Kirk Noden on Working in Youngstown

In Youngstown, Ohio, a team of community organizers was recently canvassing the Newport neighborhood. The team’s leader, Kirk Noden, Executive Director of the Mahoning Valley Organizing Collaborative says that 10 years ago this same neighborhood was stable – but today “for every two doors I knocked on, there are three more that are abandoned.”

Noden did the math. In a city of 65,000 inhabitants there were 4,800 abandoned buildings, and 22,000 vacant lots. “That adds up to one vacant property for every 2.5 people who live in the city,” he says. “The scale of disinvestment is hard for people to comprehend if they have never spent time in a place like Youngstown. When we talk about disinvestment we’re talking about 1st world vs. 3rd world, and this is very challenging.”

Can a community overcome disinvestment of this magnitude?

While the nation has braced itself in recent months through economic collapse, rising unemployment, and epidemic home foreclosures, Noden says that in Mahoning Valley Ohio – where Youngstown is located – these struggles are nothing new. In 1978, the city lost 50,000 jobs in one day, and he says “those jobs have never been replaced, and the stream of job loss and deterioration has not ceased.”

In fact, in the last 30 years, population in the city has decreased by 45%, and the lack of community reinvestment is obvious. Noden points to the simple fact that “there are no Starbucks in Youngstown.”

But it’s not just Youngstown – it’s also cities around the nation like Flint, Springfield, Toledo, and Detroit. “It’s a story that is happening in the northeast and the Midwest, yet it’s something that our nation is not addressing,” he says. “The challenge for us is to do community capacity building in cities that have been ground zero for deindustrialization.”

How does a grassroots grantmaking strategy impact these losses?

Noden and his team of organizers feel that a grassroots focus is critical in cities where there is large scale disinvestment, because “social capacity is one of the only assets we have left.”

“There will never be enough money to dump into these neighborhoods, so we need to stabilize them with grassroots people taking ownership,” he says.

Evidence of that might come in the form of residents taking over vacant properties and transforming them into community gardens or urban farms. Noden says actions like this are critical in Youngstown to building “community cohesion, grassroots engagement, and ownership” – all elements which bond people to their community and help to maintain population.

Fostering hope is the underlying focus, and Noden says “a fundamental part of our mission is to get people to believe that change is possible.”

But his strategy for organizing in Youngstown is not only aimed at residents at the grassroots level – it’s also aimed at the “grass-top” level in the form of policy change.

Why is a multi-layered strategy needed?

Noden likens Youngstown to a sinking Titanic, where “you can’t bail out one room and make it relevant while the rest of the ship is sinking to the ground.”

With community disinvestment deep and prolonged, and the local tax base scraping bottom, he says “the mayor is just as powerless as the pastor of the local congregation, or the head of the neighborhood association to address these problems.”

As a result, Noden says that community capacity building must focus simultaneously on resident and elected official mobilization, as well as broad policy change at the local, state, and national levels. He says the model of organizing they’re using to do this is “a blend of grassroots community organizing and sophisticated policy work.”

“The reality is that you can’t overcome massive disinvestment by organizing all of the neighborhoods in Youngstown, or even building a shopping complex, because the problems are so deep and systemic,” he says. “In our case we need to be able to impact state policy and how it addresses urban cores, infrastructure dollars, and funding for school systems. It will also require national policy changes.”

While building hope at the grassroots is critical, Noden says that to focus on that as a sole source of change would be “superficial” in their case, without acknowledging the need for broader change. “For people to genuinely have an ability to shape and control their own destiny, they have to be involved in a larger debate around statewide and national policy. We have to create grassroots change, and at the same stand point we have to have a regional and statewide construction of grassroots players,” he says.

Noden and representatives from other affected industrial cities recently organized a legislative briefing in Washington DC to weigh in on a piece of national legislation that could provide $600 million in support. He says this is important because “we can organize all we want locally, but if there isn’t going to be an influx of resources we can’t make real changes happen.”

The legislation – the Community Regeneration and Sustainability Act of 2009 – would provide funding to 30 pilot cities that have lost significant population over the last twenty years. It would encourage a holistic regeneration model used by communities throughout the world that promotes and supports policy innovation, experimentation, and environmentally sustainable practices through collaborative efforts. Youngstown’s vacant properties would be reshaped in ways to provide long-term benefits to the public, whether through the creation of green infrastructure, economic development, or other strategies.

Noden says organizers “feel the stretch” as they reach out into such different directions. But he’s convinced that “grassroots people must be at the center of shaping state and national policy.”

“We are very much in line with grassroots grantmaking – that change happens from the bottom up and grassroots people are in the center of it. That is the story of any social justice movement driven by a broad base of grassroots people,” he says.

“It all starts with ordinary people doing extraordinary things. If that’s not there in the first step, then we are really lost.”

Kirk Noden has worked as a professional organizer for twelve years. Kirk began his organizing career in Chicago first working for a neighborhood based community organization on the west side tackling issues such as abandoned buildings, school overcrowding, crime and safety, and quality of public parks.

Kirk then moved on to start and direct one of Chicago’s strongest broad-based community organizations, the Albany Park Neighborhood Council, an alliance of 27 dues paying member institutions including churches, mosques, schools, and ethnic associations on the northwest side of Chicago. The organization, located in one of the most diverse immigrant areas in the country, was recognized as the “Emerging Organization of the Year” in 2002 by six area foundations including the MacArthur Foundation, The Chicago Community Trust, the Woods Fund, the Wieboldt Foundation, and Kaplan Family Foundation.

From Chicago, Kirk moved to England to work with the Citizen Organising Foundation to build an organization in Birmingham, England’s second largest city. In just under three years, Kirk help found Birmingham Citizens, a coalition of 33 institutions ranging from churches to mosques to gurdwaras to schools and unions. The organization was well known for work around issues such as a Living Wage, Youth Resources, and Affordable Housing.

Upon returning to Ohio in late 2006, Kirk worked with faith based organizing efforts in Youngstown, Cleveland, and Cincinnati and consulted with the Raymond John Wean Foundation on the development of its Capacity Building Initiative. Kirk currently directs the Mahoning Valley Organizing Collaborative.

Kirk graduated from Kent State University in 1997 with a degree in Philosophy and completed an Honor’s Thesis examining black liberation theology and the growing radicalization of Martin Luther King Jr.’s politics in the latter stages of his life. Kirk is married to Rosa and has two sons named Roberto and Emiliano.


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