Fighting generational poverty in Richmond’s Iron Triangle
A new federal program called Promise Neighborhoods has economically disadvantaged communities all over the Bay Area scrambling to be included. This year, the program is giving out $500,000 awards to organizations in neighborhoods around the country that struggle with low educational achievement, violence and other effects of poverty. The grant recipients will spend the next year figuring out a long-term plan for providing children in a small geographical zone a continuum of services, from birth through high school graduation. And next year, participants will become eligible for $5 million to implement their ideas.
But, as KALW’s Rina Palta reports, a program in Richmond’s Iron Triangle is ahead of the curve.
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RINA PALTA: Richmond’s Iron Triangle is a residential pocket of the city, bordered by three sets of railroad tracks. This area of town is known for what’s called “generational poverty,” which means poor families here face so many challenges that they’re highly unlikely to become economically self-sufficient without any help.
So it’s no surprise that the Iron Triangle has attracted a lot of social service programs. There are literacy programs, healthy eating programs, mental health providers, homicide reduction initiatives, and after-school programs like this one, called the Precious Butterfly Group, which organized this car wash to raise money for a tour of colleges.
SONYA SMITH-HODGE: I think the focus on the Iron Triangle was because it hasn’t been focused on in so long.
Sonya Smith-Hodge is a facilitator for Building Blocks for Kids, which runs the Butterflies.
SMITH-HODGE: It’s a lot of poverty there. It’s a lot of violence there. But it’s like a diamond in the rough. Once you pay it a little bit of attention and shine it up a little bit, it’s going to shine and the people there are going to come full blossom.
And in a neighborhood where some have grown weary of programs that come in strong, but don’t seem to accomplish real change, Smith-Hodge says Building Blocks for Kids is different.
SMITH-HODGE: Because we are modeling a program that worked in New York.
That would be the Harlem Children’s Zone, an initiative that began in the early 1990s on a single block in New York City. The idea behind the program was to take a small group of kids, living on just that block, and bombard them with services, from prenatal care for their mothers all the way to college. Over time, the project has expanded to cover 100 blocks, and its success has caught the eye of the Obama administration.
In April the Department of Education announced it will choose 20 so-called “Promise Neighborhoods” to replicate the project. Building Blocks for Kids is among the applicants, and was among the first to try to duplicate the Harlem Children’s Zone model.
DON LAU: Well, you know, it seems like only yesterday, but it’s been about five years.
Don Lau is a vice president with the YMCA of the East Bay and chairman of Building Blocks for Kids. He says in 2005, when the Harlem Children’s Zone was starting to gain a lot of attention, two different groups of service providers from Richmond visited Harlem to check it out.
LAU: And they each made separate visits to New York and talked to the Harlem Children’s Zone and what they had said to them was, ‘You know, there was just somebody here from Richmond, talking about this, so you guys should maybe get together and talk about what you want to do.’
And that idea, that all the different programs in Richmond could work together, shaped Building Blocks for Kids. They chose a few blocks in the northern Iron Triangle to work with and got started about three years ago. They’ve grown to 1,200 participants, and staff members say they’re seeing big differences in how kids in the program behave and perform in school. Now -- along with neighborhoods in Oakland, San Francisco, Hayward and all over the country -- they’re competing for one of the president’s Promise Neighborhoods grants.
LAU: It’s almost like analyzing any college basketball game that has yet to occur. It’s like people are trying to figure out what’s the best position to be in, what’s it going to look like.
But Lau says all this hoopla over the grant is more of a side note than a defining moment for Building Blocks.
LAU: Whether we become a Promise Neighborhood or not, we are inspired enough at this point and see what’s working that we will continue to move. It’s like, if you all are here just because you want the Promise Neighborhood money and that’s going to be your make or break, you probably really shouldn’t be here because you need to be in here for the long haul. And you need to have something put together that will in fact improve that community.
In September, the Department of Education will announce which 20 of the 339 neighborhoods that applied will be chosen as Promise Neighborhoods. Other Bay Area neighborhoods in the running include San Francisco’s Bayview-Hunters Point, the Castlemont and Havenscourt areas of East Oakland, as well as the neighborhoods around Oakland’s Garfield Elementary and West Oakland Middle schools.
In Richmond, I’m Rina Palta for Crosscurrents.
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