All of WHEDco's work is designed to achieve the goal of "building a greater Bronx," and, more broadly, to foster community development. But what exactly does that mean? Over the last twenty-plus years, we've learned that community development is about more than just constructing a building, or expanding afterschool programs, or even creating family-supporting small businesses. It's about keeping our ears to the ground, understanding - on a granular level - the issues confronting the neighborhoods where we live and work, and marshaling a variety of resources to create solutions that target specific problems.
Community development means solving problems before they become crises.
For example, in December two WHEDco employees noticed a sign on Southern Boulevard announcing a soon-to-open liquor store. We organized a community-wide action calling on the State Liquor Authority to listen to residents' and merchants' concerns about the liquor store's impact on this growing neighborhood of families, who have other pressing retail needs. With WHEDco's help, the community prevailed. The State Liquor Authority denied the applicant's liquor license request.
Spotting the sign, recognizing the need to take action, and knowing how to articulate the case about the effect of another liquor store required an intimate knowledge of the community and its needs. Our experience - and common sense - told us that liquor stores contribute to crime. If they don't, then why, when you step inside a liquor store in many Bronx neighborhoods, are you surrounded by 360 degrees of bulletproof glass?
We also knew that a liquor store could have been disastrous at such a promising time for the Southern Boulevard Merchant Association, a group we've helped organize for the past two years. Commercial vacancies have decreased by 8% as WHEDco has worked with property owners to bring in new retailers to meet residents' needs. Yet at the same time, crime routinely threatens to undermine progress. In a neighborhood where, just last month an 11-year-old girl who lives in our Intervale Green building was shot walking home from school, a liquor store would have tipped the scales toward instability and fear.
Community development means stopping bad things from happening.
Separately, last week eighth-graders in WHEDco's Project STEP program at PS/MS 218 received their high school admissions letters. Days earlier, The New York Times had reported that the number of African-American and Hispanic students at the City's specialized high schools is dismally low, because kids in low income areas aren't being educated about their options or being prepared for admissions tests. It's a problem WHEDco learned about firsthand 10 years ago, when a student at PS/MS 218 told us he was attending a high school simply because his friend was going there. That was the impetus for Project STEP, which aims to give kids at the South Bronx middle school the same resources during the high school application process that kids from affluent parts of the City have.
Project STEP students have a significantly better chance of being accepted into a high performing school than their peers who are not involved in the program. In 2011, 72% of eighth-graders in the program went on to attend a high performing high school - over twice the percentage of those not involved in the program. This year, Project STEP students were once again accepted to some of the City's best high schools, including Bard High School Early College, The Brooklyn Latin School, Columbia Secondary School, and Manhattan Hunter Science High School. It's exhilarating to see kids from the South Bronx get excited about the rigorous educational experiences that await them. You can read more about it in GothamSchools and watch a Fox 5 news story about our students.
Community development means steering children and their parents toward the best opportunities.
WHEDco's work starts with a commitment to knowing what's going on in the community, whether it's the threat of crime and instability that a new liquor store would bring or the threat of kids falling through the cracks because they aren't being given a fair shot. From there, we can call upon a variety of resources, including our own dynamic team, to develop smart solutions to help build a greater Bronx. That's our version of community development.