Lean Locally: IWU Professor Deborah Halperin Helping to Revitalize West Bloomington
Originally from Hawaii, Deborah Halperin moved to Bloomington in 2003 and became committed to facilitating community development in west Bloomington.
Halperin is an adjunct professor of sociology and Director of the Action Research Center at Illinois Wesleyan University (IWU). In this position, she fosters community-university partnerships, assists faculty with co-curricular service learning projects and teaches courses in community-based research and grant writing. She also serves on the Board of Directors for the West Bloomington Revitalization Project (WBRP).
“I was part of that original group, ten years ago now, and from there it became a non-profit,” Halperin said. “We conducted public hearings in the basement of Mt. Pisgah Church on Market Street and invited anyone who cared about the West Side--people who lived there, people who worked there, people who were connected to the community and wanted to share their hopes, concerns and ideas.”
Those hearings were meant to run for days; they ended up running for five days. “People were showing up and we were running out of chairs. It was exciting!” Halperin said.
The WBRP originated in 2008 in partnership with the Economic Development Council, Bloomington-Normal Area and the City of Bloomington. The West Bloomington Task Force heard the concerns of the residents and created a Quality of Life Plan addressing six major areas of focus: housing, economic development, youth, education, safety and wellbeing, and greening/gardens.
Housing was a major issue for residents of West Bloomington. Approximately two-thirds of homes in the area were rentals and one-third were owned. Halperin and the WBRP pursued this issue and received grant money to fund their ‘porch projects,’ which allowed them to take down and repair a resident’s porch for roughly $1,200.
“What is great about the West Side is there are still a lot of houses with front porches, which I really love,” Halperin said. “People hang out on their front porches and I think it does a lot to form a sense of community.”
As times passed, the WBRP has evolved and expanded. New focus areas have emerged and the WBRP added a wide array of programs. A few of the programs include the Tool Library, Book Bike and The West Bloomington Community Garden.
“Community gardens was one of the first projects we got up and going and those have been going on for a long-time,” Halperin said. “I don’t garden anything and Val [creator of the West Bloomington Community Garden] has been teasing me for ten years about my lack of gardening. I can’t, but Val can. She saw a potential and now there are 44 plots going on.”
Many of the programs and projects in the WBRP have been the products of work done by students in Halperin’s courses. Halperin teaches the Action Research Seminar at IWU where she challenges her students to find creative, practical ideas to implement in West Bloomington.
All of the projects created in the Action Research Seminar are in some form linked to the WBRP. For instance, the Tool Library, Veggie Oasis and the upcoming Seed Library are all student created projects.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has identified West Bloomington as a food desert. These are locations where the citizens have no access or little access to fresh, healthy food. The student-created Veggie Oasis gives away free produce and food donated from local supermarkets and the Bloomington-Normal Farmers Market.
“It is my job to connect campus resources with community opportunities,” Halperin said. “Any student enrolled in the course learns project management skills and implements a project related to the West Bloomington Revitalization effort. They read the Quality of Life Plan as one of their textbooks.”
Halperin has also started a grant writing course for students. She teaches them the craft of writing real grants “for real people, for real money.” These grants can be written for a wide range of non-profits not just the WBRP. Currently, the class is writing grants for the Immigration Project, Mid-Central Community Action and Marcfirst.
“If there’s one thing they remember from my class, it’s that you don’t just walk into a neighborhood, announce your presence, ask what’s broken and say, ‘here’s how can I fix it for you,” Halperin said. “We train students to come into communities, talk to people who live and work there and say what is your vision for your community and how can I bring value?”
“I’m really thrilled I’ve been able to bring resources to the table,” Halperin said. “I feel very lucky that my students have been able to contribute. I think a university has a responsibility for neighborhood revitalization. We [Illinois Wesleyan] are as much a cornerstone of this community as any other institution. It is our responsibility to look at our community and ask, ‘What can we do?’”
Community members do not have to live in West Bloomington or be enrolled in one of Halperin’s courses to participate in the WBRP programs. Any person can join in the effort and volunteer time, money or resources to the WBRP. The program could always use more volunteers.
For more information, visit the new location at 724 W. Washington Street or find the West Bloomington Revitalization Project online.