November 21, 2007

How Do We Fix Dunbar Village? The East Lake Experience Offers Some Guidance

Gina Smith at WAOD recently wrote about having an epiphany as a counter protester at a recent Barack fundraiser. She was peppered with questions by the attendees and after answering them, realized that wanting other people to be as outraged as she is (and as I am) by the Dunbar Village atrocity isn't a meaningful end in itself and that her role as an informer had been carried out. What people do with that information is the bigger issue.

I found her self reflection very refreshing and it turns the conversation to what the heck are we going to do about Dunbar Village. Because fundamentally, the horror of Dunbar is that people are living in conditions where that can happen again and again. Doing something about Dunbar means eradicating the conditions in which such a thing could so readily happen.

A part of what has to happen in Dunbar Village is that Dunbar residents, supported by their local community, have to become organized to address their conditions. They will need help to do that, it will not be something they can do on their own. The issue is how do we help them organize to fix what is a very tough situation. My contribution to that is to say that it CAN be done and that it HAS been done in other places. The East Lake Projects experience in Atlanta is one to look at for some inspiration.

The key thing to know about the East Lake experience is that it was driven by a very rich man (Tom Cousins) who decided to give a damn and a public housing resident (Eva Davis) who took responsibility to lead. They had to learn to work together, they were fought every inch of the way and Tom Cousins made a lot happen because he was willing to find the resources both financial and political, to do it and most of the money his family put in or raised (I've met and discussed East Lake with him personally).

A key understanding in looking at East Lake for inspiration with regard to Dunbar Village is to be clear that the WAY they transformed East Lake is NOT replicable ( unless you have a local millionaire down there willing to step up like that), but the RESULTS they achieved in East Lake are. There are other ways to accomplish the type of investment and transformation that was done in East Lake. The key thing to understand is that it is very hard, very expensive (East Lake took $120 million) and will take time (East Lake took 10 years) to achieve and requires people to take leadership and ownership. But it can be done.

East Lake Foundation