Tackling Poverty: One block, rowhouse, and wall at a time

BY KATE RUTLEDGE

Recently we sat down with three members from the 2017 Cohort of Philly Girls Do Good to discuss their roles in community development— Valerie Gay, Executive Director of Art Sanctuary; Jill Roberts, Executive Director of the Healthy Rowhouse Project; and Joanna Winchester, Director of Strategic Initiatives at the New Kensington Community Development Corporation (NKCDC). The women quickly bonded over their common goal of eradicating poverty in Philadelphia. They identified universal themes of cultivating ownership and empowerment, and also shared individual success stories from the neighborhoods in which they work. These three women are committed to equipping people with tools and identifying resources that will continue to strengthen communities throughout Philadelphia.

Joanna described NKCDC’s innovative programs and partnerships with organizations to offer wraparound services and expand current offerings to residents. She emphasized that art is not just ancillary, but rather an important thread that runs through the NKCDC’s work. Valerie agreed that culture is present in everything she does and helping community members find their voice is key. Art Sanctuary carries out its mission to use Black Art to transform communities by reaching out to makers and training them to teach local children. Valerie joyfully clarified, “You don’t have to be Black to appreciate Black Art!” Art is present in all neighborhoods, and artists are everywhere. By arming the artists with employable skills, it serves both our communities and the artists themselves.

Valerie’s holistic approach extends beyond her job. Recently she moved back into her childhood home and connected with her neighbors through a spontaneous art project: creating a neighborhood-built mosaic on an existing wall. This transformed an eyesore into a gathering space as neighbors collected broken, discarded items and added them to the collaborative art piece. A street corner which once was a dumping ground for trash has become a beautiful, clean place in which neighbors feel invested and proud.

Jill emphasized ownership and homeowner support as part of a broader effort to stabilize neighborhoods. The Healthy Rowhouse Project recognizes that creative financing is needed for homeowners to make critical home repairs in order to maintain safe and healthy homes and stabilize neighborhood blocks. The Project collects data to understand the gap between currently available funding sources and what types of new products could be offered to homeowners for preservation of Philadelphia’s iconic rowhouses. The whole conversation group recognized that the poor “health” and condition of a rowhouse can contribute to long-term and chronic diseases such as asthma and lead poisoning. Jill declared that a home is personally symbolic, and for a homeowner to say “I own this house” provides grounding to his/her family and supports them to pursue other goals as well.

All three women agreed that the aim of their work is to treat the root causes of poverty instead of just the symptoms. Often residents are told about the weaknesses and deficiencies in their communities. So instead, focusing on a community’s strengths can be transformative and powerful. Joanna spoke about a program which identifies and empowers block leaders to take on a project and enlist their neighbors to get it done. Instead of looking at it as a scarcity problem, it celebrates the people and resources that are already there to champion a solution. Jill pointed to how important it is for design solutions to be unique to each neighborhood and block and not cookie-cutter. Positive change will be longer lasting when initiatives start with listening to residents from within their own communities.

Valerie wrapped up our conversation by sharing her belief that gathering a disparate group of people around a table and attacking a problem together can lead to a stronger and more creative solution. In this case, poverty can be addressed from multiple approaches that neither supersede nor separate from each other. We could not have said it better ourselves, while the aim of Philly Girls Do Good is to connect women who are already tackling challenges on their own and to strengthen their efforts by exchanging ideas and working together. Thank you to Valerie, Jill and Joanna for sharing your thoughts, and we look forward to learning more about your ongoing good works!