Tuesday, January 13, 2009

What a Difference 3 Years Make: 2 Labors of Love, 1 Mission Community-Builder & Living, Walking, Breathing Community Benefit

Susan Conlon: The Consumate Commuinity-Builder Across Race, Class, Place, and Circumstance

A very special thanks from We Are BOOST goes out to Susan Conlon, the 2009 Princeton Environmental Film Festival's Coordinator and someone whom I have known for three years, next month.

Susan and I met at a smart growth forum on February 22, 2006. We immediately connected on the issue of Community Benefits Agreements (CBA's). CBA's are legally enforceable contracts between local community stakeholders and developers of (usually) large-scale real estate redevelopment projects. These contracts outline the 'benefits' and/or negative impact mitigation measures (community impact softeners) that the developer agrees to provide the local community in exchange for support of the proposed project through the various public approval processes.

Susan was working on a similar initiative in a suburban community in Mercer County and I was immersed in Trenton on multiple proposed projects that threatened to drastically change the neighborhood in which we lived, worked, worshipped, and recreated. Same situation, two different towns, and two different so-called 'population sets', yet, Susan did not focus on the differences, she only saw the commonalities. We can all learn a lot from this in the "green" movement and "sustainble communities" organizational construct(s). One humananity, one earth, one environment with nested (inter-related & Inter-dependent) systems. It is a mind "shift" needed to understand this approach and achieve sustainability. Renewables? "Be ye transformed by the RENEWAL of your mind"

Susan reached out to me after the forum and we shared resources and ideas, attended each others' meetings, generally kept in touch with each other over a protracted period of time, and offer inspiration and encouragement in a labor of love - building bridges across man-fabricated geographical boundaries and socio-economic status.

Susan made no, absolutely no excuses about working with me and our group. She did not hesitate offer an ear, encouragement, and energy to our movement. She wanted to see the same benefits for us that we wanted to see for ourselves and vis versa. No parochial or petty political posturing as tradition holds: "you take care of you your 'back yard' and we'll take care of ours"; or "we have capacity and you don't, so go get your act together"; or "you're black and urban and we are white and suburban, so we can't mix water and wine". None of that.

We Are BOOST grew out of our efforts to ensure local community inclusion in the redevelopment planning and decision-making process in New Jersey capital's Old Trenton Neighborhood (OTN). Susan was a very important part of our group's ability to connect with our suburban neighbors for insights, encouragement, and access to technical assistance and training through her connection with the Princeton Public Library. I was able to bring more than a handful of OTN stakeholders to various training and networking opportunities as a result of Susan's passion about our mutual causes.

Back in OTN - At least two of the many proposed projects have "green" or "sustainability" elements in both the buildings, garages, open and public spaces, and streetscape design plans. This prompted me to begin to research and identify possible opportunities that can be generated for local residents and business owners if we prepared or equipped ourselves with a working knowledge of green building, sustainable community design, smart growth, and environmental economics.

Thusly, since early 2007, We Are BOOST has been one of the leading group raising public awareness and building local community capacity to be engaged in community benefits negotiation as well as use these leading-edge principles in everyday living. In 2008, WAB sponsored and hosted dozens of workshops, focus sessions, panel discussions, redevelopment site tours, and youth enrichment activities.

Our recent successes does not mean the work is any easier than it was three years ago. Lots of stress from long hours of work each day for days on end, skepticism from the "green movement" movers and shakers for whatever reasons, and not a lot of financial support. We leverage all five capitals to get our work accomplished and the learning curve is very, very, very with our methodology.

Again, I get a contact inquiry from whom? Susan - inviting us to put together a panel for the 2009 Princeton Environmental Film Festival. Yet another step in the right direction and opportunity to grow our work and continue to build bridges. Susan is still there, sharing, informing, inspiring, and inviting all to take part in a common cuase.

We Are BOOST looks forward to working with like-minded groups and individuals - like Susan - to grow this effort, initiate local as well as regionally collaborative programs, projects, and policy work to that manifest community benefits, community-first and equitable development, and environmental economy.

Susan Conlon - thank you! Here it is almost three years later - next month - and what a long way each of us has come. We have never lost our connection and our mission(s) remain the same. We congratulate you on an outstanding week of PEFF and wish you only the best of success for you and all who are involved in this movement.

Tim Razzaq, CEO and Founder

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