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Community Solutions Inc.

Monday, July 8, 2013

With an abundance of cultural opportunities, a low citywide crime rate, many blossoming residential areas and an increasing number of public parks, New York City can be a pretty desirable place to grow up these days.  But, families in a Brooklyn neighborhood called Brownsville face a very different reality. While much of the borough has enjoyed a boom in development, Brownsville continues to experience exceedingly high rates of unemployment, crime, infant mortality, youth in the juvenile justice system, domestic violence and children in foster care. Brownsville also has the highest proportion of residents in public housing developments—areas that concentrate all types of social disadvantage—of any neighborhood in the country. Few would dispute that the neighborhood faces many challenges.

Community Solutions Inc Group ImageYet, where many might view the circumstances as too daunting to tackle, Community Solutions Inc., a nonprofit organization taking a place-based, community-driven approach to its work, sees an opportunity to help empower the neighborhood to improve the lives of its families and children.  Through “Improving Child Well-being through Mobilizing Community Assets,” a one-year project supported by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation’s Child Well-being Program, Community Solutions is bringing together local stakeholders to develop creative solutions to neighborhood issues of safety, health, education and economic opportunity.  The organization's larger Brownsville effort, of which this program is a part, is called the Brownsville Partnership and involves a collaboration of residents and over two dozen government and not-for-profit groups.

“Our mission is helping communities solve complex problems that affect the lives of vulnerable people,” says Rosanne Haggerty, president and CEO of Community Solutions Inc. “We don’t know what the specific answer is to changing the trajectory of Brownsville, but we certainly know that it’s not going to be figured out by one organization. We’ve come to appreciate that it’s no one program that can actually lead to transformative change in a community with complex challenges. It has to be iterative and to be done by a team of residents, government, philanthropic groups and not-for-profits.”

The key team that Community Solutions is bringing to the table is Brownsville residents themselves. Drawing on research on the power of collective efficacy—the ability of communities to come together to address problems that affect everyone—Community Solutions is investing in the ability of residents to make Brownsville a better place to live. Focusing initially on three troubled buildings in the neighborhood’s Howard Housing Projects, Community Solutions is using the “100-day approach” to local problem solving, which was developed by the nonprofit Rapid Results Institute and has shown great success in developing countries. Tenants are coached to set important collective goals and work aggressively to achieve them within cycles of 100 days. The hope is that by the end of the one-year grant, residents not only will make a measurable impact on the quality of life in their buildings and neighborhood, but also will have gained expertise in community mobilization and advocacy.   

“If families in the community feel they have the skills and confidence to take responsibility for public spaces and the culture of the community, that’s going to have an enormous impact on the future of Brownsville,” says Haggerty. “Part of what needs to change is a social welfare infrastructure that has inadvertently reinforced problems. Many good intentions have gone awry—from the design of public housing to the way in which social services have been organized and delivered. Too often these contribute to the challenges Brownsville families now face. We think a better approach to creating opportunities for families here is through local citizens and organizations working together in new ways.”

RHCS HeadshotBy building up the abilities of “those quiet leaders, who can become more and more influential in modeling a different way to drive change in the community,” the organization is developing the civic infrastructure to improve Brownsville’s physical and social environment.  Haggerty says that Community Solutions has already learned that the most effective leaders are often the unofficial ones—individuals who are known and relied upon by their neighbors but not always the first to self-identify as leaders or to volunteer to take a  formal role.  To help locate these important players, the organization uses “network mapping,” a survey method that determines social ties within a building. Community Solutions' organizing/mobilization team is largely made up of tenants from the neighborhood. The presence of peers has proven to make residents more comfortable answering the door and providing information. This mapping has revealed the many connections between residents that already exist and has also helped forge new relationships between neighbors.  

“In high-crime environments, people tend to withdraw,” Haggerty says. But, mapping helps indicate pathways for breaking down fear-driven seclusion. “Everyone in the three buildings has been invited into this process now. People choose their level of engagement, but we have a pretty robust network at this point, touching all the residents—many of whom didn’t know each other before.”

Already, the network of residents has made Community Solutions aware of struggling families not otherwise flagged by official organizations. Haggerty recounts the story of a mother in an abusive relationship, with two disabled children, neither adequately evaluated, and a teenager in the criminal justice system. She also was facing eviction. By connecting her to the right resources, Community Solutions was able to help her turn things around. One of her children is now in an early intervention program and another is in a special education program where she serves as a parent advocate.  She is no longer in the abusive relationship, has a job and is out of rental arrears.

“She is now a community-planning partner, helping other public housing families dealing with disability issues,” says Haggerty. “She’s been a great educator to families in the neighborhood who also need to have their children properly assessed and effectively supported.”

Examples like these have also exposed an information gap. Many families in the buildings do not know about critical services available to them. This has led to planning for a sort of “community concierge” service to link residents with valuable information or opportunities that they may have been unaware existed.

As the project evolves, Community Solutions is building a network of placed-based efforts in neighborhoods with similar challenges to those of Brownsville. The organization recently acquired another grant from DDCF to convene other groups they have found which are doing place-based, collaborative work, an approach that Haggerty sees as increasingly important to the field.

Haggerty says that it’s as if these organizations have had a collective epiphany: “For all of us who have begun building teams to work in these neglected communities, it  seems like, ‘Why did it take us so long to figure out that the action is in these neighborhoods?’ Neighborhoods of concentrated poverty are the places where you can get upstream from problems like homelessness, health disparities, chronic unemployment and mass educational failure, and change the pathways that lead to bad outcomes for children, families and society.  We believe that these are solvable problems and that the key is making the poorest neighborhoods of our country safer, healthier and more prosperous places. That’s what my colleagues and I feel so passionately about: that we should be making these communities better and working to put ourselves out of a job.”