The Visible Community has remained a dedicated grassroots organization, but our methods and strategies to affect change have evolved. In the Summer of 2004, our group naturally came together in response to a crisis. The City of Lewiston had announced a new plan called “The Heritage Initiative,” which was going to (among other things) displace 850 residents by constructing a four-lane boulevard through the middle of downtown’s residential neighborhood. When The Visible Community first began community organizing, our central goal was clear: STOP THE ROAD. In a year’s time, after knocking on doors, turning people out to neighborhood meetings, and holding rallies, the road had been stopped.

This was a major victory for our organization and a testament to the power of community organizing. The same neighborhood may be a ghost town today if we had not stopped the road, but as far as improving the condition of life in the downtown, stopping the road only appeared to preserve the status quo. The next question for our group was: What now? How do we organize empowered people to make positive changes in the neighborhood rather than simply stop bad ideas from happening?

For The Visible Community, the solution was to lead the City by example. We applied for a grant from the Presbyterian Committee on the Self-Development of People to create a master plan for Lewiston’s downtown neighborhood. This plan would be based on the immediate needs and concerns of the people who live in the neighborhood and whose lives would be most directly affected by new development decisions. The People’s Downtown Master Plan, as it was called, was a model for how we saw good community development can be achieved. Since that time, the City of Lewiston has created its own master plan for the neighborhood, incorporating many of the ideas and strategies of the People’s Plan, as well as input from other stakeholders.

The People’s Plan has not only informed the work of the City, but it is also a guide for The Visible Community to make sure our own goals and campaigns are accountable to the concerns of the neighborhood. Currently, we are working hard to implement two very specific visions of the People’s Plan. One goal is to expand and improve the public bus system to connect downtown people with jobs and services across the Twin Cities. A second goal is to create a Neighborhood Housing League that works more closely with downtown residents on a case-by-case basis to improve housing quality and safety through education, advocacy, and mediation.

Looking back, our efforts to stop the road built a foundation for The Visible Community’s work. On that foundation we helped see the development of a new playground, the development of two new senior affordable housing projects, a greater investment of Community Development Block Grant money in downtown programs and social service agencies, and even representation on City Council and other municipal committees. So, we’ve learned that not only can you fight City Hall, but you can work with City Hall, you can collaborate with City Hall, and in some ways you can even become a part of City Hall.

Though our strategies have changed over time, our core strength comes from our conviction that transparent consensus building and bottom-up grassroots organizing is the best way to make policy decisions. This applies to how we function internally as The Visible Community as well as how we advocate that our City, State, and Federal Government must function as well.

Contact The Visible Community by email: info(at)visiblecommunity.org