Grounded in Milwaukee

In May, members of the Grounded team headed to Milwaukee to attend the Reclaiming Vacant Properties (RVP) conference. This year’s theme was Groundswell: Rising to the Challenge.

The conference brought together grassroots leaders, community development professionals, program coordinators, and policymakers to exchange ideas on revitalizing distressed communities. Speakers and attendees shared insights on ways their communities are eliminating blight as we scribbled away furiously taking notes and we shared our own stories on how Pittsburgh is stabilizing and reclaiming vacant property.

Grounded had three representatives in Milwaukee: Evaine, Grounded’s Executive Director, Gordon, ReClaim South Ambassador, and Anna, Project Specialist. In addition to attending the conference and getting a full dose of information and ideas, Gordon and Evaine presented strategies for equitable community engagement for transformative community revitalization. Evaine shared Grounded’s approach to community engagement and Gordon reflected on his time as a Grounded ambassador. The ambassador program recruits residents to participate in a year-long education and training program where they learn about community development and are given a microgrant to put their own ideas into action.

Gordon has sustained his ambassador project since 2014

While Gordon was a ReClaim South Ambassador, he created the Garden on Gearing in Beltzhoover. Gordon envisioned the community garden in 2014 and it hasn’t stopped growing since. The once vacant lot is now an edible garden that provides seasonal fruits and vegetables to passersby, including a fruit tree orchard, colorful mural, and a bench so you can stop and enjoy this special Gearing St ecosystem. In the coming months, the garden will be expanding to include a beehive colony. Session attendees took note of Gordon’s steadfast commitment, keen insights on community dynamics, and ability to find humor in every situation.

During breaks in the conference schedule, we found time for fun. Left: Anna, Evaine, Julie, and Bethany explore Milwaukee. Right: Anna and Gordon pose with the “wax” guard at the Wisconsin Center

The conference provided plenty of practical information on tackling community challenges. With Gordon’s help, here are the key takeaways from RVP 2018:

Grounded’s Favorite Conference Highlights:

1. Collaboration is key

No one entity in the business of community development can do it alone. Successful solutions are strengthened by partnership. Reflecting on the humbling fact that some people at RVP have been doing this work for their entire lifetime, Gordon stated that “some of the more successful ones have been able to collaborate among organizations and government. They’ve been able to reclaim and restore housing and keep together neighborhoods.”

2. Inequity is spatial, economic, racial, and environmental – Solutions must be intersectional

Communities do not just experience one type of inequity. As keynote speaker Alan Mallach put it, “inequality is environmental, it is spatial, it is geographic, it is social, and it is economic.” For those that reclaim vacant properties, this statement reinforces that we must always consider the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, geography, and class and how they apply to neighborhoods and individuals. These identities create interdependent systems of discrimination and disadvantage, requiring organizations to pay careful attention to who is controlling power in situations. Gordon shared his challenge of understanding how money is prioritized for certain projects, saying “think of how effective some of the money that is misused could be put to help people out.” We’re excited to continue learning more on this topic in Mallach’s new book, The Divided City: Poverty and Prosperity in Urban America.

Gordon was a blast to work with — and a major celebrity at the conference. The world needs more Gordons!

3. Change the levers of power, work directly with residents

Center residents as the agents of change. Residents are waiting to be invited into leadership positions. They have the powerful stories and firsthand knowledge but may lack the platform to share their ideas. As organizations committed to revitalizing communities, it is our responsibility to work directly with residents to help achieve their visions in their communities. As one speaker noted, “land can control the destiny of residents. How can it be used to the benefit of the community?”

Thank you, Center for Community Progress for an energizing and inspiring conference. Grounded is now in full swing in our busiest season, building out greenspace designs and focusing on greening strategies. RVP was a great reminder of these important values. The Pittsburgh region shares many of the challenges and opportunities we see reflected in communities across the country. Gordon said it best when he noted, “in the absence of money, we do flowers and honey. We use what we have to create more greenspace that brings people together.” So that’s what Grounded will continue to do.

More images from Gordon’s garden

Gordon and Grounded staff member, Janaha, spruce up the space

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