Return to the Bronx – II

17 August 2011

I should have mentioned this visit was in connection with research I am doing for a “White Paper” the McGraw-Hill Foundation commissioned me to write on “Social Entrepreneurship and Education”.

The Mission of WHEDco, as it’s tag line indicates, is “Building a Greater Bronx”. I met with its President, Nancy Biberman, and Executive VP, Davon Russell, who kindly showed me around their facilities which house their three major initiatives: Housing for low income and the formerly homeless, Head Start, and Child Care Micro-Enterprise Development.

Biberman and Russell qualify as “visionaries” in the sense that they have been concerned with the big picture from the start, and have continually re-invented their organization to keep up with new challenges as they arise. Biberman saw beyond WHEDco’s initial mandate of housing the poor observing that it made little sense putting people into better places to live if the communities around them lacked all the basic commercial opportunities and basic services. Noting the high percentage of single mothers in their housing projects led them into training women to become certified childcare owner operators, which greatly enhanced their income earning potential. They also converted some of their flagship facility — a former hospital which had been abandoned when the Bronx was literally in flames during the 60s and 70s, and now houses 132 low income families — into an “Economic Development Center” where small businesses from the food sector and others can set up shop. I met with the workers of a frozen “empanada” business, who send me off with a bagful of their product. Biberman and Russell could teach Rick Perry a thing or two about job creation in an area where you can’t punch a hole in the ground and have it spurt $100 a barrel oil.

Despite all the good they do, Russell worries about what happens to the Head Start kids when they enter the NYC public school system, from which less than 75% — unless something changes — will emerge prepared for college or even a job. He’s hoping WHEDco can do more in the other links in the chain — grade school, middle school and high school — so that more of the kids succeed.

I left WHEDco with the feeling that if we do more to help people like Biberman and Russell to succeed, then more of New York City’s kids will.

Rupert Scofield


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