversity to find our common unity and create a new shared identity.

We must begin by facing these painful truths and stop denying the reality of where we are in our developmental history. Only by facing our present reality can we heal the past or truthfully face the present.

We must be willing to heal our own wounds and bravely work together for positive change that will benefit the greater good of our community and all of its members.

We can't just throw money at a problem and expect it to go away, rather we must make long-term commitments rather than expect quick fixes. We must be ever vigilant and constantly assessing our current status and re-evaluating our goals to ensure that we remain focused and moving in the desired direction.

We must be willing to lead with passion, as well as be led by others with vision.

We need strong leadership but must also be willing to lead, as well as support, other collective, productive efforts. We must be willing to listen to the wisdom of our elders, as well as engage our younger adults and youth in meaningful dialogue as we work side-by-side to create a strong identity for this community.

We must seek to understand and support each other, we must hold our government and other entities accountable to do what they say they intend to do, and we must claim this community with an identity that is inclusive, nurturing and forward moving.

We must be able to stand firm on principles but be flexible on details and processes. We must practice compromise and tolerance, embracing differences to create an inclusive community.

We must also hold each other accountable and expect to be held accountable for our words and actions. We must come together, if we are to survive. We must all be committed to community — working for the common good — by getting things done together.

More practically, residents must find ways to get involved — they can show up and speak out at public community meetings, get involved with the neighborhood association, be actively engaged with our schools, attend or serve on organizational advisory boards, express concerns to council members and be willing to move out of their own comfort zone to get to know new neighbors.

Billie Mallory is "a reluctant community activist."

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