Thursday, February 28, 2008

March Madness of the community kind

Almost four years ago, I bought a house in the Back of the Yards/Garfield Boulevard area with the help of Neighborhood Housing Services of Chicago. Partly in gratitude, partly to make new friends in my new neighborhood, I joined their local advisory board.

Tonight's board meeting was one of the best I've been to in a long time. Though home sales are in a slump, our numbers are better this year than they were last year, largely because we were without a local director in the office. I'd like to give a big shout-out to our new neighborhood director, Emilio Carrasquillo, for his tireless dedication and visible presence in the neighborhood. It's his drive and persistence that have brought in homebuyers and increasing numbers of homeowners looking to avoid foreclosure.

Our board is also regaining energy. Before I arrived, NHS was a strong presence at local CAPS meetings. Staff and board members had worked hard and successfully to reduce crime and get problem buildings out of the hands of criminals, turning them into newly rehabbed, owner-occupied homes. Their work made news, including this story from December 2003. But everything has a life cycle, and the NHS-CAPS relationship withered a bit in later years, with changing staff and board members.

When I joined the board, I was told one of my responsibilities was to attend my local beat meeting. Frankly, I was willing, but not too excited about it. First, I know schools and kids a lot better than I know beats and cops, and my years teaching alternative high school have left me with some concern that "fighting crime" can all too easily turn into locking up our kids, not helping them grow. But I made a promise to go and have tried to keep it.

Our local beat meeting has struggled, too--there was also a leadership void there, and we're still working on having the district formally recognize the new local leadership. City cuts in CAPS community liaisons have also really hurt the grassroots organizing that gets people to the meeting.

But at tonight's NHS meeting, people were ready to get up and try again. So we've created our own form of "March Madness"--next month, all seven or so of us will go to each other's beat meetings to see what we can learn from each other. There are three of us in the same beat who are going to work together to make sure we have our end of the meeting organized--agendas, recruitment. Then, we'll put pressure on our district to start sending us the same officers more consistently, giving us better updates on responses to our tips and requests from one meeting to the next. Another board member is planning to revive his local block club; we've got his back, and maybe watching him will help some of the rest of us (like me) see what we can do on our own blocks.

To top it all off, Emilio and at least one, maybe even two of my fellow board members will be joining me at the NCP Getting It Done Conference on March 26 and 27.

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