And What Did We Start With? Nothing More Than Opportunity

by Kristine Breese   •  

Opportunity Nation is proud of its diverse, multi-sector coalition, which is committed to expanding opportunity and economic mobility for all Americans. In the weeks and months ahead, our coalition partner organizations, individuals committed to this effort, and citizens of all stripes will be featured here on our blog. They will showcase the impact they make every day in our communities, continue a dialogue about access to the American Dream, and highlight why they are a part of this campaign. Below you can learn more about the work of our partner the Jacobs Center for Neighborhood Innovation, which is reinventing an underinvested community in San Diego through their mission of “resident ownership of neighborhood change.”

There is a quote above the front door of our building, something we walk by every day.  It says, “And what did we start with? Nothing more than opportunity.” The quote comes from Dr. Joe Jacobs, the entrepreneur and philanthropist who launched our audacious experiment in “resident ownership of neighborhood change” by moving his foundation into Southeast San Diego 13 years ago.

Dr. Joe was all about opportunity. Where most saw an abandoned factory and toxic dump in the heart of the community, Joe saw an opportunity to let people change the physical attributes of their neighborhood, and in so doing give them hope and a stake in its future.

Joe bought a 20-acre brownfield and sent out a small team of residents to knock on doors and ask people what they’d like to see in the place of the boarded up factory. The answer came back—give us a grocery store and the amenities of a retail plaza. An opportunity was born, seized by community contractors, local employees and, eventually, resident investors who own stock in the plaza, and are preparing to invest in the next retail project.

When construction began, the earth-moving equipment kept getting tagged with spray paint. Rather than call the police, we called the mothers, aunties and grandmothers of the young men suspected of the vandalism.  After all, we knew these ladies because they’re the ones who’d knocked on all those doors. Where some saw a problem, the Jacobs team saw an opportunity. The ladies told us these kids were not trouble makers, just bored and seeking self-expression. So, we hatched WriterzBlok, a graffiti art park with 10,000 feet of plywood panels and concrete walls where the paint is free, the territory is gang-neutral, and the cops will leave you alone—in fact, they use the site for first-time graffiti offenders to do community service, and have commissioned our artists to paint murals at local police stations. Today WriterzBlok attracts urban artists from around the world, and serves as another source of pride in this land of opportunity.

Kristine Breese

Director of Strategic Partnerships, Jacobs Family Foundation / Jacobs Center for Neighborhood Innovation

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