05-07-2019


Kevin Eccles speaks fondly of Audrey, a woman he’s interacted with over the years through the Community Building Institute.

Eccles speaks of Audrey’s attitude prior to the five-week program.

“This is a lady who faced a lot of challenges,” Eccles, who is the director of Community Building Institute for United Way of Greater Atlanta, says. “She couldn’t engage with you, but that same Audrey went on later to speak at a College Park City Council meeting about one of their group projects.”

Eccles attributed Audrey’s change in demeanor to her participation in the community building program.

Throughout the course of the Community Building Institute—the class sizes range and are open to anyone in the communities where they are taught— class members identify issues that each of their individual communities face. They actively discuss ways to solve problems and propose community projects for them to work on outside of the class.

These Community Building Institute classes strategically target red and orange zones indicated by the United Way of Greater Atlanta Child Well-Being map — United Way, along with dozens of partners, has developed a set of measures that the community can use to assess how its children, the families that support them and the residents that live around them, are doing. There are seven child measures, three family measures and four community measures that help come up with this Child Well-Being score. It’s all detailed in an easy-to-read map on unitedwayatlanta.org.

One of the most recent CBI classes Eccles has worked with is in south DeKalb County. He said 34 participants took five classes over consecutive Saturdays.

Each of the classes was topics-based, focusing on Leadership, Relationships, Community Resources, Managing a Project and then Next Steps. The classes were each about two and a half hours long and held in the New Life Community Center. The courses were led by different people in the community who could help offer encouragement and ideas for them to best engage with the communities where they live.

“The talk was kind of free flowing,” said Stacey Chavis, a public affairs and public policy consultant and United Way VIP graduate. “It was about how you could get involved and engaged in your community. We talked about community work and voting and working with elected officials in your area.”

Chavis said she was struck by the age range of people in the community building class. It was made up of retired teachers and school administrators and different professionals and community leaders.

“I really enjoyed the experience,” Chavis says. “I had served in United Way in a lot of different ways. It was really neat to see the training in-person and be a part of it. I think sometimes we have this tendency when we come to an office downtown to distance ourselves and not get to see the work up close.”

At the end of the course, the group has the chance to focus on a project that will help address a community need.

“We like to use local partners and local enterprises,” Eccles said. “They come in with the understanding that those participants are expected to form groups that gather to do a community project. We give them up to $500 to do a community project, and at the first class they come in and everybody comes with their own ideas.”

Eccles said there were six different ideas presented at this course at New Life Community Ministries in Decatur. One of the ideas targeted Columbia Elementary School to give students incentives to behave in class — they handed out prizes like pencils, stickers and puzzles.

One idea would promote a “community day” for a town with depleted resources as a way to build a sense of community and gather people together. There was another proposal focusing on an anti-litter campaign, another one would help prepare high school students after they graduate, and the final idea focused around an apartment complex in the community in a red child well-being zone that engages children and families with others their own age.

“At the end of these projects, we ask for an evaluation,” Eccles said. “In some cases, we get videos, and then we start a task force. We have these short-term results, but we work for those long-term results to come later on. These kinds of ‘learnings’ help equip you to become better leaders. It helps get their confidence and lets them see how to enact that leadership and see how a project is done.”

The classes are made up mostly of people who live in the same community but aren’t familiar with each other and their work, Eccles said.

“You may have had a handful of existing relationships already,” he said. “You put these folks to form bonds and relationships. They don’t know each other. You can’t be all about you. You have to form a group relationship.”

So, when Audrey approached the College Park City Council, she had already been through these classes. She approached the panel and requested they help her gather clothes for students graduating a local alternative school as they go to look for jobs post-graduation.

“They wanted to make sure they had nice clothes for interviews,” Eccles said. “So, here’s Audrey, speaking at the meeting and telling them about the kids and what they have to do. By the end, folks in the audience were giving money and asking, ‘What can we do?’
“That’s a quick example of how beautiful this can be.”