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  • Engaging the Community


Building Connection in the Community Before Building a Community Center

A community center is more than a building. As its name implies, it is a focal point for the residents of a neighborhood, a place for people to connect with each other and benefit from recreation to education services. The success of a community center depends a great deal on how well it recognizes and reflects the needs of the community. That’s especially true for the historically Black community of Bayview, an under-served and under-resourced community that has strived for decades to be given a fair share of new public facilities.

As Pankow Builders prepared to build the Southeast Community Center in San Francisco’s Bayview neighborhood, the team learned the best way to reflect the needs of a community is to make the community an integral part of the project. More than just holding meetings, this included engaging with community leaders, being willing and active listeners, learning and admitting when the company was wrong – and then changing direction. It also meant not only hiring local residents to work on the project, but becoming a career resource to the community. The community connection took on even more importance in the wake of the death of George Floyd and other Blacks at the hands of the police, followed by the COVID-19 pandemic that had an outsized impact on people of color.

Community Engagement Beyond an LBE and Local Workforce Program

Taking a listening approach and more time to recognize and understand the community, Pankow began a long and deliberate process of building the center “for the community, by the community”.

One important aspect of this was its handling of the city’s requirement for public projects to allocate a percentage of the work to Local Business Entities (LBE), as well as making a commitment to local hiring practices. Pankow established a workforce and Local Business Enterprise (LBE) program and community benefits program that relied on close collaboration with trusted community leaders, including Bayview entrepreneurs and business owners such as James Bryant and the late Yolanda Jones.

James Bryant and Yolanda Jones helped Pankow foster connections with local construction companies, not only to participate directly in the project, but also to compare notes with the general contractors working on other neighborhood projects and assist them with enhancing their outreach programs and management systems.

To enhance the outreach program, Pankow created effective management tools to accurately measure the outcomes and effectiveness of the program. Extensive LBE market data collection was done by LBE partners James Bryant, Crystal Timms, and Carla Tucker. This informed Data Analytics that matched project scopes with local community contractors, especially LBEs and the workforce in District 10.

Lyn-Tise Jones came onboard as the Community Benefits Coordinator and brought fresh ideas to the plan that included holding beneficial neighborhood events and conducting workshops in schools to show local kids what construction careers are possible. These interactive events were set in motion with the intent to better understand and forge lasting relationships in the community. “Consultants and team members who live in the community have seen other contractors come and go without regard to what their impact is on the community,” she said. “They recognize that, while Pankow is not perfect, there is a concerted effort to be better, more inclusive and serve as a catalyst of change within the construction industry. Pankow is seen as different and striving to do better.”

Telling, Not Asking – Communications Breakdown

Unaware of any previous, or lack of public outreach regarding the project, Pankow entered the first public meeting for 1550 Evans with the intention to inform the citizens how they could get involved in the project. This included policies and bidding instructions, more in the tone of “these are the things you need to do”, rather than leveraging the expertise of the community members in an effort to engage a “for the community, by the community” approach. Pankow had failed to forge relationship with the community to work together to establish shared expectations and agreements.

The company also didn’t fully understand the history of the project, the adjacent City College project, or the fact that the new community center was being built on a different site to make way for expansion of a water treatment plant. Without a true understanding of this context, the Pankow team inadvertently presented the 1550 Evans initiative as removing community resources, not adding, expanding, or improving them.

The meeting would have been a disaster had not Lyn-Tise Jones, recognizing that Pankow was being heard in a negative way that would cost them any respect in the Bayview community, stepped in to end it. “Given the history of what the neighborhood has endured, once lost, the respect and trust of the Bayview is difficult to win back, Lyn-Tise Jones said. Her leadership decision gave Pankow a chance to change its approach while the neighborhood was still open to a collaboration.

Facing a Pandemic and Social Unrest

Simultaneous to the impacts of Covid, tensions in the community were high in the wake of the shooting of Breonna Taylor during a police raid, and the murder of George Floyd at the hands of the police. The emotions in the neighborhood and on the jobsite were raw. Pankow became concerned about what might happen if protests targeted the project. So, both to navigate COVID safety measures and protect the project and workers from potential unrest, the company limited access to the job site office to members of the immediate Pankow team only.

Again, a lack of context put Pankow at odds with the community. The project office had once housed YCAT-C Inc. which served as an important workforce connector within the community for years. The location had also served as an important neighborhood hub where community members were welcome to stop in to get information and ask about job opportunities.

When James Bryant found himself turned away from the office by the same company that had engaged him as a link to the community, “it felt as if I was a stranger and not a part of the project team,” he said. Other Black project team and community members were not able to access the office as they had before and did not understand why they were being turned away either.

James Bryant “noticed that there was no connectivity and that we were not understanding each other.” He took the opportunity to educate the team about how their restriction of Black team members to the job site was insensitive and lacked understanding of the community. He persuaded the Pankow team to open the doors, literally and figuratively. This led us to examine our shortcomings and take the opportunity to listen and learn.

Taking the Opportunity to Listen and Learn

The unfolding of these events created what Project Executive Baris Lostuvali called a “perfect storm” to remedy these grievances head-on. Rather than let tensions escalate, Baris and Project Manager Hammam Elkhoudary took the initiative and used the moment as an opportunity to listen and learn.

The Pankow team wanted to make change but didn’t know how. They turned to Yolanda Jones, James Bryant and Lyn-Tise Jones, who quickly created and introduced a series of diversity and inclusion sessions to help the team work through these issues. They invited the client and corporate Pankow team members to join them. The program was not mandatory; rather, the team was “challenged by choice”, with each participant coming at their own volition and embracing the opportunity to grow.

The first session focused on identity, with team members learning about the history of the Bayview community, themselves, and each other - both about their differences from one another and the many ways they are alike. There was a lesson in racism and segregation, with a focus on the importance of such community leaders as John Lewis, to provide more of a framework to describe what it’s like to be Black in America.

Along the way, through their discussion of Bayview’s history, the team discovered the significance of the Big Five Women of Bayview and decided to explore Women of Color. Facilitated by Lyn-Tise Jones and Tinisch Hollins, the Information and Celebration Series highlighted, among others, the five Black women, all outspoken mothers, community leaders and political activists from the Bayview community who worked to improve their neighborhood, ultimately taking their cause to Washington D.C to gain support for redevelopment projects that would bring better housing and community resources to Bayview.

The discussions got tougher, but they also ignited an openness; in that space, people were able to share their feelings about race and their own experiences facing adversity. Lyn-Tise Jones gave everyone homework to identify ways in which privilege had been exercised in their own lives. The third session was a check-in to identify ways in which the team could be a part of extending opportunities to others through allyship and inclusivity. At the final session, Tinisch Hollins remarked to the participants, “you are not only builders, but you are now builders of brave spaces. You have created common goals and made real investments that will serve as a blueprint for building true allyship.”

Moving Forward – Creating More Impactful Partnerships

The project team’s commitment to the Southeast Community Center project serves as a learning opportunity throughout Pankow. This experience demonstrates the ability to acknowledge our blind spots to better understand the community, listen to better differentiate between equity and equality, and forge inclusive partnerships. As Lyn-Tise explained to the team, “when the community feels the love, they rally for you.” Moving forward, this “for the community, by the community approach” will continue to impact the next steps on Pankow’s journey to nourish a more diverse and inclusive AEC industry.

To learn more about the project: https://southeastcommunitycenter.com/