The Power of People, Partnerships, and Place

Promise Zones are proving a new model for comprehensive community revitalization rooted in partnerships, people, and the power of community.

Place defines us. It shapes who we are. Today more than ever before, we know that place also influences our access to opportunity. My place is the Detroit area — the community where I grew up. It’s the place that nurtured my family, who came from Bolivia in search of opportunity and found it in Detroit’s booming economy of the 1950s. Detroit has since been through hard times. But today, there is a palpable sense of renewal that is fueled in part by strong collaboration between the city and the federal government.

Detroit’s nascent comeback is just one example of more than 1,800 places where local vision and federal partnerships are strengthening communities. From the outset, President Obama, himself a former community organizer, charged his Administration with ensuring residents and local leaders were at the helm of community revitalization. With that guidance, we’ve been working to replace an outdated, top-down federal approach to working with communities, instead building a strong but more humble federal role. This new approach is rooted in the belief that communities are best suited to define their future, and that federal support grounded in partnership with local leaders can help turn their dreams into reality.

Revitalization strategies that are collaboratively created and locally-led are more likely to take hold and endure. We are seeing vacant lots turned into community venues, and neighbors working together to accomplish shared goals. This is especially true in 13 communities we call Promise Zones, a hallmark Administration initiative rooted in this new approach to federal partnership with local communities. Today, we announced nine more communities that have been designated as Promise Zones, bringing the total to 22 communities around the country. While the data clearly show signs of progress, especially in the first set of Promise Zone communities, what moves me the most are the stories of people and communities coming together with the federal government as a member of the team, sharing what works, and changing families’ lives. These are the stories that inspire me, and so today I am sharing a few of them with you.

Providing Second Chances in San Antonio

Crime was one of the biggest concerns for local residents in the San Antonio Promise Zone. Adrian Lopez, an official at the San Antonio Housing Authority, knew he needed a new approach to tackle it. A Byrne Criminal Justice Grant from the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) provided Adrian a unique opportunity to work with experts on using data about crime locations, repeat arrests, and more to develop strategies to reduce crime. Adrian found that one of the issues that needed attention was helping individuals on probation get back on their feet.

“They were not only arrested but were getting re-arrested and re-arrested,” Adrian said, “And their outlook on life [wasn’t] good. No one would hire them, and opportunities for school and other things [were] severely damaged.”

In response, DOJ helped Adrian create the Resurgence Collaborative, a partnership among 20 community organizations committed to helping individuals transition from the criminal justice system back into the Eastside San Antonio community. Adrian and his team helped former inmates with transportation, provided ready access to substance abuse centers, and identified jobs doing neighborhood improvement projects to foster a sense of community ownership. At a local press conference about the program, a young man — there with his family — told the story of how the Resurgence Collaborative changed his life, giving him a sense of being a part of something bigger than himself. As Adrian recounts, “his whole family was extremely grateful. It could have been the opposite. He could have been with the family because he had gotten in trouble — but we offered him [something] positive.”

Teaming Up to Improve Opportunity for Young People in Southeastern Kentucky

As an education outreach director at Berea College in Southeastern Kentucky, Dreama Gentry feared students at the college were at a disadvantage because Southern Appalachia lacked the resources to ensure students had the educational opportunities needed to succeed. In January 2014, Southeastern KY received the first rural Promise Zone designation and Dreama began to think big. She worked with federal and local partners to find ways to connect job preparedness efforts to her education work. Through the Promise Zone, Dreama began working with Jeff Whitehead, head of the Eastern Kentucky Concentrated Employment Program. In working together, “we realized we had never talked about how workforce and education have to go hand-in-hand,” Dreama said. Together, they launched a cutting edge effort called Performance Partnership Pilots for Disconnected Youth, a federally-funded program that provides flexible support to improve education, employment and other outcomes for teen parents, and other disconnected youth. Though some of these efforts are new, progress is already evident; the graduation rate at one high school in the community has soared from 67 to 98 percent. Dreama is hopeful that with the new-found collaboration underway, opportunities for young people will continue to grow.

Young People Imagine a Future Full of Possibility

Young people like Ashley, who lives in the Los Angeles Promise Zone, are starting to see a future full of possibility. Last year, two Promise Zone communities — Los Angeles and Philadelphia — teamed up to introduce a life-changing program called Promise Corps. With funding from the Corporation for National Community Service, 50 AmeriCorps Service Members provide academic tutoring, mentorship, and postsecondary preparation for high school students, ensuring they graduate successfully and have advice and support when deciding which road to take after graduation. Sofia, Ashley’s Promise Corps mentor, supported Ashley’s decision to become the first person in her family to pursue a higher education. Today, her dream job is to become a general physician in family medicine.

“There are a lot of barriers in the healthcare field and I really want to break those barriers for the Latino community.”

Thanks to two Promise Zones coming together to bring Promise Corps to life, Ashley met a mentor who is helping ensure she gets the chance to pursue her dreams.

These stories give a glimpse into how, in Promise Zones across the country, people are building a new model for comprehensive community change. It’s a model rooted in people, driven by partnership, and powerful because, in working together, we can change lives. Detroit was the place that provided my family with the opportunity to realize the American dream. It forged who I am and my deep-seated belief that a child’s zip code should not determine her destiny. In every child there is promise. It’s up to us to ensure that promise is cultivated in all of our communities.