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A Corridor of Opportunity

By Risa Wilkerson on November 21st, 2019

In late October, more than 100 residents of Danville, VA gathered over dinner to celebrate the unveiling of their Opportunity for All: Quality of Life Plan.

The passion, pride, and love for their communities was palpable as life-long residents shared messages of hope and dedication (“We have everything we need to create change in this room.”) and practical action (“We need to give our young people something to do.”). The Plan lays out a unified approach and showcases community members’ efforts to increase quality of life in their neighborhoods.

Since 2016, the Danville Regional Foundation (DRF) has supported capacity building opportunities for residents in three neighborhoods collectively called the Opportunity Corridor, which comprises the North Danville, Southside, and Westside neighborhoods. During early stages of this support, DRF’s Senior Program Officer, Wendi Goods Everson, led 10 interns who connected with residents within local neighborhoods to understand skills, personalities, associations, institutions, structures, and relationships within that particular community. This information helped DRF and residents identify which resources are available, and which are still needed, that would help the neighborhoods thrive.

Those efforts formed the foundation for the Opportunity Neighborhoods Initiative, a 10-year effort launched by DRF to expand access to opportunity and improve the quality of life in the three Opportunity Neighborhoods. Healthy Places by Design, with support from DRF, coordinated and facilitated the community listening sessions—ranging from one-on-one interviews to large forums—that informed data-gathering for the Plan. Our team led a process that enabled residents to share their priorities for enhancing quality of life and discuss potential policy and systems changes. We transformed what we heard into a document that residents can proudly call their own.

To me, this Plan is especially unique and exciting because it is 100% owned by community members.

Healthy Places by Design usually works with governmental and nonprofit groups that are bound to parameters set by external funding agencies. In contrast, this Plan didn’t need approval from a governmental body; wasn’t subject to outside pressure; and its success will be determined by the people who wrote it.

DRF wanted the action items in the Plan to emerge from residents’ priorities. The Foundation also wanted to be part of this process without driving it. To achieve this, Healthy Places by Design incorporated iterative learning activities (like distinguishing a policy, systems, or environmental change from a programmatic or shorter-term activity) as well as active listening and constant refinement. For example, we built in additional time into the quality of life planning process to ensure that decisions were democratic and made by and for residents. Our role allowed DRF to be involved without creating a power imbalance with residents.

Residents in the Opportunity Corridor have long felt overlooked, marginalized, or forgotten. The region’s Health Equity Report shows that residents in the Opportunity Corridor (of which 70 percent are Black) are at higher risk for poor health outcomes and reduced economic mobility than residents in Danville as a whole (49 percent Black). This is due in part to historic and systematic racist policies which still have a reverberating impact in the Corridor. The Plan, however, does not intend to point blame at individuals or organizations; rather, it addresses systemic injustices that the Opportunity Neighborhoods, like so many places across the county, will have to intentionally work to overcome. And in continuing the interns’ earlier asset-based approach, the Plan also offers solutions.

The City of Danville, its various departments, and non-governmental groups are working with the neighborhoods to align and increase access to services. The Quality of Life Plan compliments those efforts by helping residents envision possibilities, shift power to those who will be most impacted; and will allow community members to recognize themselves as experts. Although implementing the Plan will require external support, it underscores the ability of the Opportunity Corridor to define its own priorities and strategies for action.

Moving forward, Healthy Places by Design and DRF will continue to support this work. We will co-design a more formal structure for community leaders; residents will identify decision making processes for advancing strategies; and continuous learning opportunities will bolster everyone’s understanding about what’s needed to get where they want to go.

Risa Wilkerson

Executive Director

Action-driven optimist, abundance thinker, and simplicity seeker.