Blue Meridian invests $8 million in a new initiative being led by ONE Neighborhood Builders in Central Providence
In explaining the strategy behind the campaign, Susan Orban, coordinator of the Healthy Bodies, Health Minds, which responsible for the initiative, said: “We have a double whammy. Middle-aged and older white men are the region’s most likely demographic to die by suicide.,” she said. “Their age group also leads in substance abuse – especially alcohol – which accounted for more than half the deaths caused in auto accidents in the County.” She added: “Men are the least likely to seek care. We need to break through that reluctance, whatever the reason, and quickly.”
PROVIDENCE – On Sunday afternoon, Dec. 6, a small caravan of vehicles wove its way through the streets of Olneyville, celebrating the new free community Wi-Fi network going live.
The wire mesh Wi-Fi network, built out by ONE Neighborhood Builders in collaboration with numerous community and corporate partners, has solved a critical unmet need in the community made more dire by the COVID-19 pandemic: connecting two-thirds of all households in Olneyville to the Internet so residents can access telehealth, virtual public education, online commerce, and job opportunities. [See link below to ConvergenceRI story, “Healing the digital divide.”]
The new Wi-Fi network going live, however, was the second biggest story involving in the community building efforts led by ONE Neighborhood Builders, a community development corporation that serves as the backbone agency for the Central Providence Health Equity Zone.
On Wednesday, Dec. 2, ONE Neighborhood Builders received a two-year, $8 million investment from Blue Meridian Partners, to support ONE Neighborhood Builders place-based investments in the community to address health disparities through systems change.
As Jennifer Hawkins, the executive director of ONE Neighborhood Builders, described the new initiative in a tweet, “This place-based partnership pulls together ONE Neighborhood Builders as the community backbone, the Central Providence Health Equity Zone as project partners, Gov. Raimondo and state agencies to provide resources and policy expertise, and the Rhode Island Foundation as fiscal steward and thought partner,” with Blue Meridian Partners as a national funder. Quite the undertaking.
The new pilot program, known as the Central Providence Opportunities Initiative, is targeted to serve the neighborhoods of Olneyville, Hartford, Manton, Silver Lake, Valley, Federal Hill, Smith Hill, Elmhurst and Mount Pleasant, areas that have been hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic in Rhode Island. [On the day that the new investment was announced, the ZIP code 02909 had the second-most cases of COVID-19 per capita since the start of the pandemic; the ZIP code 02908 was ranked fourth.]
Transforming life trajectories
Blue Meridian Partners is “a pioneering philanthropic model for finding and funding scalable solutions to the problems that limit economic mobility and trap America’s young people and families in poverty,” according to its website.
“We know solutions exist, but even the most promising strategies cannot reach far enough, fast enough, without significant resources,” the website continued. “We partner with philanthropists and social sector leaders to target drivers of poverty from cradle to career.”
Blue Meridian says it operates with “an investor mindet” but that it measures success in terms of “social impact rather than financial return.” Core to its mission is the ability to address “systemic racial inequities and the injustices they create.”
The two-year pilot program fits in with Blue Meridian’s overarching goal, seeking “to scale the most promising solutions in order to change the life trajectories of millions of young people and families now and create better opportunities for generations to come.”
As part of the $8 million investment by Blue Meridian, $1 million has been targeted to work with existing Health Equity Zones in Rhode Island to support their ability to scale up the work being undertaken by ONE Neighborhood Builders.
The new pilot program, Central Providence Opportunities Initiative, demands that we begin to change our perception of neighbors as being more than a collection of buildings or areas separated by highways, but as living, breathing, changing life forms, where residents and businesses and agencies can work together to reshape the boundaries.
Ferris Jabr, in a recent story for The New York Times Magazine, entitled “The Social Life of Forests, wrote about how the emerging understanding of trees as social creatures demands changes to forestry. In a tweet talking about his story, Jabr wrote: “Underground, vast webs of symbiotic fungi link essentially every tree in the forest, even those of different species. Trees exchange carbon, water nutrients, and chemical messages through these networks, ultimately helping others survive, especially in times of stress and sickness.”
The same is true of neighborhoods – and the need to see them as networks of people and families, helping others to survive, especially in times of stress and sickness. What ONE Neighborhood Builders has excelled at under the leadership of Jennifer Hawkins is the willingness to build collaborative partnerships, to engage with and listen to residents and respond to their needs, and, perhaps most importantly, to focus on “upstream” solutions, building innovative solutions from the bottom-up.
Here is the ConvergenceRI interview with Jennifer Hawkins, following the announcement of the $8 million investment from Blue Meridian Partners, talking about how she plans to create the framework for the new initiative.
ConvergenceRI: Every time I report on the work of ONE Neighborhood Builders, you keep doing bigger and better things.
HAWKINS: [laughter] I know. It has definitely been a year of expansion and growth, that’s for sure.
ConvergenceRI: How did this new grant come about? It’s huge? An $8 million grant going to ONE Neighborhood Builders?
HAWKINS: The state of Rhode Island was introduced to Blue Meridian Partners, and Blue Meridian Partners is very interested in economic mobility and making investments in place [in order] to realize economic mobility.
I think that the Governor’s office recognized that Central Providence was an ideal first location for this work, because of our Health Equity Zone, and because of the capacity and track record of ONE Neighborhood Builders as the backbone agency, and our collection of committed community partners.
And, we are among the areas hardest hit in the state by COVID – the fact that the economic impact is really going to track with the health impacts. You can recognize that it is going to be tough for these ZIP codes, and [the impact] that concentrated resources and attention on Central Providence would realize as part of this investment.
ConvergenceRI: All the $8 million is going to ONE Neighborhood Builders, as I understand it, from Blue Meridian Partners. As part of that, $1 million of that will be going to help build sustainable investments in Health Equity Zones across the state. The rest of the money will be going to you, to manage to and bulk up on the work that you are already doing. Is that accurate?
HAWKINS: That is not particularly accurate.
ConvergenceRI: What is accurate?
HAWKINS: It is true that $1 million will begoing to support the scaling of this work, and supporting other Health Equity Zones to replicate and scale this work and to build their capacity to do so.
The other $7 million will be invested in Central Providence. It is a new initiative. I can’t tell you what the budget is, or what the list of stuff to do is. I don’t know that.
Mainly because there are work groups that we are establishing around each of the issue areas – those being affordable housing, business development, early childhood education, and then, the fourth group, will focus on [building economic] on ramps to in-reach careers.
Those work groups are going to be working with ONE Neighborhood Builders and the Governor’s Office and the Rhode Island Foundation to identify “upstream” strategies. So, systems and policy changes and initiatives that can really have a direct impact.
So, it’s not like ONE Neighborhood Builders is getting $8 million. That’s not true. We are convening this work. And, working with residents, community partners, and the state to identify the right initiatives.
ConvergenceRI: Is this work going to be coordinated with the Governor’s office? With CommerceRI? With the Department of Health? Or, all of the above?
HAWKINS: With the Governor’s Office and her Cabinet – the whole of government.
ConvergenceRI: When you talk about upstream strategies, what do you mean?
HAWKINS: I think that the development of affordable housing is something that you are not just helping one individual in an emergency housing solution. You are taking, in many respects, vacant and abandoned properties and lots and turning them into community assets that can serve many low-income families.
It has this kind of ripple effect of not just helping one individual but really stabilizing a street, helping to bring community assets to a neighborhood and helping many individuals have safe, affordable housing.
For me, that is an example of an upstream intervention. Because we all know that if you have safe, affordable housing that is not cost-burdened, you can realize a slew of other important health outcomes.
That is the intent behind business development and on-ramps to living wage jobs and early education – to identify interventions that are not just going to help one child, or one person, but have enduring impacts.
I am not going to pretend that I have every single one of those answers laid out, right. And, our job is not to come up with every single answer. It is to convene the right partners and the right processes to come up with that.
ConvergenceRI: You had put in a bid to development land outside of Central Providence for a parcel that is part of the 195 land, which not only included affordable housing but also a childcare center, an early education center. Has that been rejected fully? Was someone else’s bid accepted? Is that the type of development that could be located somewhere else?
HAWKINS: It was [rejected]; we were not chosen as the designated developer. Penrose was chosen as the designated developer for that parcel.
We were disappointed, but onward and upward. The concept of affordable housing co-located with childcare is definitely something that we are committed to doing. We just need to find another location to do it. I think it would be fantastic for us to do that in Central Providence.
ConvergenceRI: In my reporting, I often seek to distinguish between what I call, top-down innovation, as distinguished from what I call bottom-up innovation, which is driven by community needs.
One of the best examples of that has been your work on building the mesh Wi-FI system, basically, that cuts across many of the unmet needs as a result of the pandemic – you are connecting residents to health care, to education, to jobs, to potential ramping up to different careers. The solution was built around the importance of listening to what the community needs were, and then designing the solutions around those needs.
HAWKINS: That is core to our work. That’s how we distinguish ourselves as a community development organization, that we have a variety of processes to find the priorities for neighborhood residents and community stakeholders.
There are the traditional mechanisms of focus groups and surveys and one-on-one conversations, etc., that is what we’ve done for more than a decade.
Our work over on King Street Commons and Sheridan Small Homes, the work that we did at D’Abate School and the park, all of that came from the community saying to us what the priorities were.[They told us]: “Reopen King Street. This is crazy that it is shut, because of the dumping and the crime.”
They wanted to have the D’Abate Elementary School kids have recess. [They told us]: “It’s crazy that the park is so much of a nuisance that our kids can’t go out and have recess.”
We worked with the state to redevelop the park and the housing all around the school.
All of that came from the community identifying the priorities and working really hard to get resources together to address it. This is the same format that is going to work here [with the Blue Meridian investment], it’s just a larger area and more money – and more people to listen to and ask questions of. But the same theory applies.
ConvergenceRI: In terms of data collection, that is one of the more interesting things that you’ve done, in my opinion. You have prioritized data collection, in terms of how you create a longitudinal catalogue of people’s needs. Can you talk about that?
HAWKINS: I have mentioned earlier the surveys that we do, and the focus groups. Now, we have done hundreds of social determinants of health screenings with our interactions with residents, to develop a COVID response.
Those screenings also identify what the impediments are, from a personal and individual basis, to being healthy. We have all these social determinants of health screenings datapoints, we certainly try to lead with that [information]. We also are looking at national data, looking at what are the best practices and what are other cities doing, and what can we do here.
ConvergenceRI: Has anyone approached you about the potential to integrate that data, so that it can inform other initiatives? Has anyone reached out to you and said: “Hey, can we have a look at your data?” because we’re doing a similar project.
ConvergenceRI: How has this work helped to develop strategic relationships with other agencies and clinics in the neighborhoods? Do you cooperate and share strategies?
HAWKINS: Everyone just really cares about the outcomes. They care about being able to have purpose in their professional life. Knowing that the work they are doing is contributing to improvement for these neighborhoods and the people who live there.
I think that if you focus on that: this is why we do what we do; you can show some impact, and people really want to be part of that party. People want to get behind things that are working.
What we’ve done in Olneyville, and expanding that into more neighborhoods, we all can pull together and share resources, I do believe that it’s all about “collective impact.” It’s kind of jargon-y, but that’s the way it works.
ConverenceRI: What haven’t I asked, should I have asked that you want to talk about?
HAWKINS: ONE Neighborhood Builders, we are humbled to have been selected to lead and to convene this initiative. I think it really is a statement about how important community development is; and that community development corporations are really important institutions that need to be supported in the state.