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Central Minnesota organization strengthens community through collective action

John Smith says his life was in transition when he first found himself living in central Minnesota. Back in 2005 Smith relocated from Washington, D.C., to Minnesota to pursue a bachelor’s degree at St. Cloud State University. As he settled into his new community, Smith’s daily commute to school brought him closer to those he would eventually serve.  

John Smith, Promise Neighborhood
John Smith shares the work of the Promise Neighborhood at RSDP's August 2020 statewide meeting.

“I would meet families on the bus, and I would just sit and listen to their stories,” said Smith. “My plan wasn't to stay in Minnesota. I had planned to get my degree and leave. Then I started to get to know these families, and I just felt like I could make a difference.”

Smith went on to graduate and spend years working in St. Cloud schools, where he witnessed the cycle of generational poverty first-hand. Today, Smith is working to interrupt that cycle by leading the Promise Neighborhood of Central Minnesota, serving as chair of the executive committee. 

Promise Neighborhood is a nonprofit located in southeast St. Cloud, serving the community with academic programs for youth and resources and training for adults. The organization provides multi-generational support to improve and sustain family stability, increase academic commitment and achievement and develop new leadership. With help from the University of Minnesota Extension Central Regional Sustainable Development Partnership (Central RSDP), Smith says they’re finding new routes to expand the organization’s impact.

Families in transit 

A community-led organization, Promise Neighborhood serves predominantly local families who are experiencing poverty, students of color and immigrant communities. “Families that experience poverty are often in transit; they move around,” Smith said. “Many of our community members have ties or roots with other states and countries. And [in] some way, each felt like there was a better opportunity and a better life waiting for them in central Minnesota.”

Man and boy at a table with a game in front of them.
Photo credit: Promise Neighborhood of Central Minnesota.

With a diverse community, the work isn’t one size fits all. Promise Neighborhood believes it’s about building relationships with community members and empowering them to take the next step on their individual paths. 

“There’s an understanding in the community that we're not parachuting in to save your life or tell you what to do. We have experienced many of the same challenges and struggles as the community,” said Smith. “Since our work is community-driven, we are able to connect with people who want not just change for themselves, but change for their community. So we always have this vibrant energy and collective action to facilitate change. That’s what really keeps us going.”

New paths forward

Now more than ever, Promise Neighborhood recognizes the demand for community-based solutions. With increasing labor shortages locally and growing poverty rates, Promise Neighborhood is working to keep up with community needs. To help take on this challenge, Promise Neighborhood sought the help of long-term partner Central RSDP. 

Last year, with support from the Extension Center for Community Vitality and Wilder Research, Central RSDP worked with the Promise Neighborhood to develop their public value statement and a route to implement it. 

Child with play shovel next to a flower bed.
Photo credit: Promise Neighborhood of Central Minnesota.

“We spent a couple months just meeting weekly with John before we decided on the public value statement. Together we thought through where the organization was at, what was most needed, what we could help them springboard,” said Molly Zins, Central RSDP executive director. “A public value statement helps define and explain an organization’s impact on the broader community, with the goal of engaging supporters like funders, philanthropists, partner organizations and volunteers.”

The 12-month joint project wrapped up last year, producing a comprehensive public value statement highlighting Promise Neighborhood’s impact on preparing youth, parents, staff and volunteers for the workforce. According to Smith, it’s already set new opportunities in motion for the organization. “The relationship has really been important. It’s allowed us to think differently about how we talk to potential stakeholders and funders. In a lot of ways, it has elevated the way we do things.”

According to Smith, the results are a big deal to the organization, and so was the trust built in the process. “We were grateful that from the beginning of conversations with RSDP, it was clear that they really seem to understand and support this type of work,” said Smith. “We felt appreciated. RSDP really respects us for the fantastic work that we're able to do. We don't always get that.”

Emily Haeg Nguyen, March 2022

Emily Haeg Nguyen works as a statewide sustainability storyteller with the University of Minnesota Extension Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships (RSDP) and Clean Energy Resource Teams (CERTs).

Banner photo credit: Promise Neighborhood of Central Minnesota.

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