Together, Building Blocks and neighborhood residents bring about change

From a classroom at Kalamazoo College grew a program that makes Kalamazoo’s neighborhoods safer, spruced up places where neighbors work together to make them that way.

Building Blocks got its beginning in 1995 in a sociology course taught by Dr. Kim Cummings. He wanted to provide community organizing experience for students while also supporting the efforts of neighborhood associations in the city’s low to moderate-income neighborhoods.

From two pilot projects that first year--in the Eastside and Vine neighborhoods--the program grew over the next five years years to 11 sites, located in seven neighborhoods, staffed by 30 student organizers. Students worked for 12 weeks with a group of typically eight to 12 residents on work that was important to the people living in the area. A neighborhood would be chosen, students would knock on doors to invite people to participate and find out what projects might be pursued. 

Building Blocks Executive Director Carrie Drake says that as students went through the neighborhood they would tell residents, “‘Hey, we've got a pool of money. Right now it's about $4,500 dollars, and if you participate, you have access to this fund to complete small-scale home improvement projects.’”

The projects had to be visible from the street or exterior home improvement projects. Before beginning the work, residents were expected to go to at least two planning meetings. “One of the most important meetings was the budget meeting,” Drake says, “where they sort of democratically allocated the funds to each other. And they approved each other's projects. It was very much a collective effort.”

For the most part, this process is still used today by Building Blocks. The program moved out of the academic setting when Cummings retired from Kalamazoo College. It briefly was picked up by Western Michigan University, but ultimately the decision was made for Building Blocks to take the lessons that had been learned when the program was part of a class and build on them in the neighborhoods. After assessing the future of the organization and the work it hoped to accomplish, the decision was made to staff the organization and Drake was hired in 2014.

What does Building Blocks build?

With a name like Building Blocks, many people believe the mission is construction work, but the physical work that gets done is really the means to facilitate bonds between neighbors, to create and strengthen relationships, says  Drake. Building Blocks is about building relationships, resident leadership, and community, especially in areas where people may be underrepresented.

“Building Blocks is focused on building community from a relationship standpoint and engaging residents in the health and the future of their community,” Drake says. “We've often been asked how are we different from Habitat for Humanity or Community Homeworks, and they're building shelter and they also have components of community building, but they're different. Our emphasis is different.”

Carrie Drake, Executive Director of Building BlocksIn the past 22 years, the program has led to more than 1,600 households in the city’s low- and low-to-moderate income neighborhoods upgrading their homes when few other discretionary funds were available. And Building Blocks has helped to strengthen community ties in 134 street-level target sites.

What happened was as the students’ roles in the program declined the role of residents grew. “It’s been a nice evolution,” Drake says. “What we see is change would start with that individual in the neighborhood, and slowly, orientations of individuals shift a little bit as they work collectively on their street and then to their community. We see more civic engagement and civically-engaged people, especially, from areas where there's a lack of representation in the different power and decision making structures, and systems, and towns.”

Two programs emerged: the Catalyst Program, which uses a short-term, 12-week approach, similar to that developed in the early days of Building Blocks, and the Sustain Program, a long-term commitment to a neighborhood by the residents and Building Blocks. 

There also are Block Action Groups, neighborhood groups that form and decide they want to continue working on an ongoing basis. Block Action Groups got their start in 2011. It grew from an initiative created by a number of community development organizations who worked together on what became known as the Vine Collective in the Vine neighborhood. 

Each of the community development organizations agreed to work on their area of expertise. Neighborhood Housing Services, the Kalamazoo County Land Bank, Collective Housing, Community Homeworks and Building Blocks were some of those involved. 

“On Wall Street, for example, in 2011, they established this site, sort of with this mandate from the collective saying we should be in this area. And then year after year, after year, Kim (Cummings) was a facilitator for this group. He asked ‘What is your vision? How can we leverage resources?’”

On Wall Street, unique street lamps went up, and all of the residents got to choose the stained glass color that went in their street lamps. A community garden on the corner of Wall Street and South Rose went in. There’s a butterfly way station and all native plantings. One of the families who continue to be Building Blocks champions became stewards of the garden plot.

Drake says before Building Blocks came in to the area, the couple who would become neighborhood stewards were trying to figure out how they could sell their house because there was crime and many vacant and blighted homes nearby. 

“There just didn't seem like there was much hope for improvement. Building Blocks came in and the group on Wall Street came together, did their fix-up project, and continued to work with each other on particular issues. You saw blighted houses come down that had been vacant and condemned. You saw homeowners come in. You saw a change of tenants happen because some tenants had negative behaviors, and landlords were listening to that concern and responsive to that. You saw many more people caring for their properties.

“They put pressure on an organization who owned a property along Wall Street who was just letting things be overgrown and the house go into decay. And they put pressure on them to at least keep it clean because quite a few individuals were utilizing that hidden space for illicit things.

“So fast forward to today, that couple is still in their house. One of them is on the board of the neighborhood association. And that was in 2011, so this particular Block Action Group has been together for six years.”

Today there are 11 Block Action Groups citywide. 

In 2018, residents who want to facilitate Building Block work will participate in the new Neighborhood Leadership Academy.  “Any residents who are involved with the Catalyst Program as facilitators must go through this training,” Drake say. “We'll teach, we'll practice, we'll reflect, we'll troubleshoot.”

When a Catalyst Program project is done some neighbors want to continue working together. For them, Building Blocks offers the Sustain Program. Residents continue to organize and “defend the well-being of their street,” Drake says.

“Ideally, groups are becoming mature and independent, self-initiating and running themselves. That's in an ideal world. We found that it's really hard, especially in the neighborhoods where there's higher transience, higher turnover, and then also just high demands on life, especially in the context of poverty. So Building Blocks has made an indefinite commitment to these groups saying as long you want to continue to organize, we will continue to support you.”

A meeting of Building BlocksThe organization has seed money for projects set aside for these groups as well as organized support. Drake cites the example of Wall Street, a mature and independent group that needed to hear from Building Blocks at a recent meeting that seed money is available and that they wanted the group to succeed.

“There were about 30 residents representing homeowners, tenants, a very diverse set of race, ethnicity, socioeconomic levels,” Drake says. “It was really incredible.”

Through the Sustain Program, it is hoped the neighbors will have a springtime and fall project. Some choose to do a cleanup. Others have a social activity. “It can be something very simple to continue to have those connections. Depending on the year, depending on the energy, depending on what's happening on that street, there might be bigger issues.”

Bigger issues

One example is that a group on Davis Street in the Vine Neighborhood went to the City Commission and were instrumental in voicing their support for a new skate park that's going in, Drake says. Another group created a phone tree and strengthened their partnership with the Public Safety Liaison Officer because a vacant home was being used for drug use and sales, and prostitution. So that street felt really unsafe at all times. 

“Once that behavior was no longer on the street, people were like, ‘Oh, we can breathe again. We can go out after dark again,’” Drake says. “So those are examples of issues.”

One ongoing project is a 16-bed vegetable garden with a couple of plots being used for kids planting themselves. And they are a gardened by very diverse set of individuals who are also tenants, landlords, and homeowners. 

There are other, lasting changes.

“We've had a number of residents continue to be engaged, one is now a huge volunteer at the neighborhood association. When I met her, she expressed a great deal of cynicism towards a lot of things. And you know what? After working with us there was an attitude shift. She’s like, ‘For the first time in a long time, I felt hopeful.’ She has connected to somebody, a friend of hers. They've really connected.

“I think in American society, there is this pervasive isolation that not only really targets people living in poverty, but people generally. And I think people in poverty feel it more because there's a lack of resource when you have a lack of network. 

“So addressing this issue of isolation, bringing people out to meet each other, to start talking, that group that’s working on things is why we do this,” Drake says. “The win, to me, is that there's a committed group of people who once felt disengaged and, now, feel hopeful, and want to see something better for their neighborhood. That’s a huge shift.”

Kathy Jennings is the managing editor of Southwest Michigan’s Second Wave. She is a freelance writer and editor.
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