Community Engagement & Empowerment
Greek philosopher Zeno of Citium is attributed as saying: “The reason why we have two ears and only one mouth is that we may listen more and talk less.”
How do we help a community when we don’t know what it needs? All too often, those with the resources to touch the lives of many take it upon themselves to determine how that assistance will be delivered. The voices of those being served are largely ignored.
At Greater Bergen Community Action, Inc., we know the global issues that affect our communities – lack of affordable housing, low-paying jobs, expensive childcare, pitfalls in the healthcare system, etc. – but many of the problems lie beneath. They exist in geographical pockets, or across our entire service area, but remain buried unless we go pull them out. And that’s how we realize how we can use our capacity, or leverage the capacity of our partners, to better serve our communities, families, and businesses in need.
I use our Community Development efforts as an example. In the City of Garfield and the City of Hackensack, we administer, on behalf of the municipalities, a Neighborhood Preservation Program to help revitalize two distinct and underserved neighborhoods – River to Rail in Garfield and the Anderson Street Historic Neighborhood in Hackensack.
When we were awarded both grants, our agency observed the districts. We saw the obvious issues – outdated storefronts, litter, poor lighting, and lack of public safety controls - but knocked on doors to get the real story – we stood back and listened to our new neighbors. We heard of problems, wants, and needs that would have never been apparent by a simple neighborhood tour. In Garfield – the old Rivoli Theater was a great arts venue that had long been closed. Can we reintroduce the arts again?
In Hackensack, the street was unkept and drove customers away from the businesses – what can we do to aid an overall streetscape? Then, we reached out to a wider audience – those that may not just live, work, or do business in these neighborhoods. We sought the opinions of all City residents, to see why they may or may not visit the neighborhoods as frequently as in the past – or at all. The responses were overwhelming, and so were the reasons, giving GBCA a better notion of the immediate actions that needed to be taken to empower those with ties to these neighborhoods, and help to shape their futures from within.
Many of the initiatives repeated over and over throughout our discussions have been or will be implemented in the neighborhoods to make each a better place to live, shop, worship, socialize, and own a business. All of this is being done because we listened.
As Covid-19 was in full force in 2020 – GBCA again looked to its neighbors to tell us what they needed in a time of unprecedented strife and despair. We knew that the residents of southern Bergen County were experiencing disproportionate social determinants of health due to their isolation from vital services located elsewhere in the County. We polled what was determined to be the most marginalized population, the residents of Garfield. Nearly 200 residents responded to a comprehensive survey on the health and wellness inequities and barriers they face daily. We heard of debilitating mental health issues and the lack of readily available help when residents needed it most. Families that were forgoing meals because their food insecurity had reached insurmountable levels. Households that have not seen a doctor in years because of lack of insurance.
We listened, and we’re reacting – and so are our community partners – all of whom are in the midst of creating a progressive and first-of-its-kind health and wellness center: Unity Health Partnership. GBCA is leading the development of this project on Midland Avenue in Garfield. It will be anchored by the Community Food Bank of New Jersey, which will operate a customer-choice food bank where those facing food insecurity won’t simply get a bag of food that doesn’t suit their dietary needs – they shop for their own food. Bergen Volunteer Medical Initiative (BVMI) will open its second Bergen-based clinic, offering vital healthcare to the employed, but uninsured. Comprehensive Behavioral Healthcare (CBHCare) will fill the gap by providing mental health and counseling services to those with no other place to turn. And local and regional health departments will occupy space to address the needs of all community members with education, free clinics, and other public health matters.
This partnership has been made possible because we listened. We heard the needs and empowered ourselves through strategic collaboration to help eradicate those service gaps and the inequities that exist far too often in our diverse households.