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Cottage Grove Initiative: Coming together for change

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Refusing to remain impoverished in low health and housing standards, a group of residents in Greensboro teamed up with nonprofit organizations to revitalize the Cottage Grove neighborhood.

Outside focus on Cottage Grove began about 10 years ago and resulted in the collaborative Cottage Grove Initiative.

“Collaborative Cottage Grove is a shared leadership between neighborhood leaders and the nonprofit organizations that want to support the neighborhood in revitalizing from the bottom up,” said volunteer Beth McKee-Huger.

“This is a place where the people who live here are deeply committed to, but they recognize a lot of the problems that they wish were different. They wish more people had jobs and the housing to be in better shape and for it to be a better place for people to get healthy foods and safe to be out walking in the neighborhood and playing outside.”

Now the neighborhoods work with outside support, but the residents are the ones deciding what they do and don’t want in the community. There was fear that outside developers would demolish and build anew, displacing those who live in the community.

Project Coordinator Josie Williams has worked hard to build the community’s trust with the four organizations including Mustard Seed Community Health, the Greensboro Housing Coalition, Collaborative Cottage Grove and the New Hope Community Development Group.

“People ask me what do you know and how do you get community members engaged and I just tell them you have to meet people where they are,” she said. “There is no secret there is a lack of trust with most residents and the city officials. It’s no secret that this community has had such disinvestment over the years that people feel unheard. They don’t feel their voices matter.

“I didn’t go into the community asking them for anything, although I know this is community centered help and we need their support. For the first several months, I didn’t even ask them anything. They just knew that I was helping to coordinate things with these organizations and after listening to them and hearing their stories, they felt validated just from that very thing. That’s how trust built up and from that point it was just a snowball effect.”

According to Williams, the community of about 1,200 households is one of the most diverse she has seen in Greensboro.

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“In a one block radius…over ten cultures are in one block,” said Williams. “When I began to notice that diversity, I began to think about who could help us support those four organizations. Who could we bring in to so we would be a better representation for the community? We have Burmese, we have Montagnard, Ethiopians, Latin Americans, its white and its black and it’s all these different cultures.”

Despite the challenges of health and housing experienced in the diverse community, a lot of them don’t want to leave. There are elders who have been around since the 1950s who want to stay. They just want something better, to live heathy in a vibrant community.

Thanks to the active community, volunteers and organizations, there is now a resurgence in Cottage Grove.

“There’s this new energy and this buzz in the city regarding this area,” said Williams. “The universities are taking notice because they are into academics. You’ve got students that have service learning opportunities and so professors started approaching me about internships and volunteers.

“So I started to look at how this could be a mutually beneficial thing for the residents without taxing the community. They’re not guinea pigs, they’re not research subjects. But what could we do with the community members who enhance their quality of life for the research that the students are doing? That just turned into all these beautiful community partnerships.”

For the past semester, Cottage Grove has had student project groups from Guilford College, Elon, Greensboro College, NC A&T and UNCG organize specific initiatives to benefit the community.

One student did a digital story about residents and many joined Williams in doing focus groups for the community.

“I let the community know that everyone is experiencing the same thing over here,” said Williams. “I let people know…everybody will leave out of this area if you don’t come together. So now that people are coming together, now that they are feeling more empowered, I would let them know the outcome is you can’t be so easily ignored and your voices are much stronger and louder when you come together.”

Another group of students developed policy proposal alternatives to condemning buildings.

“We have units condemned that are not trashed out,” said Williams. “We have units condemned that have been sitting condemned and boarded up for months around community members and affecting people’s health.”

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About two years ago, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina Foundation funded a collaborative planning process to see how Cottage Grove could do community-centered health. The process looked into ways that would keep people from getting sick to the point that they needed emergency care.

A lot of research is going upstream in connection with housing and health. According to McKee-Huger, the moldy conditions in many homes attract pests and have chemicals that trigger asthma. Not just that, but home not being a place you want to go to can cause great strain on mental health.

“If there’s a lot of moisture like roof leaks or plumbing leaks…it makes it an environment for the rats and cockroaches,” said McKee-Huger. “So we have a lot of places here having roof problems or plumbing problems. If somebody has asthma, it’s going to be a lot worse in the moisture.”

The large amount of input the people who live in Cottage Grove give to organizations has made the programs very sustainable.

“You can always do something that your organization thinks is wonderful but if nobody in the community participates because they don’t relate to it, then it’s kind of a wasted effort,” said McKee-Huger. “So everybody knows that community leadership is necessary for it to be sustainable. Those institutions don’t really know how to do that kind of outreach to get peoples participation.

“When they see that happening in Cottage Grove they think ‘wow, this is our opportunity to jump on the bandwagon and be part of something that is what we know theoretically is a wonderful direction to go, but we just didn’t know practically how to make it happen.’”

Underemployment is a huge issue as well. The New Hope Community Development has been giving GED classes and helping residents to find jobs and work on their resumes.

Collaborative Cottage Grove makes sure to hire community members when work needs to be done such yard work and public health. They have also started multiple community gardens. Community members tend to the gardens and get a stipend.

“Anytime we can bring them in, we do,” said Williams.

Williams believes the biggest success of Collaborative Cottage Grove is the trust and community engagement and their new on-site clinic.

Want to learn more? Visit Collaborativecottagegrove.org.

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