By Jasmin Velez, diasporican community organizer and environmentalist
I have been working for the nonprofit sector in community engagement and development all my career. There is an ebb and flow to the work and how it makes me feel. Usually, I get a burst of energy when engaging residents on local projects, community gardening, and collectively working towards shaping our community how we’d like to see it. Lately, however, I have been feeling drained.
While I have the privilege of working in the field I love, my dual identity as an active community member and a staffer for one of the nonprofits serving my neighborhood can be a lot to balance. Sometimes the lines can get blurry, and I often find I have to vocalize, “Hey, this is my work hat, and this is my personal hat.” Learning that took me a few years, and some days are easier than others. When it is most difficult, however, is when we are discussing the future of the neighborhood.
Over the years, I have been in many rooms where outsiders plan and decide what projects we need for the community and what they think it ought to look like. Of course, I advocate and raise my voice so they are aware that there is a lack of representation from folks in the community in these decision-making processes. The responses are usually “Of course; we will engage the community on this,” or “Well, let’s discuss how this would look like first,” and so forth. I don’t think many can recognize how planning for the community is actively working against the goal of working with the community.
In my experience, community engagement is being used like a buzzword, just as freely as “trauma-informed” or “community-based participatory research.” This sparks another debate around how sometimes even the best intentions can cause harm. I’d argue that is exactly what happens when we fail to truly build relationships and engage from the beginning.
Half-a-million dollar condos next to family homes
I am not saying things do not have to change. I think there is a balance necessary in any community. We need to see economic development, we need more housing, and we want the beautiful things every other community gets too: but what is the cost?
I work and live in a neighborhood in Philadelphia called Kensington. It has been my home since I moved to the city from Puerto Rico when I was five years old. Since I was a young girl, I have seen the community go through so many cycles of change, though none as drastic or “othering” as the changes lately. Perhaps the most difficult of them has been seeing the rapid gentrification creeping north toward us. Every week we see a new building come up, and little by little the demographics are beginning to change. As time passes, you hear that the auntie or grandmother that lived on the block for 35 years can no longer afford to live in the neighborhood or that the challenges have become too much to bear.
Kensington has a lot of complex issues, one of them being the impacts of an opioid crisis ignored by the officials in this sector of the city. Containment strategies and decades of disinvestment and unjust policies have led to Kensington dealing with a lot of open narcotics sales, open drug use, vacancies, public health concerns, and the list can go on. It is important to acknowledge this concern because, despite these complexities, there does not appear to be a cease in how rapidly things are developing. In a community where the average gross income is at or below $25,000 a year, we see high rises and lofts charging upwards of $1200-$2500 for rent. Perhaps, if you live well above the poverty line, that amount may seem doable, but it is entirely inaccessible in this neighborhood.
It is a strange dichotomy to see half-a-million dollar condos built next to pockets of the neighborhood where the families living nearby could not even afford half the cost.
I recently took a ride on the El train with a few of my colleagues, specifically to discuss how you can see the development approaching. Fishtown, a neighboring community, has become unaffordable, and the need to develop further north is evident as you ride the El back and forth. Once more, the image strikes you because you see old row homes next to new buildings with facades that don’t blend with the beautiful historical architecture.
Every time I ride the train, I reminisce about my times as a teenager heading into the city for school and think about the vacancies I passed every single day. I am not saying things do not have to change. I think there is a balance necessary in any community. We need to see economic development, we need more housing, and we want the beautiful things every other community gets too: but what is the cost?
The cost of a lack of true engagement and rapid development
The cost of a lack of true engagement and rapid development is the loss of a community and the uniqueness of its people.
This community is made up of over 50 percent of Latine individuals, many speaking Spanish and many of them identifying as women. When youlook in the room of folks making decisions for about 30-40K individuals in the neighborhood, most do not look like the population nor live in this community. I find that problematic. Acknowledging that community engagement is necessary and doing community engagement are two different things. Without representation from the neighborhood, you lose the uniqueness of what makes a community special; just like the new buildings, you lack character and charm.
This is not a blow to all the organizations working in the neighborhood either. Many do a great job of being inclusive of neighborhood residents, but that’s not always the case. As the community continues to gentrify, we must acknowledge that the demographics are changing, and there is a sense of abandonment from the original neighbors. I have much too often heard comments of “That’s not made for us or our kids,” or “I wish I would be here to enjoy it.”
As neighbors are actively being priced out, they are also being asked to give input on what they want to see or what projects they’d like to participate in. All of that feels performative and lacks the true trauma-informed approach of recognizing how change and planning for the future can be disheartening or difficult for many folks. I do not wish to impart my own feelings or biases onto others’ experiences, either. Yet these conversations have happened far too often for me not to recognize that they are what many others feel and fear too. I have lived here most of my life, and even with that, it took me many years to build relationships and trust with neighbors so that we could candidly have those conversations. Many times they happen offline, with the request that I do not take their feelings back to the organizations.
You may ask why that is, and my response would be that people understand that sometimes these organizations are another system that may betray them. I honor that fear because, as I see the conversations taking place, it is evident that they are right. As I mentioned, I sometimes have the privilege of being privy to the planning phases of things, but if my voice is not honored in those spaces, then how will residents’ voices be?
The cost of a lack of true engagement and rapid development is the loss of a community and the uniqueness of its people. When we see only a few individuals in power making all the decisions about what a community ought to look like, it is actively being shaped the way they want it to be. And when those folks are not from the community or only came at the jump of a real estate opportunity, then what is being shaped is a neighborhood not by us, and quite frankly, not really for us either.
Jasmin Velez (she/her) is an applied practicing anthropologist and an almost life-long resident of the Kensington neighborhood. Jasmin grew up in Aguada, Puerto Rico, and moved to Philadelphia when she was five years old. She attended Bloomsburg University of PA, where she received her Bachelor of Arts in Cultural Anthropology, and later graduated from the University of Colorado Denver with her master’s in Medical Anthropology. Missing the diversity of her community and the east-coast city vibes, she returned to Philadelphia following her studies and returned to her neighborhood. She has been working for the nonprofit industry for close to ten years, with many of her projects focusing on community education and environmental stewardship, and justice. Jasmin enjoys writing short stories and poetry and traveling to the motherland during her free time. You can follow her adventures on Instagram at @writinghello and if you enjoy her pieces, you can fuel her coffee obsession at https://ko-fi.com/writinghello.