Donna Newton on Building Stronger Neighborhoods in Greensboro

About a year after Donna Newton left her former career as an insurance executive, she felt as if she had failed at retirement.

“I bought a house, remodeled it, and tried to make up for 30 years of working long hours, and all the things I’d neglected,” she says.

Newton was used to a “demanding job” and she grew impatient. So she started looking at different ways she could put her talents to use, offering herself as a small business consultant. Yet this idea also failed to capture her interest.

“Then I stumbled on this job description for a neighborhood information center coordinator. They wanted someone who would sit in the library and answer phone calls with questions that neighborhoods had,” she says.

Using well-honed project management skills, Newton felt the job description was lacking something important. So she went to talk to the person in charge, and said that for the job to be effective, she thought the person filling it “needed to be in the neighborhoods to get to know the people.”

The interviewer confessed that Newton was “the antithesis of what they imagined for the job.” She was “white, middle class and corporate.” But the interviewer was also impressed with Newton’s communication and organization skills, and her “willingness to view it as a project that someone else could eventually take over.”

So Newton ended up taking the job as Consultant Coordinator for the Greensboro Neighborhood Information Center. The Center was in the Greensboro Public Library, but was funded by local foundations through the Building Stronger Neighborhoods Program.

She spent a year canvassing the diverse neighborhoods of the city, talking with people directly in their homes. “People worried about me being rejected,” she says. “But I have never had one single problem with that. People have received me warmly.”

After a year of listening, Newton learned that most neighborhoods wanted to connect with and learn from other neighborhoods, but were often afraid to open a dialogue. “They kept saying they wanted a Neighborhood Summit.” Needing volunteers to make that happen, she decided to call a meeting of the neighborhood leaders she’d met.

“Most City staff didn’t think anyone would come,” she says, but they agreed to help by paying for food and providing facilitators. When 89 people showed up, “everyone was stunned!”

That group went on to develop the first ever Greensboro Neighborhood Summit just eight months later, where over 300 people attended. More importantly, out of that initial group, 30 worked together to establish an alliance of neighborhood organizations called the Greensboro Neighborhood Congress – a nonprofit organization that Newton says is the “only biracial organization in the city that has continuously met across racial and economic lines.”

The mission of the Congress is to address issues of city-wide concern to neighborhoods. Since 2003, it has provided a collective voice for neighborhoods and has become influential with city government.

Newton today serves as the Building Stronger Neighborhoods Liaison and as the Advisor to the Congress , through which she also staffs a grassroots grants program. In the seven years she’s worked with neighborhoods, she says “the Building Stronger Neighborhoods funders have been surprised and pleased by what has been accomplished.”

She feels her ability to help move ideas to action came from the practical stance she brought from her corporate experience. She observed that the neighborhoods had grown frustrated with the pace of change, so she knew it was important to “do what I say I’ll do, and in a timely way.”

Success as a professional helped – but Newton also never forgot the “humble roots” from where she grew. She also held to the belief that “you can be successful in many different ways, not just financially.” She took time to find the strengths people had, regardless of their circumstances.

She realized new qualities in herself. “My tolerance is so different – I’m more patient. I listen and ask questions, and I’ve come to see that I can accept and respect opinions and positions with which I may not agree.”

“I can see points of view I never would have seen in my fast-paced, bottom-line world, because I’ve taken time to listen to how people came to those views.”

Newton says she’s “grateful” for the new perspective on life, the new friendships she would never have realized, and the chance to feel vital in the community. Now she councils corporate professionals who have either retired or lost their jobs in the recession, not to be afraid to look outside of the jobs and roles where they might typically see themselves.

“I tell people to think about where their interests and experiences lie, and not the job title itself,” she says. “Be open to new experiences – you often might be surprised where you fit.”


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