Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Engaging Neighborhoods In Citizenship

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
Chief Reporter

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