Tuesday, July 29, 2008

How-to: Mapping for community development

In the community development biz, there are always opportunities to use maps that help illustrate or support your work, whether to show the locations of developments or where your office or programs are.

In the olden days, that meant spending big bucks to have a designer draw a custom map for you.

No more. As Southwest Organizing Project's David McDowell showed us a few weeks ago, with his gut-punch representation of foreclosures in his neighborhood, a map that is loaded with useful information can be created on your own computer and used in print, e-newsletters and online.

How'd he do it? He told me about Microsoft Streets and Trips, a $40 Windows application that includes attractive and detailed maps of your city and neighborhoods.

It's not a five-minute job to create a custom map like he did (right), but by using the help menu and futzing around with the various options, you can make something that is nice looking and informative. David imported an Excel file that included the addresses of each foreclosed home, created an outline of the ZIP code area, and then chose a suitable "pushpin" (red circles) to represent each address. The program also imports Access and Outlook files, along with .txt, .csv (comma-separated value), .tab and .acs formats. "We were looking for a way to show leaders in the neighborhood the impact of the foreclosure problem in a visual way," said David.

Then there's Google or Yahoo Maps. They can be built into web sites to automatically generate maps when you insert an address into a data field, as in the directories of the Grassroots web sites that Webitects built for the New Communities Program (see example at top of post).

If you know someone who messes with html code, Google and Yahoo maps can be customized using something called API (I don't know what that means, but it's powerful). Beyond that, there are "mash-ups" that combine maps with other data, automatically, to display information.

Sure, there's work involved. But with these inexpensive tools at our disposal, it's in our interest to learn how to use them.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Needed for youth writers: Used laptop, camera

I talked to Chicago writer Richard Muhammad this morning and he is excited about the work of the half-dozen young people he is mentoring in the Youth Speak South Shore media literacy program (see post below). They're working across a range of media from TV and radio to print and the web. He's already impressed with the talent and enthusiasm of the students – "and we're just getting started," he says.

Okay, here's the pitch. Richard says some of the participants don't have day-to-day access to computers and that there's a lot of interest in photography and video -- but no equipment to feed that interest.

So if you've recently upgraded from your old laptop or digital or video camera, and would be willing to donate it (rather than have it become obsolete sitting in your closet), Richard could immediately put it into the hands of a young person interested in communications and media. Related software would be a plus. If you want a tax-deduction letter, Richard can probably arrange it through his fiscal agent, Metropolitan Area Group to Ignite Civilization.

Got something? Know someone who does? Drop Richard a line at straightwords4@yahoo.com

Friday, July 25, 2008

Youth speak out in South Shore

Two regular themes on this blog are the need for effective youth programming and the benefits of creating communication vehicles that give voice to neighborhood viewpoints.

Richard Muhammad has combined the two in Youth Speak South Shore, a media literacy and writing program that seeks to "heighten the understanding of youth regarding consumption of media, provide youth with tools to examine media and the skills to create alternatives. In particular, the program focuses on issues of race and the portrayal of Blacks and how these images and caricatures of Blacks persist."

The first blog entry, by 19-year-old Stephen Gardner, takes a critical look at the CNN series Black in America, in which the television crew filmed a Houston dropout-prevention group as it encouraged a young boy, at his home, to go back to school. Gardner writes:

"Now readers please ask yourself this question – how would you react if complete strangers showed up at your house in the afternoon, bombarding you with pleas to return to your job? Under the gaze of television cameras and reporters that just so happened to be there as well?"

It's a provocative piece and a promising debut for new writers in South Shore. Read the full entry at youthspeaksouthshore.blogspot.com

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Growing Home's Satisfied Customer

When I moved to Back of the Yards from the North Side four years ago, one of the things I thought I would miss the most was biking home with my weekly summer box of veggies from a CSA (community supported agriculture) share.

Not any more. The photo above shows you what was inside the box I biked home with today. Growing Home's urban farm at 58th and Wood is the pickup point for their CSA share program, and it's an easy bike ride from my house. A few weeks ago, I walked over with three or four of my young neighbors, who got a complete tour from Tyra Rodgers, who manages the site. They learned how hoop houses control temperature so you can grow cold-tolerant vegetables through most of even a Chicago winter, how soaker hoses work and how you can keep a garden healthy without pesticide and artificial fertilizer, among other things.

Today, they couldn't come with, but I got to hear from Tyra how the entire Growing Home staff went to visit Charlie Trotter's and see what he does with the vegetables they grow. They got a full kitchen tour and the opportunity to sample a seven-course meal. "It was really, really amazing," he said. "A once in a lifetime experience." Before the event he was reluctant to go because he's a t-shirt and jeans kind of guy and this event required a coat and tie. But afterwards, "it was worth it." Now he's hoping the staff at Trotter's will come down to the farm so he can give them a tour, too.

Tyra also told me he's been making good friends with the neighbors whose houses surround the farm. One gentleman, who let them use his hose before they had their own water supply, is a fellow gardener with a back lot full of watermelon, greens and other goodies. His grandchildren got to pick a few tomatoes and cucumbers as a thank you for the early support.

When I got home with my box one of the girls who came last time and two of her friends all wanted to see what was inside. "Carrots!" one exclaimed joyfully. Plus, the first tomatoes of the season, small plum tomatoes we all plopped into our mouths right away. Beets, too, which these little guys and gals like. Earlier this season I went up and down the block making people try asparagus in lemon butter with a little salt. There was a two-year-old who kept coming back for more.

Today, as we were snacking on tomatoes and carrots, one of my older neighbors went by and looked over with interest. When I explained how a share works--pay up front and get veggies all summer--and how two or more people could go in on a box together to make it easier to front the cash, she looked interested. This summer I'm splitting a share with a friend out by Midway airport, but maybe next year four or five of us could split a share here on the block.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

East Side Needs Resources

We're doing social media and communications training today on the East Side at the Knowledge Hookup. Been a long day with a lot of learning and plenty of hands-on--including creation of a couple of new blogs

Monday, July 21, 2008

Low-barrier entry points for web visibility

We had a lot of good discussion at the LISC Learning Forum in Detroit last week about how to raise the web visibility of your community or organization. Carlos Nelson of Greater Auburn-Gresham Development Corporation showed off his group's website, at gagdc.org, and participants were wowed by the regular news updates, the generous use of photos, the business directory with its extended listings, and the traffic that all this information has attracted: more than 1,500 visits per month. This is for a community that four years ago had virtually no web presence whatsoever and was "Chicago's Best Kept Secret."

A dynamic, often-updated web site is great, but what if you don't have the time or money to put one together, or want to dip into the web with something less elaborate, to gain some experience? Good idea.

Turns out there are quite a few easy entry points on the web that let you get into the game without spending months gnashing your teeth and formulating a "web strategy." Using these tools, you can just start, and see where it takes you.

1. Blogs. These things are absolutely free and they're tracked closely by the search engines (Google owns Blogger/blogspot) so if you start one and begin posting about what's going on, you've got an instant web presence. A blog is limited to a linear, chronological presentation of your information – it doesn't allow different sections or offer calendars – but you can put up news items, little slide shows, video (via YouTube) and photos, so it's a solid place to start. The blog for Milwaukee's Harambee neighborhood is updated several times a month (usually by LISC/Milwaukee's Kathryn Berger) with useful information for both residents and outsiders. Plenty of full-blown web sites don't do nearly as well.

2. YouTube. Don't laugh. Someone in your neighborhood or city is already shooting videos and some of them, with a bit of editing or some conversation ahead of time, could be just right for documenting a community event or activity. Put some creative young people on the job and you might be surprised at the quality. Here's an example put together by the Violence Prevention Collaborative in Chicago's Little Village, combining music, locally produced artwork and a very real discussion about gangs and police. Notice how the YouTube video is "embedded" in the web site? That's easy to do on most blogs and web sites; once uploaded to YouTube, you can copy the "embed code" into your web site and the video shows up, just like magic. Of course you can email out the link, also. Cost? Free.

3. Photo sharing. You've already got the photos, probably, sitting on your hard drives or on a CD, but no one can see them. If you set up a photo sharing site at Flickr, Picasa or PhotoBucket, you can upload collections of photos so that the neighbors or corporate partners can see themselves and the results of their work. The learning curve here is minor, a few hours to get the account set up and your first photo sets uploaded and organized. After that, you can make it a routine to upload a dozen or three dozen photos after big events, and then send an e-mail out with the link. We started a Flickr page a few months ago at LISC/Chicago to show photos from the Getting It Done conference and are spreading it to other uses. Cost? $25 per year for a pro account that allows virtually unlimited sets and photos.

4. E-newsletters. This I haven't done myself but several Chicago lead agencies or partners did a three-part training with Community Media Workshop and a few weeks later I started receiving their email blasts, via Constant Contact or Vertical Response. Those companies make it pretty easy to get started with templates (and free trial periods) and they'll even manage your mailing lists for you, all for modest costs based on the size of your distribution. Once you've got an e-newsletter, you can point people to your photo sites, videos and blog. And your web site, too, but since that's a larger undertaking, we'll leave that for a future post.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

In the presence of genius: Grace Lee Boggs

I hang out with a lot of very smart people but tonight was different. Tonight I was in the presence of genius.

After spending the day with other community development practitioners at a LISC Learning Forum in Detroit, including a tour and workshop in the Morningside and East English Village neighborhoods, we were treated to a remarkable dinner presentation by 93-year-old civic activist Grace Lee Boggs.

She surprised us over and over again. First, this daughter of Chinese immigrants with a Ph.D. in philosophy, who later married African-American labor activist James Boggs, well, first she introduced an 11-minute rap video by the Detroit artist Invincible, a young woman whose words burn deeply as she spits them out against a backdrop of apocalyptic post-industrial Detroit. "Selective memory, convenient amnesia," she chants, and a whole lot more.

The video features a few snippets of interview with Grace Lee Boggs and other activists, but is really about youth and how, in Boggs' words, "their need to be useful can be the foundation for life in the 21st Century." I've pasted the video, directed by Joe Namy, at the end of this post, in two parts.

I can't do justice to what came next. Ms. Boggs spoke to us, in a quiet but forceful voice, about the whole sordid history of America's industrial cities, tracing the fall of the auto industry, the construction of highways that helped cut in half the city's population, and after years of economic decline for working-class African American residents, the "young people harassed by police who they thought of as an occupying army," after all that came the five days of explosive rebellion in July of 1967 that marked the beginning of a whole new era for Detroit, an era of decline that is starkly illustrated in the Invincible video and that we saw for ourselves on our bus tour this afternoon.

From all this, Boggs sees a bright future. In 1992, Boggs and her husband founded something called Detroit Summer, which used gardening, of all things, to bring older residents together with youth, and which taught those young people, "who thought everything was instantaneous, a sense of process." The same movement spawned a youth bicycle-fixing operation, Back Alley Bikes, the Avalon Bakery that set up shop in the wreckage of the Cass Corridor, and the Earthworks urban farm created by a Capuchin monk to grow food for a soup kitchen and a home for teenaged mothers.

Detroit is among a handful of cities, including Milwaukee, New York and Chicago, that have begun converting their vast acreages of vacant land into productive agricultural space. Was it a coincidence that three groups out of eight at the afternoon workshops suggested "green" development of Detroit's east side expanses, or were we seeing the same thing that Boggs and the seniors and youth saw: the promise of Detroit's next phase? "The whole concept of reconnecting to the earth has such magic to it," she said, especially in the face of today's "energy crisis and planetary crisis."

Referring to the gardening work and the rap video, Boggs said, "we have a model and inspiration for young people across the country." For sure, yes, but the inspiration for me was Grace Lee Boggs herself, a brilliant woman who left us, tonight, with a mandate to carry her work forward.

The video, titled Locusts, part one:

Part two of the video:

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

New website aims to connect community revitalization practitioners

What if you had 26,000 community revitalization practitioners in the same room? Organizers, developers, funders, policy people. Who would you want to talk to first?

That's the premise behind a new "social networking site" being developed by Webitects in Chicago to let people who are working to improve communities find each other and share knowledge. There is a lot of interesting work being done, but many groups are not aware of what other like-minded organizations are doing. CommunityCollab is striving to remedy that.


The official public release is scheduled for January 1, 2009, but you can sign up now to be an early participant. The first beta release is expected in late July. (About 260 people from organizations around the country who attended the NCP "Getting It Done" conference in March have signed up so far. The poster above is a tag cloud of attendee cities from that conference.)

CommunityCollab is funded by the MacArthur Foundation and LISC.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Coverage of neighborhood news? Not so bad

Trainee Larry Smith leads a tour at Growing Home's open house on June 28. Photo by Patrick Barry.

Was a time, when I was a boy delivering the afternoon daily Chicago American, that our fair city had four big daily newspapers and half a dozen smaller ones covering ethnic groups and suburban regions. On top of that were dozens of weeklies covering the neighborhoods, or in the case of the Lerner papers, twice weekly. So it's no wonder that today's lament about weak coverage of the neighborhoods is so often heard.

But wait. From what I've been seeing lately, the growth of new-media outlets is changing the game, and since they can be updated often at much lower cost than print vehicles, we might even be seeing more news than before. Some of the grist comes from community groups, some from journalism students, but even the old media are in on the act.

All that's by way of prelude to this little roundup:

At Chicago Talks, Columbia College journalism student Brian Patrick Roach tells how students on the Southeast Side interviewed retired steelworkers to capture their stories from the mills. On the same site, Bryce Wolfe provides an update on the Bloomingdale Trail, which when built will provide a three-mile elevated bike and pedestrian path bisecting the Humboldt Park and Logan Square neighborhoods. Land is being acquired alongside the trail to provide mini-parks and access ramps.

At a new site called windycitizen.com, formerly the Chicago Methods Reporter put out by students at Medill, there's an in-depth piece by Elizabeth Riley featuring the defense of a certain block in Auburn Gresham. Riley has done a few stories down there, according to local host Ernie Sanders, carving out something like a beat.

Not bad, but stick with me. At Greater Auburn-Gresham Development Corporation's site, you can learn how three South Side restaurants, BJ's Market, Lagniappe and Soul Vegetarian, made out at the Taste of Chicago. You'll get hungry just reading the story. Go east to the NCP Woodlawn site and find out about a planned health fair and kidney screening, "another example of how a small but determined group leverages relationships to promote health education and provide access to health services."

While the new media are definitely adding depth to our reading choices, the old is still in the game. This morning's Tribune had a good piece about how Oji Eggleston and Earnest Gates organized a basketball league at Crane High School, offering mentoring alongside ball-handling tips.

And in today's Crain's Chicago Business? There's a short piece on Growing Home's executive director Harry Rhodes. That's the group that runs the Wood Street Urban Farm in Englewood, which is adding two more mini-farms nearby and constructing a small building for training, office space and a produce stand.

In my book, that's a pretty solid list of stories about action in the neighborhoods.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

'En Movimiento': Neighborhoods get active

We've given some attention here to the basketball leagues and boxing gym that provide safe, positive hangout time for kids in the neighborhoods, but there's something bigger going on that involves adults as well: an emphasis on exercise and healthy lifestyles that includes walking, biking, even martial arts.

There's good reason, of course. Studies by the Sinai Urban Health Institute and others show that low-income and minority neighborhoods are particularly hard hit by obesity, asthma, diabetes and heart disease. Local residents and organizations are responding with a variety of programs. Here's a sampling:

  • Humboldt Park In Motion (download poster here) will combine tai chi, basketball, bike riding, steel drum music and something called muévete ("move yourself") from noon to 4 p.m. on July 20 and August 10 at Humboldt Park, sponsored by the Greater Humboldt Park Community of Wellness.
  • The "WalkForce" in East Garfield Park gets together on Mondays through Wednesdays for healthy walking, with a goal of simulating a walk all the way to the New York Botanical Garden. A personal trainer is available for consultation on Thursdays. Learn more from Rishona Taylor at the Garfield Park Conservatory Alliance, 773-638-1766, x17.
  • Students at Reavis School in Bronzeville are participating in the vigorous practice of capoeira, a form of martial arts and dance that incorporates some history along with fitness training. It's part of Reavis's Integrated Services in Schools (ISS) summer program; read Richard Muhammad's story here. Photo below by Eric Young Smith.
  • Another ISS school, Marquette Elementary in Chicago Lawn, has partnered up with Healthy Chicago Lawn and Girls in the Game for exercise programs and has even gotten some moms involved.
There's more out there, including bike programs and walking clubs that I'd like to learn more about. Please provide stories of your own in the comments below.

Be honest. Do you love your website?

Do you love your website? That was the question asked of community development practitioners at a recent panel discussion at the 2008 Making Media Connections conference, sponsored by the Community Media Workshop.

Most of us would probably answer with a spectrum of colorful responses, but the session featured four non-profit and public-sector professionals who can mostly answer with a firm "yes." They told listeners how they reached that point, and reporter Ed Finkel tells the story on the New Communities Program web site.