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Place-based strategies address multiple community priorities

7/7/2017

Gail Latimore, Executive Director, Codman Square Neighborhood Development Corporation

Challenge: To address include a lack of green space, limited access to healthy food and a significant number of previously incarcerated men whose past reduced access to employment and kept them disenfranchised from civic life.

A black boy and a black police officer high five over a mural they've painted on a playground

The mission of the Codman Square Neighborhood Development Corporation in Boston is to build a better, stronger community in Codman Square and South Dorchester by creating housing and commercial spaces that are safe, sustainable and affordable. We promote financial and economic stability for residents and for the neighborhood, and provide residents of all ages with opportunities and skills to improve their lives. We partnered with three abutting sister nonprofits to develop a vision for a transit corridor where a commuter rail line crosses several Boston neighborhoods with the highest concentration of low-and moderate-income and people of color in the city.

Our organizations set transit equity goals to transform the last section of the city without access to rapid transit with four new train stations to link local residents with jobs and services. Plans call for villages around the stations to provide green, affordable transit-oriented housing and commercial development as well as a greenway along the rail line to connect neighborhoods and provide opportunities for community stewardship of vacant land that could become green spaces and add to the quality of life for local residents. The vision gave birth to OASIS on Ballou, an urban agriculture and placemaking venture that became a key initiative to address a multitude of community challenges and supported by a group of neighborhood residents known as the Friends of Ballou.

One objective of the comprehensive community planning effort was to engage area residents to identify community assets and challenges and arrive at a "community contract" around key strategies to pursue. Codman Square and local residents developed the idea of a neighborhood meeting place where youth could build skills, residents could share food growing and preparation expertise and children could enjoy green space. The planning process highlighted groups to include, such as formerly incarcerated males who returned to our community and were challenged to integrate into family and community and find meaningful employment.

A mixed group of people paint a sidewalkOASIS, named by residents, stands for Opportunity Affirmation, Sustainability, Innovation and Success. Research by academic institutions helped us understand that, in addition to green space benefits, the site could address food desert conditions prevalent not only in the Woodrow Mountain neighborhood, but in a major part of our service area. OASIS is located in the middle of a "cold spot" where residents lacked access to a full-service supermarket and were disproportionately exposed to venues that made access to unhealthy or expensive foods easier than going to a supermarket.

Green space development, healthy food access, urban agriculture, job training and employment were familiar to our organization but none were part of our toolbox. Without a partner to champion these priorities, we decided to take them on ourselves after neighbor support got us designated as the OASIS developer. Our community organizers recruited local men interested in supporting other men to succeed and created Men of Color/Men of Action.

The pilot year for OASIS, funded by Codman Square, began once permits were issued for our urban agriculture project. Recognizing the challenges facing men of after incarceration, the Friends of Ballou focused the farm's skills building training and employment program on that group. Other partners supported the recruitment and placements of these men, while a partner more experienced in urban farming provided training. Local residents can purchase affordable produce through a regular farm stand staffed by volunteers and at community building events. The produce generated by OASIS is also made available through our local health center.

Three lessons we've learned through the OASIS project include:
  1. The importance of flexibility and shared stewardship with the community to meet pressing needs.
  2. Surrounding ourselves with allies and experts as partners has helped sustain hope when things seemed overwhelming.
  3. We've seen what small victories can do to leverage additional interest and support.

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