City of Promise settles in

Public housing resident Sabrina Allen was recently nominated and elected onto the City of Promise steering committee, and is excited to see a house constructed for the program’s use. Photo by John Robinson.

The next round of federal funding for City of Promise is up in the air, but it looks like the cradle-to-college outreach program that came to Charlottesville’s low-income neighborhoods a few months ago is here to stay. Director Sarad Davenport’s team of staff and community members is growing, and last Monday, City Council passed a resolution to commit funds for construction of a home for City of Promise in the middle of the neighborhood it serves.

Charlottesville was one of 15 communities nationwide to receive the $470,000 Promise Neighborhood grant from the Department of Education in 2011, from which City of Promise was born. The program is based on New York City’s Harlem Children Zone, which serves more than 10,000 children with goals in academic excellence and social and character development.

The mission of City of Promise is to break the cycle of poverty in Westhaven and the 10th and Page and Starr Hill neighborhoods, and ultimately in all of Charlottesville, by helping families keep their kids in school and on track from birth to high school graduation and beyond.

“We’re holding the adults accountable for the outcomes of the children,” Daven port said. “It is our responsibility to do whatever it takes to make sure the kids are successful.”
Davenport said the program’s ultimate goal is for college graduates to return to Charlottesville and share their experiences and serve as role models for younger kids.

“If Harlem can do it with 10,000 kids, we should definitely be able to make some differences in Charlottesville,” he said.

City of Promise has been in the planning stage since February. Davenport and his team have had more than 140 one-on-one conversations on public housing to assess what the community needs before moving forward.

“We’ve been doing a lot of listening,” Davenport said. “These conversations have been instrumental to whatever pathway gets constructed, and we’ve learned a lot about what’s important to people.” The discussions were designed to be inclusive and avoid alienating residents who may already be weary of groups trying to fix their neighborhood, and Davenport held public meetings for folks to respond to the information gathered.

The next step is putting the plans into action. Davenport and his team are applying for an implementation grant from the Department of Education, a highly competitive grant of $4-6 million for three to five years. Because the funding is not guaranteed, he said they are pursuing other grants and alternative sources as well.

Essential to helping the community, Davenport said, is getting the community involved. Four low-income residents have joined the steering committee, and more than 15 neighborhood kids are on the Youth Council, a group that meets bi-weekly to set and evaluate academic, personal, and service goals.

At its July 2 meeting, the City Council voted to allocate $20,000 from its housing funds to construct a house at 204 Eighth St. that City of Promise will use for office space, meetings, and community gatherings. If the program ceases operation or no longer has use for the building, it will then be converted into a single-family home for low-income residents.

Councilor Dede Smith, who describes herself as “a bit of a fiscal conservative,” cast the only vote against the resolution because she felt it was an inappropriate use of the city’s finances. “We have a limited amount of housing funds,” she said, “and I would like to see them used to maximum potential.”

But Davenport said proximity is an integral part of the work City of Promise does in the neighborhoods it serves, and the building will give residents more accessibility.
“We want to be close to the community and make sure they’re able to access us at any time,” he said. “It’s going to make a difference when people are looking for resources and they can just walk down the street.”

Public housing resident and mother of two Sabrina Allen, who was recently nominated and elected onto the City of Promise steering committee due to her involvement and outreach in the public housing community, thinks the house is an “amazing idea,” and has been “hoping and rooting for it” after seeing a similar model in Harlem.

Last month, Allen traveled to New York City with a group that included five other public housing residents to explore the Harlem Children Zone. The program’s vast impact hit close to home, she said.

Since 2010, Allen has been leading a small social dance group for young girls. Every Monday through Saturday afternoon throughout the summer, she teaches the girls dance skills, provides snacks, and encourages the girls to discuss issues going on at home and at school.
“It was really hard to get them to open up in the beginning,” she said. But with the help of City of Promise organizers providing occasional snacks, transportation, and other support, and her 16-year-old daughter serving as a group mentor, Allen has created and maintained a welcoming environment for girls who might otherwise fall through the cracks.

“It gives them something to do so they don’t get lost in the summertime,” she said. Having grown up in Charlottesville, Allen said she had nothing to do during the summer as a girl, and designed the group to keep neighborhood kids busy and stimulated.
It was because of her community involvement and outreach that Allen was elected to the City of Promise steering committee, which she said was both an honor and a surprise.

“I was nominated sooner than I thought,” she said, “but I’ll work for the City of Promise to the fullest because I think it’s going to work.” This summer, Allen will have the opportunity to witness firsthand one of the first implemented programs. City of Promise has partnered with the School of Architecture at UVA to form the Community Planning and Design Institute, a two-week summer program for kids in eighth grade and up with an interest in architecture. Allen’s 16-year-old daughter will take introductory architecture classes, stay on Grounds, eat in the dining hall, and even participate in community design at the end of the program.

The two-week program, Davenport said, is designed to invoke excitement about college in youth growing up in “families that might not necessarily have a college-going culture.”

“This is our first cohort that will give the community tangible ideas of what City of Promise could be,” he said.

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