The Importance of Community Voice in Community Development

by Contributing Editor Becca Lais

“At least it’s something.” This is a statement that North Tulsa community members are tired of hearing, much less accepting. Kandy Whitley-White shared this sentiment as she spoke about the Unity Heritage Plan created and amended by the Tulsa Development Authority (TDA). She is one of several concerned community members that are opposed to the amendment created by TDA for the Unity Heritage neighborhood. Terms such as “eminent domain,” “blight,” and “urban renewal” taste like vinegar in the mouths of community members who are still waiting for the community they dreamed of before the displacement known as “The Steps to Nowhere” began in the 1960’s. 

In 2016, TDA, alongside a Citizen Advisory team (CAT) and a contracted developer (Houseal Lavigne Associates), created the “Unity Heritage Neighborhoods Plan”, which outlined several goals, objectives, and recommendations for neighborhood revitalization and preservation. In January of 2019, TDA released an amendment to the original plan, including the right to eminent domain as well as a blight study dated back to 2016. At the March 27th City Council meeting, both residents and concerned citizens poured into the room sharing similar thoughts on the gaps with TDA. Some of these aforementioned gaps are the process of understanding, the ability to make plain the motivations of people around the table, and not properly educating the community on what the term “development” actually means.

The language used in the 2016 report, as well as the amendment, can seem vague and convoluted.  Director for the Tulsa Planning Office at INCOG, Susan Miller, clarified some of the jargon often used in development and planning. The term sector plan refers to the idea of urban renewal or redevelopment in a particular area. Small area plans refer to plans created with the Tulsa Planning Office at INCOG, such as the overall vision, land use, capital improvements, and establishment of programs, all of which must follow the state statutes. Miller also shared that the Tulsa County Assessor’s Office classifies if homes are in poor, fair, average, good, or excellent condition.

Communities that have been negatively impacted by urban renewal have redefined the term as “urban removal” due to the history of removing and relocating people from their homes and neighborhoods for the sake of neighborhood revitalization, none of which actually benefited the community of people who lived there. Various residents of the Unity Heritage Neighborhood worry that this will happen to their families and to them. 

Chris Morgan now lives in the home his mother left for him. She wanted him and the family to always have somewhere to go back to. The home brings Chris a sense of pride, hope, and serves as a reminder of something to fight for. He recently installed new windows in his home, which was a costly investment. When he saw his home on the list of addresses included in the blight study, he realized they had assessed his home 3 years ago. The blight study and condition of his home did not reflect the hard work and investment he had put into his home for the last 3 years. “The perception is that we don’t care. They don’t take the time to get to know us. The system has never been designed to be fair for us.” 

Tracie Chandler, proud resident of the Phoenix District, found out about the amendment while calling a friend about replacement windows. The public signage that TDA provided did not actually communicate the true nature of the meeting, she said. When Ms. Chandler heard about the address list of “blighted” homes, she immediately began researching. She reached out to neighbors and community members through Facebook and made phone calls to make them aware of what was happening. The issue, Ms. Chandler said, is the lack of trust and transparency that TDA has acquired with the North Tulsa community. “Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Her argument is that there must be community-driven development and restoration. She emphasized the importance of getting to the root of this issue. What is the motive for redevelopment in North Tulsa? Who is it actually serving? What power does TDA have? What power does the community have? 

Resident Kandy Whitley-White stated that although there is deep-seeded pain in the North Tulsa community, they continue to create beauty and carry pride regardless of the obstacles against them. She went on to say there is power in the community, and in order to have successful neighborhood development, it must be directed by the community. “We are tired of fighting for everything, for things that should be ours, for demanding authenticity and integrity, which should be a given. Enough studies and plans. Just do what is right by the community.” This is the goal for the CAT, who will work with City Councilor Hall-Harper, and the Mayor’s office to begin figuring out how to approach the Unity Heritage plan. The plan has been put on pause in order to ensure that community voice and ideas are the driving factor in development. Residents are ready to actively design the community they dream of for their future generations; a community that is centered on people conversing on porches and children who can walk to the park and a grocery store without fearing for their safety. “It’s up to us,” resident Chris Morgan shared. “If we want to have a fair chance, we must be the ones to educate our community and ourselves. We have a responsibility to our community and our children.”

Illustration: Patrick Norman