Choices? We all have them right? Or do we? Do we choose the circumstances we’re born into? As children, do we choose our neighborhoods?
It’s an interesting concept…and also an interesting selection of language for a new place-based federal funding initiative – Choice Neighborhoods. A $250 million HUD initiative intended “to transform neighborhoods of extreme poverty into functioning, sustainable mixed-income neighborhoods with well-functioning services, schools, public assets, transportation, and access to jobs,” Choice Neighborhoods represents a major commitment to redeveloping the infrastructure of communities on behalf of the Federal Government. And it is a much-needed commitment, with 17% of children in poverty lacking health insurance (as of 2008), 66% of those in low-income housing living in homes that cost more than 30% of income, and nearly 80% of those living in impoverished communities testing below proficient on their 4th grade reading exam—according to Annie E. Casey Foundation’s KIDS COUNT 2010, the most recent report published as part of their work to improve public policy outcomes for children.
Choice Neighborhoods piggy-back on the Department of Education’s Promise Neighborhoods initiative, which transforms communities by equipping its next generation with a seamless pipeline of services leading them to college and careers. Promise Neighborhoods is a long-term investment in the nation’s youth which ensures that a child’s given neighborhood or school does not dictate their options later in life. The concept is personified through the life story of Geoffrey Canada, President of Harlem Children’s Zone®, who grew up in Harlem, left to attend prestigious colleges, and returned to make a difference in the community that raised him.
His impact is evident… he’s also betting on such success stories and outcomes for others in the Harlem Community as he focuses all of his resources to ensuring that every kid in Harlem gains access to college.
Some have debated the merits of the approach, questioning if academic indicators are the most appropriate barometer of success. Some question whether the impact is due to the array of integrated services or just good charter schools (i.e. Brookings Institute)? I frankly believe either can and will be effective as long as they continue to adhere to the principles of performance management and use data to inform and drive their decisions and results.
However, it also remains to be seen if the concept of well-educated kids returning to their old neighborhoods, like Geoffrey Canada, will actually happen. Once students graduate and go off to college, will they CHOOSE to return to the community that raised them? Or will they take the opportunity to “get out” and not look back, joining the ranks of white picket fences, soccer moms and mini vans?
Enter Choice Neighborhoods. There are likely to be 10 of these chosen, with a dedicated portion committed specifically to those also selected as Promise Neighborhoods. In some respects this is the more daunting challenge…how do you truly transform communities so that people “choose” to live there? How do you make them appealing so that community members are happy, safe, healthy and invested in the future of their neighborhood, rather than just looking for a way out? It will be interesting to follow the longitudinal developments of the Neighborhoods that receive either Choice OR Promise funding versus Neighborhoods that receive both, and whether it is even possible to be successful in isolation of the other. For the sake of the children living in communities of extreme poverty and unsafe living conditions, I hope the answer is yes. I also hope that communities will find new way to make their neighborhood “promising” for their youth. Check out our webinars about steps every community-based organization can take and the vital elements needed to successfully improve the odds for your youth and future of your community. Also, follow the national dialogue that is supporting these efforts with advocacy, capacity building and technical assistance (insert UNCA link.)
One thing is also clear about choices…choosing to do nothing is also a choice. Have you already chosen what you’re going to do about the unsafe neighborhoods and underperforming schools in your community?