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With new manager in place, Mattapan United looks to make an impact

Posted by Patrick Rosso  February 29, 2012 02:05 PM

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With a new operations manager in place, Mattapan United, one of the neighborhood’s newest community-building organizations, is optimistic about making an impact.

Karleen Porcena, the former operations manager of the Mattapan Family Service Center, an Action for Boston Community Development neighborhood site and convening agency of the group, has been transitioning into her new role as operations manager at Mattapan United.

“We are doing a lot of engagement and now we are really trying to move into action groups,” Porcena said.

Still, the organization is well aware of past issues and new challenges.

Started by a group of residents in fall 2010 and launched in February 2011, the Mattapan United Community Vision seeks to build "community grassroots engagements that create an identity of Mattapan as a dynamic, desirable place to live, work, and visit.”

The group received a financial commitment from the Local Initiatives Support Corporation in December that provides $100,000 every year, over three years, plus another $100,000 to support activities and initiatives for the community.

“We want to hear what neighbors and agencies are most interested in working on, and then enable them to do that,” said Mellissa Jones, program officer for LISC’s Resilient Families/Resilient Communities and Community Safety program, which provided Mattapan United with its grant. “It’s the idea that every once in a while neighborhoods should organize again, revisit what’s there, think about what new priorities emerge and figure out how to solve those.”

Porcena is the newest manager of the group, but she isn’t the first. Lillie Searcy, the former director of the Mattapan Family Service Center, organized the group but stepped down from her position at the FSC in spring 2011 and thinks the group has wandered from its original mission.

“If I was doing it, it would be different,” Searcy said. “It’s supposed to be driven by residents. It cannot be driven by an institution.”

Searcy also highlighted the close relationship between ABCD, LISC, and Mattapan United as troublesome.

“If LISC is going to drive this process, it’s not going to work,” added Searcy. “When funders start controlling, you’re in trouble. A convening agency shouldn’t run the initiative.”

Another former head, Jeff Stone, the first paid person to head Mattapan United, was hired by Searcy, but abruptly fired in September 2011. In an email sent to the group’s Steering Committee in September, Stone said his removal was unfortunate.

“On Friday morning, Mike Vance and Milly Arbaje-Thomas informed me they were terminating my employment at ABCD because it was ‘not a good fit’ and they are moving ‘in a different direction,' ” Stone said in the e-mail. “I want you to know that it was definitely not my decision to leave this job. I believe wholeheartedly in Mattapan United and care about Mattapan and its residents.”

Both Arbaje-Thomas, who replaced Searcy at the FSC, and Porcena ran the program along with the group’s Steering Committee during the search for an operations manager.

Procena noted that even during the absence of an official manger, the group continued to make an impact and build relationships in the community.

“LISC really focuses on community engagement and we’ve done that really well so far,” said Porcena who cited the group’s often packed monthly meetings.

Arbaje-Thomas also said progress has been made.

“We have different stages to this,” said Arbaje-Thomas. “We are still on target on what we are supposed to accomplish.”

LISC also sees the group moving in the right direction.

“The changes in staffing were a bump in the road, but I think we are very happy with the work Milly and Karleen have been doing,” said Bob Van Meter, executive director of LISC. “I think a year ago we hoped they would have been further along, but we think they are doing good work and moving forward and we are happy with that. “

Jones also noted that while progress may seem slow, it is part of the process.

“The idea of our process, is you start with a series of one-on-ones that reconnects residents and agencies and connects residents with different parts of the neighborhood,” said Jones. “We want agencies to do conversations with residents to surface what the priorities are and to surface new leadership. Then from there, the question is what do we want to know? And then they move into this community survey process.”

Some local elected officials have also said the group is on the right track.

“I think they are doing good work and moving along,” said Representative Linda Dorcena Forry, whose district includes portions of Mattapan.

At-large City Councilor Ayanna Pressley sees the group making progress.

“One of the things I’ve been encouraged by is the improved coordination,” Pressley said. “I’m very impressed. There haven’t been starts and stops and it has been sustainable. I definitely believe it is working.”

District 4 City Councilor Charles Yancey, who attended the group’s first meeting in 2010, said he is waiting to see what comes out of the group.

“The only thing I can say is that it’s a work in progress. I had high hopes when it came together initially,” said Yancey.

When asked if the close relationship between ABCD, LISC and the new manger is a concern, Yancey noted the group needs to be headed by residents.

“I think for a group to be truly effective it has to be based in the community with leadership that truly represents the neighborhood,” said Yancey. “I don’t think it’s appropriate for the leader to not be based in the community...I look forward to the time when the director of Mattapan United is independent from ABCD.”

The group is moving forward and the next step for the organization is to leverage information from the one-one-one conversations and turn it into a neighborhood-wide survey to assess what issues the community feels should be addressed.

The group will also be working over the next year to target established neighborhood groups and work to bring them into the fold, to start a neighborhood-wide conversation, along with establishing committees to tackle the issues highlighted during the survey and one-on-one conversations.

“The biggest problem has been identifying people that are going to help us do the work,” said Arbaje-Thomas. “If we are going to grow this membership, there’s no way we can do that on our own.”

While bringing the community together and determining what to address in the neighborhood, the group also has $25,000 in early action grants, none of which have been distributed.

“They decided to connect those early action grants with their action groups which are the heart of their engagement process,” said Jones. “So that as people decide strategies they want to test in the different issue areas they can begin distributing them.”

Progress, according to Porcena, is being made and now it is only a matter of time before the group solidifies its position in the neighborhood and brings the neighborhood as a whole together.

“People seem to be very energetic and ready for all of these changes,” said Porcena. “People have mentioned getting the neighborhood associations involved so I really want to focus on that as we transition more to the action items. Before we were trying to do engagement and get the name out and now we are moving towards more action groups. We really want to see how we can get the neighborhood associations involved.”

The group meets the second Wednesday of every month at the Mattapan Family Service Center on River Street from 5:30 p.m. – 8:30 p.m.

Email Patrick D. Rosso, Follow him @PDRosso, or friend him on Facebook.

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