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Why do some efforts to strengthen communities succeed while many others fail or fall short? What is the difference that creates real lasting change versus temporary feel good moments? After ten years of working to strengthen the 24:1 Community, we believe we have some answers to those questions.
Ten years ago, Beyond Housing embarked on an ambitious effort to transform ourselves from a housing organization to a community building organization, with the goal of transforming the 24:1 Community. We had many ideas and lofty goals but, in the end, we knew that our ideas didn’t really matter.
From past experience, we knew it would be presumptuous to impose our own beliefs and preconceptions upon the community. We knew that in order to do this the right way, and affect real and lasting change, we needed to put our own sensibilities and assumptions aside, and ask the real experts—the people who actually live here.
So we did. In the process of launching the 24:1 Initiative, we held no less than 450 meetings engaging local citizens in deep and thoughtful conversations. And not just the local mayors, government and school officials, or residents who were already the most vocal and active. We went out of our way to ask ordinary people and families what they thought about their community and how to improve it. We sought out key influencers—people with a wide social network who were the eyes, ears, and hearts of the community.
From this, a model for community building was born that we call, “Ask, Align, Act.” We asked the questions that needed to be asked, and we asked them a lot. We aligned our efforts to focus on what people here thought was needed most. Then we proceeded to act—not in a simplistic or superficial way, but with a comprehensive effort addressing five critical areas—housing, education, economic development, job creation, and health.
Ten years later, this model has proven to be highly effective. There’s still work to be done. But working with citizens and officials and other partners, the successes are many.
Some of those successes are highly visible, like the community center on Page Avenue with a cinema, a bank, healthcare facility, financial center, retirement community, café, and the first local grocery store in four decades. Or the hundreds of affordable new housing for families, many who are experiencing the pride of homeownership for the first time. Or the recent upgrading of the Normandy Schools Collaborative accreditation.
Others are less visible, but just as real and important. We worked with the government municipalities to bundle and share resources to provide significant cost-savings and increased efficiency. Kids in the 24:1 Community now have college savings accounts. Every day, our Family Engagement Liaisons help hundreds of kids get the clean clothes and supplies they need to attend school regularly and avoid falling behind.
But within every success, there’s one ingredient that has made it all possible—a by-product of doing things the right way. That ingredient is “trust.”
We have a saying here: “Community building happens at the speed of trust.” Without trust, it all falls apart. With trust, anything is possible. Trust doesn’t happen overnight—you have to work for it, and earn it every day. It’s not just about the ribbon-cutting ceremonies and big events. It’s about the everyday work along the way. Engaging with residents. Asking the right questions. Maintaining transparency and an open dialogue. And working side-by-side with residents to prove you’re sincerely invested and committed to their success.
We could’ve acted faster without all those meetings and conversations to gain the participation and trust of the community. But we would have failed. Our actions would have likely been misguided and ineffective, wasting precious resources and time, and leaving a feeling of disillusionment like so many efforts across our region and country before.
Thanks to the trust we’ve built, we’re now reaching a critical mass. After ten years, we’re seeing success on a larger scale. Things are changing here. Not only do people see it—they feel it. There is a sense of local pride and optimism that hasn’t been felt here in many decades.
Or course, there’s still much to be done. That’s the thing with transforming challenged communities—it doesn’t happen overnight, or even over the course of a few years. It requires real effort—long-term, sustained, consistent, and comprehensive. But if we do it right, one day our efforts here will no longer be needed.
So where do we go from here?
It’d be wrong to pretend we know for certain. After all, we can’t assume what was true ten years ago is still accurate today. So, if we’re being fully honest with ourselves, we have to admit that we don’t fully know.
But we know who does.
That’s why we’re launching a new, comprehensive community engagement project. To reignite the conversation, and ask the real experts—the people who live and work here—what they think is right with their community, and what they believe is needed most. It’s the crucial first step in our model of “Ask, Align, Act” and the step that lays the foundation to what any successful community building effort requires—the participation of the community, and the trust of the people.
Like before, we want to hear from everyone throughout the entire 24:1 Community—from the everyday individuals and families, some of which are brand new to the community, as well as local officials.
We want to hear from people of all ages and means. Because not everyone here is the same or has the same needs. There’s more economic diversity here than many people realize, with many middle and upper-middle class households as well as challenged.
And we want to seek out those individuals who make up what we call the “community yeast”—social influencers who are the eyes and ears of the community, and people who look at things in a different way, who spark new ideas and meaningful conversation.
Like before, it won’t be quick or easy. But it will be enlightening.
If ten years has taught us anything, it’s that if you want the right answers, you have to ask the right questions, to the right people. And that you can’t build a community without first building trust.
Here’s to making the next ten years even better in the 24:1.
I’ve been working in community development in the St. Louis area for 25 years, and I’ve been the CEO of Beyond Housing since 1993. While I’m proud of our accomplishments, I don’t claim to be an expert. At Beyond Housing, the experts we listen to are the voices of the community members we serve. I’ll be raising issues here that I believe matter to our community. I hope you’ll join the conversation. We do reserve the right not to post comments containing offensive language. To paraphrase Dr. King, we can disagree without being disagreeable.