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By empowering the people, Neighborhood Connections enables lasting grassroots change


This series of stories, "Grassroots Success: Awakening the Power of Families and Neighborhoods," explores how meaningful impact on our communities grows from the ground up. Support for "Grassroots Success" is provided by Neighborhood Connections and NewBridge Cleveland Center for Arts & Technology.
 
Increasingly, people are feeling that elected officials, leaders, and large institutions do not reflect or respect their interests, concerns, or needs. People feel polarized, left out, unseen, and not represented. At times, it can even feel like it's us verses them. One local organization, however, Neighborhood Connections and its program director Tom O’Brien, wants residents to know that we are all in this together.
 
“We don’t need to go into our corners; we need to find common ground,” says O'Brien. "This [organization] is about love and power. The love is breaking down barriers, and the power is creating change.”
 
Established in 2003, Neighborhood Connections attempts to empower Cleveland and East Cleveland citizens through grassroots programs while working with local institutions to create lasting positive change.
 
“We want to invest in human capitol,” O’Brien says. "This is neighborhood folks getting together to do good in their own neighborhoods.” He adds that the group tries to help with financial, technological, and community assets to build leadership capacity in local community members.
 
Neighborhood Connections boasts the largest small grants program in the nation, investing in resident-led projects ranging from $500 to $5,000 per grant, The organization has funded approximately 2,300 projects since 2003 totaling more than $7.5 million. Sometimes a grant is si.ply about brightening up a little corner of the world; others inspire folks to let off steam with old fashioned fun.
 
Approximately four years ago and with guidance from Trusted Space Partners’ Bill Traynor and Frankie Backburn, the group also launched Neighbor Up, which currently has more than 2,000 members. That effort encourages community members to exchange resources, support each other, and collaborate on transformative projects.
 
O’Brien says the group formed to change the environment of how people come together. It focuses on supporting individuals, providing timely information and working together to make change in the community. Residents get together to decide what they want to work on, including issues such as health and jobs. There is even an artists’ collaborative.
 
“Being involved in the public discourse can be very difficult and deflating,” notes O'Brien. “So what we’ve tried to do is change that and provide a space that is more hope-filled – and people actually get value out of it. Creating the space for people to come together to say, 'what’s the reality of what we want to create for ourselves?' instead of institutions saying 'this is what you need' – this is the plan. This is getting the people most affected together to say, 'this is what we want; this is what we need.'”
 
Organizers strive to help create an equal environment where no one dominates the meeting. There is no agenda as people sit in a circle, raise questions, and share information. Then they break off into smaller groups to discuss grassroots organizing and specifics.
 
During the initial meetings people were asking how to get jobs with large, local institutions. These discussions inspired the innovative Step Up to UH jobs pipeline project.
 
“It started as a conversation among people in this network,” O’Brien says of the effort, which identifies good candidates for jobs at University Hospital and then trains them for those positions.
 
Members also developed the Greater University Circle Community Health Initiative in hopes of lowering the infant mortality rate and abating the hazards of lead paint in Greater University Circle (Fresh Water will take a closer look at this initiative in early January).
 
During monthly Network Nights in the Greater University Circle and Buckeye neighborhoods (and in Glenville beginning in January), people make exchanges with one another, requesting and offering help and services from a ride to the doctor's office and tips on who’s hiring to assistance on painting projects, etc.
 
“We make sure there’s a level playing field in the room,” O’Brien says, “and people get value as soon as they walk [in]. It’s a place where people want to be.”
 
They also invite representatives from local institutions so community members can get to know them face to face, thus narrowing the social distance between people.

“In many ways these practices are an antidote to the rural/urban divide,” O’Brien explains. "They break down the walls between community and institutions to create something new together or get good information. There are people who are part of those institutions who can create real change. We bring people into rooms where these meetings normally wouldn’t happen.”
 
Members can also build leadership skills at Neighbor Up University, attending workshops on creating meaningful places in neighborhoods, training on community network building, and learning a variety of member-led skills on everything from marketing to running for political office.
 
O’Brien says they hope to build their network out, expanding west and even into suburbs.
 
“This approach can really make significant change,” he says. “We want to continue to crate an environment for people to come together while making bigger change. We want to make more spaces like this. We are bridging age, gender, race, orientation, social, economic differences – thousands of people from all walks of life – to make the world we want right here right now.”
 

Read more articles by Hollie Gibbs.

Hollie Gibbs earned her bachelor's degree in journalism from Kent State University and studied photography at School of the Visual Arts in Manhattan. Her articles and photographs have appeared in numerous local and national publications. She spends her free time playing guitar, taking pictures, and traveling.
 
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