Vanguard CDC finds new ways to engage Detroiters on community projects during COVID-19

As the president and CEO of Vanguard Community Development Corporation (CDC), a champion of Detroit’s historic North End, I feel very privileged to do the work I do. I’m a tax lawyer by trade, and when I began practicing law years ago, I thought it was what I wanted. Then I got involved in community development and realized what it is to truly love your work.

I’m a native Detroiter, born and bred. When I saw the city change in negative ways during the '70s, '80s and '90s,  it really hurt my feelings. I wanted to find some way to use my skills and education to make a difference here, even a little difference. If we all do that, you know, it turns into a big difference.  I’ve been working in this field for over 30 years.

Vanguard CDC was founded in the North End in 1994, by Bishop Edgar Vann and Second Ebenezer Church. Over the last 27 years, we’ve conducted programs centered on housing, early childhood education, small businesses and commercial development. We've done pretty much everything, which gives us a rich history and a lot of institutional experience.

Our CDC has evolved into an independent community based organization, no longer governed by Second Ebenezer Church, though we’re still great friends and supporters of one another's work. Our staff of five, and board of nine, focus on three distinct areas: housing development, community engagement and planning, and commercial development. 

When the pandemic hit, we closed our doors like so many others, and began to work from home. We’re still mainly working from home, with only the few necessary people for the day’s activities going into our building. With COVID-19 variants being what they are, we see doing this for the indefinite future. Though life is very different, we’ve continued our work.

Through our Clean & Safe Neighborhoods Program, our staff and volunteers go out twice a week during the summer, to beautify our neighborhoods and East Grand Boulevard, picking up trash, pulling weeds, etc.  We’re organizing and distributing tools and cleaning supplies from our offices in small numbers, and have developed clear mask rules for participants, regardless of vaccination status.

The East Grand Boulevard Transformation Project is one of the larger projects Vanguard is working on right now. We’ve recently secured a designation for this to be a Michigan Main Street district, and part of a national program that brings resources into the community to support the commercial district and business owners there. We’re the second Main Street district in the city of Detroit after Mexicantown. It’s a big deal! 

Vanguard has received a generous grant from the Knight Foundation to make streetscape improvements to East Grand Boulevard, between Woodward and I-75. This will include benches, planters, colorful banners and public art. There’ll be lots of things that you can see and touch that’ll be new to the boulevard, including a community identification sign that welcomes people into the Historic North End. It’s going to be beautiful.

This exciting project came with a built-in challenge, 90 days of community engagement. How in the world do you do that during a pandemic? Our staff was asking that question last March. Normally, we’d have big meetings, design charrettes and all sorts of activities that require in-person engagement. 

Instead, we made phone calls, sent out snail mail and emails, hung flyers and canvassed door-to-door to let people know about the project. We posted colorful signs all over the North End, the kind you use for elections, to let folks know how to access our survey. We needed to get substantial input on what the community wanted.

We held about three quarters of our community meetings via Zoom, with good turnout. We engaged with about 600 people on this project in one form or another. It was more than we thought possible during COVID-19, and largely because of the help from our consultants, Detroit Collaborative Design Center at University of Detroit Mercy, and Good Done Daily, a design studio out of Hamtramck. Having them on board was really important. They gave us advice on ways to reach the community and offered a lot of technical assistance. 

I think there needs to be some technical assistance funding offered to nonprofits, especially small ones like ours, to help us garner skills we need to be able to operate optimally during the pandemic. We also need increased operating support funds to reflect the increased work of operating in a pandemic, because it is more work.

We are blessed to have funders who, over the last year have been extremely flexible about their money, allowing us to convert program grants to operating support grants. Our funding has stayed about the same, and we're fortunate to have very generous sponsors. But still, the same is not enough because, as I say, it takes more money to operate like this.

Pamela Martin-Turner is the president and CEO of Vanguard Community Development Corporation, a nonprofit championing Detroit's Historic North End neighborhood through housing development, community engagement and planning, and commercial development. Stay tuned for her next entry in our Nonprofit Journal Project, an initiative inviting nonprofit leaders across Southeast Michigan to contribute their thoughts via journal entries on how COVID-19, vaccinations, a heightened sense of racial justice and equity, issues of climate change and more are impacting the nonprofit sector--and how they are responding. This series is made possible with the generous support of our partners, the Michigan Nonprofit Association and Co.act Detroit.