Creating Lasting Change through Community Leadership

How Promise Neighborhoods are working with residents to weather crises and transform communities

December 1, 2020

An old East Coast port city building community trust and redefining its image. A rural Kentucky county opening new doors for families. A Bay Area city cultivating local leaders to drive long-term change.

These three places may look different—by geography, by demographics, by culture, by opportunities—but they all have something in common: residents who love their communities and want to make them better. In the past, though, their ideas weren’t always heard, or no one asked in the first place. Promise Neighborhoods in Camden, New Jersey; Perry County, Kentucky; and Hayward, California (as well as a dozen others across the US) have been trying to change that.

A federal grant program administered by the US Department of Education and inspired by the Harlem Children’s Zone, Promise Neighborhoods take a data-driven, place-based approach to ending intergenerational poverty by supporting children from birth to college and career. Grantees that receive the five-year implementation award work with schools and community partners to coordinate and provide wraparound supports, improve systems, and tackle barriers for residents. They strive to help kids improve their physical, mental, and academic well-being and to help them and their families break out of the cycle of poverty.

Through these individual changes, Promise Neighborhoods hope to make collective, long-term improvements that transform communities and create more opportunities for all residents. Grantees are using data to track outcomes, measuring changes in kids’ academics, health, college and career readiness, and family supports. Urban Institute experts provide grantees with technical assistance during the grant period.

Community engagement is crucial to the program. Promise Neighborhoods aim to center community voice at every step, not only creating new services and improving connections to existing ones but also ensuring the kids and parents they’re serving have input in where investments are made.

This engagement became even more important when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Because the Promise Neighborhood teams had developed strong relationships with families, community members, and other local organizations, they quickly adapted their programs to meet residents’ growing needs and to address the inequities that the pandemic has exacerbated. By building trust with families and empowering local leaders, Promise Neighborhoods are aiming to weather the COVID-19 crisis and create lasting change in places where residents are tired of hearing about their communities’ challenges and want to celebrate their communities’ strengths.  

Here, we’re featuring the people of Promise Neighborhoods—the students, the parents, the community organizers, the local leaders—in Camden, Perry County, and Hayward to learn how they are making their communities better for themselves, for their neighbors, and for future generations.
 

 

Elevating community voice in Camden, New Jersey

Camden, New Jersey, residents are acutely aware of their city’s negative public image. Bad publicity that stems from decades of disinvestment and a lack of opportunities for residents has followed the community for years. But that isn’t the Camden they know.

“People look at Camden as a stereotype, but it's not that—it's a lot of hardworking people that get up and go to work every day and do the right thing,” said Carl Boyd, a 25-year Camden resident and the safe corridors coordinator with Camden Promise Neighborhood (CPN). “There’s a saying on City Hall that calls Camden ‘a city invincible.’ But I think more than that, it’s a city resilient. For many years, Camden City had a lot of promises made to it, and they weren’t kept. But I see that changing.”

Camden, New Jersey, is working to transform its image by expanding opportunities for residents and building community trust. Camden Promise Neighborhood aims to be a force for positive change in the city. (Photos by Hannah Yoon for the Urban Institute)

Camden saw a steep economic decline after World War II, when manufacturing companies shut their doors and eliminated thousands of jobs in the once-thriving port city. Residents, especially white residents, fled the city, and Camden’s population plummeted between the 1960s and 1990s. The people who stayed, most of whom were Black, were left with few job opportunities, high crime rates, and underfunded schools. Families have limited access to fresh food, with no supermarket serving the 74,000 residents, and previous promises of a new supermarket never came to fruition.

But the city is working to address those persistent challenges. In the last several years, tax breaks have drawn new investments to the Camden waterfront, and the city’s “eds and meds” (its large medical and educational institutions) have expanded their presence and investment in Camden. Crime and poverty rates have also dropped, new schools have opened their doors, and job opportunities are growing.

CPN is aiming to be a driving force for that positive change. Center for Family Services, a long-standing nonprofit organization in Camden, partnered with local schools and community groups (many of which it had worked with previously) to apply for the Promise Neighborhoods grant, and the collaborative was awarded its implementation grant in 2016.

Camden Promise Neighborhood Footprint

CPN serves a 2-square-mile area, bordered by the Delaware River to the west and Interstate 676 to the north, where poverty is even more prevalent than in the city overall. Most residents of the area are Black, but Latinx residents are a growing share of the population. CPN takes an equity-focused approach to all its services, aiming to address a history of racist policies and practices that left Black and Latinx residents with limited opportunities to thrive.

Since it was awarded the grant, CPN has invested in services that can reach kids at all ages and has developed partnerships with 22 local agencies and five schools. CPN and its partners work together to address challenges, such as a lack of access to healthy food or to mental health counseling, that could prevent kids from succeeding.

CPN has prioritized building trust with residents to make sure community members know the initiative isn’t just another empty promise. Developing those relationships allowed CPN to quickly respond to the pandemic and help meet residents’ changing needs both in person and virtually.
 

Building personal connections to weather crises

Jeryca Guzman didn’t know what to expect when Mahasin Parker knocked on her door two summers ago. Parker, a neighborhood ally with Camden Promise Neighborhood, was passing out flyers about CPN events and services. Guzman instantly felt she could trust Parker, largely because they were both lifelong Camden residents.

“When they came to my door, they were so nice, so respectful, so concerned about the community and so willing to help,” Guzman said. “I just automatically fell in love with the whole program.”

Camden residents Jeryca Guzman and her 11-year-old son, Nicholas. (Photo by Hannah Yoon for the Urban Institute)

“The pandemic’s been tough on everyone—tough emotionally, tough economically. But we’re all going through it. We need to be more united.”

Jeryca Guzman

Parker was working to make sure all the residents in the CPN footprint knew about the services available to them. When Parker first met Guzman, she asked her a simple question: “Is there anything you need?”

Guzman was still reeling from the killing of her younger brother in October 2018. She told Parker that she felt her life was on pause and that she and her family were struggling to deal with the grief. Parker connected Guzman, her 11-year-old son, Nicholas, and her brother’s children with a counselor who helped them talk through their grief and find ways to move forward.

After that first meeting with Parker, Guzman stayed connected with CPN, attending its community holiday events with her son, encouraging her friends to reach out to CPN, and sending Parker regular texts just to let her know how much she appreciates her.

That connection became even more important once the pandemic started. When Nicholas’s school switched to virtual learning, Guzman lost a key source of food for her son. But through Parker and CPN, she learned about community food access events—supported by CPN in partnership with KIPP Cooper Norcross Academy—and Guzman has regularly received healthy food for her family during the pandemic.

Camden Promise Neighborhood works with KIPP Cooper Norcross Academy and other local partners to organize the Hope Mobile food distribution. The monthly food access event has become even more critical during the pandemic, when many families have faced food insecurity. (Photos by Hannah Yoon for the Urban Institute)

For CPN, developing those strong relationships with neighbors took time. CPN prioritizes hiring Camden residents to help build trust in the community, where families are often hesitant to discuss challenges happening inside their homes. CPN also created a community advisory board of residents to guide the initiative’s outreach efforts and to make sure all its communications and services are tailored to the families it serves.

“Being born and raised here, there’s just a different mind-set about the city that you have,” said Jenise Rolle, community outreach organizer with CPN. “There’s more of an understanding and connection with people that already existed before you even start your first day at work.”

Before the pandemic, CPN team members went everywhere they could to meet neighbors and tell them about the services offered through the program. With their CPN-branded shirts, staff were instantly recognizable when they went to corner stores and walked up and down the street, bringing resources directly to the people who needed them.

Maintaining that connection during the pandemic, after almost all in-person interaction was abruptly stopped, has been challenging. But CPN has leaned on its partnerships and relationships to keep meeting residents’ needs—by safely distributing food and home supplies, by calling families to ensure all students have access to the technology and resources they need for remote learning, and by hosting virtual events.

Jenise Rolle, community outreach organizer with Camden Promise Neighborhood. (Photo by Hannah Yoon for the Urban Institute)

“I often hear the phrase ‘Your voice is heard.’ And it's like, is it really heard? I want to be able to make that statement come to life and have people say, ‘Hey, someone really listened to me and did something about it.’”

—Jenise Rolle

CPN has leveraged social media to keep its connection with the community strong, increasing the frequency of its Facebook posts about food access events and other services. Social media has also allowed the CPN team to continue asking community members what they need. That has led to a series of virtual events in which parents could participate in workshops designed to help alleviate stress and talk with other families about shared challenges.

“I often hear the phrase ‘Your voice is heard.’ And it's like, is it really heard? I want to be able to make that statement come to life and have people say, ‘Hey, someone really listened to me and did something about it,’” Rolle said.

In the summer, community outreach staff talking with residents over the phone and at socially distanced in-person distribution and engagement events heard similar questions from parents about how to keep their kids safe during the pandemic. In response, CPN organized a Facebook Live event with a pediatrician from Cooper University Health Care, a long-time partner and supporter of the initiative. Community members submitted questions online, and Rolle led a conversation with the doctor on a range of topics, including social distancing, mask wearing, mental health, and new routines in a virtual world.

The group also discussed racial disparities in the impacts of COVID-19, including that Black and Latinx people are more likely to contract COVID-19 and are more likely to experience severe health effects from the virus because of systemic racism’s negative effects on the social determinants of health in these communities. CPN’s efforts to expand access to high-quality health care and promote safety during the pandemic aim to address those inequities and ensure everyone stays safe during this crisis and beyond.

“The pandemic’s been tough on everyone—tough emotionally, tough economically,” Guzman said. “But we’re all going through it. We need to be more united, to have more teamwork…The Promise Neighborhood is basically a team that works together for the community.”
 

Creating spaces for students to make their voices heard

Eric Chavarria joined the Youth4Change program at his school last year because he wants to change the way people look at Camden. “And not just Camden, but the state, the country—I want to change the world,” he said.

The eighth-grader at US Wiggins College Preparatory Lab Family School doesn’t consider himself a very social person, but he didn’t let that stop him from joining the program. Youth4Change, organized by CPN, aims to give students an outlet to develop leadership skills and to talk about how they can make their school a better and safer place for everyone, according to Boyd, who is the CPN safe corridors coordinator and advises the group.

Every Tuesday at lunch last school year, about 10 Wiggins students in grades 6 to 8 met with Boyd to talk about challenges—such as bullying and violence—that the school and the community face and how they could address those challenges. Before the pandemic forced the program to pause, the kids were developing plans to be trained as student safety officers and to create a mentoring program in which middle-schoolers could help younger kids build their reading skills.

 

“I want to change the way people look at Camden—and not just Camden, but the state, the country—I want to change the world.”

—Eric Chavarria

Eric Chavarria, eighth-grader and Youth4Change group member. (Photo by Hannah Yoon for the Urban Institute)

 

Earlier this year, the group also planned and hosted a school dance. Before 2020, dances at Wiggins were only for eighth-graders. But the younger kids didn’t want to wait that long, so the Youth4Change students planned a dance that was open to all middle-schoolers, choosing the decorations, coordinating the logistics, and setting up the event in the school’s multipurpose room.

Eric doesn’t like to dance, but he said the kids who do had a great time. More than that, though, he was proud of Youth4Change for coordinating the event. “We did it for the first time in our school’s history,” he said. “So I guess that’s in the books.”

Boyd sees the program as an important way for CPN to ensure kids have a say in what’s going on in their school and in their community. “We need to give more youth outlets to speak up,” Boyd said. “If you look at protests going on around the country, I think that a lot of that is pent-up frustration about certain systems not operating a certain way. When you don’t have a voice where you can speak up and speak out about those things, sometimes there’s a pent-up anger. What this group did was allow the youth to talk about things that were bothering them and talk about things that they would like to see change.”

Boyd plans to continue Youth4Change virtually now that students have settled into remote learning. He and other CPN staff called students in the program throughout the summer to check on them and their families and to make sure they had the supplies, technology, and internet access they needed before the school year started.  

“We need to give more youth outlets to speak up. If you look at protests going on around the country, I think that a lot of that is pent-up frustration about certain systems not operating a certain way.”

—Carl Boyd

Boyd has also used social media to stay connected with families and to make sure Youth4Change students still have a way to make their voices heard. Earlier this year, the kids in the program helped come up with a quote that Boyd shared on CPN’s Facebook page to encourage Camden parents and children to stay home and adhere to public health recommendations during the pandemic: “Your fun is not more important than your safety.”

Youth4Change has helped Eric become more comfortable taking on a leadership role, which he knows will help him reach his career goal of becoming a software engineer. He isn’t sure he wants to stay in Camden for college, but he knows that once he’s successful in his career, he wants to give back to the community that raised him.

“Camden is a really great place,” he said. “You can’t describe Camden in one word. There’s a corner store that’s right next to my house that has candy, and when I’m there, the lady at the store knows me, and she’ll always say like, ‘Take some. Take some for your sisters.’ That’s the kind of place it is. You’ve got to really look into Camden to really describe it. I always want to come back and give back to the people of Camden.”
 


Opening new doors for families in Perry County, Kentucky

When Perry County, Kentucky, residents describe their community, they almost always start with the mountains. The county is nestled in the Appalachian Mountains’ western foothills, which dominate the rural landscape.

But even though the mountains are a source of pride for residents, they are also a reminder that the area is closed off from the outside world and that new opportunities take a long time to reach the isolated community, according to Angela Hampton, the family training coordinator for Perry Promise Neighborhood. “We’re a very maternal culture, and we tend to be very protective and prideful,” she said. “But we’re the last to get to experience new things that come out. Our needs aren’t met because the services just aren’t here yet.”

The Appalachian Mountains surround Perry County, Kentucky. The mountains are a source of pride for community members, but some residents say they are also a reminder that the area is closed off and that new opportunities take a long time to reach the community. (Photo by Jonathan Adams for the Urban Institute)

The mining industry used to dominate the job market in Perry County, which is about two hours southeast of Lexington, Kentucky. But with the decline of coal and the loss of thousands of jobs, families started moving out, and the area’s population has fallen considerably in the past decade, to 26,000 people, almost all of whom are white. The area’s remaining residents have faced the challenges of opioid use, persistent poverty, and a lack of investment in the region to create new job opportunities.

Schools are the central gathering place of the community, but strapped budgets have led to the consolidation of many neighborhood schools in recent years. Families are spread out across the county’s 340 square miles, and many students travel several “country miles” to get to and from school, often riding in a car or bus for 45 minutes each way on curvy roads over mountains and along streams. Budget challenges have also prevented schools from offering family engagement activities, art classes, and extra supports for students.

Perry Promise Neighborhood Footprint

Perry Promise Neighborhood is trying to fill that gap. Partners for Education at Berea College, about two hours west of Perry County, led two Promise Neighborhoods grants in other eastern Kentucky regions before being awarded the Perry Promise Neighborhood grant in 2017. Perry Promise, which covers the entire county, works closely with the county’s 11 schools and with local organizations to offer programs and services to students to help them succeed academically and to expose them to new opportunities.

By prioritizing parent and family engagement and making arts programming a key focus, Perry Promise aims not only to break the intergenerational cycle of poverty but also to assuage residents’ apprehension about the education system, a feeling that has led to high rates of chronic absenteeism. Shifting families’ perceptions of school and career potential and building trust have helped Perry Promise stay engaged with families during the pandemic while continuing to offer kids opportunities that set them on a path for a better future.
 

Bridging the divide between schools and families

As someone who has lived in eastern Kentucky her entire life, Misty Maxie understands residents’ hesitance to engage with schools. But as a first-generation college student and the Perry Promise family navigator for R.W. Combs Elementary School, she knows the benefit of embracing education, going to class, and taking advantage of every opportunity available.

“Education hasn’t always been the focus for some of the people in our community, so I think a lot of families who don’t have that higher education feel inferior at the school with the teachers, the counselors, and the principals,” Maxie said. “They may not feel comfortable going inside the schools, asking questions, and just partaking in school activities. I see it as my role to break the ice and make the transition a lot easier for families. I kind of have my foot in both worlds, so I can connect and make these relationships with families a lot easier.”

Misty Maxie, Perry Promise Neighborhood family navigator for R.W. Combs Elementary. (Photo by Jonathan Adams for the Urban Institute)

“The support our communities have can’t be matched, and I think that has been demonstrated a hundred times over during this pandemic and how strong eastern Kentucky is and how much everyone has come together to help everybody.”

—Misty Maxie

Maxie works in the school as a bridge connecting families with teachers and school administrators. She helps ensure parents and kids are aware of all the supports available through Perry Promise, such as tutoring and early childhood and college preparation programs. In an area where many children have more opportunities through Perry Promise than their parents had when they were young, Maxie has worked to build trust and share the benefits of these services.

When the pandemic struck, Perry Promise quickly mobilized with local partner organizations and schools to deliver meals to families and to ensure everyone had internet access or a Wi-Fi hot spot. But the greater concern among the staff was that they might lose their connection to families, who had even less keeping them attached to the school after students shifted to remote learning.

People like Maxie have been integral to keeping families engaged with Perry Promise and with schools during such challenging times. “COVID has shown us that people are essential to the success of a Promise Neighborhood,” said Dreama Gentry, executive director of Partners for Education at Berea College. “You can’t do this work without leadership and energy from people who know the place and the relationships that make up the community.”

Maxie received constant calls in the early days of the pandemic from parents expressing fears about the virus. She organized virtual parent group meetings so families could see they weren’t alone. Then, when the fall school year was set to start virtually, Maxie heard from caregivers—many of whom are grandparents—that they weren’t comfortable with the technology students were supposed to use to access school. Others weren’t comfortable telling school administrators that they needed Wi-Fi hot spots because they couldn’t afford internet for their home.

“There’s shame accompanied with that, and that’s not just a rural thing,” Maxie said. “It doesn’t matter if you live in the city or if you live in the country, there’s a shame associated with not being able to afford cable TV or water or internet. A lot of families didn’t feel comfortable talking directly to the school or to the school board about those issues. And I feel like the families that I deal with are more comfortable telling me that information and then me relaying it to the school.”

With the mining industry’s decline, many residents left Perry County (which includes the town of Hazard, above) in search of job opportunities, leading to a reduction in population. Also, budget challenges have prevented county schools from offering family engagement activities and extra supports for students. Perry Promise Neighborhood is trying to help fill that gap. (Photo by Jonathan Adams for the Urban Institute)

Despite the new challenges COVID-19 has brought to the community—including alternating between in-person and virtual classes during the fall as new COVID-19 cases popped up—Maxie is optimistic that Perry Promise can capitalize on the close-knit nature of the region to stay connected with families and make sure they are safe and healthy.

“The support our communities have can’t be matched, and I think that has been demonstrated a hundred times over during this pandemic and how strong eastern Kentucky is and how much everyone has come together to help everybody,” she said. “That support is what has kept our people going with the lack of jobs, the lack of money. This area is considered to be in poverty in most places, but I can honestly say most of us don’t feel like we’re in poverty.”
 

Encouraging students to stay engaged and dream big through art

After Alaina Baker learned to play a D chord in her first guitar lesson, she ran straight to her grandmother’s house to show off her new skill.

At 9 years old, Alaina is the youngest student in the West Perry Elementary music club, run by Perry Promise Neighborhood. She had already bought a guitar and watched videos online about how to play, but she was excited about the small-group virtual lessons. “Last year, I started watching a couple of YouTube videos, but it wasn’t really easy—it was super fast,” Alaina said. “So doing FaceTime, Zoom, anything like that makes it easier because they can listen and help me with it.”

Alaina Baker, West Perry Elementary fourth-grader and music club member. (Photo by Jonathan Adams for the Urban Institute)

“I just like that you can play music with other people, that it brings people together.”

—Alaina Baker

The music club started in 2019 after students told Rhoda Bryant, the Promise school coordinator at West Perry Elementary, that they wanted a chance to learn guitar together. The in-person meetings had to shut down over the summer because of the pandemic, but the Perry Promise team worked with the music club teacher to set up free virtual lessons in the fall.

“Other music programs here cost like $200 a month,” said Ashley Baker, Alaina’s mom. “That’s a lot, and Perry Promise is doing it for free. They’re giving them opportunities some of these kids wouldn’t be able to get. That’s why Perry Promise is great—if you come up with an idea that would have a positive impact on the schools and on the community, they try their best to make it happen.”

Nine-year-old Alaina Baker plays guitar while her 5-year-old brother, Trevor, pushes a toy lawnmower and their mom, Ashley, watches outside their home. Ashley Baker appreciates that Perry Promise Neighborhood offers free opportunities to families and said the program champions ideas that “have a positive impact on the schools and on the community.” (Photo by Jonathan Adams for the Urban Institute)

Expanding access to the arts is a key goal for Perry Promise. After many schools in the area had to cut arts programming in recent years because of budget challenges, parents and students were constantly asking administrators to bring arts back to the schools. In addition to setting up music clubs, organizing field trips to local plays, and training teachers on how to integrate arts into academic instruction, Perry Promise—through Berea College’s Partners for Education—also brings artists directly into the classroom.

Natalie Gabbard, project director for the arts and humanities with Partners for Education, has cultivated relationships with local artists in Perry and surrounding counties to create a roster of people whom the school can hire to come into the classroom and teach. The choice of arts ranges from poetry to painting to blacksmithing.

“So many of our schools have no arts educator, or they share an arts educator with the whole district,” Gabbard said. “It is so important that our students have that opportunity to express themselves. The arts provide opportunities for social and emotional learning in ways that other traditional academic environments may not.”

Jennifer Noble Shepherd, a self-employed artist for 11 years, is a teaching artist through Perry Promise who offers painting and basket-weaving lessons to students. “I love doing activities where the kids don’t have to worry about anything or worry about being right or wrong,” she said. “They’re just expressing themselves; they’re releasing these emotions. It’s very healing and very necessary for development.”

Jennifer Noble Shepherd, teaching artist with Perry Promise Neighborhood and Berea College’s Partners for Education. (Photo by Jonathan Adams for the Urban Institute)

“I see kids, and I know they have that same passion within them that I had when I was a kid, that that’s what they want to do. But it seems like it’s not a possible career for them…Any opportunity that I have to talk about being an artist is important to show them that it’s possible.”

—Jennifer Noble Shepherd

After a hiatus that started when school went virtual in the spring, the teaching artists started up again in the fall, this time offering their arts lessons online. Family engagement events, like painting nights, that used to be held in person are also happening online. When virtual school can seem even more challenging than in-person school, keeping up arts programming can make sure kids stay engaged, according to Gabbard.

Shepherd, who has three children, is grateful that Perry Promise brought the arts back into her kids’ school and that it has given her another source of income while helping inspire the next generation of artists. “I see kids, and I know they have that same passion within them that I had when I was a kid, that that’s what they want to do,” she said. “But it seems like it’s not a possible career for them because they don’t see it. They aren’t exposed to it. Any opportunity that I have to talk about being an artist is important to show them that it’s possible. You can be an artist and succeed.”

Alaina hopes that learning the guitar will be her first step toward starting a kids’ band at her local church and then going on to Nashville to be a musician—or maybe to becoming an actress and singing on the side. She has even offered to teach her younger brother Trevor how to play guitar once she’s more skilled at it. “I just like that you can play music with other people, that it brings people together,” Alaina said.
 


Cultivating local leaders to drive long-term change in Hayward, California

Hayward, California, residents are tired of people asking them where their city is. Across the bay from San Francisco and south of Oakland, Hayward often gets lost in the shadow of the Bay Area’s major cities. Community members are hoping to change that profile—to achieve not only recognition but also status as a leader in the region and in the country.

“We have so much to offer here,” said Sabrina Aranda, a lifelong Hayward resident and director of Hayward Promise Neighborhoods for the Hayward Unified School District. “We want everyone to be proud they were educated here, to be proud they were made in Hayward.”

Across the bay from San Francisco and south of Oakland, Hayward has often gotten lost in the shadow of the Bay Area’s major cities. Community members are hoping to change that profile—to achieve not only recognition but also status as a leader in the region and in the country. (Photos by Preston Gannaway for the Urban Institute)

Home to 160,000 residents, a state university, and a community college, Hayward seems like a natural place for Bay Area investments to seek out. But that hasn’t been the case, and Hayward residents have had to face the persistent problems of economic instability, underfunded schools, and a job market dominated by low-wage work.

Over the past 30 years, the city’s population has grown, driven largely by Latinx immigrants. Latinx residents are a plurality of the city’s population. The share of Black residents in Hayward, on the other hand, has been slowly declining—a trend happening across the Bay Area. The region’s high housing prices have crept into Hayward, pricing many residents out of the area and forcing them to move farther inland.

South Hayward Promise Neighborhood

Hayward is taking steps to improve the lives of community members and elevate the city’s profile, and Hayward Promise Neighborhoods (HPN) is a key part of that effort. A collaborative led by Hayward-based California State University, East Bay, won a Promise Neighborhoods grant for the city’s central Jackson Triangle neighborhood in 2011. In 2017, it was awarded another grant, for the adjacent South Hayward neighborhood. Working with five partner schools and 11 partner organizations, HPN offers services (often in Spanish and English) to address economic, health, and academic inequities among families.

HPN prioritizes creating opportunities to help residents become leaders who can serve as resources for the community. This has proven critical during the pandemic, when the relationships these leaders developed helped them ensure HPN was meeting community members’ needs. HPN is also investing in training new civic leaders, helping residents develop skills to rise to positions of power that allow them to effect lasting change in their city.
 

Training residents to become resources for their community

Before 2011, Julieta Martinez used to attend presentations at her children’s school about topics like the Promotores community health worker training program and the importance of participating in the 2010 Census. At the time, Martinez didn’t think those subjects were relevant to her—she wasn’t confident in her English and didn’t see how she could be a community leader, and she thought the census didn’t count immigrants. Now, 10 years later, Martinez is a leader in the Promotores program, she’s fluent in English, and she completed her 2020 Census form (and encouraged her neighbors to do the same).

Promotores programs are common in Latinx communities across the US and are modeled on similar efforts in Latin American countries. Hayward’s program (which uses the gender-neutral “Promotores” rather than the traditional “Promotoras” to be more inclusive) is a training opportunity offered through the Tiburcio Vasquez Health Center since 1999 and funded by HPN since 2011. It aims to develop leaders who are go-to resources for health, wellness, and other services available to community members. The program has trained dozens of Hayward residents who go through an intensive six-week course and complete community service hours.

 

“It feels good to not have fear, to know your rights, to know the system, to navigate the system, and to have the ability to propose solutions.”

—Julieta Martinez

Julieta Martinez, Promotora (community health educator) with Hayward Promise Neighborhoods. (Photo by Preston Gannaway for the Urban Institute)

 

The Promotores training teaches residents about health services, and it connects them with organizations that help them learn about systems such as local government and school districts. “I started to understand how everything works,” said Martinez, who moved to California from Mexico in 2000 and became a Promotora in 2011. “There were three big things that were huge: the educational system, the government system, and the medical system. These trainings opened my eyes, and I got it.”

By training a growing group of leaders, HPN is aiming to create a direct line of communication between community members, HPN, and other service providers—ensuring that residents know what’s available to them and that HPN and its partners tailor services to what families need. “The Promotores are trusted messengers in the community,” said Roxana Cruz, outreach coordinator of the Promise Interns program and social media coordinator for HPN. By helping residents become leaders who are connected to institutions and resources, HPN is developing a lasting resource in the community, according to Cruz.

After the Promotores complete their training, they receive a stipend for their service and host regular community events—for example, setting up tables with information about where residents can get flu shots, how they can get their blood pressure tested, and why filling out a census form is important. Before the pandemic, Promotores also went door to door in the community, sharing information about health resources and asking neighbors what they needed.

Since the pandemic hit, the Promotores have had to stop most of their in-person community engagement, and training of new participants went online. Promotores have continued working with local partner organizations like HPN and Community Child Care Council (4Cs) of Alameda County to hold distribution events for essential items like diapers and baby wipes. And they pivoted from door knocking to phone calling, regularly reaching out to neighbors.

Members of the Promotores community health worker program, the Community Child Care Council (4Cs) of Alameda County, and Hayward Promise Neighborhoods staff organize a diaper distribution event to respond to families’ growing needs during the pandemic. Left: Promotora Julieta Martinez (in the gray mask) helps divide the list of families who will receive the supplies. Right: Roxana Cruz with Hayward Promise Neighborhoods (in the black mask) and other volunteers and staff load up cars with essential items. (Photos by Preston Gannaway for the Urban Institute)

Alameda County, home to Hayward, has been among the Bay Area counties with the highest COVID-19 infection rates. Promotores have helped community members understand the risks of the virus, where they can get tested, and the importance of quarantining if they get sick.

Martinez experienced the uncertainty and fear surrounding the virus firsthand earlier this year, when she thought she might have COVID-19 after developing flu-like symptoms. At the time, tests were available only to people with a fever. Because her fever only came at night, she wasn’t considered eligible for a test, so she never found out whether she had been infected.

Fortunately, Martinez used her knowledge about medical services to set up a telehealth appointment and connect with a doctor who helped her monitor her symptoms until she felt better. But the experience left her even more aware of how difficult it can be for people to access the help they need, especially in moments of crisis. “Because I’m bilingual, because I know how to use email, because I know how to ask questions to the right people to get information, those things all got me through,” Martinez said. “A lot of other people need help too, but they can’t get it because they don’t have access to those tools for many reasons.”

During the pandemic, Martinez and the other Promotores have helped their neighbors figure out how to use the technologies necessary to participate in a suddenly virtual world, including the online portals where they can sign up their kids for classes and email on their phones. The pandemic also made census outreach more difficult, especially when trying to reach undocumented immigrants who were already wary of the government form. But Promotores continued to help residents complete their census forms over the phone or online, encouraging them to be counted and help ensure their community receives the funding it deserves.

Promotora Nancy Respaldiza (right) delivers diapers and baby supplies to a family in Hayward, California. She and the other Promotores also shared information about the importance of participating in the 2020 Census with the families they visit. (Photo by Preston Gannaway for the Urban Institute)

Martinez’s work as a Promotora has helped her feel more connected to her community. She enjoys walking down the street and hearing someone say, “That’s Julieta, she’s the Promotora. Go ask her, she’ll know.” Since joining the program, she has taken on other leadership roles, serving as a parent ambassador at her kids’ school and bringing parents’ concerns to the school board.

Martinez also joined other Promotores and HPN staff on a trip to the state capital, Sacramento, raising awareness about the End Child Poverty campaign and about a bill that would create a California version of Promise Neighborhoods and fund 20 grants in the state.

“I feel like I have the ability to look for those resources not just only for me, but for my family, for my neighborhood,” Martinez said. “There are always solutions, right? And if there are not, well, we need to do advocacy at all government levels. The…training put us on the path to keep learning to advocate for ourselves and for the community, because our stories are similar. It feels good to not have fear, to know your rights, to know the system, to navigate the system, and to have the ability to propose solutions.”
 

Encouraging community members to be civic leaders

Sara Prada never expected to be running a school board campaign during a pandemic, when in-person events and canvassing were suddenly impossible. In fact, she never expected to be running for school board at all. But after years of advocating for her kids and other students at Hayward Unified School District board meetings, she decided she wanted to be on the other side of the podium.

The push that finally persuaded Prada to go from activist to candidate came from the Community Leadership Initiative (CLI), an HPN program. “CLI has given me confidence and given me the tools to go out to ask questions, to listen, and then to apply what I’ve learned into advocating for others,” said Prada, who has lived in Hayward for more than a decade. “I’ve realized change needs to come from within the system itself.”

Sara Prada, Community Leadership Initiative participant and recently elected member of the Hayward Unified School District Board of Education. (Photo by Preston Gannaway for the Urban Institute)

“For too long, it’s felt like no one else in power has been looking out for us. Now that’s starting to shift.”

—Sara Prada

Janevette Cole, community resident engagement specialist for HPN, created CLI after hearing from community members that they wanted to learn more about civic institutions and about how to develop their leadership skills. Cole worked with a consultant to develop a six-month course that taught 12 residents how local government systems work, how to develop effective presentations, how to engage with the community to learn about problems that residents face, and how to bring solutions to people in power.

Through the program, Prada and other CLI members launched the Hayward Voice, a community news website, and produced a documentary that features interviews with Black and Latinx Hayward residents. “Our documentary focuses on yes, our community has differences, but what can we do to come together, especially at this time when there are targets on both of our backs?” Prada said. “We need to work as a community to make sure that our future is safe, that our children are safe.”

Sara Prada wheels materials for her school board run through her neighborhood as she campaigns ahead of the November 2020 election. Hayward Promise Neighborhoods’ Community Leadership Initiative helped prepare Prada to make the shift from activist to civic leader. (Photo by Preston Gannaway for the Urban Institute)

Prada and Tami Rossell, another CLI participant, decided to take what they learned and run for the district school board.

“I love being a part of that change and the hope that has inspired others, because now community members feel they have the capacity to share their voice and to impact change in their community,” said Cole, who also serves as a trustee on the Alameda County Board of Education. “That’s the most exciting aspect of this work with HPN: not just providing the resources, but more so providing community members with the encouragement to share their voice and to take action.”

The pandemic made campaigning more difficult. But COVID-19’s disproportionate economic and health impacts on people of color and ongoing police violence against Black people only intensified Prada’s drive to make tangible change for Hayward students and families and ensure their voices are a bigger part of district decisions.

“The pandemic highlighted what we were doing wrong before because it amplified everything,” Prada said. “For too long, it’s felt like no one else in power has been looking out for us. Now that’s starting to shift.”

On November 3, Prada won the election with the most votes of any candidate, and she will soon hold a seat on the district school board.

Sara Prada, her husband, Ricardo Prada, and their three children stand outside their home in Hayward, California. As a school board member, Prada hopes to improve Hayward schools for all kids. (Photo by Preston Gannaway for the Urban Institute)

Giving residents the resources they need to be leaders in the community is a key way HPN is ensuring its work will be sustained for years to come. Promise Neighborhood grants don’t last forever, but the infrastructure they build can have a lasting impact. Some previous program grantees have gone on to use that infrastructure to secure other funding to maintain those critical services and connections for the community.

Promise Neighborhoods have shown that when residents have the tools to continue advocating for what’s best for the future of their community, they can create meaningful and long-term change.

“It all cycles back,” Prada said. “If we pour into the children, they will turn around and pour back into the community that raised them. Who knows how far one child can reach?”