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Agency, belonging and community: Centering people to transform neighborhoods

American Cities, Health

It takes time to cultivate a garden. In addition to patience, plants and vegetables need the right conditions to flourish, along with people dedicated to caring for them throughout the growing process.

Communities also need the right conditions to flourish and thrive. That includes ensuring residents feel safe, can breathe clean air, have access to quality education, transportation, economic opportunity, health care, affordable housing and culturally appropriate food.

Starting with people is what leads to transformational change, said Sandra Celedon, president and chief executive officer of Fresno Building Healthy Communities.

Together with partners like Live Again Fresno, Fresno Building Healthy Communities (Fresno BHC) fosters social connections and strengthens power across historically marginalized groups in a collective effort to engage citizens and transform Fresno into a healthier and more equitable city.

Grounded in the belief that social, environmental, political and economic factors impact health and well-being, Fresno BHC has worked since 2010 to organize diverse community members across the Central Valley in California around the interconnected issues of education, health, land use, community safety, transportation, civic engagement and community development.

“We envision a world where we get to see our grandparents, parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends and neighbors live well into old age, happy and healthy — in whatever ways they describe it, with access to the resources necessary to achieve it,” Celedon said.

Relying on and supporting the capacity of its established network of more than 30 nonprofit and faith-based organizations, Fresno BHC focuses its efforts on central, southeast and southwest Fresno, known as “The Place” where nearly 100,000 people live in zip codes that have some of the state’s highest levels of air pollution. Shaped by a legacy of racist land use policies that allowed dense industrial areas to be in neighborhoods like “The Place,” residents living in South Fresno have life expectancies that are drastically shorter than those of their counterparts in North Fresno.

A map of the area , known as “The Place” in Fresno, California.“Our goal is to build a long-term foundation for a healthier community with a legacy to be carried on for years to come through the leadership of community members. We create social capital — bonding similar people and bridging diverse communities and organizations — via an informed, engaged, and active citizenry and by empowering grassroots leaders,” Celedon said.

“Authentic community transformation and long-term positive change can only be achieved through the leadership of the community. The organizations that are part of our coalition are led by people of color, and they are led by people who either grew up in the neighborhoods we are working in, or still live in those neighborhoods,” Celedon said.

While coming together takes time, it is already possible to see a well-resourced, empowered community can achieve.

In 2018, more than 60,000 city residents voted in support of Measure P — a citizen-led sales tax initiative crafted by Black, Brown and southeast Asian youth and their adult allies that created dedicated funding for parks, arts and trails in the City of Fresno.

Six members of Fresno Building Healthy Communities staff wearing orange shirts with #Parks4All.
Fresno Building Healthy Communities staff prepares to educate residents on how Measure P funds can help create community green spaces. Measure P helps ensure Fresno’s neighborhoods receive funding to improve and maintain our parks and facilities, create new parks and trails, and fund recreation, community, and arts programs.

And not only did they achieve victory, Celedon noted, but they were able to create community and build relationships along the way.

Residents have also taken on developers to stop sprawl through land use planning efforts and influenced the allocation of resources to ensure investments reach their neighborhoods, among many other efforts.

“We have moms and dads, young people, and people who are Spanish speaking only, people who are Hmong speaking only, and they’re all working together, connecting through food, building relationships. They’re able to figure out what do they want together?” Celedon said. “It’s about a community that supports one another.”

Investing the time to get to know people was crucial for Richard Burrell when he began what became Live Again Fresno back in 2012.

Live Again Fresno works to improve the health and educational outcomes of children and families living in motels along Parkway Drive, an area known as an epicenter for drug and prostitution activity in the city.

Today, Live Again Fresno offers an after-school program for children as well as a mobile food service, with parent partners playing a valuable role in connecting with families to establish trust, build relationships and assess deeper needs.

Beginning in a motel parking lot out of the trunk of his car, “the first year was spent just getting to know people. Show up and just keep showing up,” Burrell said.

It was only after that first year that Burrell began to bring in tutors and mentors and volunteers from local churches and businesses and schools.

“And then talking with the moms and the grandmothers and the aunties, I began to understand that these folks, especially moms, have an extraordinary skill set,” Burrell said. “But when we asked them about resumes and things like that, they just shrugged and said, I’m just a mom.”

“They have every skill that they need for a job, they just needed someone to help them build it,” he said.

In those conversations, the vision was set to have a community space, he said. And after a five-day workshop to help the women identify their skills, develop resumes and practice interviews, the first four hires for the community center were moms from the neighborhood.

“It’s workforce training without calling it workforce training,” Celedon said. “That’s economic development. It’s not let me give you a certificate — it’s let me get to know you, your skill set, and then put your skills to use in a way that builds self-efficacy.”

Burrell’s commitment to children and families extends to opening up his own home. A few years ago, Burrell realized that the summer between eighth and ninth grade was a critical time for young people.

“So, I, one of our board members and one of our community partners decided that for one month, we would move one of the young people into our home and give them a totally different experience from the neighborhood they live in,” Burrell explained.

“I live a mile and a half up the road. But it’s in a house. It’s not in a motel where a lot of these kids live. And there’s something really special about having a father or a father figure, an emotionally available man who’s there, just present. And what we saw happen with the first three young people is that when they went into ninth grade, they carried themselves a little differently. They felt like ‘oh, I have someone to be accountable to and I have someone who cares for me and looks after me,’” he said.

It’s not easy work, but it’s important to recognize small victories.

“The first three young people that we gave this four-week experience to now speak about the importance of being connected to not just a mentor, but to a person who cares, and they feel like invested in them. When young people start to care about themselves, they start to care about the people around them, and that’s beautiful. All three of them are working in their own jobs, all three of them are headed to college. I’m exceptionally proud of them,” Burrell said.

For Fresno Building Healthy Communities and Live Again Fresno, the most important victory in their work is community building itself.

“Our vision is simple. It’s about building the capacity of community residents and their power to create the world they want to live in,” Celedon said. “We all have a voice.”

“It’s about enabling agency, creating belonging, and then ultimately building community to drive investment into our neighborhoods. That’s the work,” Celedon said.

Like most nonprofit organizations, Fresno Building Healthy Communities and Live Again Fresno cover operation costs through funding from grants, initiatives and donations.

With the help of change agents like community residents and leaders via advocacy and action, they are building One Healthy Fresno and creating a future where all children and families thrive.

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