This community development advocate has learned that great things happen when residents are invested in, and empowered to, change their world.
My hometown of Eatonville, Florida, is known as “the town that Freedom built,” and for good reason: It was founded in 1887 by black freedmen on land they bought from a rare white landowner willing to sell large tracts to black people. Today, it’s the oldest historically black incorporated town in America.
This place exists and has survived because of citizen leadership, vision, and persistence. Many people here, like me, have multigenerational ties to the town, and all of us take deep pride in Eatonville’s role in history. Many people who live or work here, or attend one of our many churches, have contributed to building a Culture of Health in town and winning recognition for our efforts from the state of Florida and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. But the spirit of collaboration that made that possible didn’t happen by accident. Eatonville has proactively empowered citizens to become leaders. We value the voices and contributions of all of our citizens.
This is how real systemic change happens.
In recent years, the town has promoted leadership in a number of ways. These have included Healthy Eatonville Team, which I chair, a group of citizens working to improve health in the town; Leadership Eatonville, a 12-month training program; and efforts to launch neighborhood associations in the town’s four quadrants, starting with the neighborhood of Catalina. Before I took the helm, Healthy Eatonville Team already had a track record of success, helping to refurbish the gym of a former high school, install bike racks around town and add a free bike share at our library in the heart of our historic downtown. The group also was behind making sure the town included healthy community design in its community redevelopment master plan, which was updated in 2016 and governs the work we do at Eatonville’s Community Redevelopment Agency, where I am neighborhood coordinator.
We’re working on building on that list of accomplishments. It’s not always easy, but every step we take is worthwhile because of our commitment to the people of this town. Here are three things I’ve learned about nurturing homegrown leaders during my year of leading Healthy Eatonville Team.
We have a long and ambitious list of things we’d like to do to promote health and well-being in Eatonville. We can do them all—just not at the same time. And it’s important to remember that sometimes doing “small” things—like fixing sidewalks—can have a big impact in a town our size. I learned that people see sidewalks as a path to better health. So, Healthy Eatonville Team has gotten serious about sidewalks, and at the moment, we’re focusing most of our efforts there.
Better sidewalks that connect throughout the town will improve residents’ ability to get around by foot and stay active. This is intuitive, but not the kind of thing that planners would necessarily focus on first if not for hearing the voices of the people who walk those paths. Though sidewalk improvements and repairs are already included in Eatonville’s comprehensive plan, taking the project on requires money and proper planning. So members of Healthy Eatonville Team have taken the initiative to look for state and federal grants to help fund the effort.
But even as we prioritize those sidewalks, Eatonville’s other ambitions on that list to improve health and well-being will get some love. This is where leadership across the work in our community is integral to our success. Communication and connection on the issues that unite us is essential. And it’s because of our approach that our town’s economic development projects, diabetes management and prevention efforts at the health and wellness center Healthy Eatonville Place, and our work to empower young people continue. Healthy Eatonville Team doesn’t have to focus on everything, but the group is an important mechanism for reaching consensus on issues that are important to people in town. To that end, we’re also getting more organized in how we educate other residents and communicate with town government about the changes citizens would like to see so we can coordinate our work and priorities.
Lead, But Listen
Healthy Eatonville Team has been fortunate to have many “stakeholders”—like the principal of our elementary school, members of local health systems and foundations, business owners or representatives from nonprofit service providers—coming to meetings and joining the work of our group. These leaders’ involvement is important and aids coordination across sectors. But to truly represent citizen concerns, I want to ensure people who live in town—or work or go to church here—and aren’t normally viewed as leaders make up the bulk of our group’s participants. These often-undervalued members of our community must understand that the town needs them and their energy and activity. I want them to see, through their participation in our planning and activities, that their contributions are valuable to our collective progress. Once they recognize how important they are, they’ll be encouraged to do more and invite more people to do what they can. That’s how a movement toward better health grows.
Find Champions for Citizens’ Work
In Eatonville’s efforts to launch a neighborhood association in Catalina, one of Eatonville’s four quadrants, we’ve identified two residents as leaders. And to encourage and motivate them and get others in the neighborhood involved, we’re coordinating with Tarus Mack, one of our city council members who lives there. He sees the value of deep citizen involvement and plans to be a champion for the neighborhood association. Mack is going to speak with residents and actively participate in the group, modeling the type of engagement that will help Eatonville thrive and continue to feed our Culture of Health. Such on-the-ground engagement is also how today’s leaders inspire tomorrow’s.
People are often so busy with the many commitments in our lives, but seeing a member of our city government prioritize and engage at the neighborhood level will, we hope, inspire others to make a difference right where they live. Leadership comes in all shapes and sizes—something our small town knows about given our oversized historical footprint.
I’m excited about getting more people involved in improving health and well-being in Eatonville, and I’m confident we can keep building momentum. We cultivate the type of leadership that can spring forth from unexpected places. And once you get citizens engaged and invested in change, nothing will stand in their way.
Jasmyne Reese is neighborhood coordinator for Eatonville, Florida’s Community Redevelopment Agency and a public policy intern at IMPACT Strategies, a political advocacy firm. She spent part of her childhood in Eatonville and now lives five miles away, in Altamonte Springs, Florida.