July 5, 2005
Change is constant for 2005 Cole fellows
BY Eric Rangus
For each of the last four summers, the Kenneth Cole Fellowship in Community Building and Social Change has sent its eager and earnest young charges into the Atlanta metro area—most often into its most challenging neighborhoods—to pull those communities together and work for positive change.
But the fellows’ field work is merely a part of their summer experience (which itself is only a portion of the yearlong Cole fellowship). In June, all 16 of them, including their faculty and staff advisers, traveled to Boston for site visits to see how community building is done in that city.
And every Wednesday, they gather in Goizueta Business School for dinner and a guest speaker. On June 22, they met two community leaders. LaShawn Hoffman, chief executive officer of the Pittsburgh Community Improvement Association, is relatively new to the scene, having held his position for just over a year.
Peggy Harper is a longtime community activist and chair of the Atlanta Planning Advisory Board. Her passion for her work flows from every pore; she even moved from the cozy suburbs to the then-hardscrabble (but now rapidly revitalizing) intown neighborhood of Mechanicsville in the mid-1990s so she could be closer to the people she wanted to help.
She had a great deal to say about not only the struggles, but also the triumphs of building communities. “Be prepared to be out there by yourself,” said Harper, a wisp of a woman whose graying hair and tiny build are accompanied by a fiery stare and powerful voice that immediately demands attention. “You’re not going to get any thanks, but if you believe what you are doing is important for you and your neighbors, you do it.”
It is ironic that when Harper speaks of “neighbors,” the Cole fellows, for all their stellar qualifications, do not fit the bill. Just one of the 16 hails from metro Atlanta. With that in mind, it is perhaps even more remarkable that the fellows can bring such dedication to their work in places that weeks ago were simply shaded areas on a map.
“If you have a passion and a love for where you live or where it is you are, be it Emory University or Grove Park,” Harper said, “whatever you have to do to act on that passion, you have to move forward with it.”
Since May 23, when the fellows began their projects, moving forward is exactly what they have done; while much work still remains, they already have cleared significant hurdles.
The Role of Community- Based Organizations in Mediating Gentrification stations four fellows in two neighborhoods (the Martin Luther King Jr. historic district and Cabbagetown) for work that transcends the easily seen economic side of revitalization.
“We’re trying to determine some of the social effects of gentrification,” said junior business major Wendy Leiser from Denver. Through focus groups and interviews, the fellows will determine what those are.
“Is there tension between old residents and new residents?” Leiser said, noting that a new mix of residents is quickly moving into what originally were black (the historic district) and white (Cabbagetown) neighborhoods. “If there is, what can we do to alleviate it?”
Leiser is the only business school student among the fellows, and her work has taught her that the for-profit and nonprofit communities have a lot to learn from each other. “My work with nonprofits has been some of the most structured I’ve ever seen,” she said.
Polling residents plays a major role in the Mixed Income Revitalization and Education project, which seeks to determine the best way Boyd Elementary School, located in the West Highlands neighborhood and encompassing families from a variety of income brackets, can best meet the needs of its students and their families.
“Some middle-income families want extracurricular activities like sports,” said junior political science major Aimi Hamraie from Dallas. “Lower-income families may want after-school care or transportation.”
Sometimes the fellows’ projects barely resemble their blueprint. Take the Friends of Anderson Park. The original goal was for the fellows and their community partners to create an environmentally focused group in the West Atlanta neighborhood of Anderson Park centered on best utilizing the greenspace that shares its name.
Turns out that a “Friends of Anderson Park” group has been in existence for nearly a decade, and the woman who runs it didn’t want any outsiders getting involved.
“She viewed us as just a bunch of college kids looking for a good grade,” said Woon Cho Kim, a rising senior from Seoul, South Korea, majoring in chemistry. Earning her trust, which is an ongoing process, has required a lot of dialogue not only with the four fellows on the Anderson Park team but also fellowship director Sam Marie Engle.
It also required an adjustment to the project. Following consultation with their community partners (which include the Atlanta Bureau of Parks, Culture and Recreation), the team is now investigating park/community partnerships in a more general way. The new project is a comparison of three separate park/neighborhood constructs; one specific bit of data they would like to collect is whether socioeconomic background plays a role in park support.
“I’d like to learn more about how to work with people from different backgrounds,” said Kim. Anderson Park is a predominantly African American neighborhood, and none of Kim teammates are black. “I thought, being an international student going to Emory, I knew how to deal with people and cultural differences, but this has been more than I expected.”
Now Playing—Grove Park Theater is another project that was adjusted when students began working in the neighborhood. Originally the fellows were geared to help the Northwest Atlanta neighborhood of Grove Park reclaim their cultural assets. A prime example was the old Grove Park Theater, which was thought to have been unused since the 1950s.
The students soon learned that the theater has been leased to a church group for five years. So again, the fellows widened their scope and are now looking for broad ways to use the arts to strengthen Grove Park.
“Economic development in the neighborhood has focused on big business and housing,” said Katie Michel, a rising senior political science major from Venice, Fla. “But studies have shown that areas flourish if they have the arts. People go to the theater, spend money and business will follow.”
Historically, Michel said, the arts have been undervalued in the neighborhood, and she hopes that the Cole fellows’ work will lead to change. “In schools, whenever budgets are cut, the arts are the first thing to go,” Michel said.
Each of the project groups has only just started data collection. But spending 32 hours a week in their project neighborhoods will go miles in helping them complete their work.
“Every year at least one of our projects undergoes some change,” said Engle, noting that the fellows have to be prepared to switch gears with practically no warning. “People come to us with ideas, but they aren’t always sure how to go about getting what they want. We help them discover the possibilities—in the their neighborhoods, themselves and in our fellows. We always find more than anyone thought possible.”