City of Promise seeks to break the cycle of poverty

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City of Promise director Sarad Davenport has come home to 10th and Page, the first neighborhood he can remember, to guide a project he believes will ultimately hand local kids a road map out of poverty. (Photo by John Robinson)

This city has a way of drawing home its native sons. It’s something of an old saw: Grow up in Charlottesville, and even if you strike out for distant horizons, chances are good you’ll end up here again.

For Sarad Davenport, getting out was no joke. His family’s first home was in Westhaven, the city’s oldest public housing complex. He came up through the city school system, succeeded in college, got a master’s degree, and dove into a career in education in Washington, D.C.
And now he’s back.

The city hired 32-year-old Davenport last month to head the City of Promise initiative, a federally funded, from-the-ground-up project that aims to guide underprivileged kids in Westhaven, the surrounding 10th and Page and Starr Hill neighborhoods and ultimately all of Charlottesville through life from birth to adulthood. The city was one of 15 communities nationwide selected for a Promise Neighborhoods grant at the end of last year, and Davenport is tasked with shepherding the project through to implementation stage, with help from a coalition of contributing agencies. For him, it’s personal.

“Had it not been for my connection to the Westhaven and the 10th and Page community, and my passion for the people here, I wouldn’t have taken this position,” Davenport said. “I wanted to see people do better on a broader scale.”

Promise Neighborhoods is a Department of Education-funded program designed to create networks of support services for kids in underserved communities. The approach is modeled after the one taken by the Harlem Children’s Zone, a 42-year-old nonprofit that offers families access to free health and educational resources throughout a child’s life.

Charlottesville’s Children, Youth & Family Services was tapped to administer a more than $470,000 planning grant last December, and started exploring how a similar “cradle-to-college-and-career” approach could help kids in Westhaven and the historically black neighborhoods that surround it.

There are a lot of players contributing to the project. Besides CYFS, nearly a dozen nonprofits and government agencies are on board, and the initiative’s steering committee is co-chaired by Vice Mayor Kristin Szakos and includes representatives from the city school district, the Charlottesville Redevelopment and Housing Authority, the health department and the Dialogue on Race.

At the helm is Davenport, now focused on rallying the stakeholders and answering the question at hand: What will break the cycle of poverty in Charlottsville? Educational programs for parents, all-day preschool, structured after-school programs, health clinics—it’s all on the table.

Davenport has chops, but maybe more importantly, he has history here.

“My earliest memories are of Westhaven,” he said, flicking a faded Polaroid across his desk in an office at CYFS’s High Street headquarters. In it, his father holds a toddler version of him outside one of the development’s two-story brick buildings. His grandmother’s apartment was his family’s home in the early 1980s, up to around the time Davenport started kindergarten.

“824H,” he said. “I go see it all the time now.” His parents moved out to the county and then back into the city over the next couple of years before divorcing, Davenport said. But life still revolved around Westhaven.

“That was always the hub,” he said. “That was home for me, the community I grew up in.” With aunts and uncles all over the neighborhood, there was always somebody keeping a watchful eye on him. It was a safe childhood, he said, and an upbringing where everyone had high expectations of him.

His history is his passport in a neighborhood where residents are wary of yet another newcomer pushing social reform. Talking about his past flips a switch for a lot of people.
“First, they’re off,” he said. “You’re just another person—what are you selling this time? But when I tell them my story, it changes the current. They light up. They listen.”

But for now, Davenport wants them to do the talking. The grant awarded a few months ago funds a year-long planning period, during which City of Promise is gathering data —from truancy and teen pregnancy rates to the percentage of parents who read to their kids—and gauging public opinion. They’ll use what they find to craft a plan for a social support network for kids and families in 10th and Page, and then they’ll try for a Promise Neighborhoods implementation grant. Last year, the DOE awarded only five nationwide, for up to $6 million.
For Davenport, phase one translates to a lot of mornings at the Westhaven school bus stop talking to parents, and many meetings with the initiative’s long list of partners.

“People already have passionate concerns about their community,” Davenport said. “And you need to listen to those, authentically listen, and allow them to be heard.”

Parts of his personal history could be a template for success.

Learning started early for him, he said. His parents sent him to preschool at Westminster Presbyterian Church on Rugby Road, and he was reading by the time he started public school. “From the time I was born, they strategically planned my life curriculum,” Davenport said. His youth was spent in city schools, and he graduated from Charlottesville High School in 1997.

Davenport studied communications at Old Dominion University, where he met his future wife, Cortney, and landed an internship with an internal communications publication for the New York Times in Norfolk. After graduation in 2001, he worked for Charlottesville’s CFA Institute designing web-based informational programs.

He liked his job, and he was good at it. But it didn’t move him. “I knew I needed to work more with people and less with things,” he said.

Davenport describes himself as a man of faith. He’d attended Mount Zion Baptist Church since childhood, and was teaching Sunday school there and working with local youth. At one point he realized he cared far more deeply about his off-hours efforts. “There was a shift where I knew I needed to make this my life’s work,” he said.

He entered the master’s degree program at the Samuel DeWitt Proctor School of Theology at Richmond’s Virginia Union University, with an aim to end up in education. A heavy course load and a conviction that he’d switched to the right track led him to quit his job at CFA in 2007.

“It was risky,” he said. “I had to kind of step out on faith.”

But things fell into place. Within weeks, he got a job with Region Ten, a local social services agency, offering counseling services to kids struggling in school. A little over two years later, degree in hand, he was working as a preschool teacher for the Knowledge Is Power Program, an acclaimed charter school network in Washington, D.C.

He learned the nuts and bolts of community engagement on the job. Mandatory home visits with his school’s students—most of them from underserved areas of the city’s Southeast quadrant—helped him understand the scope of the kids’ needs.

When a friend called him last summer and told him City of Promise was looking for a director, he didn’t immediately jump at the idea.

“I wasn’t looking for a job,” he said. “I thought, ‘I’m happy here. My family’s happy here. Things are great.’”

Still, the idea of returning to the neighborhood as an agent of change appealed. Davenport applied, and when the city asked him to join the project, he said yes. And he bought in. He, his wife and their three children—ages 9, 5 and 3—are settling into a home on Page Street, just blocks from where he spent his early years.

Not every kid in the neighborhood is going to go to college. Not everybody who succeeds will do it the way he did it. This he knows. But he’s working to give as many kids as possible a fair start. Some days it’s frustrating, because for now, everything exists as an outline of an idea. But he knows the dream has to come before the reality.
“It’s work,” he said. “But it’s good work.”

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