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The Mother of Community Development






The Mother of Community Development



Posted on February 1, 2017


In February, we celebrate Black History Month and we know that there are no shortage of Black women who have played a significant role in history and in shaping America. Some familiar names that come to mind are Rosa Parks who is often referred to as the “mother of the freedom movement” with her role in igniting a national bus boycott and Shirley Chisholm — the “mother of politics,” as she was the first Black congresswoman elected to office in 1968. But here’s a name that may not ring a bell although her place in history is equally noteworthy – Dorothy Richardson, known by some as the “mother of community development.”

Richardson, a pioneer in the community-based development movement, was the driving force behind the establishment of Neighborhood Housing Services, Inc. in Pittsburgh, the forerunner of today’s NeighborWorks network. Richardson and her neighbors banded together in the 1960s to save their declining Pittsburgh neighborhood from demolition. They recruited partners in local government and the business community. Together, they not only helped revitalize their community but also set a precedent that changed the nation’s approach to urban redevelopment and spawned the new field of community-based development. As Richardson said, “I always say that we just have ‘to keep on keeping on.’ The minute we stop the pressure, it’s bed. We just can’t afford to get tired.”

Richardson’s legacy lives on today thorough NeighborWorks America’s annual Dorothy Richardson Resident Leadership Award. For more than 20 years the award has been given annually in recognition of outstanding contributions by dedicated community leaders.

For example, Angela Bannerman Ankoma from Providence, RI, whose parents emigrated from Ghana, founded the Sankofa Initiative—a project that celebrates residents’ diverse cultures; increases the supply of fresh, healthy produce; and boosts the city’s economy. Operated under the umbrella of NeighborWorks’ West Elmwood Housing Development Corp., the project received $300,000 from the Rhode Island Department of Health’s Centers for Health Equity and Wellness to create a weekly “world market” that attracts residents from across the city.

Sandra Robertson in Cleveland, OH helped create a garden the whole neighborhood could contribute to and enjoy. Sandra approached NeighborWorks member Famicos Foundation for help in obtaining one of the vacant lots in the community and together they transformed it into a vibrant community garden. Eleven regular adult volunteers and 13 youth grow vegetables such as beans, kale, collard greens and tomatoes at the garden, called Ashbury Sprouts. The garden has become an opportunity to teach local children a number of life skills.

Maria Elvia Salazar in San Luis Obispo, CA came to the United States from Mexico with her two children. They came to join her husband, who had traveled to the United States for a better income by harvesting lettuce, broccoli and other crops. Despite the lack of English language and her status as “new kid on the block,” Elvia enrolled in a class offered by her children’s school, teaching parents new to the country how things work. She looked for opportunities to learn and become a part of the community wherever possible. When the local government decided to drop a bus route upon which many residents relied, she rallied the neighborhood, persuaded residents to sign a petition and show up at community meetings—and got the route reinstated, maintaining a vital resource for adults and children.

Debra Stanley in South Bend, IN returned to her original home town of South Bend when she was 34 and found work at a local free health clinic for people without health insurance. Her growing interest in outreach and prevention led Stanley to approach a local AIDS service agency and convince the staff to allow her to build a volunteer program that included peer-education for youth. In 2003, Stanley founded her own nonprofit: Imani Unidad, which supported women and African-Americans with HIV and AIDS at a time when service for these populations was lacking.

The Dorothy Richardson Resident Leadership Award honorees have gone on to do great things but the most important thing they do is practice the art of giving back – they don’t just succeed but help others succeed. Dorothy Richardson helped people see a vision of what the community could be without imposing her own vision. As NeighborWorks organizations around the country provide the local, on-the-ground work building and restoring communities all are proud to call home, we must remember how the “mother of community development” shaped the field.