Near the heart of the city of Rochester, New York is EMMA (East Main, Mustard, & Atlantic Avenue), a diverse community filled with caring individuals and families. A neighbor of EMMA is Beechwood, filled with Beechwood trees and people from all walks of life. What connects these two communities is the desire and dedication to make these neighborhoods thriving for all. Connected Communities is a non-profit partnering with residents in the EMMA and Beechwood neighborhoods holistically to meet the needs of these communities. The collaboration of  “where togetherness comes first” and “where roots grow deep” engages community members in building stronger, healthier communities. I had the honor to meet with Rachel Betts, Community Project Manager, and Jenna Lawson, Housing Project Manager, to learn more about the incredible Connected Communities.

Alone we can do so little. Together we can do so much.” Helen Keller

This is how Connected Communities began. The residents of EMMA and Beechwood had identified a variety of neighborhood improvement opportunities and went to the Rochester city leaders for some guidance. Because the improvements were great ideas a public/private partnership was formed including the Beechwood Neighborhood Coalition, EMMA Business and Neighborhood Association, NEAD, Home Leasing, Hillside, Farash Foundation and the University of Rochester. Executive Director LaShunda Leslie-Smith was hired in 2015 and Jenna began working with Connected Communities in 2018 as an AmericaCorp VISTA volunteer. Rachel and Jenna shared there has been tremendous growth the past few years in regards hiring of new staff and expanding programs. At the core of everything Connected Communities does is to keep true to their mission of “breaking the cycle of poverty and revitalizing the EMMA and Beechwood neighborhoods through anti racist revitalization and equitable resource coordination.”

You cannot serve the poor out of poverty. What the poor need most is a caring and connected neighbor.” Robert Lupton

Connected Communities works using the Purpose Built Model where supports and actions are specifically focused in an area. It is community driven and community led. They function as the community quarterback building relationships with community leaders, residents, and other community partners. This non-profit knows that listening and respecting the indigenous leadership and dreams of the community neighbors has to be the driving force to creating and implementing solutions. The definition of the word empower by is to “make someone stronger and more confident, especially in controlling their life and claiming their rights.” This is what Connected Communities does with residents of EMMA and Beechwood. They work with the residents to help make them stronger and more confident by providing tools and resources to give people the space to empower themselves.  Connected Communities is guided by the principles of Asset-Based Community Development which is doing things with the community and not for the community. 

A connection is the energy that exists between people, when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship.” Brenè Brown

Connected Communities has an intentional, specific approach to supporting neighbors of EMMA and Beechwood so neighbors lead to their own neighborhood change. Resources concentrated in these neighborhoods lends to long-term neighborhood benefit including new relationships and friendships between neighborhood residents. Rachel and Jenna shared during a cleanup of a one way street two neighbors met for the first time. One had lived for 40 years in the beginning of the street and the other had lived for 40 years at the end of the street. They had so much in common in their community. This cleanup connected them. 

There is no power for change greater for a community than discovering what it cares about.” Margaret J. Wheatley

In the EMMA and Beechwood neighborhoods there are now community gardens, a playground that some of the teenagers helped design, and along with community members and Connected Communities staff built together. For two years Connected Communities spent time meeting with residents of the community to develop a Comprehensive Neighborhood Plan. Time was spent determining projects the residents wanted, how feasible the projects were, and who was willing to take the action necessary to work on the project. Progress is tracked on a consistent basis and the community is updated. This plan, developed with community residents, keeps Connected Communities focused on the actions on the plan.  This is purposeful so no one “mission drifts” and gets off track. 

Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we have been waiting for. We are the change we seek.” Barack Obama

The four pillars that Connected Communities focus on are housing, health and wellness, economic, and education. Housing works towards establishing mixed-income housing, providing permanent affordability, building equity and new developments to create stable housing for community residents. There are times financial help is provided in direct eviction prevention to help residents keep their housing. Health and wellness is embedded throughout all that Connected Communities does. Education is cradle to college and/or career. The Education Project Manager partners directly with staff at neighborhood schools, along with working on increasing parental participation.  Economically, they have held three job fairs for community members and have hosted the two job fairs specifically for teenagers in the community called “Future Ready Youth Career Fair.” Partnerships for these job fairs included East High, RochesterWorks, WellVentions, The City of Rochester, and Wegmans.  Connected Communities also employ a few community residents as “Resident Ambassadors” who work within the community on different programs while learning job development skills at the same time. 

Never believe that a few caring people can’t change the world. For indeed, that’s all who ever had.” Margaret Mead

Collective impact and advocating for the specific neighborhoods is how the Connected Communities staff function. They help others outside of the community to understand the bigger story of the residents of EMMA and Beechwood. Both Rachel and Jenna shared they have an arsenal of partners to reach out to if the need arises. If they don’t know where or how to help someone, they can find someone who can. This group of caring people intentionally and thoughtfully partner with the residents, service providers, and community providers in the EMMA and Beechwood neighborhoods to “break the cycle of poverty and revitalize the neighborhoods to create lasting, sustained change.” Teamwork will make the dream work.

It is with great honor and admiration our Kindness Champion Spotlight shines on the remarkable Connected Communities in Rochester, New York. We thank you for being you and bringing your awesome to the world. For more information on this incredible non-profit here is their information: