Authored by Kavya Sekar
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Community-Led Safety: Best Practices from Nuestra CDC

September 24th, 2015 by Kavya Sekar

In 2008, at the height of the recession, the staff at Nuestra Communidad Development Corporation began to notice a pattern. As homes in their Roxbury, MA neighborhood became foreclosed and abandoned, neighbors began to increasingly complain about violent and criminal activities in or near the properties.  They also felt that the police were not helping.

“People were angry. They felt like the police weren’t doing enough, that they didn’t care.” said Monica Dean, Director of Community Organizing and Resident Services. “Neighbors accepted activities like prostitution as the norm because it wasn’t being addressed. They would call and nothing would happen”

Public health research has shown that fear of crime in a neighborhood has a negative impact on mental health and overall wellbeing, even if people are not directly affected by the crime.  Dean, who lives in the neighborhood, noted how crime affected her:

“Public safety just has a huge impact on your health and overall wellbeing. If you live in an environment that is safe, you are happy, you are comfortable, you’re not stressed.” said Dean, “You’re not planning your day around how to protect yourself.”

To confront the safety issues in the neighborhood, Nuestra CDC developed its Community Safety Initiative (  The initiative identified problem areas, redeveloped abandoned property and created coalitions of residents, police and other nonprofit organizations to address safety issues.

Nuestra CDC’s approach is one that has worked across the country. As addressed in Bill Geller and Lisa Belsky’s Building Our Way out of Crime: The Transformative Power of Police-Community Partnerships, communities in Charlotte, NC, Minneapolis, MN and Providence, RI have reduced crime and violence through similar approaches of addressing blight and creating community-police partnerships.

While these partnerships can be lasting and productive means to ensure safe communities, they can also be difficult to begin and navigate. There are some best practices, many of which Nuestra used along the way:

Use data to inform approach

Nuestra CDC’s first step was to work with the police and use their crime data to create a map of where crime was taking place in the community.

“Sure enough there was a connection between the vacant property and the drug dealing and prostitution that was going on” said David Price, Executive Director.

Focus on redevelopment in problem areas

After the mapping exercise, Nuestra CDC immediately filed code violations with the city to secure and clean up vacant buildings. They then bought some of the properties and worked to place residents into them. They began to have regular meetings where the police and community members would discuss problem properties in the area and create joint plans to address them. They also did larger multifamily development projects on vacant land in the area, where crime had been taking place even before the recession.

Take time to cultivate lasting relationships

Nuestra had to forge stronger relationships between the police and their organization as well as between the police and the broader community.

“One of the first things to do as a CDC is to get to know your local precinct captain at the police station.” said Price, “Find someone who understands community policing”

Nuestra brought their police officer partners to trainings on crime prevention provided by Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) and NeighborWorks. Attending the trainings together allowed the organization and police department to get to know one another and also to make sure both were learning the same skills and approaches to community safety.

To facilitate relationships between police and community members, they organized weekly meetings between to discuss local crime, and also organized block parties to give police officers opportunities to get to know residents and build trust. Building mutual trust throughout the neighborhood made it easier for community members to call the police during an incident.

Engage partners

Once Nuestra had built up partnerships between residents and the police, they noticed that an important demographic was missing from their program: youth. Teenagers were the most likely to engage in gun violence in the neighborhood.

Nuestra did not have capacity as an organization to engage local youth, but they knew that Teen Empowerment, another Boston based organization, specialized in it. Nuestra provided one of their underutilized community rooms to Teen Empowerment and helped them expand their programs into the neighborhood.

Since working with Teen Empowerment, Nuestra has seen an increase in teen volunteers at their events. By getting to know young people, they have been able to tap into networks of youth and reach out to those engaging in criminal and violent activities. This year, Nuestra had the highest level of attendance ever for their youth peace march (shown in picture)

Now the recession is mostly over and crime levels have gone down, but the Community Safety Initiative still thrives. The partnerships that were developed have remained strong and are now working towards new challenges.

“Now that we’ve brought crime down, what neighbors really want to do is change the image of the neighborhood.” said David Price, “We have shifted our focus from preventing crime to neighborhood beautification by improving storefronts or adding new street art.”

While issues of violence and crime in any community will differ based on local circumstances, the approach of forging partnerships between police, community developers and residents, using data and redeveloping neighborhoods  is one that is adaptable to every community. As Nuestra CDC has also shown, the program can evolve to tackling new challenges as they emerge, creating truly resilient and thriving communities.

The Mel King Institute offered a training, Community Safety Seminar: Safe Streets, Sound Neighborhoods on September 21st with the Local Support Initiatives Corporation. Check out the storify on the training.

Five Reasons why CDCs Should Communicate the Health Impact of their Work

April 24th, 2015 by Kavya Sekar

* - Join us for our training series on health, beginning on June 4th with an introductory session on Health and Community Development: Leveraging Resources and Opportunity for Impact - *

When I started my role at MACDC back in September, one of the first events I attended was our Innovation Forum “How Can We Better Leverage the Health Impact of Community Development?” With my background in public health, I was excited to connect the dots between my previous work and my current role in community development. I decided to move away from public health, in part, to learn more about economic and structural inequalities, so it was important to be reminded that “A person’s zip code has a greater impact on a person’s health than his or her genetic code.”

With my background and interest in health, I am helping develop training programs on community development and health for The Mel King Institute. As a part of this process, I explored CDC websites to look for health related programs. What I found was somewhat disappointing: while CDCs are doing work that helps improve the health of their communities, very few are talking about it.

Housing, economic development and community building all have a positive health impact and here’s why we should tell the world:

  1. It tells a compelling story: In a Rooflines blog post, Jonathan Reckford of Habitat for Humanity writes about how moving into a safe mold-free home helped stop a young boy’s asthmatic seizures. Stories like these can help the general public understand the real importance and urgency of providing safe and affordable housing to save lives.
  2. There is plenty of evidence to support your claims- In the recent, “The Health Impact of the Community Investment Tax Credit” report, Health Resource in Action, MAPC and MADPH use evidence from the latest public health research to show how CDC activities are linked to better health outcomes. Using the conclusions from this report, community developers can confidently speak about the health impact of their work and reference research to support their claims.
  3. It could lead to new partners- Under a provision of the Affordable Care Act, nonprofit hospitals are now required to conduct Community Health Needs Assessments that "take into account input from persons who represent the broad interests of the community served by the hospital . . . , including those with special knowledge of or expertise in public health, and is made widely available to the public.” Based on their findings, hospitals must adopt an implementation strategy to meet community public health needs at least once every three years. As community organizations, CDCs can play a major role in helping hospitals understand community needs, develop plans to meet those needs and implement solutions. Openly communicating your organization’s commitment to and impact on health can help hospitals see your organization as a potential partner.
  4. It could lead to new resources- As health related funding agencies and organizations have become more aware of the social determinants of health, there is movement towards supporting healthy neighborhoods. For instance, Madison Park Community Development Corporation has a grant from the Boston Public Health Commission for programs to reduce youth violence. CDCs all over the state receive donations from hospitals and healthcare centers. Communicating the health impact of your work can help attract these sources of funding and, therefore, leverage your work to meet the mission of health organizations.
  5. It helps us move beyond our silos- Ultimately community development and health organizations have a common goal: to promote the overall wellbeing of people and communities.  Poor health leads to poverty and poverty leads to poor health.  Through acknowledging this linkage and working together, we can move the needle on addressing the major health and economic inequalities in our society.

CDCs are already improving people’s health on a daily basis. By articulating the health impact of your organization, you can offer a more compelling story about your organization, access more resources, and ultimately have a bigger impact on the communities and families you serve.

Join us for our training series on health, beginning on June 4th with an introductory session on Health and Community Development: Leveraging Resources and Opportunity for Impact.

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