Gulping an early-morning coffee and listening to the clang of aluminum ladders as my neighbor loaded his truck for the day, an old friend was surprising me with a story about a 37.4 MILLION DOLLAR renovation going on in my backyard. The project is called the Bell Artspace Campus, and it’s converting the Bell School into 79 residence units for “low- to moderate-income artists, cultural workers and their families.
But we weren’t talking scale of the project that morning. We were worrying about why it was so HARD to get artists actually from the Tremé to actually apply for the spaces. To me, the issue circles around some keywords often thrown around in proposals and board rooms, but devilishly difficult to implement:
Yup. It’s a big nut to crack. But upon thinking for a minute, I decided that or me, engaging neighborhood residents in a sustainable way boils down to one thing:
If you can get local residents to feel that a neighborhood development project is 'theirs,' that's a HUGE win, and it's something that I haven't seen much of in New Orleans.
I'll always remember a presentation by a Maori group from New Zealand at a conference. As they said - traditional social interventions (a socially-oriented building renovation being one type of intervention) are done 'on' or 'for' people. Then, Robert Chambers (and many others) popularized the idea of participatory approaches, which attempt to do the evaluation 'with' people. The Maori approach, the so-called developmental approach, is about doing evaluation 'as' the program.
Working as Maori. Working as Tremé.
In New Orleans, I think people simultaneously revel in the cultural diversity of the city and sweep it under the rug. Local musicians are wonderful, but including them as key decisionmakers in a room of funders, builders, and NGO leaders, when many may not have any formal knowledge of neighborhood development, is to watch a clash of cultures. And when that happens, usually, the old social structures are reproduced.
Culture clashes often reproduce old social structures.
Those in traditional leadership roles leave frustrated saying 'well at least we tried,' while those typically marginalized leave frustrated saying 'another example of how they never listen to us.'
So here’s my off-the-cuff list of suggestions for doing social intervention AS New Orleans:
1. Take your time:
Start making contacts early, like years in advance. Sometimes, you will literally have to mentor and capacity build a new core of leaders, because they simply don't exist when you start. Nobody around has the right mix of social standing and leadership skill, so they have to be discovered, encouraged, mentored. Look for the liaisons, the translators, that can shift between worlds with diplomacy. Think about living deep in Tremé and only ever hanging out with your close neighbors - would feel like a different country than if you did the same thing in uptown, no?
2. Don’t Expect Pure Progress:
This could mean physically, in terms of the actual building, but really I mean socially. Don't expect 'the community' will be on board at first. Poverty is an embarrassing, shameful emotional construct to be kept secret (see the ever-famous Voices of the Poor report by the World Bank) as much as an economic status. You will need time to really hear a full spread of opinions articulated, and that means that it will take time for the team of liaisons to churn, find those more hidden pockets of dissent (which turn into your 'last mile' problems). Expect to take almost as many steps back and to the side as forwards.
3. Expert Facilitation:
In-person meetings are key to gaining trust and the facilitator of these experiences is that absolute last place to skimp or cut corners. For something on the scale of the Bell School Artspace, you may need several to relate between more than two cultures. Nobody should expect an Atlanta-raised funder representative, a Boston-raised NGO leader, a Plaquimines-raised builder, and a Tremé-raised musician to be on the same page.
4. Evaluation & Feedback:
Finally - I had to say it - it's key to show everyone that their knowledge and opinions are contributing to substantive changes. This means setting up a system that combines the capacity of the stakeholders with data from further afield to produce inputs for decisionmaking -- exactly what evaluators are trained to do.
I believe seeing these four features baked into New Orleans social interventions, whether non-profit projects, government policies, or for-profit social enterprises, is key to a plural future for New Orleans. A New Orleans built as New Orleanians, not ‘for’ them.