Welcome Home: Re-Envisioning a Community

We’ve all heard the mantra, “there’s no place like home.” But for the most vulnerable families, building a safe, stable home isn’t as easy as clicking their heels together.

What do community and home really mean to someone?  

To answer that, we sat down with Karen Groce-Horan, United Way’s Project Director for the Mary Ellen McCormack (MEM) Community of Opportunity initiative. Karen helps us think about re-defining community, home, and why being counted really matters.

Karen, thanks so much for showing me around this community: the Mary Ellen McCormack development. Its history, size, and growth – it’s impressive and hopeful.

It certainly is! The Boston Housing Authority’s Mary Ellen McCormack community (MEM) was the first public housing development in New England, built in the 1930’s, and it’s one of the largest, currently home to about 2,000 people. WinnCompanies is leading a major redevelopment, which will both preserve all of the deeply affordable units and add additional units at all levels of affordability. Along with a new physical unit to call home, WinnCompanies is launching a new community model in partnership with United Way of Massachusetts Bay, the Resident Task Force, and a team of 30 organizations including South Boston Neighborhood House, Fourth Presbyterian Church, Catholic Charities, the Roxbury Center for Financial Empowerment, and more. We have all joined forces to create the MEM Opportunity Collaborative to make this South Boston community even better.

What does United Way bring to the table in a housing redevelopment? 

United Way’s unique value is bringing the right people around the table to solve problems together. We take a broad, cross-sector view of how to create positive change. From early education and afterschool programs, to workforce development and financial coaching, United Way is leading the charge to activate a network of community agencies and plan the programs to bring a dynamic Community Center to life. The Center, which will be located in what is today an old brick boiler house, will be the heart of this community for generations to come. United Way believes the big opportunity is to leverage this redevelopment to create greater equity for residents who have faced economic and social challenges. In a truly thriving community, every single person is connected to opportunity.

It’s exciting to re-think, revitalize, and grow a community. How would you define that word?

I see “community” as People, Purpose, and Place. Where those three P’s successfully intersect is where you find a community. Specifically, “place” is where people not just live, but grow, harmoniously supporting each other. And when this happens, community members move from just surviving to thriving. Mary Ellen McCormack is this wonderful “place.”

You just mentioned “people” as part of community. How does this initiative relate to people’s voices: being heard, being counted?

One thing we know for sure – this redevelopment will not happen without input and insight from residents. Too often, those with the power think they know what’s best for residents, and are surprised when the programs they design aren’t successful. At MEM, before any new development begins, we are conducting a 700-resident survey with Winncompanies and Boston College as a research partner. It’s essential that the MEM residents be counted, be involved, and be heard regarding their needs and priorities – and what they envision for the future of their community. WinnCompanies has been a great champion for making sure people are heard.

Today MEM is a community of about 2,000 residents; the long-term plan is a community of over 10,000. What challenges exist for this scope?

Long-term initiatives come with long-term challenges. This redevelopment is expected to unfold over 10-15 years. United Way is fostering collaboration and planning, expecting a long-term shift in how community resources are available. Yes, it’s challenging – but it’s exciting to move forward with residents, WinnCompanies, and the South Boston agency partners. Fully working together to develop place, people, and purpose will remain critical to realizing the potential of a renewed Mary Ellen McCormack community.

There are many housing developments in Boston. Why did United Way choose to be involved with MEM? 

To start, WinnCompanies cast an exciting vision of a renewed community. Their leadership inspired United Way to become involved. Second, this redevelopment poses an incredible opportunity for people living in an isolated neighborhood to gain new connections and access new resources that are simply not available today. The potential – what is possible at MEM – is what makes it such an important initiative to us. United Way will provide leadership for mobilizing new resources, beginning with the opportunity to give current residents a stake in their family’s future together. It’s about engagement and connections. We want to be involved so that people have influence in determining their community’s future, too. This vision embodies our mission of uniting the community to create positive, lasting change for people in need.

Last question, Karen, and maybe the most important: How do residents feel about all this?

Overall, we’ve received great feedback. One resident really captured the sentiment for me: “It brings me hope to see attention brought to residents here that can improve school success for our children and bring resources to our families. I look forward to my Mary Ellen McCormack community benefitting from the efforts of this much-needed group of partners.” When residents are hopeful, we think we are off to a great start.

Once completed, MEM will be one of the largest mixed-income communities in the country, serving as a model for how other cities define community and home. Please consider donating so we can continue helping those in need – and build communities that thrive.

Over the past year, United Way and WinnDevelopment have been working to help residents voice what resources and programs they want in this Community of Opportunity as the redevelopment progresses. As part of this early work, one key challenge within the community is access to high-quality, affordable food. Please join us in support of United Way’s 20th Annual Thanksgiving Project on Friday, November 22, 2019 at Mary Ellen McCormack’s Sterling Square to provide the 1,016 households in the community with the full ingredients needed for a Thanksgiving celebration. Sign up today.