Innovation Ecosystem

Taking the temperature in Olneyville

An interview with Jennifer Hawkins, the executive director of ONE Neighborhood Builders, who has emerged as a community leader in forging solutions to issues at the neighborhood level

Image courtesy of ONE Neighborhood Builders

The new outreach vehicle for the Central Providence Health Equity Zone, for which ONE Neighborhood Builders serves as the backbone agency.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 3/8/21
The new hub of bottom-up innovation in Providence is Olneyville and the neighborhoods that are part of the Central Providence Health Equity Zone, with ONE Neighborhood Builders serving as the backbone agency. They have become the community leaders magnifying the heartbeat of the community.
How can the wire mesh Wi-Fi system built out by ONE Neighborhood Builders be scaled up as a model in other neighborhoods in Rhode Island? Will Gov. McKee help to celebrate the grand opening of the Sheridan Small Home project this spring? When will the Wexford Innovation Center feature Jennifer Hawkins [director of ONE Neighborhood Biulders], Dr. Annie De Groot [the volunteer medical director of Clinica Esperanza] and Dr. Andrew Saal [the chief medical officer at Providence Community Health Centers] in a Venture Café gathering promoting bottom-up innovation? Will the Care Transformation Collaborative consider organizing a statewide alliance of all the community health workers in Rhode Island?
Twenty-seven years ago, in 1994, the first Child Opportunity Zone opened in Rhode Island at the William D’Abate School in Olneyville, funded through a partnership that included United Way of Rhode Island, the Rhode Island Foundation, and the Rhode Island Department of Education. A quarter-century later, few if any community leaders and agency executives remember anything about the COZ initiative, which could be said to have served as a prequel to the 11 Health Equity Zones now operating in Rhode Island.
The R.I. Department of Health announced on Friday, March 5, that it would be distributing approximately $1 million in new funding to expand HEZs in the state. As the state prepares to expand the program, which seeks to leverage place-based, community-led solutions to address the social determinants of health, it may prove to be a worthwhile task to create a history of the COZ initiative – detailing the reasons why it has slipped away from public consciousness.

PROVIDENCE – It has often been hard to find the sunny side of the city street to walk down during the last year, with 2,541 Rhode Island residents having died from COVID-19 and another 128,121 sickened by the virus, as of March 6, 2021.

One ray of hope has been the renewed effort to vaccinate Rhode Islanders, with approximately 214,476 residents having received one dose of vaccine and a total of 85,188 having received two doses of vaccine as of March 5, according to the R.I. Department of Health.

In Central Providence and in Olneyville, communities that have been among the hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic, a constant source of sunlight has been the work of ONE Neighborhood Builders, a community development corporation, which has focused on creating positive solutions to address the challenges of the pandemic, employing a bottom-up innovative approach.

“That is core to our work,” said Jennifer Hawkins, the executive director of ONE Neighborhood Builders, in an interview with ConvergenceRi in December of 2020, talking about the strategy of listening and then responding to needs voiced by community residents. “That’s how we distinguish ourselves as a community development organization,” Hawkins explained, “that we have a variety of processes to find the priorities for neighborhood residents and community stakeholders,” including focus groups, surveys, and one-on-one conversations.

• In December of 2020, ONE Neighborhood Builders received an $8 million investment from Blue Meridian Partners to expand the work of the Central Providence Health Equity Zone.

As part of the $8 million investment by Blue Meridian, $1 million has been targeted to work with existing Health Equity Zones in Rhode Island to support their ability to scale up the work being undertaken by ONE Neighborhood Builders.

Under the new initiative, “Central Providence Conquers COVID-19,” a team of 11 community health workers will conduct a “Social Determinant of Health” screening and, based on results, connect residents with resources, including information on testing sites, contact tracing, food pantries, unemployment benefits, and more. In addition, community health workers are also delivering masks and food to families who are facing food insecurity. [See link below to ConvergenceRI story, “Changing life trajectories in Providence.”]

• In November of 2020, the community development corporation built out its own Wi-Fi network, offering free broadband connections, which now serves two thirds of the residents of Olneyville.

The wire mesh Wi-Fi network, built in collaboration with numerous community and corporate partners, has solved a critical unmet need in the community made more dire by the COVID-19 pandemic: connecting two-thirds of all households in Olneyville to the Internet so residents can access telehealth, virtual public education, online commerce, and job opportunities. [See link below to ConvergenceRI story, “Healing the digital divide.”]

• In October of 2019, a ceremonial groundbreaking took place in Olneyville for the innovative Sheridan Small Homes project, a community of five, very affordable compact small homes to be built along Riverside Park in Olneyville.

Funding support for the Sheridan Small Homes project came from: Rhode Island Housing, NeighborWorks America, TD Charitable Foundation, HarborOne Bank, and the city of Providence.

“Our work over on King Street Commons and Sheridan Small Homes, the work that we did at D’Abate School and the park, all of that came from the community saying to us what the priorities were,” Hawkins said. [See link below to ConvergenceRI story, “Five small homes poised to become a giant step for RI.”]

• In August of 2020, ONE Neighborhood Builders launched a new initiative, “Central Providence Conquers COVID-19,” deploying a team of 11 community health workers to conduct a “Social Determinant of Health” screening, and based on results, connect residents with resources, including information on testing sites, contact tracing, food pantries, unemployment benefits, and more. In addition, community health workers will also be delivering masks and food to families who are facing food insecurity, according to the news release. [See link below to ConvergenceRI story, “When life gets in the way.”]

“The communities in 02908 and 02909 [ZIP codes] have been exceptionally hard hit by COVID-19,” said Jennifer Hawkins, executive director of ONE Neighborhood Builders, in a news release announcing an initiative to fight back against the pandemic. “In fact, these two ZIP codes report the highest number of COVID-19 cases in the entire state.”

Hawkins continued: “This is unfortunately not surprising. Due to high-rent relative to low-wages, many residents are forced to live in overcrowded housing, which results in the inability to safely quarantine.”

Further, Hawkins said: “Low-income residents are often fulfilling essential worker positions that do not allow them to work from home, and/or do not offer adequate paid sick time. We know that if a person has chronic disease, they have a higher risk of suffering a severe case of an infectious disease, and our neighborhoods have high rates of hypertension, diabetes, and asthma.”

The next steps
Beginning on Monday, March 8, the team at ONE Neighborhood Builders will add a new community-building activity to its ongoing list in tasks to engage with community needs: helping residents with vaccine registration, deploying a new outreach vehicle, according to Jennifer Hawkins, the executive director at the community agency. [See first image.]

Here is the most recent ConvergenceRI interview with Hawkins, talking about the progress her community agency is making on a number of fronts in the battle against the coronavirus and continued efforts to reshape the neighborhoods.

ConvergenceRI: What is the status of the Sheridan Small Homes project? When will “owners” be able to move into the properties?
HAWKINS: ONE Neighborhood Builders is nearing completion of the Sheridan Small Homes project and the first owners will be moving in late Spring. These five, single-family homes are 725 square feet and offer two-bedrooms and one and half bathrooms. Their compact size allows us to achieve zero-energy and cluster five homes on land next to Riverside Park.

ConvergenceRI: If you were asked to quantify demand for affordable housing in Central Providence, what would be the best metrics to use?
HAWKINS: According to HousingWorks RI, there is no municipality in Rhode Island where a household with the median renter income, which is $34,255, can afford a fair-market two-bedroom apartment. There are only three where a household with a $50,000 income can afford to live.

In Central Providence, the median income is even lower. And here’s a data point that’s sobering: life expectancy in Central Providence neighborhoods is about nine years less than that of residents from more socio-economically advantaged neighborhoods of Providence.

ConvergenceRI: How will the $65 million in the bond authorized by voters in the March 2 election be overseen? Will it be similar to the previous bond?
HAWKINS: It will be used to produce and preserve affordable housing. Yes, the Housing Resource Commission will be overseeing housing bond funds.

ConvergenceRI: Do you have any data on the impact of the free wire-mesh WiFi network? How has it has been utilized by the community? Are there plans underway to work with other HEZs to build out similar networks?
HAWKINS: Our free community Wi-Fi network went live on Nov. 25, 2020, and currently covers about half of Olneyville. We are now focusing on outreach to make sure neighbors know about it and know how to use it. According to our analytics, 183 unique users have logged-in; our goal is 1000 users by June.

ConvergenceRI: What kinds of coordination is happening with community health workers from ONE Neighborhood Builders and other organizations, such as community health workers from Providence Community Health Centers?
HAWKINS: ONE Neighborhood Builders is the convenor of the Central Providence Health Equity Zone [CP-HEZ]. We sponsor the multi-employer Community Health Worker registered apprenticeship. We now have 14 CHWs employed by eight different employers – PCHC is one of our partners. The CHWs have been instrumental in our ability to respond to COVID and they are now transitioning to work on vaccination education and support.

ConvergenceRI: If you were to invite Gov. McKee on a virtual tour of Central Providence HEZ to showcase the good work being done by ONE Neighborhood Builders, what would be on the tour?
HAWKINS: Our Community Health team recently put together a video about what “a day in the life” is like for them. [See link below.]

When Clinica Esperanza announced that they were providing COVID-19 vaccinations for people 18 years old or older living in the 02909, 02908 or 02907 zip codes, we sent a text message out, and immediately received over a dozen responses from people needing help accessing appointments. These are high-risk individuals who may not otherwise have been reached. For the people we serve, this work is life-changing.

Also, Gov. McKee came to our OV Fest in the summer of 2019. I’d love to bring him back to that neck of the woods to show him the 43 new homes we’ve constructed along King Street and Manton Avenue in the past two years.

ConvergenceRI: What is the latest data from surveys of your community's residents on their needs?
HAWKINS: Affordable and safe housing, quality jobs, accessible childcare.


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