From PACT in Columbus, Ohio: A Transferable Approach to Community Engagement

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Every neighborhood is unique. Every neighborhood is the same.

The local history, the dynamics of culture and the members of a community define a place at a moment in time. Yet, no matter the variables that make each neighborhood special, people everywhere want access to quality education, good jobs and a safe, healthy life for their families.

Realizing that vision for neighborhoods in transition requires intentional community engagement which addresses the largely predictable outcomes of historic under-investment while elevating the distinctive character of a place. Across the Purpose Built Communities Network, some proven principles to guide genuine involvement from residents have emerged.

In Columbus, Ohio, ongoing, transparent and relevant opportunities for residents to ask questions, share their ideas, help drive transformation and get to know each other are enabling Partners Achieving Community Transformation (PACT), the community quarterback organization working in the Near East Side, to make deliberate and meaningful progress with community buy-in. Their experiences offer some best practices that can be applied to any neighborhood.

Intentional from the beginning
Through the middle of the 1900s in racially-segregated Columbus, well-known African-American entertainers, such as the likes of Sammy Davis, Jr. and Ella Fitzgerald, frequently performed to white audiences downtown, but they were not welcome as overnight guests in that part of the city. They instead spent their evenings performing again and sleeping in the Near East Side – a vibrant, predominately African-American residential area where people grew businesses, developed as leaders and supported each other. In the 1960s, a new interstate highway changed the development patterns and further separated Near East Side neighborhoods from downtown. Traffic dwindled on the once-bustling streets where small businesses had thrived, and the decline continued over the next several decades.

Seeing the need and opportunity to reinvest in the Near East Side, partners from The Ohio State University, City of Columbus and Columbus Metropolitan Housing Authority formed PACT in 2010 to foster a financially and environmentally sustainable, healthy community where residents can have access to safe and affordable housing, high-quality, healthcare, education, and employment opportunities. PACT engaged the community for more than two years and held dozens of public meetings, open houses, community conversations and other events. From those efforts emerged the Blueprint for Community Investment, a comprehensive, long-term strategy that helps guide the redevelopment efforts within the PACT geography. Since its adoption in 2013, PACT, with the support of its funding partners and its residents, has been working every day to implement the Blueprint.

PACT executive director David Cofer said he is proud of the achievements to-date, made possible by the hard work of the community and those that laid the foundation before him, but quick to point out that intentional community engagement is the underlying element that makes all of the successes, past and future, possible.

“When you are authentically looking to engage residents, that means you are opening yourself up to all they are going to bring,” Cofer said. “Residents may have a level of mistrust because so much has been done to and upon them. They may have felt left out versus being invited in to be a part of change. From the beginning, PACT has wanted this to be a journey we are traveling together.”

Guided by this approach, Cofer and the PACT team and partners have developed community engagement tactics that put residents at the center of the change, and the intentions behind their work are universally relevant.

Know your audience
As the organization formed, PACT talked extensively with neighborhood residents in small, informal settings and held open house events to give residents an opportunity to learn more and get involved. To give residents a chance to meet Cofer when he took over as executive director in 2017, the team resumed open house events. Based on the response, they have continued to regularly open their offices. “Each month, we clear our calendars and sit here in our offices, ready to meet whoever walks in the door,” Cofer said.

To accommodate different schedules, the open house events rotate between early morning, midday and evening, and light refreshments are served. “Some people we see every time, others come in with a quick comment or question. The opportunity to engage with us in that informal way is appreciated,” Cofer said. “At a recent open house, a representative of a firm that rehabilitates homes came by. I didn’t have to pitch her on what makes this neighborhood great. She got to hear it from others who live here.”

Meet people where they are
Engaging the community literally starts at the front door of the PACT office where the open house events are held; the partnership works out of an inviting home nestled in the neighborhood. “It does not look institutional,” Cofer said. “We gather around a fireplace in our conference room. We are completely accessible to those we seek to serve.”

Another consideration that guides their outreach is the presence of more than 40 organizations in the faith community. Some churches were founded as far back as the mid-1800s. By working through and with faith groups, PACT has demonstrated that they too are making a long-term commitment to support the people and institutions that call the Near East Side home.

Leverage assets and fill gaps
That commitment has extended into creating programming that honors the past and meets the needs of today’s Near East Side residents. Located in the heart of the community, the historic Lincoln Theatre opened in 1928 and was once known around the country as a venue that fostered the careers of jazz musicians. It operated as a performance venue and movie theater for decades but closed its doors as the community declined. As partners and residents began to envision a future of opportunity, the theater re-opened in 2009 with an infusion of capital from the City of Columbus, Franklin County and numerous other funders and donors. 

“We want to showcase the best of this community, so we host an annual film series at the theatre to offer safe, low-cost family-friendly entrainment right here in the neighborhood,” Cofer said. “Building mixed-income communities is a big part of the Purpose Built model, and the film series is an intentional effort to create places and opportunities that cut across race and class. Movies do that.”

The lively atmosphere in the hour before films begin draws people in. “Success is seeing little girls dressed up and taking a photo with the Lincoln Theatre as the backdrop,” said Lane Washington, a graduate assistant who works with PACT and orchestrates the film series. “We love getting emails saying, ‘we are bringing a bus from our retirement home,’ to the films.” Washington said attendance is increasing each year and plans for the next series are already underway.  

Beyond PACT
Community engagement is not a discrete task. It is not a box to check on a to-do list. Understanding the importance of ongoing, respectful and transparent relationships with an ever-growing number of people is critical to the success of a community quarterback organization.  

“As communities revitalize, it means they are likely attracting more middle and upper income families,” Cofer said. “Part of the challenge is to ensure that residents who have been here can stay here – and that they feel like they belong as the culture evolves. We are continually looking to do things that bring people of different backgrounds together to define and to be a part of the place where they want to live.”

Sharing best practices and lessons learned across the country is a key element of the Purpose Built Communities Network. Sign up for our monthly e-newsletter to receive more news from the network and resources to inform your work.