Partnering Through Crisis

Strengthening Partnerships in a Time of Crisis

As the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded, USI launched our COVID-19 Action Plan to ensure that residents in our communities would continue to receive the support they need to be stable and thriving. This multi-pronged strategy focused on contacting all residents to understand the immediate needs faced by families due to this crisis. Through this outreach, USI gathered intensive data on food insecurity, employment, access to technology, existing health risks, and more. Still, we know that strong data matters most when it is shared broadly and enables aligned actions with community partners. As such, we prioritized convening existing and new local partners to share this data, hear about their experience during the coronavirus pandemic, and better align our responses in service to families and children.

Over the course of 2 months, USI staff in 17 of our cities across the country met with a total of 248 partner organizations. We connected with representatives of local public housing agencies, workforce development organizations, schools, faith communities, health practitioners, and more. Some of these partners we have known for years and others we have yet to meet in person. Regardless of who attended, these partner meetings underlined the necessity of collaboration in this time and in all times, for the health and well-being of both staff and the residents we work with every day.

While these meetings enabled us to better respond on the local level, USI’s national scope gives us the ability to see national trends in the field. In these meetings, we heard a pattern in some of the shifts made by our partners in response to COVID-19, some of the challenges they have encountered, and what opportunities we have moving forward to build on some of the innovative solutions created during this crisis moment. The following paragraphs share our collective experiences.

Shifting to Virtual

A majority of our partners quickly transitioned their services to virtual settings. This shift means an increase in telehealth meetings with doctors and mental health therapists, or virtual meetings with job counselors or tax preparers. With this change comes challenges and opportunities for innovation. Not only has digitizing connections made it more challenging to connect in an empathetic way with clients, but it has also created barriers to connect to those in our communities who lack internet access and other vital technology. While it is unclear how long engagement will remain virtual, community organizations have created some innovative solutions to support community needs for technology and internet access. In San Antonio, TX, where 32% of residents we surveyed do not have internet access,  our partners at Spurs Give opened the otherwise unused Wi-Fi capabilities of the AT&T Center parking lot to provide free internet access to residents who needed it for school, work, or staying connected to community.

Community Services Liaison Briana Bryant distributing essential supplies to families in St. Louis

Focusing on Basic Needs First

Many of our partners also mentioned that on top of shifting to virtual service delivery they have prioritized connecting families with daily essentials and mental health support services. For example, the Compassion Center in Baltimore, MD, went from interacting with community members daily through providing basic needs like diapers and clothing to moving most of their services virtual and increasing their socially distant food donation and resource delivery capacity. . Other organizations expedited their processes for receiving aid, removing some barriers so that families can get what they need sooner. An inspiring number of organizations like Teens with a Purpose in Norfolk, VA, increased their hours of operation to best meet the needs of families and youth whose schedules have also shifted. Across the country, we also saw multiple organizations developing grief circles and other mental health supports to provide opportunities for healing during this difficult time.

Staff Trauma

USI Regional VP Kristie Stutler facilitating Soul Food, a virtual wellness session.

Our partners have made tremendous shifts to meet the changing needs of families in this evolving environment. However, they are also encountering their own challenges due to this pandemic. Not only has this pandemic increased the stress of some of the families we serve, but it also has induced trauma and stress in the staff working to support families. Many of our partners are led by black, indigenous, people of color (BIPOC) and have expressed the increased burden of professional and personal stress during this pandemic which has disproportionately damaged BIPOC communities. In response, organizations have implemented strict health protocols to help mitigate risk and fear and provided staff with resilience trainings and trauma workshops to process and manage the added stress of this moment. USI has also supported this work by providing system-wide mindfulness virtual sessions appropriately named, Soul Food, to aid in the selfcare of frontline staff and program partners. These sessions allow a safe space for staff and partners to practice stretching and breathing exercises, share emotions through curated discussions, and journaling activities to help manage stress. The USI system also provided COVID-19 specific sick and personal days, along with an intentional connections to the company-wide, Employee Assistance Program (EAP) options available to staff and their families.

Funding Uncertainty

Adding to this emotional stress of nonprofit staff is the fear of a drying up of funding resources in the coming months. Many of our foundation partners have quickly distributed emergency relief funds and provided flexibility on existing grants. Still, other community organizations have identified the need for more relief funding for rent and utilities assistance for families. Furthermore, with a dip in the economy, many nonprofits may have to close their doors due to a scarcity of resources. As such, the funding of general operating fund grants to organizations will play an important role in keeping open organizations that provide vital services to our communities. Despite these challenges and the feeling that many of our partners are being called to do more with less, this time has also presented opportunities.

Opportunities for More Sharing

These meetings provided a chance for partners to identify their needs and challenges and share some of their resources and knowledge. In our meeting in Minneapolis, MN, the George Family Foundation offered public housing authority officials leads on staffing resources for delivering meals to seniors living in their buildings. This spirit of sharing continued as partners in multiple cities discussed the opportunity to collaborate more on data collection, share data more regularly, and develop a single digital library of resources for families in each city. In the spirit of collaboration and sharing, USI spearheaded a townhall for developers with HUD to offer community engagement best practices, to share how organizations are pivoting due to the pandemic, and how the HUD team can support grantees during these unprecedented times.

Rebuilding to Center Families

This pandemic has undoubtedly disrupted the lives of low-income families in our communities and the hundreds of organizations working to ensure these families can live stable and thriving lives. However, these shifts also allow for opportunities – opportunities to continue thinking innovatively, reducing barriers to resources, and collaborating more closely and more frequently.

Throughout this public health crisis our staff have shifted their time and attention to leading food drives, mask distribution, resource list sharing, and other unprecedented initiatives to meet needs and fill gaps in community support. To ensure that we remain aligned with the work of our partners, we regularly meet internally to ask effective questions about ensuring sound collaboration. Only through aligned actions with  hundreds of partners across the country will we usher families through this COVID-19 pandemic and continue to tackle the pandemic of racism that divests resources from and exploits our communities. We all need each other in this work. We are eager to share with you and interested partners across the country to ensure that the world we build after COVID-19 is not the same world we had before, but one that centers racial equity and prioritizes the health and prosperity of the families and children we work with every day.

A USI “6 Feet For Safety” sign hangs on the construction fence of Phase One of the Near North Side’s Preservation Square upcoming redevelopment.

About the Author:  Caleb Rollins (he/him) is the Project Manager for the Mixed-Income Strategic Alliance at USI and based in Minneapolis, MN. Prior to his time in Minneapolis, Caleb supported the communications and development of national and local nonprofits in Washington, DC. Caleb holds a Bachelor’s Degree in International Service and Humanities from Valparaiso University.

Home – part one

Cedars at Carver Park, Galveston, Texas

Ms. A is a resident of the Cedars at Carver Park in Galveston, Texas. And although Urban Strategies, Inc and Ms. A crossed paths and have worked together for only a year, USI has worked at this site for the last 4 years. Nonetheless, she agreed to talk to me, although we had never met.

“I don’t really know what I am going to write about,” I confess feeling slightly foolish for not being better prepared.

She consoles me with her smile and agrees to talk to me anyway.  Instantly, I respect her bravery.  It doesn’t take more than two minutes of listening before I understand where it originated Ms. A. began chronologically, telling me that she grew up in Chicago, at the corner of Woodlawn and Cottage Grove.  That meant nothing to me, to which she must have recognized by the expression on my face.  “Gang turf,” she said.  “That’s the intersection of two rival gangs.” She paused and then continued on “My family still lives in Chicago, but I left home 5 years ago.”

I noticed her linger over that one word as a sense of nostalgia passed over her face.

Home, the place she fled in order to protect her child. The sense of nostalgia was almost immediately replaced by what I interpreted as a “do what you got to do” expression as she recounted the story that led to her displacement.   She and her 6-year-old daughter were exiting the front of a bus, while a strange man entered the back with a gun drawn and began shooting.  She knew then that she could not stay.

Home, the place where she became so accustomed to hearing gunfire. However, as long as she was behind those walls, eventually she no longer bothered to duck.

Home, in Section 8 housing, where she decided that she did not want her children to grow up.

Home, a place where those adversities co-existed with love.

Home, where our hearts connect and remain connected no matter where ever else we venture in this world.  Ms. A, she said that she wants to return, but knows that she can’t. As a mom to four young children, it would be entirely too risky.  She doesn’t allow any sadness about having to make that kind of choice linger in the air before she continued.


Ms. A began high school as 1 of 900 entering freshmen.  She would leave high school as 1 of 358 (reflecting a 40% graduation rate).  Though the national graduation rate in 2016-2017, rose to 84.6%, for black and low-income students, the rate was well below at 78%.1   Unfortunately, students attending schools in urban environments continue to fare worse than the national average.  In fact, in most of the 19 cities where USI operates found that graduation rates for students living in public housing remain significantly below any national gains.  For example, at the time of the Choice Neighborhood Implementation (CNI) grant application in 2016 only 58% of the mostly African American students living in Beecher Terrace in Louisville, Kentucky graduated.

“Where did everyone go?” I can’t help but inquire not wanting to fill in that blank with assumptions.

Ms. A shared that of her classmates who began school with her, some died, some got pregnant, and some just dropped out or dropped out to work to help support their families.  She distinctly remembers sitting in class while teachers would openly point to individual students in class and tell them “You’re going to be a statistic, you’re going to die, you’re going to go to jail or prison.”

I couldn’t help but to think that if “the helpers” make these kinds of statements to children, what kind of harmful energy is created by the words of people who don’t pretend to want to help. I want to get on my social justice soapbox and shout, scream, or jump up and down but I don’t want to waste time.   To get caught in wrongness, self-fulfilling prophecies, harm created by well-intentioned people, or the unfairness of treating others from a place of racism or bias would just mean I would miss this opportunity.  Ms. A has a wealth of knowledge that she was willing to share with me.  She sat in front of me with not only a high school diploma, but a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree, and a determined aspiration; which ten minutes into our conversation convinced me that she would one day have her doctorate. On top of that, she did not experience that success in isolation. She has two sisters, both of whom are college graduates.  So many markers of achievement that so many who grew up around her likely will never experience.

“You clearly faced adversities.  Why do you think it was so different for you than it was for so many of your peers?” I inquire.

My mother told us early, “You better stay your ass in school because ain’t nothing in these streets but death.” I watched silently as she allowed those loving, protective, words to transport her back to that place.


Because the importance of education was stressed to her and she believed that, it mattered.  But it wasn’t just her mother’s words that rooted her.   Her love for helping others in education started when she was assigned the responsibility of tutoring an underperforming student who was in college while she was still in high school.  Within a semester she helped him go from making C’s to A’s in several core subjects. As a straight A student herself, she knew that she had the capacity to help others excel in this space.  She began working at that YMCA, tutoring other students.  She continued tutoring through her junior and senior years of high school as a way to help others educationally and to help her family financially.

Home.  I mean not in the traditional sense, “home” but the connection to others, connection to the school, connection to something bigger than herself.  That is home.

It is no shock that Ms. A ended up working in education herself.

As we explored the other side of the coin, what was missing for the 60% of entering freshman from her class who didn’t succeed to graduation, she had just as much to offer.  She identified that she believes that so many minorities do not go on to pursue higher education because of financial barriers.  Things like charging students to take the ACT prevents access to higher education for children from low-income homes.  Additionally, she knew that in her community, like herself, low-income students have to take jobs to help support their families. For some, that means that work is prioritized over school.  For others that means a lack of support and guidance from people who can help them stay on the right path or who know how to navigate the education system.

Ms. A readily shared her career aspirations… School Principal, opening her own adult-blank-brainstorming-1350615childcare center and then one day to become the United States Secretary of Education.  She understands on a very personal level that in order to drive change, we have to challenge the policy decisions that lead to inequitable outcomes.

USI is aligned with Ms. A in her belief that a barrier to racial equity is access to educational opportunities. We know that we have to be intentional in helping all children succeed in this space.  That is why our national educational pillar is focused around 3 key indicators:

  1. Increasing the percentage of Kindergarteners entering school with age-appropriate functioning to be considered “Ready to Learn”
  2. Improving Proficiency in Math & Reading for 3rd through 9th graders
  3. Increasing High School graduation rates

In June, our Vice President of Educational Initiatives, Tyronda Minter, will be leading our Elevating Results: National Education Convening with leaders from across all of our sites.  There are so many children facing these same type of challenges and we know we cannot do this work alone. We also know that in order to meet our results, we have to partner with families, communities and school systems to create the very things Ms. A identified as having been missing for her peers but present for her.

Connection to family.  Connection to school.  Connection to something larger than herself.


Home is such a simple word, different people define it different ways.  Rudy Fransisco says that “home is any place that makes you forget the world is on fire, at least for a moment”.    Elizabeth Gilbert contends “Your home is whatever in this world you love more than you love yourself.”  While Maya Angelou offered that “The ache for home lives in all of us, the safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned.”   Though the specific words used to describe home are different. The thread of similarity is clear.  It seems everyone agrees that at its very core, home is about connection. 

Our “HOME” blog series will be divided into two parts; the piece just read and another Later this year. We will return to the story of Ms. A to lift up challenges around economic mobility and health and wellness.  These challenges impacted Ms. A’s life as well as the lives of many of the residents that USI is committed to serving.  Join us for the continuation of this story.  We are beyond grateful for Ms. A’s willingness to share her story with us and to allow us to share her story with you.



The once sturdy cement walls have crumbled to meet the white tile floor.  The air is caked with the dust that came from the entire building collapsing around me.    For as far as I can see there is nothing but this same destruction.  I fall to my knees and begin anxiously digging through the rubble like a dog looking for a bone he long past buried in the yard.  I feel the wetness of blood on my temple, a shooting pain in my side.

I don’t know where the others have gone.

I don’t know how I am possibly going to save all of these children alone.

There are far too many children.


I continue digging, the cement tearing my flesh to shreds.  Until finally I tunnel my way inside.  Children are scattered around the room like thrown dice in a Yahtzee game.  In the middle of the floor, there is a giant swirling hole.  I watch as three of them are sucked down into it before my eyes.  The echoes of their screams pierce my heart.

There are two children, barely hanging on, their bodies dangling like puppets into the swirling vortex that seems to be ever growing.
I yell to the others to get back as I simultaneously make my way through the rubble to those children on the edge.    I lay flat on my stomach, reach out, and demand for the child on my right to grab my hand.  He is not as deeply submerged as the other, pulling him to safety will be less of a challenge.

Once he is safe, I reach back to the child on my left.  He is hanging on by only one hand.  I see him trustingly reach for me and then feel his strong grip around my wrist.  The contrast of his dark brown skin against the white of my own does not escape me even in my panic.

“Hold on,” I shout while looking directly into his kind eyes, “I got you.”

My left side is obnoxiously reminding me that I don’t have the strength to do what needs to be done.  I wince from the pain that radiates more from that truth than from an injury.

pexels-photo-1849021“Let me go,” the boy yells back, his voice holding more wisdom than he is old enough to possess.

I tighten my grip in response, my determination meant to give him enough hope to hold on.

But hope by itself does nothing to change reality.

I hear a deep brooding voice from behind that I recognize instantly.

“C’mon, we have to go.”

I feel a sense of relief wash over me.  He will help me.  He will get the rest of the children to safety.

“Get the others first,” I demand.

I continue my attempts to pull this one boy from the vortex that now seems equally intent on claiming him as its prize.   I feel his hand loosening around my wrist.

“Don‘t let go.  I promise to get you out,” I attempt to mask my panic.

I notice when I look at him that panic is a state I occupy alone.  His kind eyes appear softer than they were before.   He manages to turn the corners of his mouth into the slightest of smiles.    That smile was his gift to me. It was his way of letting me know that it was okay to leave him.  He knows that neither of us has the strength to pull him out of here.

I know it too.

I don’t want to know it, but I do.


I feel a hand on my back and again the voice I recognize.

“We have to go.” It booms intently.  “We have to get out.”

I feel the boy’s hand begin to slip. pexels-photo-226617

“No,” I plead with him, ignoring the call to leave, “Hold on to me.  Please hold on to me.  I will not let you fall.”  I choke back my sobs as I continue to fight the superhuman strength of the vortex pulling the boy in the other direction.

“You have to go,” he nearly whispers the words as he loosens his grip on my wrist.

I feel his fingers pass briefly through my own.
As he slips from my hands, I stare on helplessly while he falls into the swirling abyss.  I climb forward nearly falling into the hole myself as the hand on my back continues to pull me in the opposite direction.

“We have to go,” the voice behind me calls again.  He jerks me to my feet and yells the words meant to assuage my guilt, “We can’t save them all.”

I begin to kick and fight as I am dragged from the room by my waist.

The room is filled with children.

“No,” I scream.  “No.  We have to save them.  We can’t leave them, “I yell as I kick wildly trying to escape.

I have no strength to do what needs to be done.

There are just so many children.

I jump with a start from my pillow.  My eyes are flooded with tears.  My heart is heavy in my chest.  I cannot catch my breath.  I take no comfort in being awake.  It wasn’t just a dream.

I am haunted.

Haunted by the faces.

Haunted by the truth.

Haunted by the helplessness of watching child after child slip through my fingers while I try to fight something that is bigger than me. pexels-photo-1170899

“We cannot save them all.”  The words echo in my head as I sit in the safety of my bedroom tears streaming down my face for that boy who slipped through my fingers in my sleep just moments before.

It is easy to accept that all children can’t be saved when you don’t know them.

When you don’t hear their pain.

But I saw them.

I heard them.

I knew them.

Then I watched them slip away.

And that is why I am haunted.

This story is not a story at all.  It is the real-life situation that resulted in me resigning from my position as an Administrator of a Juvenile Justice residential program, after 16 years of working with system involved children.  Were this just a telling of one person’s experience that would be tragic enough.  However, when you look across people serving systems, rates of undiagnosed secondary trauma run rampant.  In fact, I was so surrounded by it myself at the time, despite having a Masters Degree in Social Work, I didn’t even realize that what I was experiencing had a name.  I just knew I couldn’t watch one more child fall through one more crack.

Statistics suggest that as many as 85% of “helping professionals” develop vicarious trauma, compassion fatigue, and/or high rates of traumatic symptoms.  (See below).  Not only does that stress affect the person who has been hired to fill a critical role, but it also reduces the efficacy of the very systems designed to help the most vulnerable among us.  To heal themselves, it is incumbent upon systems to create space for staff to work through the daily harm they encounter through connection to people in ongoing crisis.  After all, the whole will only ever be as well as the sum of its parts.

Statistics from the field:  (

Between 40% and 85% of “helping professionals” develop vicarious trauma, compassion fatigue and/or high rates of traumatic symptoms, according to compassion fatigue expert Francoise Mathieu (2012).

Social Workers, MSW:

  • 70% exhibited at least one symptom of secondary traumatic stress (Bride, 2007).

Social Workers:

  • 42% said they suffered from secondary traumatic stress (Adams et al., 2006).

Social Workers, Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault:

  • 65% had at least one symptom of secondary traumatic stress (Bride, 2007).

Therapists, Sexual Assault:

  • 70% experienced vicarious trauma (Lobel, 1997).

Hospice Nurses:

  • 79% moderate to high rates of compassion fatigue (MMC van Mol, 2015).


Continue reading “Haunted”

Anything But

Separated by only three years in age and over 600 miles, Perkins Homes in Baltimore, Maryland and Beecher Terrace in Louisville, Kentucky have so much more in common than just the ripe old age of their crumbling structures.  The educational experience of children living in these communities is as in need of rejuvenation as the very buildings themselves.  pexels-photo-373488Another way in which these two communities are alike is that both have school districts that allow school choice at the high school level. “School choice programs provide alternatives to parents who do not wish to send their children to the local public schools to which they are assigned. Public school choice options include open enrollment policies, magnet schools, and charter schools.  Proponents argue that school choice programs improve educational outcomes by expanding opportunity and access for historically disadvantaged students.” 1

With an on-time graduation rate of 58% in Beecher Terrace and 69% in Perkins homes, it would be easy to consider the children who live here as historically disadvantaged.  On the surface, school choice might appear to be a viable option for improving educational outcomes for youth from these communities.  Were it only that simple.  Unfortunately, for children of color growing up in urban poverty, many things about life are anything but.


As the people lead for the CNI grants in both the Beecher Terrace and Perkins Homes communities, Urban Strategies Inc, (USI) works with a group of committed partners in each community to establish and support a set of holistic educational strategies to create a pathway to success for all students. Graduation rates don’t just fall in a vacuum. There are many contributing factors.  This is why our efforts don’t begin there. Rather they are focused on improving kindergarten readiness and increasing core academic functioning, as precursors to raising the on-time graduation rates.  As stewards of this work, we also make it a priority to be in the community, listening to the community.  Whether that is walking the streets or holding a meeting of community youth, the staff at USI is interested in hearing the thoughts, dreams, and needs of the resilient people with whom we do our daily work. In a recent youth listening session with 11 students from Perkins Homes, one of the themes that arose was that school choice at the high school level has the potential to break up social support systems.  This means disrupting peer social groups at one of the most critical points of adolescent development.  Research clearly shows why this matters.

CoWork Collection“The influence of peers can be both positive and negative. On the positive side, it can serve as an important incentive for adolescents to perform well in school. On the negative side, peer influence can lead to discipline problems and delinquent behaviors both inside and outside of school. Thus, the values of peers can play an important role in students’ educational experiences and outcomes.  Compared with students with friends who showed little interest in learning, those with friends who cared about learning had better educational outcomes–they were less likely to drop out of school and more likely to be enrolled in an academic program, graduate from high school, and continue their education after graduating.”2.


So, it becomes a kind of luck of the draw as to whether the peer group they land in at their new schools have a positive or negative attitude towards education.  High school graduation and all of the important milestones that follow are far too important to leave up to chance for any child.

Meanwhile 600 miles away, while doing outreach in Louisville during regular school hours, USI staff encountered a young person who they knew should be in school.  Upon questioning him about why he wasn’t, they heard an all too familiar answer.  He had missed the school bus.  With his high school 9 miles from where he lives, walking to school was not a feasible alternative.  In this circumstance, what happens when your parent is at work and cannot transport you to school?   Or when they do not have reliable transportation?  Or you cannot afford to access public transportation?  You hold your breath and hope you don’t miss school enough that you become truant.  Because truancy leading to court involvement comes with a whole other host of problems.  For this very reason, USI and our steadfast education partners across the nation, target reduction of chronic absenteeism through a variety of interventions and strategies.  Still, as in the case of this young person, school choice has the potential to keep vulnerable students disconnected from school.

And not only in this way.


Living far away from the school you attend while having limited access to transportation or funds for transportation lowers the likelihood that youth will participate in after-school activities.  Though that is extra and apart from the traditional educational experience, for many children, particularly vulnerable ones, after-school activities can mitigate toxicity and help meet their needs for belonging.  “Participation in after-school programs has led to increased academic achievement (Friedman & Bleiberg, 2007; Goerge, Cusick, Wasserman, & Gladden, 2007)3, prevention of drug use (Hall & Gruber, 2007)4, and increased likelihood of obtaining work and gaining life skills experience (Barr, Birmingham, Fornal, Klein & Piha, 2006)5.    This is why USI attempts to increase participation in after-school activities as a strategy to cement school connection.   One of the real challenges we encounter with the implementation of this strategy is the distance between where a child resides and where they go to school.

Bayview International Student Ambassadors and Isaac Dozier, Regional Vice President in Taiwan, during their May 2018 trip.

It is important when determining school options for students to take into consideration all of their needs and how those will be met. School choice is a program like many others.  It is a well-intentioned approach that on the surface has the ability to ensure that educational opportunities are equitable.  The intentions are good.  The lesson is clear.

Regardless of intent, policies don’t impact all people equally.

So what is the answer?

That is as complicated as the lives of the children who are most often failed by social policy.  For that reason, perhaps the answers are buried somewhere in their lived experiences.  Because passing policies that largely ignore the differential impact due to race and class…well, that is anything but.

  3. Friedman & Bleiberg, Goerge, Cusick, Wasserman, & Gladden, 2007
  4. Hall & Gruber, 2007
  5. Barr, Birmingham, Fornal, Klein & Piha, 2006

About the Author:  Kristie G. Stutler is a Regional Director for Urban Strategies, Inc. She has a Masters of Science in Social Work, 16 years of experience working with system-involved youth, and 3 years of experience working in juvenile justice reform. She is a Class 10 Fellow in the Annie E. Casey Children and Family Fellowship, a trainer, a writer, and a lover of all things that rhyme…


The Big 4-0

action-adults-celebration-433452.jpgAnyone who has ever turned the big 4-0 knows, it is an unprecedented time in life; bringing with it a mixed bag of emotions and responses.  Among those are celebrations, nostalgia and some degree of questioning.  The celebration of the accomplishments made in the first half of life and the nostalgia for the people, places, and choices that moved us from where we started to where we are.  Questioning in the form of “How can I use what I know to support where I go?” Organizations hitting this milestone are not all that dissimilar from individuals.  In fact, as Urban Strategies, Inc (USI) approaches our mid-life, this is a fairly accurate summation of our experience.

We look back with nostalgia over more than 20 years of work with HOPE VI revitalization efforts, where we honed our skills to work effectively with people and placeWe know definitively that this experience allowed us to develop the knowledge base and expertise necessary to successfully support Choice Neighborhood Initiatives.  We celebrate having had the opportunity to use our expertise to secure more than $220 million in Choice Implementation Grant Awards in 9 cities. Roughly translated that has led to over $40 million in support services funding for families in CNI program areas, which has leveraged over $200 million through in-kind services and direct resources from community partners across the nation.  Looking back at communities like Alice Griffith of San Francisco and Bienville Basin of New Orleans, two of our first awarded Choice initiatives, we can see the difference when combining a commitment to people and neighborhood revitalizations with leveraged resources can make.  The combination of those two factors equates not only to housing stability but also in moving people to work, improving health outcomes, changing educational trajectories and creating safer communities.

Not one to rest on our laurels, in 2016 we began the hard work of looking forward.   Part of that looking forward included USI making the dramatic shift to incorporate a results-based framework in the way we approach all of our work in all of our communities. Getting our agency staff to agree on a common result was the easy part of what we needed to do.  It took little convincing to get our staff to agree that every day we are working to ensure that All Families are Stable and Thriving.  Inevitably, the harder part of driving results means taking a deeper dive into the factors that contribute to the poor outcomes that communities across the nation have in common.  Our experience tells us that effective change requires working at the individual and community level, but also something more than that. To create sustainable change in the next half of our life, USI understands that we must begin to challenge the policies and practices that are leading to inequitable outcomes.  The focus of our work must include the transformation of people in place as it has in the past, but also on the transformation of policy that has contributed to the unacceptable conditions that persist.

One such example of a policy transformation that could make a dramatic difference, is around provisions for low-income tax credit developments in Qualified Census Tracts (QCT).   These provisions were designed to make Low Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) more effective but may have unintended consequences working counter to the best interest of the people in communities targeted for development.

pexels-photo-448828LIHTC, when developed in Qualified Census Tracts (QCT), allows a 30% boost to help offset construction costs associated with redevelopment.  A 30 percent basis boost in simple math means every eligible dollar spent generates $1.30 of eligible basis.  This will generally result in up to a 30 percent increase in the amount of LIHTC and equity. To qualify, QCTs must have 50 percent of households with incomes below 60 percent of the Area Median Gross Income (AMGI) or have a poverty rate of 25 percent or more.2

This level of investment encourages development in distressed communities with concentrated poverty, which on the surface is good for communities.  However, as Hollar and Usowski point out in their 2007 policy brief, Low-Income Housing Tax Credit Qualified Census Tracts, “the additional incentive to locate low-income housing into already low-income areas may have the perverse and self-reinforcing effect of concentrating low-income households in the lowest income and highest poverty neighborhoods, rather than providing low-income housing throughout a larger area.” This can exacerbate issues with employment that limit access to people living in these communities to jobs below a living wage.

On top of that, as is unfortunately not all that uncommon, the provisions above came with an unfunded mandate to serve families. The very nature of including a mandate to which there is no attached funding means that it will not get equal investment to the bricks and mortar side of development.   If USI has learned anything from our many years of experience, it is that failure to develop people along with place means that improvements are not sustainable over time.
“How can we use what we know, to support where we go?”

blur-business-chart-159888The answer to us is evident. It is evident in the work we did with Hope IV.  It is equally evident in the work that we are currently doing in our Choice Neighborhoods.  The only way to counter the unintended consequences of the policy outlined above is through a policy shift; one that includes a 30% social investment fund to match the 30% boost already enacted.  Using social investment fund dollars, organizations such as USI could continue the important work of creating the type of holistic service coordination continuums which serve as the foundation of our case management model.  Providing service coordination and case management services over an extended period allows USI to drive results toward improved health, education, and economic mobility simultaneous to the physical and neighborhood revitalization meant to expand the availability of affordable housing.  What experience has taught us is that investment in affordable housing helps move families to stable.  Moving families to thriving takes intentional investment in the creation of social equity.

As USI enters this next decade of life, our priorities have never been more clear.  We have hindsight.  We have determination.  We have renewed urgency.   To effectively move results, we have to involve ourselves in systems change.  After all, our time here is limited and this work is far too important to get it wrong.

Bayview International Student Ambassadors and Isaac Dozier, Regional Vice President in Taiwan, during their May 2018 trip.

About the Author:  Kristie G. Stutler is a Regional Director for Urban Strategies, Inc. She has a Masters of Science in Social Work, 16 years of experience working with system-involved youth, and 3 years of experience working in juvenile justice reform. She is a Class 10 Fellow in the Annie E. Casey Children and Families Fellowship, a trainer, a writer, and a lover of all things that rhyme…



  3. Cityscape: A Journal of Policy Development and Research, Volume 9, Number 3, 2007 U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Office of Policy Development and Research




Person – Role – System

pexels-photo-261621In 2014, legislation was passed in Kentucky to reform the juvenile justice system.  Shortly after its passage, I accepted a job that put me in charge of enacting that new legislation for the Kentucky Department of Juvenile Justice.   I had been looking forward to the ceremonial bill signing with the Governor for weeks.  It was such an exciting thing to get to be part of, an opportunity that the little girl in me, never would have believed would have been true.  Girls who come from where I do, don’t do this sort of thing.

When I woke up, on the day of that event, the excitement I felt only days before had been completely quelled by reality.  I was going to a ceremonial bill signing of legislation to reform the juvenile justice system, while my brother was wanted for robbery; his picture having been splashed all over the news for days.

If there is a more fitting definition of irony I can’t begin to imagine what it might be.

I was in a meeting, only two days before, discussing assessment tools when I found out.  My phone buzzed on the table alerting me that I had a message.  I waited until there was a lull in the conversation and then mindlessly picked up my phone to see who had issued the electronic summons.  My heart sank immediately when I saw the words.

“Have you seen the news?” A simple question followed by an attached video.

man-coffee-cup-penI debated momentarily before opening it.  It was never good when people sent me those words.  It was never good when those words were followed by a video.  It was never good because it always meant that some child that I had known through my years of system work had died…or had done something unthinkable…or had been the victim of something unthinkable.   It happened so frequently that I caught myself wondering which child it might be, silently bargaining, even, about which one I might be willing to spare.  I muted my phone and hit play.  Right there in the room. Right there in the middle of the important work that I was doing.  I hit play because I couldn’t not know what or who it was.

My heart was beating out of my chest, as I sat there feeling like a little girl again, helplessly waiting for that video to buffer.  As the video was buffering I could feel something inside me start to spool.

For just a moment I was back in that old dirty trailer that we called home.  The silence that happened just before the yelling was worse than the yelling itself.  The silence that happened just before the throwing of plates or the punching of walls was far more painful than any violence I ever witnessed or encountered.

“What is taking so long?” I cussed and brooded, trying to clear my heart from my throat; the pain in my stomach growing stronger by the second.

The anticipation of the thing is always so much worse than the thing.
I felt relief wash over me as the video finally began after what seemed like a lifetime.  In an instant, there he was.  My brother’s face right on the screen as plain as the last time he sat next to me.  Though admittedly, I couldn’t remember how long ago that had been.  Scrawled under his face were the words, “Suspect in Robbery.  If you have information please call, blah, blah, blah.”

I quit reading.  I thanked God that it wasn’t a child I’d worked with and that it was only my brother.   I would have to later contend with how I was going to have this conversation with my mother.  She is devastated every single time.  The sound of a question pulled me back to the room away from the reality of the world from which I come.  The world I long ago escaped that sometimes intrudes and runs parallel to the one I carefully crafted for myself.

I was as thankful for the question as anything I can ever remember.  I quickly jumped back in role.  I’m good in role.  It doesn’t come with all the softness that my person brings to the table.  So, I put my feelings aside and focused on the task at hand.  We had assessment tools to create.  We had a juvenile justice system to reform.  No time to be worrying about this now 3rd time felon who would undoubtedly be returning to prison a 5th time. (He had committed three actual offenses yet had been returned twice for parole violations.)

Had we grown up today, I feel certain, my brother and I both would have been filtered into some child serving system.  I mean the evidence of the need for intervention is right there, in his behavior and my memories. I went to work in the system as a way for me to support children the way teachers and coaches had done for me.  As a way to keep others from turning out like my brother.  At the time, I held this mental model that systems save children.  By proxy, didn’t that mean that I would save children?

The longer I did reform pexels-photo-533189work, the more I learned.  The more I learned the more I began to question what I had initially believed with the whole of my heart.   If systems save children why then did so many exit those systems and die? Why did so many go on to be homeless?  Why did so many go on to live out their lives much like my brother, convicted of crimes and in and out of prison?

The research is clear that the side effects of system involvement have long lasting impacts on children, families, and communities.

For eight years, researchers have followed about 600 young adults who aged out of the child welfare systems in Iowa, Wisconsin and Illinois. The report finds that at age 23 and 24, former foster youth are more likely than their peers to be:

Unemployed — Less than half were employed.

Homeless — Almost 25 percent had been homeless since exiting foster care.

Pregnant — More than 75 percent of young women had been pregnant since leaving foster care.

Convicted of a crime — Nearly 60 percent of young men had been convicted of a crime, and more than 80 percent had been arrested.

Uneducated — Only 6 percent had a 2- or 4-year degree.1pexels-photo-690800

The Quarterly Journal of Economics, “Juvenile Incarceration, Human Capital and Future Crime: Evidence from Randomly Assigned Judges, paper — authored by Brown University’s Anna Aizer and MIT’s Joseph J. Doyle, Jr. which analyzed 10 years of data on approximately 35,000 juvenile offenders in Chicago found that juvenile incarceration decreases the chances of high school graduation by 13 to 39 percent. While it increases the chances of incarceration as an adult by 23 to 41 percent.2

Holy goodness, I didn’t sign up for that.  It is an unthinkable kind of pain to learn that the very thing you thought was helping, might actually be causing harm.  Inevitably, I fled after 20 long years.  I landed at Urban Strategies in February of 2017 looking to finally begin the work I had hoped to be doing all along.

As the Southern Regional Director at Urban Strategies, I get to contribute to measurable results that keep families at the center.  Central to Urban’s mission, work is done every day to effectuate change in the very place that can make the biggest impact, within the community itself.  Serving 30,000 families which equates to roughly 100,000 individuals, Urban Strategies works in 12 unique communities across 12 major metropolitan areas.  We have expertise leading Hope IV, Choice Neighborhood and human capital projects creating sustainable change in resilient communities saturated in unrecognized and untreated complex trauma.

I am proud to say that from 2013 – 2017, Urban Strategies utilized Public Safety US_logo_400x400Enhancement grants to supplement our community development work within Alice Griffith in San Francisco and Bienville Basin in New Orleans.  These efforts focused on assisting residents with education and school connection, employment, housing stability, correcting literacy issues, connecting individuals to pro-social activities and persons, disrupting harmful cognition, and empowering youth and adults to pro-socially be part of change within their own communities.  In addition, both sites put a heavy focus on supported re-entry for individuals returning from incarceration. Our approach was based off the research by Andrews and Bonta (2010)3 identifying the Central Eight criminogenic needs that put individuals at-risk of criminal behavior. The payoff of this work has been a 22% decrease of Part 1 Crimes in Alice Griffith in 2016 and a decrease in overall crime in Bienville Basin in 2017 by 29%.

My person is no longer hiding out in role drowning in a sinking system.   She is knee-deep in the work, proud of the difference made.  And for the first time, in a long time, with the whole of her heart, she knows that it is right.

About the Author:  Kristie G. Stutler is a Regional Director for Urban Strategies, Inc. She has a Masters of Science in Social Work, 16 years of experience working with system involved youth, and 3 years of experience working in juvenile justice reform. She is a Class 10 Fellow in the Annie E. Casey Children and Family Fellowship, a trainer, a writer, and a lover of all things that rhyme…


  2. http://org/studies/government/criminal-justice/juvenile-incarceration-long-term-consequences


Of Pride and Shame

They are disruptors.

Disrupting status quo.  Disrupting systemic inequities.  Disrupting mental models that create conditions for those first two things to persist.

Alfonzo, Leensa, and Maya are the youth leaders of the Green Garden Bakery (GGB).  GGB is a youth run, green business selling vegetable-based desserts to the Minneapolis and Heritage Park community.

14374180-1184272284928901-7981714549407481856-n_origIn 2014, after participating in gardening and cooking classes through Urban Strategies’ work in the community, the youth decided they wanted to turn their new skills into a business. A business where they grew the product, developed the recipe, developed the branding, and managed the retail aspect for distribution and sales.  To top things off, the youth developed environmentally friendly packaging to support their responsibility for taking care of mother Earth.

Their financial model is as incredible as the teens themselves; one third reinvested back into their business, one third paid to themselves, and one third invested into their community through charitable contribution.  Since their business model is based upon this notion of thirds, it is only fitting that during my conversation with them, I readily identified a whole other division of thirds these remarkable teens address in the way they approach their work.

13925042-1085557974866266-1611052900780157809-n_origAs the Chief Financial Officer, Leensa is among a very low number of females who dare veer into finance.  In fact, as she recently learned from her own research, women make up only 10% of CFOs in all businesses.  Leensa shared that she is the only female and the only African American in her computer coding class.  A clear indicator of how our educational experiences can mirror where we see ourselves in the workforce.  She goes on to say that “Women believe they are not capable.  It comes from society, TV, stereotypes, because you are black and a woman, there is no one else like you in the field.”

Alfonzo identified that he is aware of how he and others like him are classified by society.  “Young black males are not seen as being interested in business.  People assume that we are in the streets.”  This is a matter of truth that he is confronted with on a daily basis. His role of Chief Executive Officer fundamentally challenges this wrongly labeled narrative.  GGB has 100+ youth from the local community enrolled in a youth development program that supports the business.  This program provides out-of-school time activities and teaches gardening, baking, and the ins and outs of developing and running a business.

Maya, Entrepreneurship Chair, believes that she has benefitted from having the experience to learn the importance of networking.  “It has given us a resume; more specialized skills.  For young African Americans often people don’t open up that door [for networking].”

Though the disruption of gender and racial stereotypes was not included as a part of their official business plan. There is no discounting that they have helped construct a door to that very opportunity for themselves and other children in their community.

Heritage Park is one of many food deserts in this country.  “Food deserts are defined as parts of the country vapid of fresh fruit, vegetables, and other healthful whole foods, usually found in impoverished areas. This is largely due to a lack of grocery stores, farmers’ markets, and healthy food providers.” (1)7137098_orig  “The United States Department of Agriculture reports that about 23.5 million Americans currently live in food deserts, including 6.5 million children. Typically, food deserts are defined by: 1) the lack or absence of large grocery stores and supermarkets that sell fresh produce and healthy food options; and 2) low-income populations living on tight budgets. These food deserts are also signified by high levels of obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular diseases in the community, which result from residents buying their food from corner stores that sell processed foods, and plentiful fast food options.” (2)

GGB has taken on this issue by including as part of their business model, the planting and harvesting of fresh fruits and vegetables which are included in all of their products.  Few people consider how the geographic location of where you grow up influences the healthful food options available. It is shocking that a country with vast accumulated wealth, would have geographical regions that lack access to healthy food. This condition continues to be a real issue.  Most especially in impoverished communities like Heritage Park.

As part of our work for the last 40 years in distressed urban communities, Urban Strategies has focused work around increasing economic mobility and self-sufficiency.  It has become increasingly obvious that simply connecting people to work is not the complete answer.  We must be intentional in including wealth building opportunities into our community work.  These opportunities coupled with increased employment will begin to close the wealth gap that exists in communities of color.  It would take black families 228 years to amass the same amount of wealth white families have today, if average black family wealth continues to grow at the same pace it has over the past three decades.” (3)

It is easy to see how this plays out in Heritage Park where the average annual income is $20,267 and the median income is $16,887.  GGB has paved the way for others in their community and communities like their own to see entrepreneurship as a legitimatHeritageParke option to wealth building.  Contributing to the wealth gap that exists along racial divides is the lack of minority run businesses. As Dr. Claude Anderson notes, “In 1860, 99% of all Black people worked for Whites. Today, 98% of all Black people work for Whites. You are enjoying a social illusion because you go to someone else’s restaurant, but you don’t own the restaurant yourself.” (4). 

GGB youth leaders identified opportunity, networking and skill development as a key roles for their success. GGB is doing its fair share to help other youth realize the potential that exists within themselves and their communities.  They are operationalizing how entrepreneurship can change the game in wealth attainment and opportunity.  Recently, Urban Strategies hosted a youth retreat in Florida.  This brought together the youth leadership group from GGB and Miami’s Northpark development.  Here GGB leaders shared how they were able to turn their skill set into a thriving business.

Of this experience, Alfonzo said, “It is a way for us to impact other kids by showing them that they can make something happen on their own.  A way to show them that their output depends on what they do.”

A store front.  A corporate sponsor.  A legacy.

Green Garden Bakery youth show 2016 Minnesota Timberwolves Rookie Kris Dunn their social enterprise.

Not your ordinary responses from teenagers about what they have set as goals that they want to achieve before they graduate from high school.  One conversation with Alfonzo, Maya, and Leensa easily showcases that they are extraordinary.  Perhaps, the most “extra” part about them is the masterful way in which they work the soil.  Not only do they prepare the soil to grow the produce for their products, they also till the soil in other communities to encourage their wealth building opportunities.

The fact that in 2017, we have young people acknowledging and actively confronting the inequities in America brings an incredible source of pride.  Conversely, the mere fact America has yet to provide a solution for these same inequities brings an incredible source of shame.

Support Green Garden Bakery here:

About the Author:  Kristie G. Stutler is a Regional Director for Urban Strategies, Inc. She has a Masters of Science in Social Work, 16 years of experience working with system involved youth, and 3 years of experience working in juvenile justice reform. She is a Class 10 Fellow in the Annie E. Casey Children and Families Fellowship, a trainer, a writer, and a lover of all things that rhyme…


  2. -food-deserts/


Because Of, Not Despite.

Urban Strategies, Inc uses real-life stories to connect the reader to our revitalizing work.

His math lesson in “less than” didn’t come from a well-worn book.

It came from an early understanding of the mental models people hold about people like him; people on food stamps, people living in public housing, people accessing public benefits in any way.  Its why, growing up, he felt the need to keep those things a secret.  Even from his closest of friends.


Looking at Donovan Duncan today, you would never be able to guess the challenges he faced in his childhood.  He is a graduate of the University of Akron with a bachelor’s degree in Business Administration and Finance and The Cleveland State University with a masters in Organization Development. As the Senior Vice President at Urban Strategies, Inc. he has a range of leadership responsibilities.  Among those is oversight of program operations in the 29 distressed communities where Urban Strategies does its work.  Communities just like the one where he grew up.  In fact, when I asked him, he offered very directly, “I am no different than the families we serve every single day.”

His mother gave birth to him at the age of 18.  He is her second child.   Though he is the second in birth order, he was the only one of her 4 children who never lived with her.  His first exposure to fractions.  Instead, he lived his entire childhood with his maternal grandmother.  Unlike Donovan, his grandmother never had the luxury of graduating from high school so it was something that she demanded of him.  At the tender age of 11, she couldn’t spare the time.  She had to get on with the business her parent’s early death prevented them from completing; raising herself and her siblings.   This is why his grandmother stressed to him, the importance of graduating from high school.  Though she worked hard all her life, the jobs that she could get with less than a high school education, meant the home that she could afford for the two of them was one in public housing.

Thankfully, his grandmother also intuitively understood that all educational opportunities are not created equal.  She knew that in order for him to thrive, she had to find a quality educational setting that wouldn’t water down his ambition.  For that reason, she enrolled him in a Catholic school outside the neighborhood.  She may never have known how truly on the mark she was with that decision.  “Only 60% of children who attend urban schools graduate.  Only 40% of those who graduate read at a 4th grade level.” (1)calculator-paperclip-pen-office-66862

She wanted him to understand that a good quality education and a high school diploma were the path to the “greater than” that he deserved.

The rise in incarceration that has come to be known as mass imprisonment began in 1973. (2)  Donovan’s father was part of the growing number of African American men who spend some part of their lives under correctional control.  Despite being approximately 14% of the American population, African American’s are 34% of the total 6.8 million correctional population. (3)  His father was incarcerated before he was ever born and remained incarcerated for the majority of his life.  With such startling statistics, you don’t have to be a math major to figure out early how heavily the odds are stacked against you.

Donovan could have easily embraced those odds and let them defeat him.  Instead, his grandmother had a different plan.   She instilled in him a strong work ethic and an impenetrable narrative.  She reminded him regularly that he is not special despite the adversity he faced, he is special because of it.  There is so much to be said for the power of one. One person with hope and vision can absolutely change the world.  Though, his grandmother was not the only positive influence he had in his corner.  In fact, he learned the importance of multiplication as he experienced the love she had for him multiplied by the love of a strong, supportive group of people who would see him through college.

pexels-photo-264636Donovan got his first job at the age of 8 years old bagging groceries at the corner market. True to form, by the age of 10 he was working the cash register.  Not only did he find work at that corner market, more importantly, he found a village of adults willing to hold him steady.  So steady in fact, that by the age of 14, he received an internship at the Cuyahoga Metro Housing Authority (CMHA).  He continued at that internship through college and later went on to be employed there as the Director of Development and Operations. He credits both the people and the opportunities available to him for his success.  He also found at the housing authority more people to add to his support system.

“It was a village of individuals, rooting for me to be successful,” he recalls.  “They bought me books.  They took me to school when I had no other way.  They were some of my biggest influences…the people that started me believing I could be successful. ”

On his left forearm is a tattoo of a quote that his grandmother repeated to him over and over again growing up:  “When you walk with purpose, you collide with destiny.”  He holds the belief that it is his purpose to open the same opportunities for others that were afforded to him.  It is no coincidence that part of his destiny includes providing results based leadership at Urban Strategies, Inc.  As was destined, our mission closely aligns with his stated purpose.

These days he can be found rattling off numbers from six different line items in a budget and totaling them in his head before others can even get them on paper.  It’s no wonder Donovan Duncan is great at math; in many ways, his life depended on it.  Counter to the widely held belief, bootstraps are not the answer to the problems plaguing our children today.  His life is proof that when you start with a strong narrative, add in support, multiply with opportunity, and add in a good solid education, the sum of that equation creates infinite possibility.

My optimistic side basks in the glow of what the world might look like if we provided children across all communities with this same kind of opportunity and support.  The pessimist, on the other hand, can’t help but wonder why we haven’t done this already. But the realist in me, as painful as it is, well she already knows the answer.


Demographics of Families involved in Case Management with Urban Strategies, Inc.


Because of Not Despite Visuals - FINAL-page-001

About the Author:  Kristie G. Stutler is a Regional Director for Urban Strategies, Inc. She has a Masters of Science in Social Work, 16 years of experience working with system involved youth, and 3 years of experience working in juvenile justice reform. She is a Class 10 Fellow in the Annie E. Casey Children and Families Fellowship, a trainer, a writer, and a lover of all things that rhyme…



  1. Hernandez, Donald J. (2011) Double Jeopardy: How third grade reading skills and poverty influence high school graduation via