It’s around 8 p.m. on a warm spring Tuesday night at the Mt. Olive Baptist Church in Norfolk. Oneiceia Howard is hard at work fielding and answering questions before members of Barraud Park, Cottage Heights and Lindenwood Civic League. That night she is prodding participants in the meeting, seeking their input for ideas on improving and using nearby Barraud Park.
During each of this league’s gathering, at some point, during her monthly presentations, Howard will answer questions about the city’s maintenance of the park, fees for using it, ideas for community gatherings, programs and safety, among other issues.
One league member mentioned ideas for beautifying its waterfront so he and his daughter could enjoy the river which flows near by and Howard frantically writes it on a huge poster note stuck on the wall.
What about sporting events or other recreational activities or a ramp for boating and kayaking? Once the park was home to a boxing club which was moved to Harbor Park. What can that space it once occupied be used for now?
Howard is a Senior Neighborhood Development Specialist and her job, she says, is a “connector” for the thousands of Norfolk residents who live in the city’s network of 120 neighborhoods. She shares information to 40 neighborhoods about city resources, programs, and opportunities for residents to develop stronger social bonds and more resilient communities.
She also updates residents about economic or infrastructure development projects in their community such as new sidewalks, street lights, paving, upgrading or installing new power, sewer and water lines. She encourages the residents to give their input.
“My aim is to build trust and relationships between the neighborhoods and the city and each other,” said Howard. “All of our neighborhoods are unique. They are not cookie cutters … they are different in incomes, architecture, history … you name it. Some are more developed than others, and all have unique needs. Even the participation of the people in these neighborhoods will vary.”
One of the biggest challenges facing Howard and her colleagues is encouraging people to attend monthly civic league meetings.
Some of the gatherings have huge levels of participation, while others are low.
Howard said she coordinates with the presidents of the leagues in devising ways to find out if work, transportation or lack of knowledge of the meetings contributes to the inability of more residents to attend, especially in many of the traditionally Black communities.
Howard’s initial public sector job was with Opportunity Inc. where she worked with individuals from all sectors who were in need of employment and skills training. She then transitioned to the Norfolk Redevelopment and Housing Authority (NRHA) as a case manager for residents in public housing communities. She was involved in connecting residents with programs and resources to help them move from public to private sector housing, acquire employment and become self sufficient.
Howard hails from Fort Lauderdale, Florida and the military imported her family to Hampton Roads.
Howard said Norfolk believes that all neighborhoods are “neighborhoods of choice,” based on the economic, social and personal needs of individuals and families.
But she said the city advocates that residents not restrict themselves to just their neighborhood. “Each community has assets. What’s not in your neighborhood can be found in another,” she said.
“Further not all resources have to come from the city. We encourage people to develop relationships with other community partners, like businesses and faith-based organizations.”
During civil league meetings, before Howard makes her presentation, residents receive reports on crime and safety tips from a duo of police officers called Community Resource Officers (CRO).
Working in coordination with her colleagues, CROs are assigned to patrol all or part of a respective community and, according to Howard, apply community policing tactics to connect with and build relationships with the individuals and families they are sworn to protect and service.
Besides providing resources and information to residents and civic league meetings, Howard said Norfolk’s Department of Neighborhood Development sponsors and organizes the Neighbors Building Neighborhood (NBN) Academy. It offers a series of workshops scheduled periodically throughout the year to educate residents on leadership development, fair housing, code enforcement, neighborhood standards for housing issues, building conservation, homeowner and renting rights and landlord-tenant responsibilities and other topics. You can go to http://NBNAcademy.eventbrite.com to find a list of upcoming courses. Additionally, Howard and her colleagues in the Department of Neighborhood Development work strategically with residents to develop neighborhood goals.
By Leonard E. Colvin