The Lealman community, an unincorporated area north and west of the city of St. Petersburg, has been studied and surveyed repeatedly over the past two decades. Consistently, the results provided an almost identical snapshot of poverty and scourge. Conditions have not improved significantly despite the diligent efforts of many non-profit organizations and the residents themselves.
That’s because it’s notoriously difficult to create lasting change in communities – and in the lives of individuals in struggling communities. The problems are too complex to be solved by a single organization or entity. Many systems that impact people’s lives are deeply flawed. The ability of individuals and families to improve their situation is often hampered by crime, intergenerational poverty and insufficient access to basic resources such as housing, employment, 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 having a significant, systemic and measurable impact is both professional and deeply personal. I see this commitment daily among the hardworking and committed social sector warriors of Pinellas County, some of the most impressive communities I have witnessed in my 30-year career in nonprofits and philanthropy in Chicago, Detroit and Pinellas County.
An important lesson we have all learned is that no single organization can create systemic change on its own. And no sector has all the answers or resources it needs either: partnerships across sectors – nonprofit, business, government and individuals – are essential. But that can be difficult to achieve. Each industry has its own culture, motivations, reward systems and taboos, often making collaboration a difficult undertaking.
The young organization that I lead, the St. Petersburg Foundationa 501c3 nonprofit organization affiliated with the for-profit organization St. Petersburg Group and the St. Pete Catalyst, was created by business and nonprofit leaders who engage in public-private-philanthropic partnerships for social good. We try to be resourceful and creative in identifying and activating innovative local projects and partnerships that can make a difference.
We are honored to have recently entered into an agreement with Pinellas County government to undertake important cross-sector work at Lealman that promises to bring new strategies and philanthropic resources to support people and organizations working hard to solve difficult problems.
This is a development several years in the making. The Pinellas County government has paid increasing attention to Lealman, working alongside businesses, nonprofits, 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 passage of a redevelopment plan fueled by a special tax assessment to alleviate the blight and increase opportunity 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 land in the heart of the CRA. They aspired for the property to serve as a central and convenient location for community services and activities in a neighborhood that currently lacks a “public square” or central gathering point.
In 2019, the Pinellas County government engaged the St. Petersburg Group to create a strategic programming plan for the Lealman Exchange for its highest and best community use. Extensive stakeholder engagement and generous community participation and county leadership led to the identification of a mission and priorities for the facility. The plan proposed a phased, multi-year approach to creating a life services center – a place where residents can go beyond emergency relief 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 raised aspiration and pride alongside realism about the needs of the community:
Celebrate Lealman pride and increase independence through partnerships and programs focused on economic empowerment, academic advancement, health and wellness, character and leadership, and community connectedness.
The planning process also resulted in the recommendation that the Lealman Exchange serve as the centerpiece of a thoughtful and researched mix of service providers working within a collective impact model. Collective Impact is a framework for tackling complex social issues through structured and intentional work across sectors. It’s more than just collaboration. The approach unites multi-sectoral service providers into an integrated collective with shared goals, metrics, strategies and services.
The Collective Impact Model has proven itself in communities across the country and has a growing number of practitioners.
Successful collective impact initiatives require the coordination of a professional team, often known as a “backbone organization,” dedicated to orchestrating partner activities. This framework harnesses 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 organization and technical support for the Lealman Collective Impact initiative. We will facilitate ongoing community research and communication, convenings of current and potential 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 on the ability of stakeholders to collaborate and share a common vision of the results they want to see in the community. It is their collective work that the initiative aims to facilitate, enhance and amplify.
We are all extremely lucky that the Tampa Bay Community Foundation supports the collective impact process at the Lealman Exchange with staff expertise and funding – $210,000 over three years to support the implementation and hiring of a Navigator, a position that will help connect individuals and families with the right services to meet their needs. This represents the start of a push to bring new philanthropic resources into the community, including private donors and corporate partnerships.
Pinellas County staff and commissioners are to be commended for merging the management of this county facility with an innovative, forward-thinking approach to service delivery that strives for deeper, longer-term community impact. .
We look forward to sharing the story of the Lealman Exchange Collective Impact initiative in the months ahead and focusing on the local partners who are at the center of the story. Our goal is to support community aspirations with effective management, strong communication and measurement tools that will track progress over time.
We are driven by what one stakeholder said during the Lealman Exchange visioning and strategic planning process: “Let’s move the narrative from simply ‘survive Lealman’ to ‘thrive in Lealman’.”