Members of the Northside Voyagers, an innovative group of community leaders in Spartanburg, SC

By Melanie Lasoff Levs

When Deborah Moore was growing up in the Northside community of Spartanburg, S.C., in the 1950s, it was thriving. “We had gardens, we had nice homes, nice neighbors,” she recalls. The children really were raised by a village, she adds with a chuckle. “If you did something wrong, your parents knew about it before you even got home.”

Moore, who still lives in the house her late grandfather, a bricklayer, built, moved in and out of the community for college and after marriage. But she always came back.

When she returned in the early 2000s, she says, she was shocked by trash-strewn lots, abandoned and dilapidated housing, drug crimes and prostitution that pervaded her old neighborhood.

“It was very hurtful and disturbing,” says Moore, a retired child advocate. But rather than retreat, she vowed to help change Northside. First, she participated in meetings around the opening of Edward Via College of Osteopathic Medicine (VCOM), which invested more than $25 million to revitalize the community. Then, Moore spent almost a year undergoing leadership training as part of Northside Development Corporation’s Voyagers program, an elite group of ten long-time Northside residents and community leaders that serves as advocates and spokespeople for the residents, those most impacted by the transformation.

“As a resident and a citizen who has been through a lot in the community, I want to make sure the neighbors who are coming in are getting everything they deserve,” says Moore, including safe, affordable housing, job opportunities and strong education. Voyagers serve as a bridge between the developers and community members, and share news and insights in both directions, she adds. “I know a lot of the successes going on right now are because people in the community have an opportunity to be involved if they choose, and have input and know what they are saying matters.”

Curt McPhail, project manager of the Northside Redevelopment Corporation, agrees that the Voyagers are vital to the success of the revitalization effort. “If we’re really going to impact the community for the long-haul, [residents] need to be part of the solution,” he says. Creating the Voyagers program has flipped the developer-as-expert model on its head, he adds.

“The residents are the local experts on their own community,” McPhail says. Leaders within the neighborhood help impart the developers’ plans and generate feedback from residents, streamlining the process and promoting trust. “They know everything we are working on, and the information comes straight from [other residents]. When you share that vision, you’re all moving forward together.”

For their training, the Voyagers met about twice a month for eight months, says Voyager Tony Thomas, a former Air Force officer, barber and current neighborhood association president who has lived in Northside for 23 years. Among the activities were roundtable discussions, classes in effective leadership and outings to Atlanta and Sacramento to visit other revitalized neighborhoods and participate in other classes, he adds. The group had to pass a test before graduating in December 2013.

The training “brought out a lot of characteristics we knew we had but just needed sharpening,” Thomas says, such as learning to listen actively and gather people together for discussion. “That’s what we’re using to transform our community.”

Among the Voyagers’ contributions is a hefty database of residents that includes their special skills such as babysitting, gardening and technology, according to Thomas. He and his fellow leaders also help run a food distribution program for homebound residents, and are planning a literacy program for adults and children as the recreation and early child development centers come to fruition in the coming years.

The Voyagers’ and the developer’s goals are similar: to keep long-time residents — some of whom are on a fixed income — in place and involved; draw a diverse group of residents with various amenities like quality education and jobs; and, in the long run, recreate the vibrant, safe community that Moore fondly recalls from childhood.

The developers “believe in us and we believe in them, because we are working together,” she says. “I see a healing taking place here.”