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Sunday, 22 January 2017 12:01

Authentic community engagement critical for Habitat Kent work

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BriAnne McKee, executive director of Habitat for Humanity of Kent County. BriAnne McKee, executive director of Habitat for Humanity of Kent County. Photo by Katy Batdorff

Private developers say that working with numerous partners on a real estate project can often lead to complications. 

However, it’s a model BriAnne McKee believes is required for a proposed redevelopment project on 5.5 acres of land in southwest Grand Rapids that’s been long ignored by investors.

The Plaza Roosevelt development has as many as eight partner organizations, including Habitat for Humanity of Kent County, for which McKee serves as executive director. 

“It’s not a typical development,” McKee said of the project that aims to bring affordable housing and increased access to education, health care and basic retail services in the Roosevelt Park neighborhood. 

Habitat for Humanity of Kent County was selected as the winner in the large organization category of the MiBiz Best-Managed Nonprofits Awards.

With the Plaza Roosevelt project, the nonprofit McKee’s led for just over one year has partnered with multiple other public and private-sector organizations, including Mercy Health, Grand Rapids Public Schools and nonprofit housing development firm Dwelling Place. 

The goal: to drive authentic engagement with the largely Hispanic and Latino residents of the Roosevelt Park neighborhood to ensure that the proposed development brings about the needed services, McKee said. 

“When people feel authentically listened to and a part of the table — even if they may not agree with all of the changes that are to come — if they feel like they’ve had the opportunity to be heard, I think they’re more likely to be invested in what the future looks like,” McKee said. 

“I think we all know the future of our city is changing, so what can we do to tap into the wisdom that’s in the neighborhoods, the experience of people that have lived in the neighborhoods, to have them be an active voice.”

The impetus for the Plaza Roosevelt proposal came from a study by Princeton, N.J.-based Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The study found that one’s ZIP code plays a significant role in long-term success, health and access to quality education. 

“A ZIP code is five numbers. It’s meant to get mail to people, not say how long they’ll live,” according a report accompanying the study. “But all too often, that’s exactly what a ZIP code does … A ZIP code should indicate where we live, not how long we live.”

For Habitat Kent, the Roosevelt Park neighborhood seemed the perfect place for an atypical redevelopment project. The nonprofit organization’s research showed that the area had the highest concentration of youths between the ages of five and 18 in the city and the households there are double the size of average households in Grand Rapids. Additionally, unemployment rates in the neighborhood are higher and access to basic services is considerably less than it is in other areas around the region. 

“(Habitat Kent and the other partners want to) start reversing some of those outcomes and intentionally building this project to not only involve and engage residents in the planning stages, but to be involved in building the programs and the services that will come alongside the actual physical infrastructure that will be built as part of project,” McKee said.

While McKee believes some of Habitat’s mission will continue to focus on the building of homes for underprivileged communities, development projects like Plaza Roosevelt fit in well with the shift the organization made around 2010. 

At that time, according to McKee, Habitat Kent decided that rather than just “sporadically” building homes around its three-county geographic region, it made more sense to take a neighborhood approach, along the lines of what the organization has proposed for Roosevelt Park. 

“It’s really helped ignite what is possible for us when working in the neighborhood context, what Habitat can do to help bring its mission to bear,” McKee said. “The Plaza Roosevelt project is really a hyper-focused neighborhood revitalization project.” 

Habitat for Humanity of Kent County:

  • Mission: Demonstrating God’s love by bringing people together to build homes, communities and hope.
  • Service area: Kent County and parts of Ottawa and Allegan Counties
  • Executive director: BriAnne McKee
  • Employees: 79
  • Annual budget: About $7.5 million
  • Best practices for management: Channeling a new sense of power that is open, participatory, and peer-driven where the goal is not to hoard power, but to channel it. Focus on what’s strong, not what’s wrong — that is, work from a place of abundance, not scarcity.
Read 1951 times Last modified on Friday, 27 January 2017 11:09

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