Solution Story from East Denver
Launched in 2016, East5ide Unified (EU) is a community-driven effort in East Denver working to level the playing field for young children by helping them to succeed in school and in life. To accomplish this, they are building a network of support systems and securing a community-wide commitment to children and families. The project began after a series of conversations between residents and community organizations in connection to the Raising of America documentary series. It was clear that while the neighborhoods located in the 80205 zip code have a wealth of history and dedicated community pillars, they are suffering from deep fractures and changes as a result of myriad systemic factors, including racism and gentrification. The neighborhoods in 80205 are home to key “anchor institutions” that play a large role in serving families, but also contribute to some of the issues causing negative changes in the area.
NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA – FEBRUARY 24
Chanda Burks with her two sons. Chanda is a youth program specialist with Total Community Action, Inc. (TCA), a non-profit community-based agency dedicated to serving the needs of the disadvantaged. TCA partners with the Louisiana Public Health Institute (LPHI) to provide reproductive health education to the youth of the community. (Photo by Nina Robinson/The Verbatim Agency/Getty Images)
EU was launched with support from the BUILD Health Challenge, which allowed community members and organizational and agency leaders to come together and engage in deep relationship building and shared learning about the issues faced by the 80205 residents. They developed a community-driven Action Plan that, at its core, honored the strengths of the community. People who “live, work, play, and pray” on the East Side have consistently been the most important partners in this project. Though the original intent was to have this group be limited to residents of the 80205 zip code, displacement issues ultimately necessitated a change in that requirement, extending participation to people who live, work, attend events, or attend religious services in the area.
During this phase, EU has built social connections and shifted social norms through community events, which take place quarterly and involve a combination of community members providing input on and/or learning about EU efforts, along with ample time for informal connecting (food, games, and socializing are a core element). In addition, EU has hosted a series of “Black and Brown Conversations,” bringing together members of the Black/African American and Latinx/Spanish-speaking community, which have historically been very divided, to begin conversations about shared understanding and community healing. Lastly, male engagement efforts through EU have supported bringing together fathers and other men involved in the lives of young children.
This growing network has allowed men to come together in a safe space with other men and share their hopes, dreams, concerns, and desires around being fathers/caregivers for young children.
EU leaders have realized that positively influencing young children and families in their community requires approaches at the highest level of the social-ecological model, with attention to the complex interplay between individual, relationship, community, and societal factors. They have also realized that a truly community-driven effort requires openness in how meetings and community events are run, taking time for shared learning, and rethinking the term “expert”. As opposed to experts being recognized as those with content expertise, it has been key for this project to lean on context expertise in order to open doors for those with lived experience to be at the center of conversations. They have struggled with power dynamics, and have realized that including anchor institution voices requires acknowledging those dynamics and continually working to ensure that they maintain a strong community voice in the initiative. They have learned a lot about communication as well, both to internal and external partners. Focusing on community cohesion and social norms change has been complex and hard to conceptualize, as this work can go in many directions. As such, identifying and developing paths forward has been a challenge.
Amidst these challenges, over the past two years of work hundreds of residents have shared their thoughts and ideas about their community, and through community events they have been able to build community understanding about issues connected to young children. Through the Black and Brown conversations, they have been able to build connections and start chipping away at some very deep roots of pain and trauma. Project leaders attribute these accomplishments to bringing trusted voices in the community to the table, inclusion of diverse voices, ongoing learning, and keeping the vision at the heart of their work, revisiting it often.
The Council that serves as a leadership body for EU reprioritized EU’s goals during summer 2018, and community cohesion and connectedness has been a key focus. Now that EU has completed its 2-year start up phase funded by the BUILD Health Challenge, and is beginning a 3-year grant from CDPHE, the group is working to identify key indicators of community and civic health to be explored through existing efforts like BeHeard Mile High and others. EU is still in the early stages of development in many ways, and is still in the process of determining its ultimate goals for making a difference in the community and positively impacting community connections and social norms.
Advice on Replication
I would say to identify some foundational, core principles that you will stick to and revisit, along with ways you will ensure you stick to them. For example, the community-driven nature of this work was foundational and something that was of very high priority. The group then included the requirement of the initial Leadership Team to be at least 50% individuals who live, work, play, pray in 80205. If community norms shifting is at the heart, determine what routines and rigor will be in place to keep it there.
– Hanna Nichols, East5side Unified Leader