A Community Approach to Creating Opportunity for Children

By Laura Clark, M.A., Chief Executive Officer, Renaissance West Community Initiative
Originally published at www.ncchild.org


Children do not come in pieces and parts, and they do not grow up in isolation. They are members of families and communities, and when their families and communities struggle, so do the children. For far too long, our approach to improving the lives of children has been undermined by the “silver bullet disease,” which is the notion that if we just fix one thing about their experience (schools, food, etc.), then they will thrive. In reality, it takes a holistic, long-term commitment to achieve real results for our kids.

One approach is comprehensive neighborhood revitalization that includes mixed-income housing, cradle-to-career education, and other services that strengthen and support families. The Renaissance West Community Initiative (RWCI) is taking this comprehensive approach in a community located on West Boulevard in Charlotte. The initiative is based on the successful revitalization of the East Lake neighborhood in Atlanta and is part of the network of Purpose Built Communities across the country implementing this approach.

The West Boulevard area was once home to 300 public housing units where the median household income was $8,000/year. Only 50 percent of the adults had GEDs or high school diplomas, 20 percent of the children were born prematurely, and seven percent of mothers reported they had lost a child before the age of five. The neighborhood had one of the highest crime rates in the city.

Over the years, many agencies, individuals, foundations, and community leaders tried to help. Money, programs, and volunteers poured into the community, but the desolation persisted. The problem with the vast majority of these interventions was that they focused on only one aspect of a complicated situation. After three years of leading the RWCI, it’s become crystal clear that there’s no silver bullet. There is not one answer, one solution, or one program that will undo decades of bad policies, lack of economic investment and job creation, lack of safe, affordable housing, and the lack of access to high-quality education, especially in the early years of a child’s life.

Instead, it takes a long-term, holistic approach that simultaneously works to address all of those issues by focusing on both children and their caregivers. This approach requires a shift in the psychology of an entire place, and that starts with ensuring families have safe, stable, affordable housing, jobs that pay a living wage, and high-quality educational opportunities.

It doesn’t happen overnight. East Lake in Atlanta is now 20 years into the revitalization and the transformation is astounding, particularly when it comes to student achievement and high school graduation. We are three years in and we are seeing early signs of progress. We have 334 units of mixed-income housing with a wait list of over 3,000 families; Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools is building a new pre-k-eighth grade school with a STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math) theme; and, the YMCA will operate a high-quality child development center for the community’s youngest children. In addition, RWCI provides health, wellness, career support, and enrichment programs to the entire community and helps coordinate services to meet the specific needs of our public housing residents.

State policy has an important role in our local revitalization efforts, too. Many of the services and programs we’re utilizing at RWCI, like NC Pre-K and child care subsidies, are state-level investments that we’ve used to leverage private and public local investments in our community. It’s critical for North Carolina lawmakers to strengthen these investments for local initiatives like ours to thrive.

We still have a lot of work ahead of us—we know that housing isn’t enough, a new school isn’t enough, and most importantly, three years isn’t enough. Instead, success will be defined by how all of these components are woven together to create stronger outcomes over a child’s lifetime. The challenge now is to keep our community focused on the solution and not allow us to get sidetracked by the next outbreak of Silver Bullet Disease.