Creating Lasting Change through Community Leadership
How Promise Neighborhoods are working with residents to weather crises and transform communities
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 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.
“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.’”
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.”
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.”
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 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.
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.
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)