NEIGHBOR UP NIGHT
On the second Wednesday of every month at 5 p.m., members of the community come together for Neighbor Up Night (NUN), where they share a meal and discuss ways to improve their neighborhoods.
While the conversations are focused on problem solving and planning, NUN feels less like a board meeting and more like a friendly gathering. The chairs are arranged in a big circle so everyone has an equal opportunity to be seen and heard. Community Organizer Kay Smith always begins meetings by asking everyone in the room to share something positive happening in their lives. She’ll then open up the floor with questions like, “What have you noticed happening in your neighborhood? What can we do?”
Typically, the room will pick three main issues to focus on, like addressing a need for affordable housing, brainstorming ways to get young people involved, or involving the community in anti-violence initiatives. Then people break off into smaller groups to talk about ideas and solutions.
“A lot of NECIC’s goals are long-term, they take time. It’s easy for people to get discouraged when they don’t see results right away, so at Neighbor Up Nights we focus on actions we can take right now,” says Community Development Manager Tony Chinni.
North End residents also have the opportunity to put their own plans into action through the small grants program. During NUN a group of three residents can propose an idea and obtain an application to apply for a grant to make it happen.
The emergence of community gardens in Mansfield started with a few requests in the small grants program. Other grants have been used to place historical markers in North Lake Park and fund annual community events. For example, North End resident Priscilla Coffee to take the annual Friends and Family Day at John’s Park to the next level.
Coffee and her cousin Robert Milner hosted the first Friends and Family Day in 2008. A death in their family motivated them to bring everyone together for something positive. Since then the event has grown into a full-day festival that attracts more than 300 people. From good food, to craft tables and bouncy houses, to music and games, there’s something for everyone. This year Coffee is using her newfound passion for art and decorating to turn the park event into a luau.
Just as the event attracts the whole community, it takes a whole community to make it happen. With Coffee at the helm, friends, family, and neighbors meet regularly in the summer to plan. They reserve the park and designate volunteers to help set up and clean up. They budget carefully in order to get a variety of food, like Jones potato chips and homemade favorites.
“To me a $250 grant feels like $1,000,” says Coffee. “It’s helped us do so much more.”
For almost a decade, Coffee funded the event with donated goods, services, and monetary resources from family and her own pocket. Now NECIC has been able to help. Since discovering the small grants program, Coffee has become a regular NUN attendee.
“I fell in love with Neighbor Up Night,” she says. “When you get a diverse group of people together, you get insight into so many aspects of what’s going on in the community.”
Brenda Morris, another small grant awardee and active NUN attendee, feels the same way. She says that NUN not only gives her a chance to speak for her neighborhood, it also gives her a chance to make new connections. When she brings an idea to the table she always leaves that night with a list of people who are interested in helping plan or who are excited to participate.
Morris, who is also president of the American Legion Post 676: Ladies Auxiliary, has used grants to support an initiative to provide full Thanksgiving meals to North End families in need. She’s been a part of the project for ten years, but she says it’s recent affiliation with NECIC has opened new doors. She also has plans to host a neighborhood porch party with the theme, “Connecting the People Through its People.” She hopes the event will not only be a fun-filled gathering, but will include civic engagement aspects like voter registration and health and wellness takeaways. In hopes of lifting up the women around her, Morris is also planning event titled, “Women Empowering Women.”
“Nobody knows my place better than me. It’s amazing to be able to plan something that you want to participate in—something specifically designed to benefit your community,” Morris says, adding that she is grateful for the resources NECIC provides to make these projects possible.
“Priscilla and Brenda are wonderful examples of the types of leaders we look for—people who genuinely care and want to be involved. They were already doing great things in the community on their own and now we are able to support them,” Chinni says. Chinni hopes to see even more North End residents, especially young people, bring their ideas to the table. “It always amazes me what people come up with.”