If you had been with us last Saturday evening at the 10th Anniversary of Neighborhood Connections in Cleveland, Ohio, you would have been impressed by the extremely diverse crowd of over 400, the courageous stories of community innovation, the soulful expressions of hope and the clear indications of institutional and neighborhood commitment to change.
10 years ago Neighborhood Connections began as a grass-root grant-making program of the Cleveland Foundation. Two years ago, with help from Trusted Space, they embarked on a path to become a more catalytic force, sparking greater community wealth and health in struggling neighborhoods across the city. This weekend – as a part of the 10th Anniversary, they officially launched that catalytic force - an innovative new Network called “NeighborUP!”, with almost 1,000 members already enrolled!
As outsiders to Cleveland, but as close long term team members on this Neighborhood Connections journey, we held a special lens through which to view what transpired Saturday night, and we want to share a glimpse of the heart-pumping power of both a new reality emerging and of new possibilities to come.
If you were with us you would have experienced a room in which everyone felt welcomed and “an insider” regardless of their race, economic status or social standing. There was a palpable sense of connection and belonging emanating from “those people” who are longtime residents of affordable housing projects as well as “those people” who are the leaders of the key institutions in Cleveland.
You would have experienced a strong, collective expression of value and affirmation for “the other” during the formal program of awards and recognition. As each story was shared, you would actually feel the crowd giving their full attention to the moment and then working hard to demonstrate their love and admiration through voice and hand. This shared expression of value was equally strong for institutional and neighborhood heroes, alike. But, the true sign of a new reality was when the crowd went extra crazy expressing their support for the Cleveland Foundation, a very old, venerable institution of the city’s power elite. We have never seen or felt a more “genuine” ovation by the grass roots for a downtown institution in the many years we have been a part of these rooms. Yes it was one night, and a special one, but Neighborhood Connections has earned a measure of deep trust through hard work and the Foundation is a beneficiary of that trust. That kind of trust is hard to come by and is harder to put a price tag on.
Most importantly, as we mixed and mingled during the lively reception, you would have experienced dozens of examples of the most important single act of transformative community change – people who are different and from different walks of life, making genuinely new connections. You could see the many active members of the Neighbor Up network “working the room”, introducing a friend or colleague new to Neighbor Up to someone they wanted them to meet. As the recipients of several of these introductions, you would see the look of hope on the face of the network member, as if he or she were saying: “I’ve been telling my friend about the network and I really want her to experience it and join in.”
This intentional and thoughtful “weaving” by the members of Neighbor Up – beginning with inviting someone to come, following up to make sure they are coming, seeking them out at the door to make sure they feel welcomed, sticking with them throughout the night, facilitating interesting connections and conversations and following up after the evening – will provide the powerful and lasting juice needed to tackle the very tough challenge of creating a Cleveland where everyone can thrive and achieve a quality life.
That so many diverse residents and workers initiated and followed through in providing this powerful juice on this one night was not an accident and it did not happen overnight. And we’ll save the story for how Neighborhood Connections embarked and stayed on this first leg of the journey for another time.
However it is important to note that a simple moment of celebration such as this – earned after months of hard work, effectively and intentionally executed, and intentionally saturated with the essence of the network spirit of love and fun and aspiration - will provide a more powerful kind of starting place for the countless tough conversations across the divide that will surely follow. Conversations such as how to dedicate more jobs within these institutions to folks in the neighborhoods, and how to make sure many more residents have the ability to prosper and build assets in a tough economy.
That hard work will continue. Today, we choose to celebrate this thrilling moment of shared power among real human beings who care deeply about the future of their community. Stay tuned!