For the Community, with the Community, by the Community
Written by the Center’s first Writer in Residence, this piece explores one example of how community-informed, place-based strategies can have a positive impact on young children and their caregivers, increasing the positive influences from the broader environment that surrounds them. To learn more about why Place Matters for early childhood development, read our latest working paper here.
Incorporating residents’ voices into the redevelopment of Spartanburg, South Carolina
Over the last 12 years, residents of the Northside neighborhood of Spartanburg, South Carolina have systematically worked to transform their community into a health-promoting environment that fosters economic mobility and opportunity. The changes touch upon every aspect of life in the community—from improving their local schools’ infrastructure to developing green spaces and a community center to building affordable mixed-income housing options—all while taking steps to avoid gentrification of the neighborhood. A large part of the successful transformation is due to the efforts of the Northside Voyagers, a group of local community leaders who have worked tirelessly with the city of Spartanburg and other partners since the beginning of the redevelopment process.
The large-scale redevelopment of Northside began when Edward Via College of Osteopathic Medicine (VCOM) decided to open a new campus at the former site of Spartan Mills, a textile mill that defined the Spartanburg community and supported its economy for over 150 years. Following the decline of the textile industry and the mill’s abrupt closure in 2001, many Northside residents left. Due to the many empty homes and high rates of crime, the neighborhood fell into neglect. In the years that followed, several organizations worked to mitigate crime and improve the lives of Northside residents, with limited success.
When VCOM announced its decision to open a new campus in the Northside, Spartanburg city leaders came together with several local organizations and philanthropists to form the Northside Development Corporation, later renamed as the Northside Development Group (NDG), a non-profit corporation tasked with leading the Northside transformation project. NDG’s members knew from previous experience that community input would be essential for success. As a result, Curt McPhail, who worked in the Northside neighborhood through an organization called Stop the Violence, which focused on reducing gang violence and drug activity in the neighborhood, began recruiting Northside residents to join the initiative based upon his familiarity with the community.
Creating the Voyagers and their Mission
One of the community leaders Curt approached was longtime resident Tony Thomas. Born and raised in Spartanburg, Tony left home for college and then served in the Air Force before returning in the 1990s, when he opened his own barbershop. “In the African American community,” he explains, “the barbershop is a think tank where we get together and talk about the issues concerning our community.” Those barbershop conversations helped Tony gain a deeper understanding of the Northside and spurred him to get involved. “When I moved into the Northside community, it was pretty rough. I started to get to know all the people in the community through being a barber,” he says. Over time, Tony’s barbershop became a safe place for the local young men to gather and talk. Tony even remembers mediating conflicts between rival gang members in his shop. “I realized that a lot of the young gentlemen I met didn’t have anybody giving them guidance. So, they would come into my barbershop on Saturday mornings, and we would talk about the problems they were going through. They began to bond with each other in my place over a haircut. That’s when I knew that my purpose in this community was to bring people together and work with them because all they needed was somebody to care about them and show some empathy for what they had been going through. I became that counselor over the years and established the trust of the community,” Tony explains.
When asked to join the redevelopment project, Tony was intrigued by the holistic model centered around neighborhood residents and community engagement. “Curt came to my house, sat down at my table, and talked about the Northside initiative over coffee,” Tony states.
“He explained the importance of having a resident team to ensure the project would address the community’s needs. The goal was to do things with the community and not to the community.”
Tony was one of the 10 original residents who represented the community. The members underwent a year-long training and named themselves the Northside Voyagers. “We chose our name,” Tony states, “because we had been told that this journey to transform our community was going to take time. It was going to be a voyage. When Mrs. Debbie, a journalist in the group, said, ‘We should be called the Voyagers,’ it resonated with everyone in the room.”
The Voyagers act as the community arm of the NDG, ensuring that residents’ voices are heard and taken into account. Since the Northside Voyagers’ formation, their input has been vital to all decisions pertaining to the redevelopment process.
“Our mission is to engage and build our community, while remembering it’s rich and diverse history. Our vision is to create an all-inclusive community dedicated to prosperity and empowerment through partnerships.”
explains Tony. Open communication and active listening were key to laying a foundation of trust between the Northside neighborhood residents, the Voyagers, and the NDG. As residents themselves, the Voyagers became a source of information for other residents where they could ask questions or raise concerns throughout the journey. “The most important thing for us was making sure our community was informed at all times and didn’t feel side-barred in the process,” he states.
Understanding the Northside Community’s needs
At the very beginning of the project, the NDG, the Voyagers, and other key stakeholders held a public workshop over the course of a weekend to understand the residents’ visions for their neighborhood. “The workshop was the best thing we did,” Tony says. “When people have a voice and say into things that affect their lives, you’re creating a healthy environment. We learned that when people have opportunities and access, they have more pride. You’re empowering people. You’re letting them feel seen and capable and realize their self-worth.” During the workshop, residents were presented with a wall of images of potential architectural themes, housing options, and contemporary and traditional designs. Residents selected the features they did and didn’t want in the neighborhood by placing green or red dots next to the images. The images were collected and curated by students at Wofford College, creating an important bridge between the Northside residents and the College. By joining the redevelopment efforts and the workshop, the college and its students joined the community.
Through the public workshop and roundtable discussions over the course of a single weekend, the Voyagers and NDG heard directly from residents about their needs and desires. A key priority for the residents and stakeholders was the overall well-being and education of kids. “It’s about the children. It’s about our future,” Tony explains. In addition, they learned where residents wanted increased housing density and where they wanted more traditional single-family homes. Having this understanding enabled the NDG to thoughtfully plan and create the full neighborhood transformation plan. The continuous feedback cycle between the Northside residents and NDG continues to this day, with the Voyagers serving as the link uniting the two.
Having partners with resources, knowledge, and expertise has also been an important part of the Northside redevelopment’s ongoing success. A key partner from early on was Purpose Built Communities Foundation, Inc, an organization dedicated to revitalizing neighborhoods through a holistic approach, working directly with community leaders and focusing their efforts on the essential needs of children and their families. These efforts include providing safe places to live that are both affordable and high quality, creating opportunities for economic vitality and mobility, and increasing access to nutritious foods, high quality education, and high quality, affordable healthcare, as part of a broader goal to improve health outcomes across the board. Soon after their formation, the Voyagers visited the first Purpose Built site in the East Lake Community of Atlanta to learn how the East Lake residents transformed their community and brought this knowledge back to Northside. “We were the seventh site to join the Purpose Built Communities network,” Tony remembers. The ongoing partnership with Purpose Built, whose network now includes more than 25 sites, has given the Voyagers many opportunities to both learn from other sites and mentor newer sites, fostering bidirectional growth and learning for communities across the U.S. “We had a lot to learn from Purpose Built as we started our process. Then, in our fifth or sixth year, other Purpose Built network sites started calling us for advice.” Tony states.
“When you’re transforming communities, there’s a certain amount of humility that comes with helping other people. I’ve always believed that knowledge should be shared, not kept. It’s about sharing best practices as well as things we didn’t do well and how to avoid those pitfalls.”
Changes to the Community
With the Northside community’s key priority of providing Northside’s children with the best head start, one of the first projects undertaken was construction of The Franklin School, an early learning center for children between the ages of 6 weeks to 5 years (pre-K). The school specializes in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education for young children, giving them a strong foundation for beginning their school careers in kindergarten. Other changes to the community included creating safe, affordable housing, while avoiding gentrification. The goal was to ensure current residents would not be priced out, while also inviting new residents to move in by making Northside a “good place to call home and raise a family,” Tony states. The transformation also created and revitalized local parks and green spaces, including Butterfly Creek Trail and Cleveland Park, increasing the number of safe places for children and families to get outside, play, and exercise. In addition, the creation of Harvest Park, a farmers’ market space, and the Dr. T.K. Gregg Community Center provided residents with access to fresh, healthy foods and spaces to gather. Furthermore, access to healthcare improved with the addition of the Genesis Healthcare system to the neighborhood, providing residents with affordable, local medical care. Through the neighborhood transformation, the Northside community now provides its children with a healthy start in life and a strong foundation for the future.
“In our first year, the Voyagers gave over a half a million hours of volunteer service between us to get this initiative started,” Tony remembers. The Voyagers invested tremendous time to earn the trust of the community and gain their input, knowing that both would be essential for long-term success. As a result, positive changes are now being felt and seen in the Northside. This year, the local elementary school earned its first-ever passing grade from the state of South Carolina, a critical milestone. Overall, Tony notes that there has been a change in the attitude of the community and increased engagement. “When there’s an investment in community and an investment in people, things are different. Things change for the better. That is what has been an issue for a lot of communities in the state that Spartanburg was in. We don’t get the attention or the support from those who can help make our communities better. And, even if we do, the attention comes with the feeling that sometimes they want our communities to fail, so they can move us out and bring somebody else in. But when you have a community that stands up and says, ‘No, we won’t be moved, and we demand that you do your job. Help us to protect ourselves and make this a safe space.’ That’s how that works. Because we put the onus on them. We need you to do your job to help us keep it.”
The Voyagers continuing journey and Future generations
Since starting his journey with the Voyagers, Tony’s role has evolved. After eight years as a volunteer, Tony was hired as a Community Engagement Fellow by NDG, based on his expertise, professional development, and close ties to the community. Now, Tony and the other Voyagers are learning directly from the NDG how to manage the redevelopment process and navigate the future. By supporting the Voyagers’ professional development, NDG is paving the way for the Voyagers to take the reins and become a fully community-based, sustainable organization. The end goal is for the Voyagers to gain independence from NDG as the NDG transitions from a project-based organization to a programs-based organization in the near future. “It’s not just coming in and building stuff, but understanding what the people need, and what is going to help them sustain it when overarching organizations like NDG become just a memory. To achieve this, we need to invest in people, jobs, opportunities, and programs. Hopefully, the Voyagers will still be here to carry on this mission as part of the community being able to do it for themselves,” Tony notes. “We’re trying to prepare ourselves for the future in that way.” In addition, the current Voyagers will train incoming Voyagers, blending old and new members together, enabling current Voyagers to pass their knowledge on to the next generation of community leaders, who will drive the continuing redevelopment journey.
The Voyagers’ goal of sparking the interest of future generations does not stop there. To honor the importance of the community’s voice and ensure that it is heard long after the original Voyagers have gone, one of the new parks has been named “Voyager Park.” The park, which is located near the elementary school, will house a statue featuring the Northside Voyagers’ logo, which Tony designed at the group’s founding. “The reason we wanted that park to be named Voyager Park is to inspire children in this community, to know what volunteerism is, and to care about this community,” Tony explains.
“Often in times of abundance, our future generations think that all this development comes from the outside world into our neighborhood. We wanted them to understand that it was people in their community before them who cared and worked hard to transform it. We want the local efforts to be recognized and serve as inspiration to our future generations.”
Himali Bhatt, MD, MA, MPH, served as the Center's first Writer-in-Residence, where she worked to highlight community voices and lived-experiences through storytelling. She is currently a practicing pediatric hospitalist in Phoenix, Arizona and a public health researcher. A writer since childhood, she completed her undergraduate and graduate education in medical anthropology when she became captivated with utilizing the power of storytelling to convey data and a deeper understanding of subject matter. She has carried this interest through medical school and pediatrics training. Her research interests focus on using storytelling at the intersection of anthropology, global health, public health, and pediatric health to help children attain the best possible future.