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St. Louis neighborhoods conference highlights successes at street level

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 30, 2013 - The focus will be at street level when members of St. Louis neighborhood organizations meet Saturday to discuss improving their communities -- from jumpstarting commerce districts and introducing public safety programs to helping seniors age in place or motivating residents to spruce up their houses and yards.

The grass-roots approach is one of the keys to success, and so is learning from one another, said Nancy Thompson, executive director of the St. Louis Association of Community Organizations (SLACO), which is hosting the gathering at Harris-Stowe State University.

While the region continues to struggle with big-picture issues -- employment, stagnant population growth, government fragmentation -- neighborhoods have a more direct and personal impact on daily life, Thompson said.

“Like with a lot of things, there are building blocks, and this building block is your house, your block -- your neighborhood first,” Thompson said. "To a lot of people, if their neighborhood is OK, they’re OK, regardless of what’s going on with the city or with the region. At the level that most impacts people -- their neighborhood -- we can do a lot without resolving some of the larger regional issues.”

Thompson said she expects about 150 people at the event, which is open to anyone. The conference emphasizes networking so that participants can share experiences and learn from the successes or disappointments of others, rather than trying to reinvent the wheel themselves.

"If you can learn from what the other person did, and adapt it to your circumstance and geography and people, there’s a better chance of success than just sitting in your neighborhood meetings and talking about problems,” she said.

It can also cut down on frustrations and help prevent members of neighborhood associations from burnout, since most are volunteering their time, she said.

"Adaptation requires a lot of work; there is plenty to do without trying to invite new concepts,” she said. "Usually, neighborhood folks don’t have a good understanding of cause and effect. They don’t know that they can’t just go out and get a grocery store for their neighborhood. Just because you butt your head up against the wall long enough doesn’t mean you are going to defeat retail economics.”

The conference also serves as a pep rally of sorts, said Thompson who joined SLACO in July after working nearly 10 years as a project and community outreach manager with Great Rivers Greenway.

"It can be discouraging work,” she said. "It can be monotonous, and it can seem like you’re not making any progress. It’s an opportunity to just come together to see that ‘I’m not the only person working really hard on my neighborhood.’ That is encouraging to folks.”

Mary Delach Leonard is a veteran journalist who joined the St. Louis Beacon staff in April 2008 after a 17-year career at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where she was a reporter and an editor in the features section. Her work has been cited for awards by the Missouri Associated Press Managing Editors, the Missouri Press Association and the Illinois Press Association. In 2010, the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis honored her with a Spirit of Justice Award in recognition of her work on the housing crisis. Leonard began her newspaper career at the Belleville News-Democrat after earning a degree in mass communications from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, where she now serves as an adjunct faculty member. She is partial to pomeranians and Cardinals.

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