We love to hear stories of neighbors and leaders finding creative ways to lift the lives of those who live around them. Today, we’ll be sharing a story from Ali Parrish, Executive Director of Iowa Heartland Habitat for Humanity.
Ali joined with her team and the community to implement the Flourishing Neighborhood Index as a means to inform their work in the Walnut and Church Row neighborhoods of Waterloo, IA.
“I love Waterloo and the people here,” Ali, who was born and raised in Waterloo, says about the city. “We have our challenges, but it’s a special place to make a life.” After attending school at University of Northern Iowa, Ali began a job as a copywriter at a local ad agency. Throughout these early years of her career, Ali felt increasingly drawn to work that would ensure all Waterloo residents could flourish.
How It Began – Ali’s Journey as a Community Developer
She started by joining organizations doing great work in her hometown. Ali served as Communications Director and later as Director of Development in the local community foundation. From there, she worked with Iowa Heartland Habitat for Humanity, where she first heard the concept of neighborhood revitalization. The idea resonated deeply with her, and she set out to be a part of neighborhood revitalization efforts.
In 2016, Ali connected with a friend, Laura Hoy, who was doing work in the Waterloo neighborhood of Walnut. Ali says that although she didn’t think of the area as blighted when she was growing up, she was familiar with the stress that had changed the neighborhood over the years. “It was a redefined neighborhood,” she shares. Laura and other neighbors were already working together to understand what local flourishing could look like.
Ali, Laura, and several other partners began listening to the residents in Walnut together. “They were talking about their gifts and dreams and challenges,” Ali says. “The gifts were the people and the historic structures. The number one challenge was housing – a number of houses had been torn down and homeowners on low-to-modest incomes could not afford repairs.” She, Laura, and partners began to explore further options to work with neighbors.
The process changed her outlook on what it meant to come alongside a marginalized neighborhood. “Over time I realized neighborhood revitalization goes much deeper than what the words sound like on a surface level,” Ali says.
She continued forming partnerships, working to address the challenges neighbors were highlighting. Ali started with housing, forming a coalition to address obstacles to stable and high-quality housing, setting their sights on efforts that would cultivate an equitable, mixed-income neighborhood. The housing coalition that Ali helped form in the Walnut neighborhood gathered city officials, members of the Neighborhood Association, church members, a local for-profit developer, who wanted to see Walnut thrive. The group met every month, and have worked together for the past 6+ years.
Searching for Tools to Amplify Progress and Measure Impact
Even as the coalition made progress, Ali felt like their approach was lacking a key element. She explains, “It didn’t seem like we had a solid process of evaluation or consistent metrics we were watching on a regular basis. We were doing it all by our own method and it felt like we needed additional help. I started researching tools.”
It’s at this point that Ali discovered the work of the Lupton Center and the Flourishing Neighborhood index. “It was so refreshing to get on the phone and to know you’re speaking the same language,” Ali explains. “I can’t speak enough about the peace that washed over me.”
Realizing that the Lupton Center shared her philosophy of going deep in a community felt “like family.” Ali says she knew “we would be in good hands with people who understood and really cared.”
The Flourishing Neighborhood Index has been a game-changer for work in the community. “It’s proven itself to be an exceptional tool because it’s what the residents are saying about their own lives.” Though outsiders may have ideas of what will help a neighborhood flourish, they often miss the mark.
Insights from the Flourishing Neighborhood Index
One of the insights gleaned from the Flourishing Neighborhood Index: neighbors’ did not have a high priority for boosting local incomes. Even though the neighborhoods were economically marginalized, survey data showed that neighbors ranked fortifying neighbor relationships as their top priority. Church Row neighbors noted that the lack of accessible housing had made their community a transient one, with 80% rentals, and neighbors said they’d struggled to get to know anyone since they moved so frequently. They wanted that to change.
Ali highlights the fact that without the Flourishing Neighborhood Index, she would not have realized that was neighbors’ top priority. Now, with the data in-hand, efforts in Walnut and Church Row are aligned to what neighbors want. Even better, the work that’s been done since the FNI has been resident-driven.
Ali says the neighbors are “seeing houses changed and renovated. We are hearing stories of people with boots on the ground doing things like picking up trash or helping people on their own block, or an elderly neighbor without any recognition. Our collective work is now creating a renewed sense of energy. Hope is building.”
We cannot wait to hear about the next steps neighbors’ and partners take towards flourishing in Walnut and Church Row, and we love to hear stories like these! If you’re interested in hearing more about the Flourishing Neighborhood Index and how it might help neighbors in your community flourish, click here to schedule a preview.