In 10 cities across the United States, using an innovative approach known as the Quality of Life Framework, Habitat for Humanity currently works with local partners to help residents harness their collective power and develop the tools they need to transform their struggling communities into ones of opportunity.
With a focus on lifting up and bringing lasting change to neighborhoods, coalitions are implementing solutions as unique as the neighborhoods themselves. Here’s a closer look at efforts underway in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania— and one resident who has made the cause his own.
“See the ants?” Tommy Joshua Caison stops weeding to gesture to a colony scurrying in every direction. “I don’t want to disturb them. They belong here, too.”
Caison, founder and executive director of North Philly Peace Park, has become adept at finding teachable moments in the everyday for the small parade of kids that often trails him as he tackles projects around the park. Their eagerness is what inspires Caison to keep dreaming bigger year after year — for both the park and the people it serves.
For many, the space has become something of a second home — an escape from the city blocks that lie beyond the gateless fences. Monthly Self-Care Saturday events offer fresh produce, the opportunity to meet with a nutritionist, speak with a therapist or take a yoga class. Recently, the park became home to Green Wall Street, a green workforce development program and makerspace.
While the North Philly Peace Park has developed programs to help every age group, there is a particular focus on young people. The park, for example, has served as a classroom for a STEAM educational program for 160 neighborhood kids. Caison knows young people have the potential to lead this neighborhood of Sharswood in a positive direction — because he’s seen it here in the park. “The sweetness, the intelligence, the curiosity, the wanting to help, to make an impact — that’s real.”
For many neighborhood residents, making ends meet is a daily struggle. The neighborhood is both a food and pharmacy desert, leading to and exacerbating high rates of diabetes and cardiovascular diseases. Housing that is both up to code and affordable is extremely sparse, forcing many families to choose between having money for other needs or protecting their children’s health. Crime has proliferated. Employment opportunities have suffered.
However, Caison, a third-generation Sharswood resident, says it’s time for these cycles to be broken — and that starts by changing the neighborhood itself. “It comes down to the stimulus that you are exposed to between that young age and being an adult,” he says, nodding toward a 10-year old jumping from log seat to log seat in a circle around Caison. “North Philly Peace Park hopes to be a disruptor of any type of cycle that would lead to that young man ending up in prison or having a heart attack at a young age because of his cholesterol levels. We have been working with partners to address this reality of the need for a new environment.”
Habitat Philadelphia is one of those supporting partners. Recognizing that the needs of Sharswood extend far beyond housing, the team is looking at a holistic strategy for revitalization — one driven by the residents themselves.
The impact of this collaborative approach can already be felt. To show their dedication to the well-being of the neighborhood, Philadelphia Housing Authority relocated their headquarters there. Construction of Habitat homes has begun to increase opportunities for affordable homeownership, while critical home repairs help existing homeowners improve their homes. A shuttered high school has reopened. Beautification efforts, including neighborhood cleanups, are underway. There are plans for a grocery store to open soon.
Caison is excited for the future. It’s hard not to be. Talking once again to the boys who follow him through the park, he returns to the ant colony.
“As I was pulling up the weeds, I disrupted their colonies. All because I had my vision of what I wanted the path to look like. Even the littlest person can be affected by activities that other people do,” he says.
“We have to be mindful about that. We have to consider and care for everyone.”
Habitat’s participation in resident-led efforts like these is made possible through financial support from The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, as well as Lowe’s, Wells Fargo Foundation and General Motors. Local partners also are investing in this work in each community.