You Can’t Tweet Change

There’s no time in this world to wait for policy to change or for our systems to reconfigure, especially when work needs to get done. And certainly not in Houston, where community activist Angela Blanchard has dispensed with the tired exercise of over-analyzing neighborhood problems before trying to fix them.

“You can’t build on broken,” Blanchard says. You have to build upon what works — upon the existing assets and aspirations of the community. 

As the president and CEO of Neighborhood Centers, Inc., the largest charitable organization in the state of Texas, Blanchard chooses not to spend her life reforming ponderous systems. Instead, she’s working with them, taking what they produce and making it work. 

Blanchard says Neighborhood Centers has been experiencing a “giant awakening” because it’s doing exactly the work that should be done to address poverty and connect people to opportunity in Houston, even when that means putting things together in ways that aren’t typical.

“We’re feeling free to show up, saying what we mean to say, speaking about people the way we really see them, breaking free of the mold of talking about problems,” she says. “We can be more and more, everyday, ourselves, putting our beliefs about people on stage, instead of behind the curtain.”

Community development is a movement. Blanchard’s appreciative approach and asset-based model to community transformation is integrated throughout the organization’s culture, not just at the community level. “Change begins with the first new question,” she says. When you focus on the aspirations and assets of an individual, you can create innovative and tailored solutions that are relevant to the community. “We grow with the region,” Angela says. 

After more than 100 years of operation, Neighborhood Centers has become a $260 million organization with 1,200 staff members, 7,000 volunteers and 70 service sites that reach more than 528,000 people in the Houston region every year. Yet, it manages to stay directly connected to the communities and people it serves. “We’ve learned to be big where it matters and small where it counts.”

The key to transformation is that it must be authentic. We live in an era that is about being scalable and replicable. Community activists from other regions who want to copy the successes of Neighborhood Centers often fail to see that transformation cannot be transplanted. 

The transferable part of Neighborhood Centers’ success lies in understanding its philosophy and the “figure it out” attitude behind it, Blanchard says: “We do what we can, where we are, with what we have right now.” That’s the hard part, the place where most people give up because they want the quick fix, the formula that is easily duplicated.  But, “you can’t tweet change,” she says. “You actually have to do work.” 

Despite Neighborhood Centers’ many achievements, there are naysayers who insist that it isn’t really working. The criticisms are inconsistent, and to Blanchard, they amount to one thing: people don’t accept the fact that innovation can happen at the neighborhood level. “Our work matters — it works and it matters.”

It’s the spirit of the people in that place that keeps Neighborhood Centers moving forward. “The human spirit is not extinguishable,” Blanchard says. 

“I remember being a young person living in Beaumont, Texas, watching the train go by and thinking about where it came from and wondering where it was going, and thinking about how I could get on it.”

The pain of poverty has a dimension that goes beyond money, she says. “People want to know, Is there a place for me in the world, and will I get to do anything?”

It’s a hunger for realized potential, she says. “I will spend the rest of my life on those hungry people.”