As we pause during Black History Month to celebrate national and international figures, we must acknowledge the many greats right here in our city, such as Promise Lee.
Like the community in which he was fashioned, Lee, 58, has multiple identities: minister, professor, author, entrepreneur, advocate, leader and local hero.
Raised in Colorado Springs' Hillside neighborhood, where racism, poverty and crime were a daily reality, Lee went to prison when he was just 16 years old. While incarcerated, he envisioned how to reshape his neighborhood to make sure other boys didn't make the same costly mistakes he did.
Led by Lee, Hillside obtained the National Civic League's All-America City Award for its work. According to a 2012 story by The Gazette, "Hillside Neighborhood Association developed anti-crime programs that led to a decline in violent and property crimes..."
The neighborhood's identity is multifaceted, as it straddles three diverse ZIP codes and now boasts a more even number of white and brown residents, but it still experiences some of the same challenges it faced more than 30 years ago.
Lee sat down with the Indy to talk about this community he calls home:
Indy: What core values made Hillside a great neighborhood?
Lee: The strong sense of community, extended family relationships (familial and non), the code of honor, respect and village parenting, as well as front porches. Isolation [fences] don't foster community.
Your work in Hillside highlights your ability to organize a community based on collective impact to reduce crime trends and societal effects of poverty. In fact it's nationally renowned. Can you tell us what the community looked like when you knew something had to be done?
Upon my return to the Springs [after being released from prison, Lee lived in Houston, Texas], eight years later, it was overwhelmingly evident that the neighborhood was still neglected by city agencies. For instance, there was a stark difference between the east and the west side of Memorial Park. The east side, where white folks gathered, was well-manicured with newly laid sod while the west side lacked functional street lights, and had potholes everywhere. Drinking fountains were non-operational and the basketball courts were dilapidated. Most painfully, South Junior High, the community heartbeat, was ripped out, taking the community pulse with it.
How did you mobilize the community to change?
When I arrived back on the scene, people were tired and frustrated with the way things were, so I guess you could say the soil was already [prepped]. People would come to me and say, "so what are you going to do to fix it?" In a sense, they charged me with the responsibility. I went door-to-door asking people what change they wanted to see. I set up neighborhood meetings. I drafted a newsletter and made sure that it was delivered door-to-door. I set up a phone tree and activated each block with a captain.
What does the community look like today?
It's quite different. It is one of the most ethnically diverse 'hoods in CS but it remains one of the most economically challenged. It is a Low Income, Low Access (LILA) crying out for change.
The neighborhood group suffered a hard blow when the Hillside Neighborhood Association disbanded [in 1998 after Lee resigned to build a new church, Relevant Word Ministries, where he serves as Senior Minister]. I think it lost its focus on what was most important, the members not the media, people not individuals. (There will be a town hall meeting at Relevant Word Ministries, 1040 S. Institute St., on Feb. 15, 5-7 p.m.)
Hillside again needs mobilization, and young community activists would like to help. What advice would you give?
There are three ways folks typically work in a community. Either doing "to, for or with." There must be a balance of all three, otherwise the total is failure. Doing "to" can be synonymous with force and can result in oppression. Doing "for" can result in ultimate dependence. Doing "with" is the preferred style, but communities must be weaned from the organizer(s) in order for positive change to be sustained. Assessment is critical. Just as a good missionary studies the culture they desire to assist, so should anyone who wants to engage a community. Identify the indigenous healers and influencers. Without grass roots there can be no grass tops.