As SLF helped churches deploy the Two-Pronged Approach, especially prong #1 (school partnerships), we noticed something. To use the language of faith, “we had an epiphany.” Three, actually. As noted earlier, SLF was practicing the “suburban-assets-helping-the-inner-city” model used in most American big-cities. And we were successful—many churches and many faith-based volunteers were driving into Salem’s central core to help our most at-risk schools and neighborhoods. But there was a problem—Epiphany #1: After a year or so, their fortitude waned, their numbers dropped. The longer the distance a volunteer had to go, the shorter their commitment. If it was “in sight” it was “in mind,” to put a twist on a familiar axiom. Similarly, if the volunteer’s good work was “out of sight” it eventually became “out of mind” despite the best of intentions.
At the same time we noticed that Salem-Keizer’s social ills were not confined to the inner city—Epiphany #2. The suburban neighborhoods have great needs, too. In fact, there’s more material poverty than anyone knew (or was willing to admit), in tandem with what has been called the “poverty of affluence.” Statistics showed that kids in the suburbs were using drugs, getting pregnant, and committing crimes at about the same rate as kids in the inner-city neighborhoods.
Finally, despite SLF’s success in 1) motivating the churches to serve, and 2) building bridges between the faith and civic communities, we realized we weren’t getting the breadth and depth of coverage needed. The most programs, the most partnerships, the most results were all happening in the Grant-Highland area of North-central Salem. After careful analysis we realized—Epiphany #3—that this was the same area where SLF’s lead staff person (Sam Skillern) lived. In fact, not only did he live there, he also worshipped there (one block away at Salem Alliance Church) and worked there (six blocks away in the SLF offices). Skillern attempted to apply the same degree of presence and devotion to other areas of Salem-Keizer, but this only served to reduce his effectiveness in the North-central area. It also restricted his ability to be involved at the ‘macro’ level of community leadership in addition to his personal ‘micro’ commitments in Grant-Highland.
Sparked by these findings, we began to study the map of Salem-Keizer. We began to analyze the geographic parameters and the “principle of place.” We noticed that Salem-Keizer is one (1) community, and yet we are two (2) distinct cities, side by side. We noted the six (6) high-school feeder districts, and the strong sense of “community affinity” that naturally existed in three of them: Keizer/McNary, West Salem, and Sprague/SW. Breaking it down further, there are (11) middle school communities, whose boundaries are co-mingled with (26) neighborhood associations and a total of (45) elementary-school neighborhoods. Beyond that, people live in smaller cohesive clusters that are defined by landmarks such as a park, or a creek, a historical person, a builder’s subdivision, etc.
In the fall of 2005, SLF launched a strategic-planning process facilitated by Alison Kelley, a local professional who consults with a number of public and private entities, including the Marion County Children & Families Commission. Ms. Kelley led our board of directors and staff through several months of exploration and planning, which culminated in a pair of community forums with 50 key decision-makers. The final product, SLF’s Strategic Plan, was launched: The City-as-Neighborhood Initiative. SLF’s core Vision and Mission did not change. Indeed, they were greatly amplified by the concept of “neighborhood.” Not just the high-needs inner-city neighborhoods, but all neighborhoods across Salem-Keizer. Every neighborhood has assets; every neighborhood has needs. The trick is to organize, energize and deploy the ‘indigenous assets’ so that the ‘indigenous needs’ are met. At this point, SLF stopped deploying the ‘suburban-assets/inner-city-need’” methodology. We now ask everyone, every church, every business, every agency: “What’s Your Neighborhood?” (and what are you doing to make it stronger?).