Common Ground was the first new organization to directly address the foreclosure crisis in Sherman Park. The initial goal was to prevent abandoned houses from becoming a drag on the surrounding area. To do that effectively, a team of volunteers was formed to visit abandoned properties, evaluate their condition and report violations to the city.
Over the past 7 years, this group of 30 volunteers made at least 10,000 evaluations of selected properties in Sherman Park, often returning to the same property several times to be sure that repairs were made, buildings remained secure, lawns were mowed and snow plowed. When signs of life were detected in an abandoned property, evaluators reported it and waited in the driveway until the police arrived. There was a lot of work on the ground, and in the background keeping track of each property.
Initially, evaluators needed to build trust with Sherman Park residents who had seen their community suffer as buildings were abandoned. There were a lot of one-on-one sidewalk conversations. Once residents understood why the evaluators were there, and saw that they were there for the long haul, things changed. Residents understood that Common Ground could get things done that individuals acting alone couldn’t. They began sharing information with evaluators and relationships developed. Evaluators, who were initially seen as “white people with time on their hands” became a force for good in the community.
Evaluators also built trust with the city which was understaffed and couldn’t perform needed inspections. Requests from an organization are more powerful than requests from individuals, so when the city recognized that complaints from Common Ground evaluators were legitimate and part of a long-term commitment to Sherman Park, they acted quickly to fix problems.
Now Sherman Park has fewer boarded up buildings, more renovated homes and stronger neighborhood connections. Neighbors talk to neighbors. They have a shared interest in maintaining their homes and keeping their area safe. It’s a better place to live.
Evaluators are pleased with the direction Sherman Park is taking. They also believe that the experience benefited them personally. Some took satisfaction in identifying a problem and getting it solved quickly. Some wanted to be physically involved in helping their community – “doing more than writing a check”. Others mentioned that this was an opportunity to work in a racially mixed community, helping bring down barriers and get comfortable working together. Being welcomed into a new community, acting with purpose and being relevant were all sources of satisfaction, as were the new relationships that formed.
Common Ground has several initiatives in Sherman Park. All of them are based in the work these volunteers did on the ground to make positive change one property at a time.
Special thanks to MKE Rising evaluators Mary Ann Fisher, Martha Mainland and Janet Martin who took time to share their thoughts and experiences with us for this article.
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