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Community Voices: A Collective Impact approach to community development in Lealman

Karen Chassin



Artist Leo Gomez created this mural outside the Lealman Exchange, as part of Creative Pinellas' Lealman Mural Project. Photo: Creative Pinellas.

The Lealman community, an unincorporated area north and west of the city of St. Petersburg, has been studied and surveyed many times over the past two decades. Consistently, the results have provided an almost identical snapshot of poverty and blight. Conditions have not significantly improved despite the diligent efforts of many nonprofit organizations and of residents themselves.

That’s because creating lasting change in communities – and in individual lives in struggling communities – is notoriously difficult. The problems are too complex for any one organization or entity to solve. Many of the systems that impact people’s lives are deeply flawed. The capacity of individuals and families to improve their circumstances is often hobbled by crime, intergenerational poverty and inadequate access to basic resources like housing, jobs, medical care and education.

For those of us in the “social sector” – people affiliated with nonprofit, philanthropic, religious or community organizations focused on the public good – the goal of achieving impact in meaningful, systemic and measurable ways is both professional and deeply personal. I see that commitment daily among Pinellas County’s hardworking and committed social sector warriors, among the most impressive communities that I have witnessed in my 30-year career in nonprofits and philanthropy in Chicago, Detroit and Pinellas County.

One important lesson we have all learned is that no one organization can create systemic change on its own. And no one sector has all the answers or the resources it needs, either: partnerships across sectors – nonprofit, business, government, and private citizens – are vital. But this can be challenging to achieve. Each sector has its culture, motivations, reward systems and taboos, often making collaboration a fraught enterprise.

The young organization I lead, the St. Petersburg Foundation, a 501c3 nonprofit organization affiliated with the for-profit St. Petersburg Group and the St. Pete Catalyst, was created by business and nonprofit executives who are committed to public-private-philanthropic partnerships for social good. We try to be resourceful and creative about identifying and activating innovative local projects and partnerships that can make a difference.

We are honored to have recently reached an agreement with Pinellas County government to undertake important cross-sector work in Lealman that promises to bring new strategies and philanthropic resources to support hard-working people and organizations addressing difficult problems.

This is a development several years in the making. Pinellas County government has focused increasing attention on Lealman, working alongside business, nonprofit and citizen groups to bring resources to this unincorporated area of the county. The formation of the Lealman Community Revitalization Area (CRA) in 2015 paved the way for the adoption of a redevelopment plan fueled by a special tax assessment to mitigate blight and increase opportunities in the neighborhood.

In 2017, the county acquired a facility housing a former charter school, now known as the Lealman Exchange, a 77,000 square foot building and grounds in the heart of the CRA. They aspired for the property to serve as a convenient, central location for services and community activities in a neighborhood that currently lacks a “town square” or focal point for gathering.

In 2019, Pinellas County government engaged the St. Petersburg Group to create a strategic plan for programming the Lealman Exchange for its highest and best community use. Extensive stakeholder engagement and generous community participation and county leadership led to identifying a mission and priorities for the facility. The plan proposed a phased, multi-year approach to creating a life services hub – a place where residents can move beyond emergency assistance to sustainability through a range of supports, including job skills, education and training, and employment assistance.

Additionally, community members felt that the Exchange could be a gathering place for fun, family-friendly activities that Lealman currently lacks. They arrived at a mission statement for the Lealman Exchange that lifted up aspiration and pride alongside realism about community needs:

Celebrating Lealman pride and increasing independence through partnerships and programs focusing on economic empowerment, educational advancement, health and wellness, character and leadership and community connectivity.

The planning process also yielded the recommendation that the Lealman Exchange serve as the centerpiece of a thoughtful, researched mix of service providers working under a Collective Impact model. Collective Impact is a framework for tackling complex social issues via structured, intentional work across sectors. It is more than mere collaboration. The approach unites multi-sector service providers into an integrated collective with shared goals, measurements, strategies and services.

The Collective Impact model has proven itself in communities across the country and boasts a growing body of practitioners.

Successful Collective Impact initiatives require the coordination of a professional team, often known as the “backbone organization,” dedicated to orchestrating the activities of the partners. This framework taps the strengths of the business, nonprofit, philanthropic and civic sectors to achieve specific, measurable and lasting change in communities.

In March, Pinellas County approved an agreement with the St. Petersburg Foundation to provide day-to-day management of the Lealman Exchange facility and serve as the backbone organization and technical support for the Lealman Collective Impact initiative. We will facilitate ongoing community research and communication, convenings of current and prospective service providers, and work with community leaders and residents to activate the Lealman Exchange with resources and activities that maximize its value to the community.

The success of any Collective Impact initiative depends upon on the ability of the stakeholders to collaborate and share a common vision for the outcomes they want to see in the community. It is their collective work that the initiative is designed to facilitate, enhance and amplify.

We are all extremely fortunate that the Community Foundation Tampa Bay is supporting the Collective Impact process at the Lealman Exchange with staff expertise and funding – $210,000 over three years to support implementation and the hiring of a navigator, a staff position that will help connect individuals and families with the right services to meet their needs. This represents the beginning of a push to bring new philanthropic resources into the community, including private donors and corporate partnerships.

Pinellas County staff and commissioners deserve credit for merging the management of this county facility with an innovative and forward-thinking approach to service delivery that aspires to deeper and longer-term community impact.

We look forward to sharing the story of the Lealman Exchange Collective Impact initiative in the coming months and focusing on the local partners who are the center of the story. Our goal is to support the aspirations of the community with efficient management, strong communications and measurement tools that will track progress over time.

We’re motivated by something said by a stakeholder during the visioning and strategic planning process for the Lealman Exchange: “Let’s shift the narrative from merely ‘surviving in Lealman’ to ‘thriving in Lealman.’”




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