Pact With an Angel

To kick-start community change, a UC Berkeley program gives grants to grassroots Vegas groups

ernest-james2-rgb.jpgFor five decades, S. Leonard Syme has studied ways to make communities healthier. Now, the University of California, Berkeley professor of epidemiology has put all that experience to the test in Las Vegas. Syme believes that community health improves when communities themselves improve, and over the past year, he and his colleagues have given guidance and $80,000 in grants to Southern Nevada grassroots groups trying to better their neighborhoods.

The project, Partnerships for Community Health (PACT), originates in the Health Research for Action center at UC Berkeley’s School of Public Health. The PACT approach to public health is unique: Traditionally, health officials identify risk factors, share that information with the public and hope that people change their behavior to avoid the risks. Syme is instead focusing on initiating individual transformation at the community level.

That’s what brought him and his fellow researcher to some of the poorest neighborhoods in one of the most recession-damaged cities in the nation.

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Syme and investigator Constance Wang chose to work in two wards where there was the greatest need. Ward 5, downtown, has been hit hard by foreclosures and has many abandoned homes—the kind of problems that can tear down an entire community.

“If we allow [urban decay] to run amok, it will be like a virus. It will spread throughout the entire ward, and the rest of the city,” Councilman Ricki Barlow says. “We all have to play our role and do what we can to uplift one another.”

That’s where PACT comes in, identifying grassroots philanthropic movements that can improve life in the community—and ultimately improve health.

Syme found plenty of Las Vegans who wanted to make things better, but they didn’t know how to go about it. PACT aimed to help them get started.

Working with local contacts, the PACT team identified six groups led by individuals who live in the areas they’re trying to improve: missionary resource center Casa de Luz, which runs an art program called LVArt Reach; Power of One, an intervention program for at-risk youth; Step Up, a Second Baptist Church mentoring project; and Tonopah Community Garden. PACT also helped the Latin Chamber of Commerce Foundation with a community assessment survey and the Beat Coffeehouse with its plan to start a small-business coalition that incorporates community health. Each group got a microgrant out of PACT’s fund, plus expert advice on organization and development.

The model is called community stewardship, and both the promise and risk of it is that the impact of the funding will ultimately depend on the grassroots organizations themselves.

“You want to make sure your stakeholders have some say in how you’re spending the money,” says Rebecca Tekula, executive director for the Wilson Center for Social Entrepreneurship, which researches and advises nonprofits. “Eventually the full governance will belong to the community.”

In other words, whether PACT succeeds in the long run will be up to people such as Earnest James.

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When James was a teenager in Compton, Calif., he joined the famous Tree Top Piru Bloods. In the 1990s, he and some fellow gang members headed east in search of what he calls “entrepreneurial opportunities” on Las Vegas’ Westside. A 1996 conviction for high-level trafficking and firearm possession by a felon landed James in prison.

He emerged in 2001 determined to find a livelihood outside of crime. Working on a construction crew that year, he was approached by the same officer who had arrested him years before, Lt. William Scott.

“He told me he was glad to see I’d made it back home and that he’d help me in any way he could,” James recalls. “He knew me from back in the day, when he was pursuing me. He used to always talk to me.”

In 2003, Scott brought together James and the founder of the Donna Street Crips (and Scott’s high school classmate), Carl Wesley, with an idea: The two ex-gang members could use their street cred to deter kids from a life of crime. James and Wesley bought in, and in 2008 the three founded Las Vegas Power of One.

Since then, they’ve counseled dozens of kids in the juvenile parole and probation system. They’ve spent countless hours cruising the streets, slowly building relationships with the young people they meet. They’ve worked with the Urban League, helped on projects such as the Safe Village Initiative and joined with other nonprofits, such as the Goshen Community Development Initiative.

“In our society, the young men and women you see right now try so hard to fit in,” James says. “We try to teach them about self-respect, loving themselves and their community.”

James, Scott and Wesley get nothing in return in return for their work—nothing material anyway. They paid all Power of One’s expenses out of their own pockets—until last summer.

That’s when PACT found Power of One, through a contact in the Safe Village Initiative who had heard of the project. PACT gave Power of One a microgrant, which it used to take one group of young people to Tonopah Community Garden and another, the Sherman Gardens public housing project’s football team, to Circus Circus.

“They got to experience some of the things kids like to do but that they never do, because their families can’t afford it,” James says. “At the same time, we got to talk to them about their education, worldly things like drugs, listening to their parents, staying on track, doing the right thing.” Power of One would like to expand its role in the community, James says, but it hasn’t finished the process to receive nonprofit status, which is necessary for fundraising. Like Syme, James believes in getting through to one kid at a time, meeting them at their level and intervening before they take life-changing risks. In addition to projects and probation programs, he and Wesley want to visit schools and other places where they can share their story with a wider cross section of kids.

“You look at the news, and you see more and more young people falling victim to the madness in our community,” he says. “Today, it is affecting not only the poor but the middle class, the rich, all. Until God takes us away from here, I just want to talk to these kids. They are our future.”

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PACT’s assistance to grassroots groups has taken many forms beyond funding and organizational support. For the Latin Chamber of Commerce Foundation, for instance, the team led local volunteers in a survey of 300 mainly Hispanic households in the downtown area.

“This will help us learn more about the needs of our lowest-income residents and design programs and policy solutions to help them,” René Cantú Jr., executive director of the foundation, says. He adds that the survey gives him valuable data he can use to apply for grants—money that will help neighborhood kids go to college and their parents find jobs.

Only time can tell if PACT’s investment in downtown will translate into permanent change and improved community health. Funding for the project runs out this June, but coordinator Susana Morales Konishi says follow-up assessment was never part of the plan anyway. There is enough research on social capital demonstrating its effectiveness to satisfy the founders who gave the initial grant.

That said, Konishi adds, if new funding was secured—and the UC Berkeley team is looking for it—Syme and Wang would continue to follow the PACT grantees years down the road to see the return on their investment in grassroots Las Vegas.

Even then, it would be difficult for surveys alone to reveal the abstract impact that Syme says is the project’s true intention.

“I hope people begin to trust one another, help one another,” he says. “We ask, ‘If your child is playing outdoors and needs help, would a neighbor help?’ It may sound romantic, but it actually makes a difference in the health and well-being of a population.”

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