We've been privileged to work deeply in the Edgewood Terrace community in Washington DC this past year with a dedicated team of residents and staff. Similar to many other long time affordable housing communities, we discovered a culture where people rarely make eye contact when passing a stranger, residents live on the same hallway for years and rarely speak or acknowledge each other, and few of the 2,000+ residents are connected to the active civic life in the larger neighborhood surrounding the complex.
A few inquiries made it clear that these feelings of isolation, cynicism, and, in some cases, fear and anger, were also prevalent among some of the 20 staff members charged with keeping the community clean and safe and in compliance with the many layers of federal rules and regulations.
None of these descriptions are surprising. Some professionals accept this reality as the cultural norm; the price we must pay to have basic affordable housing, especially in newly gentrifying areas like Northeast Washington DC, which is only two miles from the U.S. Capital and literally borders anchor institutions like Catholic University, Children’s Hospital and Washington Hospital Center. Not true for the gutsy staff of Community Development and Preservation Corporation (CPDC), a 20 year old nonprofit housing organization which owns Edgewood Terrace (792 units) and over 4,900 units of housing in the D.C. region.
Determined to preserve Edgewood Terrace as a new hybrid of mixed income housing that can be a positive participant in the changing neighborhood, CPDC, along with Trusted Space Partners and an emerging group of dedicated residents, committed to a long term community change strategy - together! We agreed with one another to pursue the following initial hypothesis: If we create intentional spaces, practices and a network for mutual exchange and collaborative action, we can shift the operating culture of isolation and anger to a culture of aspiration and connection. This initial pursuit flows from an underlying and shared belief that everyone in a particular neighborhood or eco-system (residents, staff, partners, neighbors) is a human being with something to contribute AND that we, as human beings, are interdependent on one another’s contributions in order to achieve a high quality of living and working.
We are working collaboratively with CPDC to write a paper summarizing both the results and our lessons learned during this intense year of introducing new spaces, practices and a network form to the Edgewood Terrace community. In the meantime, we are eager to share some of the images and moments from this year of helping spark a new narrative and a new approach.
CPDC staff member, Khyati Desai-Seltzer, teaches a new practice at the monthly Network Night called "community sharing" which is a high energy way for residents and staff to trade small favors and build more trust with each other. Some of the matches made over the last year include: weekly walking partners, support with gmail, gardening tips, help in pursuing a specific job, support in managing a challenging child, free yarn for crochet, help in carrying boxes during a move. A special note of thanks to Khyati from Trusted Space Partners for being a fearless and persistent partner and friend.
During one of the early "table talk" sessions at the Monthly Network night, Antoinette Gaskins proposed a Music in the Gardens event to help residents to know each other better in a fun atmosphere. Three other residents - whom Antonette did not previously know - signed on to help her: Pam Thornton , Leisa Alleyne and Bonita Monroe . This picture is of Pam, who had the idea of making gift bags to thank the many community people who contributed to the success of the event. Over 200 residents attended, danced, played games and enjoyed good food!
A key person this year has been Yerodin Avent, who fully embraced the need to connect and build relationships in a different, more human way. His initial practice of walking the property, introducing himself, asking questions, listening carefully and then following up with repeated contact has been the constant glue and model for others to follow suit. Here he is reaching out to two residents and working to weave them into the activities. Another important contribution from Yerodin is his commitment to intentional spaces and practices and his willingness to be vulnerable and take risks in trying out new ways of being intentional.
Ranelle Davis, a Network Action Team member, helps CPDC staff member Jennifer Lumpkin, lead the "new and good" session of monthly Network Night., which is held the third Tuesday of EVERY month, no exceptions and is attended by 50 to 60 residents. To date, over 250 residents have attended one or more of these gatherings. Jennifer, another key addition to the team, met Ranelle in one of her bi-weekly elevator chats. Ranelle said she had never been to a meeting and didn't want to go to a meeting. Jennifer didn't give up and within months, Ranelle was active in Jennifer's weekly Healthy Living Circle and then became active at Network Night.
Another resident-led initiative is the bi-monthly Flea Market, which provides affordable space for residents and nearby neighbors to buy and sell from each other, in a fun and lively atmosphere. From a community network building perspective, we call moments like this a "2-fer" or a "3-fer". Residents are pursuing ideas of benefit to them, network stewards are meeting and engaging new people and everyone is enjoying a casual moment of building relationships.
As we began to build a new network and a new way of connecting among residents at Edgewood Terrace, it became clear that we also needed to work internally at CPDC to make sure that we - as sparking staff and consultants - were walking our talk. As is true in many wonderful housing nonprofits, the various divisions (real estate, asset management, property management and resident services) can easily slide into the silos created by external forces and funders. So, in addition to constantly inviting everyone involved at Edgewood Terrace to come to the monthly Network Night, we prompted a series of internal synergy meetings. This picture was taken after the second meeting and the poster reflects the groups list of early "synergy successes" and a list of things "yet to do". Everyone agrees that the time invested in planning and participating in these meetings was well worth the investment.
One of the shared action items bubbling out of the synergy meeting was a more coordinated effort to communicate with residents about the renovation plan and schedule. (CPDC is in the middle of a $25 million renovation of the complex). As a result, an ad hoc team of both real estate and resident services staff formed to plan a major meeting with residents and to go door to door prior to the meeting to encourage attendance and to listen to specific questions and concerns. Our real estate colleagues were grateful for the changes in the meeting format and the results of the door knocking. Note - we had a blast while door knocking. This work is FUN! (most of the time!)
Another shared action item flowing from the staff synergy meeting was a plan to hold a full day retreat with every staff person who works on the property, including all of the maintenance people and porters. The decision to take this task on revealed that many of the staff are not bilingual and are not fully aware of or engaged in a shared mission and vision for the property. Edgewood Management, CPDC's property management partner, readily agreed to support the expense of translation support and transportation to an off site location - both of which made a huge difference in the quality of the day. Many new insights and connections began to flow as a result of this carefully planned and executed day. Pictured above is the presentation from the maintenance staff of their picture of how they can be better utilized on the team. The second picture is a role play of how to embrace and listen to a resident who is very upset. One bonus outcome of the day: at least eight of the staff members are also residents and we were able to honor and recognize the resident voice in the room, even though we have not yet included resident network members in meetings such as this one.
In June, we held a celebration to mark one full year of Monthly Network Nights and the naming and claiming of the ONE EDGEWOOD NETWORK. This is the core group of residents and staff who see the value of the network and are committed to helping expand it to other residents, staff and neighbors who live nearby. Since this celebration, eight of the residents pictures committed to a six month Network Action Team to work on personal and collective goals together, with the overarching goal being the strengthening of the network. The Network Action Team meets every Tuesday and also facilitates the Monthly Network Night!
Trusted Space Partners is a team of experienced community developers and designers who are supporting collaborative community change initiatives all over the United States.