Inspiration from the DC Promise Neighborhood

I came to America’s Promise Alliance after completing two years of teaching science at an urban middle school in Miami through Teach for America and graduating from University of Miami with a Master’s of Science in Education and Social Change. The school where I taught served students who lived with the same challenges millions of children across America face: high unemployment, parent incarceration, drug use, racial conflict, teen pregnancy, disengagement from school, violence, low access to fresh food, hunger. One of my greatest disappointments was when I heard the voices of the school, parents, or members of the community assign blame for these obstacles to someone else: schools blaming parents; parents blaming schools; schools blaming the community. Deep frustration often led people to use others’ failure to justify their own lack of action. I often felt that if we all committed to a shared vision and enlisted our collective efforts and resources toward realizing it, our students would have the promise of a better life.  

When I found out that I and the other interns would have the opportunity to visit the DC Promise Neighborhood as part of my internship experience, I looked forward to observing a community that exhibited a culture of collaboration and accountability rather than a culture of blame.  I had learned about Geoffrey Canada’s efforts with the Harlem Children’s Zone to bring community partners together to provide comprehensive services to children and had been excited when President Obama discussed the Promise Neighborhoods effort in a recent State of the Union address. Promise Neighborhoods focus on improving students’ life prospects through access to the crucial cradle-to-career continuum of services that children in distressed communities need.  Having learned about the importance of local voices in a social change effort in my graduate school coursework, I also looked forward to seeing how the DC Promise Neighborhood incorporated resident leadership into their overall effort.

As we drove across the Anacostia River toward the DC Promise Neighborhood, we learned that the Parkside-Kenilworth neighborhood of Ward 7 has had some of the same struggles that my community in Miami did. I also learned of the ways parents, community leaders, schools, nonprofits, and business leaders are acting in concert to work toward improved educational outcomes for students. The entire community gathers for a community dinner each month as residents, partners, stakeholders, and Promise Neighborhood supporters to share progress on goals and to plan ahead. An early learning center under construction will employ dozens of local residents. Principals of the three schools in the neighborhood meet regularly. The school opens the doors of its gym to the neighborhood for several hours each Saturday.

Meticulous and inclusive planning has provided infrastructure ensuring that local community voices are not drowned out in this federally initiated undertaking. We met Sharita, a committed parent and local voice who serves as the advisory neighborhood commissioner. We also met the director of recreation that holds activities for students in a basement. The DC Promise Neighborhood cultivates resident participation and leadership and honors local voices.

I felt encouraged after visiting the DC Promise Neighborhood knowing that the effort represents a collective of stakeholders, both internal and external, who are jointly committed to supporting children from birth to career. I hope that as it succeeds, other communities will be inspired and shift from a tendency to blame toward a culture of collaboration.