Wednesday, September 28, 2011

More than a Free Meal

I had two expectations when I sat down to talk with Jim Echement about the Rescue Mission of the Mahoning Valley, and both turned out to be wrong.  First, I thought I’d hear that the economic crisis of the last three years has caused a significant increase in poverty and homelessness.  While that may be true in terms of national statistics, and while the Rescue Mission has seen some increase in traffic, Echement doesn’t see economics as the primary problem.  Rather, he suggests that for most people, homelessness and persistent economic struggle are not matters of economic conditions so much as of personal trauma.   That may reflect his organization’s mission to help people overcome significant personal obstacles, to in effect change themselves, in order to move toward a more economically stable life. 

But that leads to my second misconception.  I had assumed that the Rescue Mission would have a goal of providing life-changing assistance to anyone who is homeless and in need.  In some ways, that’s true.  They provide meals to anyone who walks in the door, every day.  But when it comes to helping people get off the streets permanently, Echement suggests, they focus on those who are ready to make a change.   To qualify for their “Second Chance” program, which provides long-term housing, training, and support, participants must agree to abide by some clear and rather strict rules.  That helps to instill discipline, and that, in turn, helps people discover that they have more control over their own circumstances than they might have thought. 

From my perspective, both parts of the Rescue Mission’s work matter – providing food and shelter for those in immediate need, regardless of their circumstances, and helping people transform their lives.  Those are challenging goals at any time, and all the more so these days.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Challenging the Myth of a Divided City

There’s an old, too-often told myth about Youngstown’s history: that we haven’t been able to solve the community’s problems because we’ve been too divided.  When I call this a myth, I mean that it’s necessarily false.  Rather, I’m thinking of this as a myth in the sense that this story at once influences and explains the way things are.  We do squabble among municipalities, between the cities and the suburbs, between whites and blacks, and between multiple organizations all trying to make a difference, and some of those divisions do hamper our efforts.  But the myth itself also encourages us to believe that we can’t achieve anything as long as we’re divided, and that, in turn, leads us to blame each other for local problems.  If only that other group would stop trying to do what my group is doing, we say, everything would be fine. 

It’s useful to keep this myth in mind when we talk about the work of the Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corporation.  On the one hand, the YNDC is an example of creating a new organization to take on work that some others were already doing, albeit in different and sometimes smaller ways.  When YNDC began, the Mahoning Valley Organizing Collaborative and ACTION had both been working to address the needs of urban neighborhoods.  Commonwealth, Catholic Charities, Habitat for Humanity, and some others had long been involved in renovating old housing and developing new properties to help lower-income families become homeowners or stable renters.  Jubilee Gardens, Goodness Grows, Villa Maria, and Grow Youngstown were all involved in various ways in creating urban gardens and promoting local agriculture.  

Despite that, YNDC is a welcome addition to the community development landscape, for two key reasons.  One is a matter of scale, which is made possible in part by significant funding – more than most of those other projects.  That has allowed YNDC to hire strong staff members and invest in meaningful ways in a few targeted areas.  Funding also allows YNDC to do something that the myth about Youngstown tells us never happens: to foster collaboration with other organizations.  As YNDC Executive Director Presley Gillespie explained when we talked, YNDC doesn’t want to compete with or eliminate those other groups, nor is it in anyone’s interest for every project or person to be part of a single organization.  Rather, YNDC can fulfill one of the visions of the Wean Foundation (one of its sponsors): to increase the community’s capacity for development by increasing our ability to work together – not by making everyone part of one big operation but by fostering productive partnerships.