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Fresno Shares Best Practices for Empowering Its Choice Neighborhoods Residents

EJP collaborated with Fresno Housing to apply for the 2020 Choice Neighborhoods Planning Grant and received a $450,000 CN planning grant toward the revitalization effort of the CAN target area. As planning coordinator, EJP worked with Fresno Housing and partners to manage the planning process, develop a new vision for the neighborhood, set goals and priorities for the community, determine a path to implementation, and develop a final transformation plan.

The Housing Authority of the City of Fresno (Fresno Housing) used an inclusive, equitable, resident-focused approach to successfully engage and empower residents through their FY20 Choice Neighborhoods Planning Grant. Fresno employed traditional and non-traditional resident and community engagement methods, including a tactical and interactive ground strategy with outreach workers and community activation activities; in-person meetings, door knocking, flyers, and mailings; and a multi-media campaign using various electronic and social media platforms.

Throughout their two-year Choice Neighborhoods planning process, Fresno held over 150 planning meetings with their residents, including resident meetings, community activations, resident advisory council meetings, dignity team meetings, and public meetings – attended by over 700 residents. Several elements were integral to their success:

Build Relationships First

Fresno Housing’s approach first focused on identifying and addressing immediate needs that were important to residents, whether that was minor problems residents were having with a particular property manager or something more large-scale such as education and job training needs. In doing so, they were able to gain credibility. Building on this trust, they purposefully began to create relationships with residents organically through informal and spur-of-the-moment activities, like having coffee with residents on their front porch or joining kids playing in the neighborhood. Once relationships were established, Fresno Housing invited residents to formal revitalization planning and visioning activities.

Focus on Empowering Instead of Engaging

Fresno’s intentional paradigm shift from simply “engaging” their residents to “empowering” them was central to their success. Fresno Housing relies on collaboration and partnership with the view that residents are not just the client or end-user; instead, residents are the source of the solution.

More than simply inviting the residents to meetings, Fresno Housing purposefully equipped and educated them for their new and sometimes unfamiliar decision-making responsibilities to enable them to participate actively in the discussions and activities. For example, when envisioning the streetscape portion of the plan, Fresno Housing used a simple online tool to educate residents on the language and concepts surrounding streetscapes. When residents were prepared, Fresno Housing hosted an inclusive, resident-driven “Walk and Roll” audit, a popular and fun day-long activity with walkers, drivers, cyclists, and runners, to determine the best approach to creating a walkable community. Fifteen residents were active partners in this process.

Approach with Dignity

Just before they launched their Choice Neighborhoods planning process, Fresno Housing began implementing a new framework for diversity and inclusion practices that permeated the agency’s entire organizational culture. As part of this cultural shift, Fresno started to employ the Dignity Infused Community Engagement (DICE) methodology for resident engagement. Based on collaboration, respect for the community’s culture and values, and capacity building, the DICE methodology decentralizes decision-making and establishes policies and programs that shift resources back to the impacted community. As part of its Choice Neighborhoods planning process, Fresno established a Dignity Team, composed of resident leaders, community organizers, and CAN community members who were an integral part of communicating within the neighborhood, working community events, and providing vital feedback throughout the planning process. In using this methodology, the Fresno Housing Dignity Team actively worked to address structural harm, to achieve justice, promote anti-displacement, and disrupt and atone for racism within its Choice Neighborhoods community.

Recognize and Address Past Mistakes

Recognizing and addressing past mistakes with resident engagement was both important and necessary for positive resident relationship building. Through their comprehensive resident survey, Fresno quickly learned that their past resident engagement efforts prior to Choice Neighborhoods had not been successful and did not resonate well. They were not perceived positively by residents and community groups.

Respondents pointed out, and Fresno Housing acknowledged, that the agency had, in the past, rescinded decisions and commitments favorable to residents. Recognizing this past drove Fresno’s decision for residents to be a part of the Choice Neighborhoods revitalization process’s decision making every step of the way. As a result, residents were invited to every single meeting and gathering around revitalization planning efforts. Residents responded positively and proudly took their places at the tables. With efforts ranging from correcting Spanish language errors on event flyers and selecting food vendors for gatherings, to weighing in on decisions on housing density and building structure, resident involvement now touches every aspect of the planning process from the smallest details to the major decisions.

Act on Resident Ideas

For Fresno, resident willingness to be involved and their lived experience are honored through incorporating resident-led ideas and responding with actions. This is exemplified in the story behind their beloved community center, which through visioning and hard work has transitioned an all but forgotten neighborhood eyesore to a central component of their revitalization plan. The community center was once a thriving centerpiece of the community for youth and seniors alike, offering classes, social events, health and wellness programs, and childcare. Over the years, through lack of care, interest, and resources, it turned into a forgotten, dilapidated, and dangerous building, which created both pain and resentment within the community. Fresno worked with a consultant to engage the neighborhood to first understand how it arrived at this condition and then develop a strategy to navigate through the challenges (public safety, racism, etc.) and create a vision for a new community center and the surrounding park and green area as a central component of the Transformation Plan.

Similarly, Fresno advanced the resident generated idea for establishing a farmers’ market in the community, which was their Choice Neighborhoods Early Action Activity. The need for food was the number one observation in their resident assessment and residents raised the idea of a farmers’ market.

The Resident Advisory Committee organized what a market in Southwest Fresno would look like and after exposure visits to other local markets learned more about the process. Through further resident input, the idea morphed into something more, with visions of small businesses and vendors, additional non-food resources, and music and entertainment events.

Include Historically Excluded Groups

Fresno Housing created affinity groups to further ensure traditionally marginalized groups were included. For example, Fresno Housing established affinity groups for a Black and brown caucus, houseless people, and survivors of human trafficking. They worked to identify their needs (basic and mental health services, trauma intervention, jobs placement) and address these needs through social events for integration into the community – potlucks and game nights, safety supports, childcare, and education and training.

Confront and Manage Difficult Conversations

Another element of Fresno’s success with resident engagement is not shying away from difficult conversations and understanding how to facilitate the conversation to arrive at group consensus. For example, when faced with the difficult conversations around housing density, Fresno approached the potential issue by educating their residents and community groups on what a higher density means and what its impacts could be versus the need for additional housing. They helped residents shift their language from the immediate yes or no answer to focus decision-making on key elements, such as land use, zoning policies, or funding. Working in a collaborative manner, they arrived at consensus without losing focus on the end goal of the larger revitalization.

A Successful Resident-Centered Approach

Fresno’s approach to resident and community engagement has many key facets that have proven to be successful and their continuous focus on keeping residents front and center is central to this approach. By continuously encouraging active resident involvement and providing opportunities for residents to play a role in visioning a plan for neighborhood transformation, CAN residents attended over 150 meetings during the two-year planning process. Through these meetings and other resident involvement activities, Fresno has created an inclusive plan that represents input from over 700 involved residents on their values, history, and opinions. This level of resident and community engagement speaks to Fresno Housing’s intentional efforts to listen to, respect, and value their residents’ input and will go far in creating a community in which residents voices have been heard. As Tiffany Mangum, Senior Manager, Strategic Initiatives and Partnerships of the Office of Equity and Inclusion at Fresno Housing, states “neighborhood revitalization is something we do with them and not to them.”

From Issue 125, HUD Choice Neighborhoods Newsletter: August 2023


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