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Conveners for Health and Equity in Six New York Communities: Community Convener Leah Russell – Syracuse Peacemaking Project, Center for Court Innovation

By Phil Bors on April 26th, 2022


In 2015, Syracuse, NY, became one of six communities chosen as part of the New York State Health Foundation’s (NYSHealth) Healthy Neighborhoods Initiative (HNI). The Syracuse initiative was co-led by the Center for Court Innovation’s (CCI) Syracuse Peacemaking Project and initially by Syracuse University’s Lerner Center for Public Health Promotion. Another funded partner in Syracuse, Missio Church, organized programs and events to activate public spaces and provide young people and their families with opportunities for physical activity and development. Missio Church’s work was led by Justin Baratta and Adam Bregou. The Peacemaking Project’s work, coordinated by Leah Russell and Rebecca Bostick, mobilized community residents and local organizations to activate public spaces, improve conditions for physical activity, and improve food access in the Near Westside neighborhood. The initiative also built capacity and leadership skills among residents to initiate positive changes in their neighborhoods. Healthy Places by Design talked to Leah about the HNI in Syracuse. Here are highlights from our conversation.


PB: What was your role in the HNI and at CCI?

LR: I was the project lead coordinating the Peacemaking Project. My role now is Coordinator of Community Development. I oversaw the implementation of the grant, the documentation of deliverables, grant reporting, design of the work, coordination of our partners, and the work the Peacemaking Project did in the Near-Westside neighborhood. NYSHealth was our largest—but not only—funder. The Peacemaking Project also runs a restorative justice initiative funded by the county.


What impact did your experience in the HNI have on you as a professional?

It was a life-changing professionally. Rebecca Bostick, from the Lerner Center, approached the Center for Court Innovation and suggested that they should take over the work. My bosses were over the moon about it. They told me to write down all my crazy ideas. This was the first grant where we had the freedom to write like that. The project reframed the way I see my work as an agent of systems change, period. We began to view our justice system work through the lens of public health and explore the intersections between public safety, justice system involvement, community health, and wellness. Rather than being solidly in one field or the other, we should be working at that intersection. It’s been a real paradigm shift.

In our initiative, the philosophical thread that connects it all is community empowerment. Public health and education professionals working for local agencies had been leading the work, but we felt residents should at least stand alongside the professionals, if not lead the work altogether. The key idea was to leverage resources to lift people in this community. How do we stop doing things for people and start doing them with and alongside people?

What were the greatest challenges as a community convener?

Recruitment of community members for the Community Impact Team (CIT) continues to be a struggle. It requires constant staff time and there are only 24 hours in the day. We also coordinate a partner group. It’s easier with paid partners because they show up for work. Unpaid community members need to see the value of getting involved after years of agencies coming in and asking things of them. Membership in the CIT was intentionally flexible and purposefully inviting. Many community members see it as an honor, not as a challenge. They are pleased to help. For us, we really have to put the time in. It was essential to our success. We are a people-first organization and have to make sure we’re spending enough time outside our offices to stay in touch with the community and its people.

Another challenge is evaluation. We’re always experimenting with new strategies, so our work evolves more quickly than the evaluation framework can accurately reflect or measure our impact.


What are you most proud of as a convener?

First, I’m extremely proud of our innovative and ever-evolving home agency, the Center for Court Innovation. The Peacemaking Project has changed so much over time and often the work goes where it needs to go to make the greatest impact.

But it’s the relationships we’ve built that are my biggest point of pride. I’m so proud to give residents those first-time experiences as community organizers. The people who hosted Kitchen Table Talks early on are still involved. We were able to take CIT members to a conference in Atlanta. The Peer Learning Network meetings took us to other communities and nurtured transformative bonding experiences with others doing work like us, such as those at the HNI site in Niagara Falls. We have built something very meaningful.


What are the biggest or most lasting impacts of the HNI in your community?

The HNI propelled our work to a new level. We’ve since been able to secure an influx of new resources. When the pandemic hit, we learned we are a well-organized community. The social infrastructure is there to absorb the blows that come our way. It reframed the way we see our work, especially in the last year with the technical assistance provided. We got to hand-pick consultants who helped me dive into project management and build an evaluation framework, identify resources, and create materials. Before, we were flying a half-built plane but now we have instruction manuals ready to go for the next person to fly the plane and lead the work.

Programs come and go but it’s the investments in people that last. The Near-Westside Neighborhood will still be standing for 100 years after we’re gone.

For service providers, the initiative changed the way they work. It brought a public health focus to their meetings and put a much-needed focus on well-being. It brought purpose to our monthly meetings. The service providers’ involvement has made them advocates within their own agencies and helped get them out of their offices and into the neighborhoods. You have to be in communities. You have to hire from the neighborhood.

With the Peacemaking Project, CCI has put its money where its mouth is. It was an all-White organization. Now, we have hired from and invested in the community, setting an example for and inspiring others to do the same.  The women who participate the most in the CIT have embraced the training and dived into the hands-on projects. They had the opportunity to travel and be trained as community health workers.

Young people in the neighborhood now see their aunts, uncles, moms, and fathers—their elders—being in a different place. For the first time, mothers in the community help run the programs and the young people now see them as examples and are inspired to care about the community as they never have before.

We still have a long way to go, but we were able to increase residents’ capacity. They now have the knowledge and confidence to speak up and to get paid work, too. We need to scale it up to build more leaders like them.

"My first advice is to love yourself. Take days off. You need to rest to be sustainable. Sometimes in community work, you will give more than you get back, but the grass is only green where you water it."

What advice would you offer to organizers from other communities?

My first advice is to love yourself. Take days off. You need to rest to be sustainable. Sometimes in community work, you will give more than you get back, but the grass is only green where you water it.

Don’t say yes to everything, but do build meaningful relationships. Once you start rolling, you’ll know you’re doing it right because people will want to work with you. Our team mottos are “Under promise and over-deliver,” “Be a big heart with giant ears,” and “Listen first and listen from the heart without judgment.”

Be very intentional and strategic with your partners, too. Think about who you really love working with. Show up for the people you want to show up for you. Some partners just come to promote their own work. It’s fine to have them at the table, but you also need people who will show up to get work done.


What advice would you offer to funders supporting community health equity initiatives?

Funders should be more like NYSHealth. They really heard us and they heard the community. When the Lerner Center checked in with community residents about their goals for the grant, residents told us they had more pressing concerns than what was proposed. They told us to focus first on building a safer community. We needed to listen to that and get out of the way—let the community lead. We needed to be more creative and free-flowing, not them. And we were empowered to do that by our funders.

Funders should be flexible about what the work and deliverables will look like. Listen, visit, see the work, and hang out. And more funders should use the peer learning approach. Build-in travel money and hold more convenings between communities. Lastly, I wish funders would do more multi-year grants for larger amounts of money. Three-year grants are hard to come by these days.



This blog is five of six in our Conveners for Health and Equity in Six New York Communities blog series. Read the full blog series here
Phil Bors

Technical Assistance Director

Community collaborator, enthusiastic brainstormer, and devotee of down time.