The Philadelphia Worry

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In northwest Philadelphia, Germantown Settlement affects its neighbors’ lives as profoundly as any government agency. In the business of providing social services for 115 years, Germantown has built or renovated more than 600 apartments in the last two years alone. Its charter school teaches more than 500 kids. Then there are the HIV clinic, the family center, and the job placement program that corrects résumés and straightens neckties so the state Department of Public Welfare doesn’t have to.

Germantown’s panoply of services attests to the deep-rooted problems residents here face, from rotted porch planks and missing street signs to drugs, gangs and teen pregnancy. Relying on community organizations to address these problems isn’t an answer; they haven’t always gotten along, and even when they do, they find few opportunities to work together.

The Settlement’s response was the Germantown Community Collaborative Board. Founded in 1996, it’s a 47-member legislature of local residents, businesses, and institutions with the power to coordinate the efforts of every housing developer, government lackey and block-party planner in Germantown.

Germantown Settlement president and CEO Emmanuel Freeman says the board aims to add new voices to the neighborhood’s longtime squeaky wheels. “It became pretty clear that there are a lot of neighborhood leaders out there,” Freeman says. “But when you ask them, ‘Who is your constituency?’ you find they’ve got a half-dozen people claiming to represent several thousand.”

So the GCCB has focused on bringing those scattered groups under the umbrella of one vocal organization. Much like a New York community board, it links frustrated residents to government agencies and other institutions that can clear empty lots, seal abandoned houses and light darkened alleyways. But the GCCB can also dole out cash. Through the board’s “mini-grant” program, modest helpings of money are distributed to community organizations with good ideas but no access to capital.

That money–about $65,000 a year–is essential political glue. Those small grants, by maintaining special projects or even simply ensuring the phone doesn’t get shut off, keep Germantown’s many cash-strapped factions involved and invested in the GCCB.

But next December, the money that feeds it will be choked off as the project’s $525,000 annual grant from the Annie E. Casey Foundation comes to its scheduled end. The next year is crucial. If it’s going to keep doing business the way it has, GCCB will have to replace all of its funding. It’s an amount so huge that it is unlikely to find it again from one source.

The alternative? Figuring out, from scratch, how to build an effective neighborhood coalition without grant money to grease the way. If the project fails to survive, the centerpiece of the foundation’s $3 million-plus investment in Germantown will have come and gone with little more to show than a trail of checks.

In the balance, in the words of one GCCB staffer, is “the whole enchilada.”

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In Germantown’s sprawling warrens of row houses, mansions and defunct factories, every handful of houses considers itself a distinct community. Place names you’ll never find on any map–Dogtown, Brickyard, Hanes Street, Duvail–dominate the psychological landscape.

Those names also define the battle lines in longstanding feuds between the area’s community organizations. They’ve clashed over land use issues and personal grudges, and many compete with each other for funding. When the Settlement launched the Germantown board, many of those organizations were suspicious. The RCI grant of $3.5 million was a lot of cash here, and the galaxy of groups already at work in the neighborhood wanted to know what the Settlement planned to do with it.

The GCCB’s members admit they’ve spent the last four years struggling to reconcile competing agendas. “Right now we’re very clearly divided; this is my neighborhood, that’s yours,” explains board member Regina Jones, a 51-year-old mother of two who was elected general representative for Wister, one of five neighborhood “sectors” represented on the board. “My hope is that the Collaborative Board will blur those lines, and Germantown becomes one community.”

Yet old loyalties die hard. In the next breath Jones adds that Wister is, in fact, “always the best neighborhood,” mostly because of the strength of the local community groups there. “Yes, it does make people jealous, but it’s got to start somewhere,” she says. “We’re not going to allow Wister to shrink and go away.”

Such “fiercely territorial attitudes” are common on the board and off, says board president Herdius Ben Jackson, an activist in Germantown since the 1950s. “It’s a struggle,” Jackson says. “People don’t want to relinquish what they have. The idea of collaboration, of sharing resources, was a milestone for some of these areas.”

Most of the board’s clearest accomplishments so far have come through direct support of existing community groups. The board has provided uniforms for football, basketball and drill teams, rakes for community gardeners, and a summer camp. It has also served as a kind of leadership training camp, introducing board members to public speaking and grant proposals.

The board has weathered challenges as well. It suffered from low voter turnout for its elections, and it has in fact not held one since 1997. Its progress has also been slowed by the sheer complexity of the undertaking. Most board members have no experience in managing a nonprofit organization or in parliamentary debate.

Most of their time is devoted to issue-themed committees, like education reform, which are supposed to improve residents’ access to public services. The social welfare committee has been working on a policy initiative called Equal Partners in Change, which identifies state and local laws that might be exacerbating problems in the neighborhood. Meeting once a month, members accomplish less as a board than as freewheeling ambassadors for the initiative.

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On a summer evening, young men crowd the corner of Chelten and Chew Avenues, sipping sodas and watching the traffic roll by. A ring of children struggles a Big Wheel off a porch and onto the sidewalk. The intersection is the heart of what the GCCB calls Sector 1, but it’s not a place easy to associate with community empowerment. The sidewalks are filthy, too many storefronts still vacant.

Hidden behind the Chew Avenue strip, the board is hard at work inside the Harambe Baptist meeting hall, where Sector 1 representative Rufus Holmes takes the microphone to explain to residents how to apply for a mini-grant.

The grants can be as little as $200 for a block clean-up, or as much as $1,500 to establish a day camp or a field trip to the Blacks in Wax Museum in Baltimore. The money can be used for anything, Holmes explains, so long as the project attacks problems in one of six areas: workforce development, education reform, health, urban development, social welfare and youth leadership.

“For the last four years I’ve been standing at the mike,” Holmes, a 64-year-old software engineer, says in his relaxed drawl. “Now it’s time for us to hear from the community about what they want….The mike is open.”

Harambe’s pastor is first up, pushing his plan for a church day care program so children “can avoid the revolving door of drugs that I came through.” Two elderly women plead to have a burned-out building on their block demolished.

Also present is Nathaniel Williams, a 20-year-old security guard and college student who recently became Sector 1’s newest representative to the GCCB. After a short speech, it’s clear Williams has captured the imagination of audience members, and speakers who follow offer him their help.

Williams is exactly the kind of young leader the board needs. Intense and well-spoken, he has the guts to take on projects that, for now, are way over his head. “I’m learning how to write grant proposals now,” he tells the rapt audience. “I expect to be building some kind of youth center in about two years.”

He’s also a case study in the vagaries of democracy, GCCB-style. Williams wasn’t actually elected to the board. Instead, Holmes simply asked him to join.

Appointing board members is the exception, according to Collaborative Board members. But his story points to a larger problem. To recruit fresh leadership talent, and encourage them to get things done, some members feel they must sacrifice a little democracy in order to gain a lot of impact.

After the meeting Rufus Holmes heads out to his car, only partially satisfied. A few of the ideas could qualify to receive mini-grants, a process that will be decided by committee in about a month. But turnout was light, he says, tossing his briefcase into the trunk, and there weren’t too many new faces in the audience.

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Drawing a big crowd would once have been the job of the Wister Neighborhood Council. After Germantown Settlement decided it didn’t have the experience to do the community organizing that the RCI grant required, it had asked WNC to do the job–for $30,000 a year.

Though there are almost as many accounts of the situation as there were participants, one thing is for sure: Wister did not deliver. Far from bringing residents from all five sectors into the board’s orbit and onto the issue committees, WNC stuck to its own turf. The board now struggles with the consequences: A weak foundation among the very residents it was supposed to work with.

Wister “had done such a good job organizing their own backyard, they seemed like a natural partner,” recalls Cornelia Swinson, a Settlement official involved with the RCI project. Since 1949, the WNC had waged a house-to-house fight against social ills in its corner of Germantown. In the process, it launched the careers of several well-known politicians and that of Germantown’s Emanuel Freeman. More recently, Wister managed to convince the state transportation department to finish a long-neglected road-paving project.

“That was the leadership then,” says Swinson. “They were responsible for great things. That is not the leadership today.”

For much of 1999, the GCCB organizer’s position at the WNC was left vacant, and sector representatives like Holmes were left to do the job on their own. The board didn’t address the problem until late last year–about $210,000 of Casey money later–when it brought a WNC organizer directly onto the Germantown Settlement payroll, and into its own office.

WNC head James Igess insists his organization did not fall short, and that while it wasn’t easy to organize in all five sectors, his group had the skill and experience to organize in neighborhoods outside Wister. “It might have been tiresome,” he said. “But it was good work, work that needed to be done.”

Germantown Community Collaborative Board leaders are less forgiving. “Wister was taking care of Wister,” says board president Jackson. “The other sectors didn’t like receiving an organizer who was from Wister. There was a disbelief that they would get anything out of it.”

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Talk of the board’s struggles is music to the ears of Democratic ward leader Greg Paulmier, the official who brought Habitat for Humanity to the neighborhood. In the GCCB, Paulmier sees nothing less than subversion of democracy.

“They decide we’re all going to start over from the beginning,” Paulmier charges. “We’ll get all the folks that can be manipulated because they’ve never been involved before, and we’ll set up this alternate form of governance…where they get to count the votes.” Behind it all, Paulmier sees the hand of “that quasi-governmental agency that likes to call itself Germantown Settlement,” spreading foundation money around the community to extend its political power.

Freeman has heard such criticisms before (though not from the neighborhood’s other elected officials, all of whom are on the GCCB). “That’s one of the reasons we felt the Collaborative Board needed to be an autonomous entity,” Freeman says, adding that the Settlement controls just four of the 47 seats on the board. Twenty-five are held by residents, and the balance belong to elected officials and institutions like LaSalle University and Einstein Hospital.

For his part, Freeman says that Paulmier is part of a political patronage system that doesn’t produce results for Germantown. “Look at the state of the neighborhood,” he says. “Politics works only for those who have access and are willing to toe the political line. We want to create access for everybody. You shouldn’t have to know someone to get an abandoned car towed.”

To enact Freeman’s vision, the board must simultaneously work from the top–bending the ears of government officials–and from the grassroots, boosting residents’ direct access to power. Yet in practice, the board functions remarkably like the political order it’s supposed to supplement. Inside the GCCB, the RCI project is held together by the devotion of board members. Out in the neighborhood, however, it lives or dies by a different currency: carefully controlled access to money and decision-makers.

Lacking an alternative model for their work, board leaders are well aware of their precarious position. When the money runs out, “the effects could be devastating,” says GCCB president Jackson.

“I’m worried about the loss of mini-grants,” he admits. “It would loosen the Settlement’s ties to the community. I hope people recognize that,” Jackson says. “I hope Casey recognizes that.”

Matthew P. Blanchard is a reporter for The Philadelphia Inquirer.