By Todd Cohen
GREENSBORO, N.C. — On August 9, 83 people attended a forum that featured all but one of the 18 district candidates for the Greensboro City Council.
The event, held at the Central Library of the Greensboro Public Library, was the first candidate forum ever sponsored by the Greensboro Neighborhood Congress, and will be followed with a forum for mayoral candidates on Oct. 18 and another on Oct. 22 for at-large candidates remaining after the Oct. 9 primary.
The Congress is an outgrowth of the Building Stronger Neighborhoods Coalition, an initiative launched in 2000 by five local foundations and the library that pooled dollars to create a fund, housed at the Community Foundation of Greater Greensboro, to make grants for neighborhood development and activities.
So far, the fund has awarded 79 grants totaling $160,000 to support activities such as local “National Night Out” crime-watch programs, beautification programs and neighborhood gatherings, says Donna Newton, liaison for Building Stronger Neighborhoods.
“The whole idea around the Building Stronger Neighborhoods small grants is to build community,” says Newton, who also serves as interim coordinator for the Guilford Nonprofit Consortium, an initiative launched in 2004 by many of the same foundations to create networking and capacity-building opportunities for nonprofits.
A key role for Newton as liaison for Building Stronger Neighborhoods is to support and promote the grants program and the Greensboro Neighborhood Information Center, a resource created at the library with a grant from the neighborhood fund at the community foundation.
The information center, located at the library system’s Glenwood branch and part of the Nonprofit Resource Center the library launched in 1997, provides resources, a website and a 250-page toolkit for neighborhood organizers and organizations.
“We have seen in our city a growth not only in the number of neighborhoods that have formed some sort of organization, but increased capacity in existing organizations to effect change in the community,” says Steve Sumerford, assistant director for the library system.
The library’s Nonprofit Resource Center, which features roughly 400 books on topics ranging from fundraising, planning and board development to capacity-building, leadership and legal and accounting issues, has seen a steady increase in requests for books and information, Sumerford says.
And the Building Stronger Neighborhoods website, at www.greensborolibrary.org/neighborhoods, averages 700 visits a month, and some months as many as 1,400, Sumerford says.
Newton says she works to connect neighborhoods to resources they can use to “help them accomplish their goals.”
That has included helping neighborhood residents organize “to be proactive for what they needed in their neighborhoods,” she says, and encouraging and assisting them in neighborhood planning.
She connects neighborhood residents with city officials, professional planners and nonprofits, for example, and lets them know about the information center at the library and the grants program at the community foundation.
Initially funded by the community foundation, Cemala Foundation, Moses Cone-Wesley Long Community Health Foundation, Tannenbaum-Sternberger Foundation Weaver Foundation and the libraries, the grants program has been “willing to consider anything that has a component of building community, bringing people together, talking about issues, getting to know one another, working together for the improvement of their neighborhood,” Newton says.
She helps groups apply for neighborhood grants, and also coordinates the Neighborhood Congress, which grew out of a neighborhood “summit” three years ago and has 42 neighborhood organizations as members and meets monthly.
Alternating meetings on the second Thursday evening and second Saturday morning of each month, the congress works to address issues of citywide concern to neighborhoods and features talks from city officials.
Tara Sandercock, vice president for programs at the Community Foundation of Greater Greensboro, says Building Stronger Neighborhoods grew out of a national movement in the late 1990s to strengthen neighborhoods by focusing on their assets, not their needs, and providing technical assistance and connecting them to resources they could use to help themselves.
The local effort has created a “tipping point” for neighborhoods, an effort with benefits ranging from beautification to the Neighborhood Congress, which Sandercock says represents both “the essence” of the overall initiative as well as “a crossroads for interracial conversation, a common ground for a city still working hard to bridge along racial lines.”