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Mel King Institute fills gap in community

Sandra Larson
Sandra Larson
Sandra Larson is a Boston-based freelance journalist covering urban/social issues and policy. She has contributed regularly since 2009 to the Bay State Banner, and since 2016 to VIEW BIO
Mel King Institute fills gap in community
Shirronda Almeida, director of the Mel King Institute for Community Building, a training center and information clearinghouse for community development practitioners. (Photo: Sandra Larson)

R. Michelle Green already had 20-plus years’ experience in business and education administration when she joined Dorchester Bay Economic Development Corporation as its chief operating officer in 2010. But operations at a nonprofit community development corporations (CDCs) presented an entirely different challenge.

“Real estate development for CDCs is complicated,” explained Green. “While for-profit companies pick a niche, CDCs have to get involved with everything. To build a neighborhood, they may have to do a shopping center here, housing here.”

At the other end of the career ladder is Lauren Coy, 22. The recent Tufts University graduate needed to ramp up her economic development knowledge when she became an AmeriCorps volunteer at a Boston Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) Financial Opportunity Center. Coy had a background in community health, but helping low- and moderate-income families learn to build assets and gain financial self-sufficiency pushed her into unfamiliar territory.

The experienced executive and the young volunteer both turned to the Mel King Institute for Community Building, a training center and information clearinghouse for community development practitioners learning the ropes. Coy took the Institute’s full-day “Introduction to Community and Economic Development” workshop; Green took a nonprofit housing management course, followed by a real estate development course for executive directors.

“The first one,” said Green, “gave me the nuts-and-bolts experience in understanding funding sources, working with lenders and thinking about capital assets. In the second course, I was with people already at a high level of responsibility, and we went over case histories and talked about the history of housing development in America.”

The Mel King Institute was formed in 2009 as a joint effort by the Massachusetts Association of Community Development Corporations (MACDC) and Boston LISC, a nonprofit that supports affordable housing and community development.

Shirronda Almeida, who serves as the Mel King Institute’s director as well as MACDC’s member services director, said the Institute’s overarching mission is to foster vibrant and thriving communities.

“And we do it through building the capacity of CDCs to deliver their missions to their communities,” she said in an interview. “In order to do that, they need more qualified professionals and leaders.”

In its first two years, the Institute served more than 500 people in dozens of training programs. Ongoing learning is essential for nonprofit organizations trying to keep up with a changing economy, Almeida said, though they may feel too busy or cash-strapped to pause for training.

“Having an organization thinking about their staff and where they’re going is incredibly important, especially during these challenging times,” she said. “Ten years ago, people weren’t talking about foreclosures. But now that’s a whole other skill set that community organizations have to deal with. How do you redevelop these properties? What’s happening to the tenants in the properties? It’s important to constantly stay up to date. And that directly benefits the community. The organizations can give better services because the staff has up-to-date skills.”

The institute is named after the venerable Mel King, longtime Boston activist and community leader, and Massachusetts state representative from 1973 to 1982. As a state legislator, King created important funding, policy and infrastructure for the community development field.

“He’s the grandfather of community development,” said Almeida.

She cited not only King’s legislative influence, but also his leadership in the fight for what became the Tent City mixed-income housing development, and his current work with youth at the South End Technology Center he founded.

Seen through King’s eyes, the vision for the new institute grew larger.

“When Mel heard we were thinking of calling it ‘The Training Institute,’ he said ‘Training is something you do with animals,’ ” Almeida said, flashing a grin at the recollection. “He said this should be broader than that, and he was right. This is really about community building — partnerships, connecting, networking, a broader dialogue.”

King does not work for the Institute, but he makes himself available for advice. “We check in with him often,” Almeida said. “We get a lot of great ideas from him.”

A September all-day introductory community and economic development workshop started out with the basics of what CDCs do, and included exercises such as brainstorming on ways to improve a vacant and litter-filled lot. As the day went on, the topics grew more complex — economic development, political organizing and real estate development.

This last topic drew the most questions from the community development newbies. CDCs offer many services to lift a neighborhood — from small business assistance and job training to foreclosure prevention and first-time homebuyer education — but the development of affordable housing and commercial spaces often plays a significant role, both for serving a neighborhood and generating income for the organization.

One of the Institute’s key funding partners is MassHousing, in part because housing education is such a strong interest. The housing finance organization has provided the Institute $225,000 in funding so far. The most recent grant was $75,000 in June.

“Organizations that are stronger will be better borrowing partners for us, more able to put affordable housing deals together,” said Tom Gleason, MassHousing’s executive director. “It only made sense that an institute focused on strengthening the capacity of these organizations would be logical for us. We felt it really lined up with our mission.”

Upcoming workshop topics at the Mel King Institute include smoke-free housing, group facilitation, popular education, and community organizing basics and strategies. Many of the Institute’s courses are offered at a modest cost; some are free.