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Planting Seeds of Promise

Eric Foster, left, and Ron Jimmerson, right, of Seeds of Promise.

Ron Jimmerson, left, and Eric Foster of Seeds of Promise.

Eric Foster helps run Seeds of Promise.

Eric Foster helps run Seeds of Promise.

Ron Jimmerson, board president for Seeds of Promise

In a 40-block area surrounding Dickinson Elementary School, almost 30 percent of the residents live at or below the national poverty level. More than 65 percent of the families are single-parent households and out of the nearly 270 students at the school, 75 percent qualify for the state’s free lunch program.

This racially diverse Dickinson School neighborhood houses approximately 2,000 people, of which 55 percent are African American and 35 percent are Hispanic. Issues of crime, unemployment and school dropouts are common in the area.

Despite a less-than-rosy situation, a seed has been planted by an organization focused on empowering community-driven change. The goal is to start from the bottom up, include everyone in the process and improve the neighborhood’s employment, educational and economic opportunities so that each person has a chance to thrive.

Seeds of Promise, a nonprofit organization that calls itself an urban community improvement laboratory, has recently received a $305,800 multiyear grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation to begin a self-sustaining, community-governance program in the area surrounding Dickinson School.  

Board President of Seeds of Promise, Ron Jimmerson, appreciates the dedicated work of the many social agencies who offer help to those in need, but he and his organization want to take the assistance to a deeper level, starting with the basics and going upward from there to create full empowerment.

“Society continues to give handouts instead of hand-ups,” he says.

Jimmerson believes we need to change the way we help people if any long-lasting, sustainable improvements are going to take root. Instead of telling people what to do, he thinks we should ask them what they want and then show them the way to get there.  

“If we’re going to close the gap, it cannot be business as usual,” says Jimmerson.

The Seeds of Promise philosophy is that those who live in the community must be encouraged to direct their own improvement strategy. Currently, 53 partners have committed to the neighborhood self-transformation, but they’re being asked to align their work with the strategies set forth by the community.

The Seeds of Promise project began more than 10 years ago when many churches and organizations came together to develop programs to benefit the community. The group looked at best practices such as the triple bottom line approach many corporations take where social, economic and environmental factors guide how the business operates.

Ken Steensma, of Help Build Community, was brought in as the Seeds of Promise office coach and suggested the group lead from bottom up instead of the top down. In other words, those who live in the community drive the strategy and those who serve the community listen and support these newly empowered leaders. He also suggested that whatever strategy is developed, it must be self- sustainable financially. 

With this framework and the triple bottom line approach in mind, the organization requested the grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and received it earlier this year. The grant provides funding for a neighborhood self governance initiative where Seeds of Promise will recruit and train 40 host neighbors, one for each block, to act as community leaders that will practice deep listening with the residents and work toward improving employment, economic development, education, the environment and other social needs.

Once the neighborhood is functioning well on its own, Seeds of Promise hopes to work their way out of a job.

Eric Foster, who was hired by Seeds of Promise as the community governance coach for the W.K. Kellogg grant, says he’s found no other programs in the country doing what they’re doing.

“It’s innovative and unprecedented to work from the bottom up and help build a community like this,” he says, adding that they received the grant because the W.K. Kellogg Foundation “thoroughly agreed with these principles.”

The main goal of the program is to give the residents the confidence and training to implement and manage the priorities they set. 

“We fade away once they begin to utilize their inherent dignity and talent,” Foster says.

Seeds of Promise has already recruited 15 people to be host neighbors and they’re actively reaching out to the community to get more people involved.

The 40 people that will ultimately make up the Host Neighbor Community Leadership Council will each receive a small monthly stipend, communication technology and training. Before starting, they will have to go through an interview process and a background check.  

The neighborhood governance board initiative is only one of several key initiatives to be implemented by Seeds of Promise and the community. Other initiatives that the organization plans to request grants for include:

-       A housing and community improvement initiative to maximize owner occupied housing and improve the neighborhood
-       A jobs and wealth creation initiative to increase employment of local residents and establish support systems
-       An educational attainment initiative to improve student and family learning capabilities
-       A health, wellness and nutrition initiative to establish a local community healthcare delivery system
-       A safety initiative to reduce the crime in the community.

Training for the host neighbors and residents is a critical piece of the success of the program. Seeds of Promise wants to teach the community how to manage money, attract and keep a job, maintain a house, live healthier, be more engaged parents and help keep kids out of gangs and off drugs.   

Jimmerson says our society does a good job with the social services, but that we need to teach people how to invest their money, read charts and graphs, own a home and know how to hold a job in a middle class company. He believes that teaching the behavior and dress code expectations of the business world is imperative if a person is going to survive at a job.

“When in Rome, you have to do what they do -- at least for eight hours a day,” Jimmerson says. 

The organizers of the program know it may be a challenge to get the 40 members of the governance board to agree on strategies for the community, but they hope to teach them how to compromise and develop a plan that is best for everybody.

Right now, the organization’s bigger issue is tempering the enthusiasm of the residents until they are fully trained. The reaction from the residents has been extremely positive, as no one has asked them to lead before. They’re eager to get started, but training must come first in order for the program to be successful.

Steensma cautions the group, “Before we tackle world hunger, let’s first tackle eggs for breakfast.”

Jimmerson also stresses that it’s important for the human services organizations to keep doing what they’re doing, and Seeds of Promise will collaborate with them in every way possible. The organization wants to be a bridge between all of the resources and expand what is currently available.

One of the immediate plans for the program is to keep Dickinson School open from 9 a.m. - 9 p.m. so residents can get the support and mentoring they need, when they need it.

The Seeds of Promise neighborhood governance initiative is still an experiment, or as they call it, an urban community improvement laboratory, but it has the potential to change the way we develop our communities. The organizers are confident that by believing in the people and giving them the tools to make the changes themselves, the model will work and possibly move outward from the Dickinson School neighborhood.    

“Our goal is to change the hearts and minds of the people,” Jimmerson says. “When we do that, you’ll begin to see a culture change.”

Heidi Stukkie is our Do Good editor and a freelance writer, graphic designer and marketing consultant. She is currently finishing her B.A. in Professional Writing and Journalism at Grand Valley State University. She advises everyone to finish college when young because doing it in your forties is not nearly as glamorous as it sounds. Heidi is slightly obsessed with the news and not much happens in the world she’s not aware of. You can find her on Twitter at @HeidiSocial.

Photography by Adam Bird
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