Monday, April 25, 2011

A Community Network, Powered by the People

Recently, we sat down with Bill Traynor to learn more about Lawrence CommunityWorks (LCW), a nonprofit community development corporation working to transform and revitalize the physical, economic, and social landscape of Lawrence, Massachusetts. Through this interview and the others that follow, we hope to lift up community examples that demonstrate our vision of child, family and community well-being by promoting neighborhood strategies like workforce development, asset building, reading success, community development, organizational capacity and resident engagement.

Describe to us, the mission/approach of Lawrence Community Works.
Starting Out: Great communities [exist] when people are pitching in and bringing their best stuff to the table. The environment in Lawrence did not invite people to be productive or hopeful. It did not invite people to engage or give of themselves. When people do not feel valued and people do not feel tolerated, it becomes necessary to change those conditions.  Looking at this environment, we knew we wanted to create an alternative environment where people feel valued and have opportunities to build their own economic strength.

What We Do: All that we do in terms of our programmatic environment, homeownership center, family asset building, and the movement city youth work is about building assets.  At Lawrence CommunityWorks people can be productive in a thousand different ways. We created [physical] spaces that people can come together in. Through neighbor circles, 8-10 families come together 3 times over the course of a month for dinner and conversation. They get to know each other, talk about the neighborhood or the city, and decide as a group if there is something that they can do together to help build community in Lawrence.  This has been very successful because we create spaces where people belong.

The Network: All along, we were looking for a container or a form to organize this idea. We started looking into networks. A network is a loosely affiliated collection of people that are all doing things together and are part of the same path. We consider the network a club for people. If you are working on building your assets or are willing to help other people do the same thing, then this club is for you. You can decide what to do, you can come and go as you please.

It appears, that LCW grew out of community organizing, how did you, Bill, first become involved with community organizing?
I grew up in Lawrence, Massachusetts.  [In the mid-80’s] I started working in the community as an organizer and the organization that I worked for was a statewide group. After my organizing years, I decided to go to graduate school for management. I ran a Community Development Corporation for seven years. Based on that experience, I started a company called Neighborhood Partners, where I worked largely with foundations around issues of resident engagement. I spent eight years doing this foundation work. [Then] I committed 1/3 of my time to spend a year at MIT connecting with a group of students interested in community work. Based on what I had been finding out and the connections that I had made, we developed a community organizing project in the place I grew up, Lawrence. Those three graduate students from MIT that helped me early on still work at Lawrence Community Works today.

The Constituents Co-Invested In Change work at the Center for the Study of Social Policy advances the belief that service, system, policy and community improvements are most effective and sustainable when the people are fully engaged as partners and leaders. How would you explain the term “Co-Investment”? In what ways, is it different from ‘community engagement’ or ‘community empowerment’?
Community engagement is about creating an environment that those people should be a part of instead of thinking about what you yourself would want to be a part of. Co-investment is always a deal, it’s always a give and get, it’s never one way. We want to make sure that the give and get is always present. The other part of co-investment is that we don’t succeed if everyone isn’t giving their best stuff. As the President, I raise money, I make sure I don’t consolidate power. Every member has to bring their best stuff. We net value when we co-invest. It can’t be me sacrificing myself, it’s me having a value in doing this work.

A healthy network has to have a lot of co-investment opportunities. It has to be that I can come in and I get very involved. The trap [is thinking] that there is nowhere else for me to go and I have to commit my life to this thing. Most people are not going to want to do that.  We don’t want people to do that. I want it to be cool for you to take a break. There are so many ways for people to be engaged. You have to do what’s best for you.  

In light of the current recession, what was the most difficult financial decision you’ve had to make?
We have had to have modest layoffs or furloughs. We also haven’t given our staff raises in a couple years. We have had some pain along those lines because we have had to sacrifice some of our ability to be innovative and creative. It has been compromised in part because we have to work too hard to support our programs through fundraising. What really suffers is this sense of we can dream up the next thing and make it happen. I worry that we work hard to maintain that spirit.

How do you use data to drive your community work?
Not enough. We use program data that we generate for different funders and we have some network data that we’re trying to use to figure out whose involved and how they’re involved. Increasingly we’re using community data to inform the network. For example, we’re taking the idea of family asset building to create a campaign called Lawrence Saves. (Lawrence Saves is LCW’s financial literacy effort that has helped hundreds of Lawrence families learn how to manage money and make investments in new homes, businesses and education in Lawrence.)We consider it a good example of us being more focused on how we use data to drive thinking and campaign formation.

What advice would you give to other communities that want to adopt an LCW approach/model? 
Learn from doing and don’t sit around and think about it. It’s experimental and innovative and we make it up as we go along. One of the dynamics that I confront when I’m out and helping communities is that they want to think through all the way to the end. My advice is that if you can find five people that are willing to do a neighbor circle, then you’ll learn so much. From early on we said, let’s just start. Start with what we know. We have to create room where people are having fun. It didn’t matter whether it was a sewing club or a savings club. As long as people feel connected to each other and want to come back, then we’re on the right track.

Where do you see LCW in the next 5 to 10 years?
I hope we’re going to have a lot more members and a lot more campaigns like Lawrence Saves. We’re trying to get beyond our programmatic foundation to develop more of a network through other organizations and institutions in order to increase our influence without increasing our size.

Today, Lawrence CommunityWorks has a membership of thousands of Lawrence families and has generated over $25 million in new neighborhood investment, including 60 units of affordable housing on 15 abandoned and vacant parcels, a new community center, two new playgrounds and a range of family asset building and youth development efforts. Most important, Lawrence CommunityWorks has become one of the major forces for equitable development and economic justice in Lawrence, and one of the most dynamic and effective Community Development Corporations in Massachusetts.

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