Over the last month, our communities have been rocked by economic hardship, police brutality, and violence. Whether it’s Covid-19 or issues related to race and policing, the deep feelings of anger, despair, and hopelessness that many are experiencing are understandable, and we need effective political and community leadership to repair America’s damaged economic, social, and institutional fabric.
For those of us who work with or volunteer for community-based organizations, we know progress has been made and can continue to be made by local leaders who bring people together to solve social challenges. Civil society groups have a track record of success in helping people lift each other up and overcome challenges. They do so not by overlooking our differences, but by using our differences as an asset to help us grow as individuals, learn from each other, and better understand one another. As neighbors support each other through difficult situations and form mutually beneficial relationships, their bonds strengthen our communities as well.
In recent weeks, we have paid tribute to “the helpers.” This month, we are highlighting some of “the do-ers”—inspiring nonprofit leaders who have worked in and with America’s black communities to break down barriers and provide pathways to opportunities—an effort that dates back to the founding of New York City’s Urban League in 1910.
In 1985, Eloise Samuels, James Hunter, and a few other African-American corporate executives created the New Jersey Orators (NJO) to address “the lack of formal language skills of young people who visited and interviewed for jobs at their respective companies.” Today, NJO teaches public speaking, reading and media arts literacy, college readiness, and life skills to youth ages 7 to 18, building confidence and self-esteem along the way. Through their after-school classes and contests, NJO is closing the racial achievement gap, improving educational outcomes, fostering resilience, and much more. Since its founding, NJO has grown tremendously with a network of more than 500 members and volunteers and 22 chapters in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
Vy Higgensen is a musical theater producer and former New York City radio personality who founded Mama Foundation for the Arts in 1999 to “preserve and promote the history and fundamentals of gospel, jazz, and R&B music for current and future generations.” Based in Harlem, Higgensen’s foundation provides “access to quality training and employment as performing artists at no cost.” One of her programs, Gospel for Teens, not only passes on the gospel music tradition but has become an engine for uplifting adolescents by helping to teach self-discipline, the ability to collaborate and cooperate with others, and the focus needed to succeed academically. Perhaps even more importantly, the teenage participants, including some from troubled families, gain a family-style group of peers and mentors, who encourage their talent and support them.
Twenty-five years ago, Mack McCarter founded Community Renewal International (CRI) in Shreveport, Louisiana, with the goal of transforming communities through intentional relationship-building that transcends differences like age, race, gender, education, income level, and more. By building trust within and between communities, CRI fights disconnection and dysfunction, which has resulted in significant improvements in public safety, educational outcomes, and community members’ attitudes toward the future. One example is CRI’s Friendship House run by Emmitt and Sharpel Welch in Shreveport’s historically black neighborhood of Allendale. A beacon of hope in what originally was a low-income, high-crime area, the Friendship House offers a safe place for after-school education programs, character building, GED courses, family nights, and more. Over the years, Friendship Houses have helped reduce major crime in their Shreveport neighborhoods by nearly 45%.
These are only a few of the countless local leaders who, with the help of their colleagues, philanthropy, and volunteers, have made a difference not only in their community but for so many young people. They saw the opportunity to make a difference and took it upon themselves to do just that.
Alexandra Cohill is project manager for Civil Society at the Manhattan Institute
The Manhattan Institute's Tocqueville Project celebrates and promotes America’s long tradition of civil-society organizations and leaders who are addressing a significant social challenge in their community. With the help of volunteers and private philanthropy, these individuals strengthen our communities and keep our social fabric from fraying. For more information on MI's Civil Society Awards and past winners, visit www.civilsocietyawards.com.
Photo courtesy of Community Renewal International