“This is like a double ray of sunshine. Now I can walk to the bus on streets I would not walk on before.” – Reola Cormbe, resident
“When we first got here, the kids were talking about drive-by shootings, gangs and drugs. And now we’ve gone from fear to quiet. Now we feel safe enough to have a baby here.” – Josh Harville
“Look at me now! I am the first to graduate from high school in my family…I am the first to go to college… Never in my wildest dreams did I think I could stand here today…” – Jarmika Cooks
In 1994, the City of Shreveport, LA was hit by Hurricane Mack McCarter, a storm neither named nor seen by the U.S. Weather Service.
McCarter, who swept in from Texas to return to the city in which he grew up, was hell (or heaven) bent on sweeping away old stereotypes, changing conventional wisdom about how to reclaim frightened, crime-ridden communities and ready to uproot social norms that most felt could not be changed.
Institutionally described as the founder and Director of Community Renewal International (CRI), Hurricane McCarter descended with a model“…which systematically initiates, grows and sustains safe and loving communities with measurable results.” The model rests on three building blocks: The “We Care” team members, Haven Houses and Friendship Houses.
You’re standing in the supermarket checkout line somewhere in Shreveport. The person in front of you sports an “I Care” button. The line is long, so you engage in conversation, asking what the button means and where to get it. The answer: You apply for it, and get your button only after you’ve filled out a card on which you’ve pledged to “care” for someone else (could be tutoring a youngster or weekly calls to your uncle who has cancer). 41,000 (yes, forty-one thousand) Shreveporters proudly wear “I Care” buttons.
Hurricane McCarter aimed first at individuals, then at neighborhoods, creating in his wake, “Haven Houses.” 1,000 Haven House block leaders (with attractive Haven House signs on their front lawns) are trained to “restore the relational foundations on the blocks where they live”. Committing to three hours per week, Haven House volunteers do everything from welcoming new neighbors, to providing helpful information on any number of issues–libraries, sports opportunities, child care, where to vote, etc. to organizing block parties.
Finally, Hurricane Mack made a beeline for Shreveport’s most crime-besieged communities, leaving in its wake nine Friendship Houses where volunteers and key partners—from The Fuller Center on Housing to local banks and churches (McCarter’s Active Partners’ List runs six pages—about 250 names in all)–build large houses with “community rooms.” Trained staff and their families live in these homes, modeling family, and rebuilding the infrastructure of the areas by working with the children, youth and adults of the neighborhood, using the rooms both as classrooms, and as community centers. CRI has set a goal of 60 Friendship Houses.
Elizabeth Beauvais, CRI’s director of strategic growth, asserts that once the “relational foundation,” a system of intentional and caring relationships that under girds a community, is in place, then “…programs that address important needs, such as education, safety and work, can take firm hold and thrive,”
Namby pamby? Mushy? Hardly. Anchored solidly in the works of Lewis Mumford, Jane Jacobs ( author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities) ), the historian Arnold Toynbee, and the philosopher Elton Trueblood, CRI can show results: a 2009 survey of individuals known to CRI recorded more hope, more trust, a sense of ability to make changes, a greater sense of safety, and, in target neighborhoods, a 20% drop in crime. “We’re seeing a real facelift. There are law-abiding citizen here now. I hardly ever get calls,” says the Police Department’s Cpl Mike Dunn.
In 2001, the former Petroleum Tower was donated to CRI by a consortium of 19 private owners. Intended as “the largest net zero energy building in America,” the Tower will serve as a comprehensive training and technical support center for leaders who want to apply the CRI model in their hometowns. “Like a training hospital, this will provide the academic underpinning for practitioners to spread our programs throughout the world,” says McCarter.
Along with nine Nobel laureates, Bill Gates, Desmond Tutu and a diverse array of political, humanitarian and economic leaders from around the globe, McCarter, in 2008 and 2009, participated in former President Bill Clinton’s annual summit of the Clinton Global Initiative.
Watch it: Hurricane McCarter may be headed your way. For warnings contact www.communityrenewal.us .