Roughly six years ago, as community leader LaShunda Leslie-Smith walked the blocks of the EMMA and Beechwood neighborhoods, a conversation stopped her in her tracks. Leslie-Smith, who prides herself on her ability to go from the boardroom to the block, tried to chat with members of a family—three generations—sitting on a porch. They ignored her.
So, she turned on the charm. It didn’t quite work.
“The younger of the three generations finally spoke up and said, ‘What difference does it make? Nobody cares about what we think anyway,’” Leslie-Smith recalls. “That was a pivotal time in my work. It really helped me to understand a little bit better about what I was facing. It wasn’t just poverty. It wasn’t just a lack of jobs…It was the breakdown of humanity.”
Leslie-Smith works to make sure community voices matter, forging neighborhood connections as executive director of Connected Communities, a public/private partnership focused on building up the EMMA and Beechwood neighborhoods from within. The partnership engages residents, more than 10,000, as well as service providers and community organizations to break the cycle of poverty through antiracist community revitalization and equitable resource coordination.
Since Leslie-Smith’s initial conversations, Connected Communities has tried to ensure residents can remain in these neighborhoods by increasing the supply of affordable housing units; improving health and wellness to enhance the quality of life; providing educational opportunities from cradle to college and career; and partnering with stakeholders to offer pathways to employment.
For example, its efforts to promote East High School and John James Audubon School 33 as school choice options have helped increase neighborhood enrollment at East High from 5 percent in 2015 to more than 30 percent in 2020-21. On the mixed-income housing front, EMMA’s Warfield Square, in partnership with Home Leasing, is fully occupied with 72 units.
Can these efforts, which channel residents’ needs, be replicated in other parts of Rochester? Some experts believe it’s possible if change occurs with trust while keeping dignity and culture intact.
With neighborhood change, “culture can get lost,” observes Leonard Brock, founding board member of Connected Communities and founding executive director of the Rochester Monroe Anti-Poverty Initiative. He believes it is necessary to allow “the residents to maintain (culture), so their dignity is not lost in the process.”
Roots in resident needs
It was the residents of Beechwood and EMMA who approached city leaders after identifying a mix of neighborhood improvement opportunities. For starters, they were looking for affordable housing possibilities, Leslie-Smith says. Home Leasing got involved, suggesting Atlanta’s Purpose Built Communities as a framework.
A public/private initiative—Connected Communities—was formed in 2015 with the Beechwood Neighborhood Coalition, EMMA Business and Neighborhood Association, NEAD, Home Leasing, Hillside, Farash Foundation and the University of Rochester. RMAPI, along with Connected Communities and the city of Rochester, decided to use the focus on these neighborhoods to see if the model would be effective in other parts of the city.
The choice of neighborhoods made sense, says Brock, now vice president of learning and impact at CF Leads, a Boston-based national network of community foundations committed to community leadership. They were neighborhoods that had the highest need and reasonable access to support, he notes.
Located in the city’s southeast quadrant, the EMMA neighborhood—named after East Main and Mustard streets and Atlantic Avenue—extends from East Main Street, south to Atlantic Avenue with Culver Road as its eastern boundary and North Goodman on its west. Steeped in history, the neighborhood always had a strong community, long before a formal neighborhood association was formed some nine years ago. It was home to the Warfields, a family known for the works of William Warfield, a Black bass-baritone concert artist and an Eastman School of Music alum.
Also in the southeast quadrant lies Beechwood, whose boundaries reach Bay Street to the north, Atlantic Avenue to the south, Culver Road to the east and North Goodman Street to the west. Named after the Beech-Nut baby food and chewing gum company on East Main Street, a well-known Beechwood resident was entrepreneur Martha Matilda Harper, who created a franchising system that would enrich and empower women.
Despite such notable history, both neighborhoods now are looking to revitalize and build opportunities for residents. Connected Communities is their community quarterback and partner, coordinating change.
“We like to think we’re that tree trunk between the treetops and the grassroots we’re this public/private partnership is bringing together residents and funders and community service organizations with that one goal of antiracist community revitalization,” says Leslie-Smith, who spent the first few years knocking on doors and getting input.
It wasn’t all welcoming, she admits, but she quickly learned that residents didn’t want a savior.
“They didn’t want someone else to come in on their white horse and wave a magic wand and tell them what they needed for their community,” Leslie-Smith says. “They wanted to trust whoever they were going to partner with to do this work. And that was then the approach that we took.”
Informed by on-the-ground surveys and prior research, Connected Communities drew inspiration from Purpose Built Communities in Atlanta, which has been successful with neighborhood revitalization. It was established in 2009 after the effective transformation of the East Lake neighborhood, one of Atlanta’s most troubled spots. Today, Purpose Built has more than 25 network members in various parts of the nation.
“I think people have always been looking for the answers to ending the cycles of intergenerational poverty,” says Eytan Davidson, vice president of communications at Purpose Built. “And there have been many, many attempts over the decades. I would say our approach very much looks at how a place determines people’s life outcomes. And not just a place, but a neighborhood.”
To that end, Purpose Built—which calls itself a community quarterback organization—has identified housing, education and wellness as essential elements that need to work together.
“If you have those three systems working well with each other, the odds are much, much better,” Davidson says. “None of this is a guarantee. This is also an experiment in a lot of ways. Because while we’re seeing great progress in a lot of places, it’s still the nature of this work is not linear.”
While designing its approach, Connected Communities teased out a fourth pillar: workforce and economic development. The work began with Leslie-Smith and a $200,000 budget. Over the years, support has grown substantially to $3 million in 2021. Staff now total 10, including residents. Expenses have also increased, totaling $2.7 million last year, with most dollars going toward housing. In 2020, the organization developed a Comprehensive Neighborhood Plan, the planning process for which began before the pandemic, to pave the way to progress.
“I think what helped first with Connected Communities is they had a framework they adopted, so it wasn’t something that they came in and created their own,” says Shaun Nelms, the past board chair and superintendent of East Upper and Lower Schools, formerly East High School. “Using the Purpose Built Communities framework kind of gave them a heads up on some of the issues that they were going to face and also allowed them to innovate in areas, perhaps, that we already were doing pretty well within the city.”
The “living document” offers a road map for investments in housing, education, economic growth, and health and wellness as well as a framework of goals and values against which to evaluate opportunities to respond to community needs as they arise, it states. All strategies contained in the plan are a response to priorities identified by residents, and needs and opportunities unearthed through previous studies. They address the four pillars in the framework, focusing on the intent to keep residents in place and create thriving neighborhoods for work, school, home and play.
“It ensures that developers and any kind of partner that wants to come into the neighborhood are adhering to this equitable plan that’s going to lift up antiracist principles, and really shines a light on neighbors as being the center of the change and development that happens in their community,” says Leslie-Smith, who views the plan as a vehicle for the overall impact of the partnership.
Eric Van Dusen, senior community impact relationship manager at ESL Federal Credit Union, which has donated to Connected Communities, says the plan is well developed and realistic. Van Dusen is known for his work with NeighborWorks Rochester and the Housing Council.
“They’re not expecting to be able to achieve things instantly, and they put things on timelines—this is all done working with the residents,” he says. “It’s not going to happen in a year or two, (though) some things can happen in a year or two. The art of doing place-based interventions is understanding what things can lead to the next things that can lead to the next things.”
Van Dusen points to the holistic approach in Connected Communities’ plan—calling attention to the four pillars.
“They’re taking a well-rounded approach and recognizing that it’s really all of those things working in sync that’s going to really help to lift the neighborhood to where the neighborhood wants to go,” he says. “And the neighborhood, for all the challenges it has, it has opportunities.”
For the first time in 50 years, Leslie-Smith says the EMMA neighborhood saw a multimillion-dollar investment in housing, through Warfield Square on East Main Street. Sixteen of its 72 affordable housing units are dedicated to individuals with developmental disabilities. The waiting list for Warfield Square has hundreds of names on it. While Connected Communities was not the nonprofit partner on the project, Leslie-Smith says it wouldn’t have come to light without the community engagement that the partnership was able to provide.
Connected Communities is working as a partner on another project with Home Leasing, this time for 50 to 60 units for families earning 30 percent to 60 percent of area median income. There will be 24 buildings; 13 homes will be single-family units, in line with Beechwood neighborhood’s wishes, which include owner occupancy, Leslie-Smith says.
“We’re talking about a model that’s reflective of the neighborhood,” Leslie-Smith says. “I’m really proud of that because it’s reflective of what neighbors said they want. … And so us just being able to deliver on what we heard people saying they want—negotiating, connecting, convening, finding resources to do that work.”
For the next few decades, these units will be affordable, which she says is vital to the neighborhood, “because we’re on the verge of gentrification … it’s out there. We know the market is crazy, so as much affordability that we can reserve for this neighborhood as it is being revitalized, that’s going help to ward off the displacement that happens as a result of gentrification.”
Last year, Connected Communities’ work to rezone 767 properties in Beechwood was passed by City Council—enabling the scattered-site affordable rental housing development in partnership with Home Leasing. During the pandemic, the community organization also assisted the Eviction Prevention Pilot Initiative, a Monroe County program funded by money from the CARES Act. Forty-three tenants received legal support, nearly $1.5 million was distributed to 369 families and 21 illegal evictions were prevented, according to Connected Communities’ annual report.
Education is at the core of revitalization in these neighborhoods. Connected Communities has worked to reinforce ties with School No. 33, with the goal of establishing it as a community school and developing a feeder pattern between the school and East High.
“What we heard from our residents is that they don’t want anything to do with the charter school,” Leslie-Smith says. “So, we had to be hyper-focused on building relationships with the district, with the building school leaders with the (East High Educational Partnership Organization), the University of Rochester, with the six (RCSD) superintendents that we’ve had in the last six years, the three building principals that we’ve had in the last five years at School 33. It just goes on and on. But in spite of those challenges, we’re still in the building. We’re in our fourth year with a community schools site coordinator.”
Connected Communities will hire an education project manager this year, transitioning from the community school site coordinator role. The position will also require building relationships with School No. 33 and East High, serving as a liaison between the community and the schools, in addition to other duties, the organization says.
“In order to make this work, you really have to double down on the neighborhood school model,” says Nelms of the Connected Communities model and its possibilities for replication. “In Rochester, we don’t have neighborhood schools as a system, (and) it has caused for us to not maximize our potential as a school community.
“East has been successful prior to COVID because we were able to engage the community in the neighborhood meaningfully. And I think without that we would not have been successful. I think that is probably one of the most important factors that that doesn’t get talked about enough.”
From housing to economic development, neighborhood input drives decisions at Connected Communities. Residents like Tammy Westbrook, a resident ambassador, not only advocates for neighbors, but also has been able to build workplace skills.
“They helped me personally, and with the community. I got introduced to different organizations that had resources to help people that live in my community,” says Westbrook, who learned public speaking and how to facilitate meetings. “When starting this position, I realized that a lot of people in the community needed help and didn’t realize the resources that were available to them right in your own neighborhood.”
Westbrook often goes door to door to speak with neighbors, offers information on resources such as COVID vaccinations during the pandemic and food pantries. This year, Connected Communities will hire its third cohort of resident ambassadors like Westbrook to help with event planning, projects and workshops in Beechwood and EMMA.
Young residents are at work as well. Sixteen youth assisted with outreach for the Grand Avenue Park Adventure Course project last year. They distributed 369 door hangers informing residents and received 422 resident votes for the final Adventure Course design. From clean sweeps to door-to-door outreach, residents play an active role in revitalization.
And then there’s workforce and economic development. Last year, Connected Communities partnered with 441 Ministries to help finalize the development of its coffee roastery, which is expected to help Beechwood’s New City Cafe, a place where Nelms often gets his coffee. It is expected to create employment opportunities.
In its comprehensive plan, Connected Communities recommends a partnership with the city’s office of Community Wealth Building to locate a Financial Empowerment Center in EMMA or Beechwood; direct assistance to select existing businesses or emerging entrepreneurs; and leverage Opportunity Zone status to coordinate new commercial investment in favor of local businesses and community goals.
A replicable model?
These efforts haven’t gone unnoticed by donors. Simeon Banister, executive vice president of the Rochester Area Community Foundation, says Connected Communities’ work is laudable, adding that RACF is a proud supporter.
“We’re excited about the prospect of looking more broadly using the same tactics and strategies in other communities around the city to realize their promise,” he says. “And there are some great places to consider doing it, that show a lot of underlying economic strength. And we’re excited about remaining in a conversation with partners that are interested in that approach.”
Can this approach be replicated? While there’s no easy solution, community observers express optimism. There must be a way to show upward mobility for residents, Brock says.
Nelms says policies around schools are necessary to make things work and coordinate resources.
“I would say historically, you know, there have been a lot of organizations that have attempted to help the city, but the infrastructure is so fragmented it’s hard to have impact,” he says. “So, imagine if you had Connected Communities represented in each quadrant of the city, with the schools around it, with the resources around it, and you don’t have to bring in a bunch of new (resources). A lot of stuff we did at Connected Communities was to enhance what was already here, and to make the resources known to the community and known to folks, and that’s why it’s been so successful.”
He gives Leslie-Smith credit for the work done so far—some call her fearless.
“LaShunda, on behalf of Connected Communities, fought at the policy level also. And at times, she served as an agitator,” Nelms says. “That doesn’t make you popular, necessarily. But it makes you valued to those in the community. And I think LaShunda chose being valued by the community over her own popularity within certain circles.”
Leslie-Smith would agree that it hasn’t been a simple concept to explain to donors, developers and others. Conveying the partnership’s philosophy in a digestible way has been a challenge.
“We want you to see the community we’re trying to revitalize,” Leslie-Smith says. “We want you to see all of the assets that are here but also the challenges and why we need funding to do this, but we also don’t want to give you the impression that these are folks in a zoo.”
It isn’t lost on her that applying for low-income housing tax credits to make sure equitable, affordable options are available is an “inherently racist” mechanism.
“So, we’re really challenged by that—how do we provide a resource that people need and deserve without also reinforcing wealthy, predominantly white men being able to ward off taxes,” Leslie-Smith says. “It’s the only tool that we have to use right now, but we’re also not going to be silent about it.”
She hopes Rochester understands that “Black and Brown folks did not just become poor and decide … (so) let’s live in the same neighborhood.” Until that’s addressed at a policy perspective and the federal level, she says, affordable housing will remain on the table.
“Then again, if we’re not also intentional, we’re just going reinforce racist practices because where does the affordable housing get built? In low-income, Black and Brown neighborhoods.”
Still, Leslie-Smith is clear—even with polarizing issues including the overpolicing of Black and Brown communities and gun violence, Connected Communities’ role is not to push an opinion. It facilitates dialogue, empowering residents with information.
However, Rochester’s impatience for results can create some hurdles for initiatives like Connected Communities. It’s not uncommon to hear questions like: Why EMMA and Beechwood? When can this work elsewhere? Is this enough for change? Purpose Built’s Davidson suggests just sticking with it.
“With a lot of community quarterbacks, it’s a matter of being authentic and continuing to show up and it’s a hard stage to get through because you know, it’s hard work,” he says. “You’re talking about neighborhood change and neighborhood change is not easy because it’s disruptive to people’s lives.”
Proof points matter, says Nelms.
“How we’re going to change this community is to continue (to) have measurable initiatives, interventions, where people actually see the outcome,” he says.
The importance of measurement is to be able to do evaluation, Van Dusen says.
“You do evaluation to make sure that your tactics and strategy are still aligned, and that what you’re intending is what’s happening,” he says. “If you find in your evaluation that something isn’t working the way you thought it would, that’s not necessarily a failure. That’s a learning moment.”
It has been said before: There’s no silver bullet to breaking the cycle of poverty.
“We have a more than 300-year (racial) wealth gap that we need to close. Black folks, since we’ve been in this country, we were commodities,” Leslie-Smith says. “And so, for us to think that somehow, we’re just going to wave a magic wand and there isn’t going to be any racial wealth inequity is really arrogant.
“I don’t even know any other way to put it,” she adds. “It almost says that these issues, … these woes of our community, are by choice, and so we just give people some stuff, they’re going to be different. And that’s really not how this works.”