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As Colina Park residents, businesses, and nonprofits roll out the neighborhood’s first quality-of-life plan, which I wrote about Tuesday, its coordinators are trying to figure out how best to engage the large immigrant and refugee community there. They want residents to feel like they have a stake in ensuring the plan’s success.
I noted in the story that they’ll have to overcome the effects of very low rates of resident homeownership. If they don’t own their own homes, residents are less likely to think about making long-term improvements in their communities. Set that aside and you have large numbers of first-generation immigrants from disparate parts of the globe arriving in the United States via Colina Park.
“They don’t come to this country wanting to advocate,” said Sakara Tear, the plan’s coordinator.
So how have Tear and her partners engaged?
Slowly, she said. First, they had to offer a primer on process.
“A lot of our residents don’t understand process,” Tear said. “When we talk about improvements, they think things are going to change overnight.”
They conducted individual meetings with residents and asked if they would be interested in helping draft the community’s quality-of-life plan. They looked for residents who were comfortable discussing their needs with staff and with their neighbors. Then they asked them to lead small group meetings, where Somalis would interact with Vietnamese residents. They were asked to bring a friend or neighbor or two.
They asked residents to draw their ideal neighborhoods. They were met with skeptical looks.
“They were saying ‘I’m 40 years old, and you want me to draw a picture with crayons?’,” Tear said. “But then they started saying, ‘OK, we want a park,’ and they drew it and really enjoyed it.” They discussed their challenges, like transportation or affordable housing and proposed projects to address them.
Many made it into the quality of life planning document, which was presented at a community-wide meeting. More than 300 residents were included in the process.
This is all an experiment for the CDC. It’s the first time, Tear said, that Colina Park has tried to improve quality of life on a comprehensive, neighborhood-wide basis. You can imagine some of the logistical complications arising from that approach in Colina Park, a gateway to the United States. At the neighborhood meetings, Tear, who is Cambodian, did her best to juggle translations for all the languages represented.
She feared much could have been lost in the translations they provided.
“But it’s a step forward from where we started, which was no community dialogue at all,” she said.