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San Diego Neighborhood Helps Itself

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Aired 5/5/10

The small Southeast San Diego neighborhood of Broadway Heights, which borders Encanto and Lemon Grove, has developed a very active community council and a unique youth council which have worked to eliminate drug houses and essentially put a stop to crime. The SDPD has described Broadway Heights as a model community.

Special Feature "Fostering Community Under 192 Roofs" -- voiceofsandiego.org

Screenshot: Broadway Heights residents Booker Sanders, 7, and his 8-year-old sister, Kiari, are featured in an article by voiceofsandiego.org.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. Ask people in San Diego where Broadway Heights is and you might get nothing but a lot of shrugged shoulders. It is, after all, one of the smallest communities in San Diego, made up of only about 7 blocks and fewer than 200 homes. But this small neighborhood in the southeast of San Diego may have some big lessons for the whole city, lessons in how to build community, how to welcome newcomers and how to turn your neighbors into friends. In the last 20 years, Broadway Heights has transformed itself into one of the lowest crime neighborhoods in San Diego. And that's just part of the success story. Here to share more about Broadway Heights are my guests. Robert Robinson, he is senior case manager for United African American Ministers and founder of the Broadway Heights Community Council. Rob, welcome to These Days.

ROBERT ROBINSON (Founder, Broadway Heights Community Council): Well, thank you, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: And Voice of San Diego reporter Adrian Florido is here. Good morning, Adrian.

ADRIAN FLORIDO (Reporter, voiceofsandiego.org): Good morning, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: And we’d like to introduce – we’d like to invite, that is, our listeners to join the conversation. What do you know about Broadway Heights? Have you seen the community change? Or perhaps you have a question about how to bring your own neighborhood together. Give us a call with your questions and your comments. Our number is 1-888-895-5727, that’s 1-888-895-KPBS. Adrian, you recently did a feature story about Broadway Heights. Describe where it is and what the neighborhood looks like.

FLORIDO: Sure. Broadway Heights is a – it’s a small, 192-house neighborhood tucked into the hills of southeastern San Diego. It’s the northeastern-most neighborhood in that part of the city, and one of the smallest. And one of the things that struck me the first time that I drove there to visit Robby at his house was this really sort of neat community sign at the base of this hill that was really well kept and they had a lot of these little sort of seasonal decorations out in front. And it was part of a small grants project that the Broadway Heights Community Council had instituted to have kids within the neighborhood sort of take charge of small projects that would beautify the esthetic quality of the community. And so I drove up this hill, taking Mallard Street and turned onto Robby’s street and I was impressed just by how neat most of the, you know, yards in the community were, by how well lit the streets were, by how quiet it was. And we’re talking here about, you know, a community in southeastern San Diego, which, you know, justifiably or not, often sort of gets a reputation for violence, for drug crime, for, you know, sort of other ills, and it struck me that I saw absolutely none of this when I first drove into Broadway Heights. So it was really great.

CAVANAUGH: Now I have to admit, you know, I mean, I’ve lived here for awhile.

FLORIDO: Umm-hmm.

CAVANAUGH: I haven’t heard about Broadway Heights. How did you hear about it, Adrian?

FLORIDO: You know, I actually hadn’t heard about it either. I, you know, I report on neighborhoods in the city and so I sort of keep an eye on the different neighborhood websites and sort of community organization websites. And in southeastern San Diego, there’s an organization called the Coalition of Neighborhood Councils, which is sort of an umbrella organization for the 23 community councils across southeastern San Diego. It’s a place where they can come together and talk about sort of neighborhood issues on a sort of broader kind of regional level and sort of try to coordinate among themselves and among each other. And so I was sort of scanning one of their websites and saw a little picture of this little girl, the girl who was – is – was maintaining the community sign and said, huh, that – there sounds like there might be an interesting story there. And so I got in contact with Robby, who is the chair of the community council and found out that the story of Broadway Heights was so much larger than the story of this little girl keeping up a community sign, that that project was just sort of the entry point for what turned out to be a really impressive community organization that I never would’ve found out existed.

CAVANAUGH: Before I start talking to Robert Robinson, I just want – tell us a little bit more about what struck you about this small neighborhood of Broadway Heights as you just encountered it as you began to drive through. What is it that intrigued you about this place?

FLORIDO: I think, you know, I think what it was is that Broadway Heights is just north of the street called Mallard. And Broadway Heights is separated by Mallard from another neighborhood, Encanto, which is often the neighborhood that kind of gets the most – gets the most flack, I guess, when people think about southeastern San Diego. Encanto people often associate with crime and that sort of thing, and there are a lot of great things happen in Encanto as well but it’s sort of got that reputation. And so what struck me was that it was so close, sort of separated from Encanto just by that one street and yet was, in a lot of ways, a world away, you know. And then when I first attended the Broadway Heights Community Council meeting several weeks ago, I was impressed by the diversity of the people who came into Robby Robinson’s living room just to talk about neighborhood issues and how warm it felt and how sort of – everyone just sort of seemed to know each other and talk about sort of personal things, about neighborhood things, about the things that needed fixing in the community, and how inclusive that meeting felt.

CAVANAUGH: We are talking about the neighborhood of Broadway Heights in San Diego. If you live there or if you’ve seen that community change or you’ve been part of that change, we’d love to hear from you at 1-888-895-5727. Robby Robinson, you are the founder of the Broadway Heights Community Council and I believe you moved into the neighborhood about twenty-five, -four years ago. What was the neighborhood like when you moved in?

ROBINSON: Well, let me just say about being the original founder and neighbor…

CAVANAUGH: Sure.

ROBINSON: …there were a group of people that were involved with this activity when we came together. Ralph Barnhill, Sr., Willie Williams, the Williams family, and other folks in the community wanted to do something about some of the problems. We had a few drug houses, we had some negative activity by kids doing certain things, and so we wanted to clean that up because we wanted to look at how property value mattered. We wanted to have a better quality of life, and we wanted that quality of life to really work for all of Broadway Heights and even as much as the whole city of San Diego, if we could do something to support that. So that’s how we got started. So I’ve just been one of the drumbeaters for the community for the last twenty-odd years to make sure that we had a vision, we had a purpose in the community, we had a purpose for folks like the Sanders and the Youngs in the neighborhood, folks who matter and folks who believe in raising their kids, and we wanted our neighborhood to be a vibrant neighborhood.

CAVANAUGH: Okay, so a lot of people have visions and goals for their neighborhoods but sometimes they don’t make it happen. So what did you do? What did you start out doing back then?

ROBINSON: Well, when we started out, we were committed. In any neighborhood, in anything you do in terms of organizing, you got to be committed to what you do. So there’ll be uptown, downside things to it, but you’ve got to go for it. You’ve got to make it happen. And so we made a commitment, folks like Ralph Barnhill and myself and my wife Barbara and the Williams family and some of the other families in the community, the Sanderses and the Halls, we made a commitment that we want to make this thing work. It’s a goal and we in for it for the long haul, no matter what. And that’s how we made it work. And as we began to do our thing in the neighborhood and look at how the neighborhood was a vibrant neighborhood and we were close into town, we were about 10 minutes from downtown, we said, hey, we need a structure, and that’s how the organization got started. And we created a structure. Myself and Mr. Barnhill, we used to have long conversations, and once we put that structure in place, that’s been our marching orders and our guide for us, and we’ve always, always had a vision for the neighborhood and we’ve always had ideas to make change in our community, and that’s what we continue to do twenty-some years later.

CAVANAUGH: Now did you go out in the neighborhood, knock on doors?

ROBINSON: Oh, absolutely. We did a survey. We asked people what was going on, what did they want to see change? What was some of the things that was happening in the neighborhood that they was uncomfortable with. Where we having problems with the city? Was the city looking after us? Was – I mean, you know, we did a plethora of questions and so that’s how we got started. And the very first meeting that we had was at my house.

CAVANAUGH: Uh-huh. And I also heard that you and Mr. Barnhill, is that his name, you used to call each other up in the middle of the night, I got an idea?

ROBINSON: We – You’re right. I got an idea. We would talk eleven, twelve o’clock at night, one o’clock at night, brainstorming, making sure that we would leave no stones unturned and making sure that people would follow along and we would all be in hand, in lockstep together when we was trying to create this vision.

CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Robert Robinson. He’s one of the founders of the Broadway Heights Community Council. And Voice of San Diego reporter Adrian Florido. We’re talking about Broadway Heights and its turnaround in the last 20 years as one of the lowest crime neighborhoods in San Diego. It’s just been the subject of a feature report by Voice of San Diego reporter Adrian Florido. And I want to let everybody know that they can join the conversation if they’d like at 1-888-895-5727 or you can go online, KPBS.org/thesedays. I want to ask you, Robby, when you were knocking on those doors, when you got the community together right in the beginning, was there resistance? Did –people don’t want to have anything to do with this?

ROBINSON: Oh, you got it.

CAVANAUGH: Uh-huh.

ROBINSON: I mean, that’s part of the rejection of organizing but you had to keep knocking. People, I don’t want to be bothered, I’m not going to get in there, you’re getting ready to create a snitch group, you’re getting ready to make a problem for us, we don’t want no problems here, we just want to live. But we continued to move forward, continued to do the things we do. Now some of those same folks that resisted us from the beginning, guess where they sit now?

CAVANAUGH: They’re on your committee.

ROBINSON: They’re in the meeting. They’re in the meetings and they got ideas. And, you know, some of those same folks that resisted putting that together, when they have problems, guess what they do? They make that phone call. They make that phone call. And what we did was, early on we had celebrations, we bonded and became a good entity with the police department and working with the police department till today we have our own police beat in the whole city of San Diego. We have our own personalized police beat, and that’s 435, and that was developed by – because doing community policing work.

CAVANAUGH: Adrian, I know that you spoke with members of law enforcement and the police department about Broadway Heights. What’d they tell you?

FLORIDO: They said that Broadway Heights had one of the lowest rates of crime in the city and – though, I didn’t speak with him personally, I was able to see on a little documentary video that the Broadway Heights Community Council put together, the Chief of Police, William Lansdowne, saying that Broadway Heights did, in fact, have one of the lowest rates of crime in the city and that he was so impressed by it that he thought it should be used as a model for neighborhood organization across San Diego. I think it’s really important – Robby, if you could talk about sort of the organizational structure of the neighborhood. The community council sort of tries to implement on a very, very small, local level these sort of – sort of a form of government almost that you would see in something like a city or a state. And there’s an organizational structure that delegates responsibilities to members of the community council ranging from – everything from youth engagement to external relations to, you know, block party organization, to bereavement. When a member of Broadway Heights – of the Broadway Heights community dies, a group of people come together to plan the bereavement process for the neighborhood because it’s that close. Could you talk about, Robby?

CAVANAUGH: Yeah, I’d love you to. In fact, so just to be clear, this is just not something you’re making up as you go along, you’ve got some really firm rules and regulations about how this neighborhood works.

ROBINSON: Oh, absolutely. We have an organizational structure and we have specific committees. We have specific goals. We got this charter. We follow it. We got a set of bylaws. It’s not a one-man band. It’s not something that we’re shooting from the hip to make happen, it’s something that we do in a real construct, concise kind of way, that we know what the rule is, we follow the rule, we make it happen. Now that’s not to say that we don’t have to readjust or make things, it – I’ll just give you an example. You mentioned the bereavement. We have a couple ladies in the neighborhood that’s in charge of that. If something happens in the neighborhood, whether somebody’s sick, her name’s Katie Barnhill and Juanita Williams, if somebody’s sick or somebody pass away in the community or a family member has someone pass away, they immediately go to the ready. They have a phone tree, they start triggering people, they start doing things. What’s the beauty about this is not only do – if there’s someone dying in the community, we take care of that family until that person that pass away that’s in the ground, whether we got to feed them, we got to go by, we got to check on them. Not only that, if an individual goes out of town, have to go bury a loved one, so we call it passing the hat. In our community, we have a lady called Juanita Williams, she stands in front of her garage at five o’clock in the morning when people are on their way out of the neighborhood going to work. They stop by and put money in that. By the time that person get ready to leave town, there’s no telling how much money’s been collected for that person to go out of town. That’s the beauty of this structure. This structure allows for people to have. We have chairs in the structure, we have vice chairs in the structure. We have certain specific things that go with each committee. Like Community Concerns Committee, we’ll have things that where we got this youth group now that falls up under youth activities where we’re doing things with our kids where they have their own council. So structure’s there. We have guidelines for the kids for they council. We have guidelines for the major council. And we have our set of bylaws. And nothing can happen without everybody, there’s a check and balance for that. So it’s a governmental structure at a smaller scale so we know what it is. So I just can’t come and run roughshod over the community and do something. And we’re not a 501(c)3.

CAVANAUGH: That’s good. Now let me ask you. This is so – this is such a really sort of brilliant community organization. Did you do this before or was this your first toe in the water with the Broadway Heights Community Council?

ROBINSON: No, the toe in the water was when I was born.

CAVANAUGH: Ah.

ROBINSON: My father. My father was in the movement. My father was the organizer of the Freedom Train for the march on Washington. He was a conductor. He was a personnel person for the Atlantic Coast Seaboard Railroad back east and he rode on the Champion. And so early on, as a young person, I learned how to organize by being in the NAACP Youth movement. And since that day, I have used those concepts, those mechanisms, those methodologies, to continue to do. So as we’ve grown in Broadway Heights, we continue to use our organizational skills that we learned early on and it works.

CAVANAUGH: Let me ask you more. In fact, I want to start out with Adrian because you start your feature with two of the kids…

FLORIDO: Umm-hmm.

CAVANAUGH: …in Broadway Heights. And we meet Kiara – Kiari, I’m sorry, and Booker Sanders, and they’re at the sign. As you say, there’s this great picture of them both at the Broadway Heights sign.

FLORIDO: Umm-hmm.

CAVANAUGH: And what kind youth community did you find when you went to Broadway Heights?

FLORIDO: I was extremely impressed by how closely the youth council and the youth community within Broadway Heights works with the adult community. Broadway Heights has really, really embraced its kids because, you know, the – a lot of the – you know, Robby was telling me a lot of the problems that arise in neighborhoods across the city arise from kids who get involved in sort of negative activities and so they really wanted to get the kids involved in making decisions within Broadway Heights and so they created, about five or six years ago, this youth council, which, in a lot of ways, parallels the structure of the adult council in the decision making process.

CAVANAUGH: Is it all written out with the bylaws and all structured the same way?

FLORIDO: All structured the same way.

CAVANAUGH: Wow.

FLORIDO: They’ve got their own chair, they’ve got a treasurer, they’ve got a secretary, and so the kids have their own monthly meeting in which they talk about the issues that they’re working on. So, for example, right now they recently decided they wanted to rename one of the streets within Broadway Heights. It’s the shortest street within the community, it’s called Westin Street and there are no houses that face it, so they figured that that would be the easiest street name to change and they want to change it to Martin Luther King Jr. Street because there’s no surface street across the entire city named after the late civil rights leader. There’s the 94 but no surface street. And so the kids have mobilized and have gone around collecting signatures, and they’re working with Councilman Young’s office, who regular – whose representatives regularly attend these meetings to try to get that done. And so I was really impressed by how active the kids are within Broadway Heights and how much the adults realize that that’s an important part of the process of community building. So when Robby said earlier that they pass the hat, he literally means they pass the hat. At the beginning of each meeting, he takes off his hat and passes it around the living room and people pull out their wallets and put ones and fives into this hat, which then they collect for a scholarship fund that’s going to benefit kids within the community. And so the last meeting I was at, they collected something like $27.00. And so it’s all these little small things that kind of, you know, you sort of put together that make people in the community from kids to adults to senior citizens feel involved and feel motivated to keep it going, so it’s that momentum that they’ve built that has made Broadway Heights such a successful neighborhood.

CAVANAUGH: You know, there is a woman quoted in your article, Adrian, and she says she’s got a teenage son and she said, you know, when we first moved here, he wasn’t doing well in school, you know, I was concerned about what he was getting involved in. Now, you know, he’s part of the youth community organizing committee and – So my question to you, Robby, is how do you do that?

ROBINSON: Well, how we do it is, is just like I said about 15 minutes ago, is that we are a community. We are a beloved community and we have a lot of diversity so we start there. We use the multi-generational approach. The ‘each one teach one’ methodology, meaning that the kids cannot learn or they cannot learn to respect their neighborhood if they don’t have someone directing them and guiding them. So the kids become all of our jobs. We know that they have bioparents but we have to have situations and avenues for the kids to go down. We’ve done a lot of things with these kids. We made a lot of things happen, we got principals, we got engineers in the group that have retired and they’re actually teaching the kids. Barnhill is a retired electrical engineer, brilliant person, and he’s open and he teaches these kids to do things. And we’ve taken them – We know from what the educational system say, if a kid can go somewhere and touch and feel it, they have to do better in school. Now those are not Broadway Heights statistics, those are national statistics. So we follow that model and so we look at places. We took the kids across America for 16 days and it didn’t cost them a dime. We raised the money, fundraised the money, we got the kids, and we showed them a lot of things about America wasn’t really going on in America and they was taken aback. Right now, in a couple weeks, we’re taking the kids, with the help of some other folks, to take the kids to the Reagan Center. That’s a part of history. That’s an educational piece. We got people in the community with this project that Adrian is talking about, this special project where the kids have an opportunity. See, there’s a learning curve here. It’s not just a project. It’s teaching them that they must put together a plan. The kids are required to put together a plan with timelines and things that they must do and how they must do it and what it’s going to take to complete that, and what percentage of that, if it’s not 100%, then what percentage of it that you did. That’s the learning curve that we teach.

CAVANAUGH: Right.

ROBINSON: Plus, they have to present that. They have to present that. They have to go before a group of elders in the community and present their project for their project to be accepted. And if it’s not accepted, they have to go back and re-do it. Now, we have a couple people in the community, and I’m going to say their name, we have Reverend Ikena Kokayi and Reverend Gerald Miller, their church, they said, well, we want to help somebody in the community. They have given the money.

CAVANAUGH: Right.

ROBINSON: For the kids to win this money in a competition fashion…

CAVANAUGH: Wow.

ROBINSON: …for these projects. So they have a chance to have a payday at the end of they project if they project win. Not all kids win. And so that’s what we’re doing with the kids because we want the kids to respect their community. We want the kids to not only that, respect themselves.

CAVANAUGH: Let me ask you one question because we’re kind of – we’re up against the clock here and…

ROBINSON: Umm-hmm.

CAVANAUGH: …I’m really curious to hear what you say about this. You know, a lot of people might say, well, Broadway Heights has only got 192 houses, you can do that in a small community like that, but it’s not going to work in a larger neighborhood. What do you say to people come along?

ROBINSON: What I say to that is that we develop a model. We have a training program that we offer to anybody that want to have them, and we help train other neighborhood counselors and have this documentary. What I’ve told people in the training, whether you’ve got five houses or you got 5,000 houses, it’s the way you eat a apple pie. You eat it a slice at a time. So you slice up the community, you start working with the community, you help those people get it together, you take that good results and you go and you get another slice of pie, and you continue to do that. But what it’s called is, it’s called commitment and it’s called work. And we have the model to teach people how to organize their community.

CAVANAUGH: Now what are you going to do now that Broadway Heights is famous?

ROBINSON: Well, we’re going to continue to do what we’ve been doing.

CAVANAUGH: All right. I want to thank you both so much for coming in and introducing a lot of people in San Diego to the community of Broadway Heights. Thank you so much Adrian Florido and Robert Robinson. Thanks for coming in and talking with us.

FLORIDO: Thank you.

ROBINSON: Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: And I want to let everybody know you can go online and comment, KPBS.org/thesedays. Stay with us for hour two of These Days coming up in just a few minutes right here on KPBS.

Comments

Avatar for user 'robinson9'

robinson9 | May 5, 2010 at 1:19 p.m. ― 4 years, 7 months ago

This was such a heartwarming story! It reminded me of my experiences growing up in the African American community during the years prior to and during the Civil Rights Movement. This story is a historical reflection of life in the black community. I remember the strong sense of community, family and faith! The Village concept was a real part of the community with a genuine respect for the elderly and love for children. I recall special Children's Day celebrations with children's performances, home-made ice cream, etc. I remember my mother, Aunt Hattie and others in the community visiting the sick and bereaved. Also, I had about five mothers; who claimed me. This established the foundation for who I am today! Thank you for telling the story about the African American community that I knew and lived!
Patricia

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Avatar for user 'Jane'

Jane | May 6, 2010 at 2:22 p.m. ― 4 years, 7 months ago

It was a great story. However, what about the non-Afican American kids in the neighborhood. Do they receive the same benefits as the others? Just one curios mind wanting to know? Driving down some streets of the neighborhood, you see run down houses. Are these issues addressed?

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