INDIANAPOLIS, Ind.—If Texas Gov. George W. Bush becomes president, the White House may get a new twist on Harry Truman’s custom-made front porch.
It would be modeled on the Front Porch Alliance, the Indianapolis initiative that taps into “value-shaping institutions” (mostly churches) to rebuild city neighborhoods and address everything from crime and after-school activities to teen pregnancy. Through partnerships with more than 500 religious and community groups, the initiative has helped them build playgrounds, win funding for after-school programs, and cut municipal red tape to start drug treatment centers and build neighborhood parks.
And it has captured the heart of Bush, who vows to replicate the strategy nationwide. “The Front Porch Alliance is the way things ought to be,” Bush told hundreds at a Front Porch Alliance rally here last July, in the first major policy speech of his campaign. “In every instance where my administration sees a responsibility to help people, we will look first to faith-based organizations, charities and community groups that have shown their ability to save and change lives.”
City governments routinely work with community-based organizations on community development initiatives. The Front Porch Alliance stands out for its aggressive outreach to religious institutions, for its endorsement by a presidential nominee, and for the potential White House connection of one of its architects. The alliance was launched in 1997 by Stephen Goldsmith, who was Indianapolis’ mayor and is now Bush’s top domestic policy advisor, and who would likely be offered a cabinet position in a Bush administration.
To see what the front porch looks like up close, come to the once-abandoned house where kids now gather after school under the watch of a 69-year-old woman who says she was called by God, but helped by the city government.
Brokers Hit the Streets
From the outside, the only thing that identifies Ermil Thompson’s community center is a small, hand-painted, weather-beaten sign nailed onto the vinyl siding above the door: “LIFE LINE COMMUNITY CENTER.” Inside, the newly rehabbed two-story house still looks old, but it’s come a long way. Three years ago this was one of the many abandoned buildings littering the Haughville neighborhood, on the city’s west side.
“I was driving by and the Lord just said, ‘Get that house. Build it, because I’m tired of losing my young people to the devil,'” Thompson says. She spent her personal savings on the building, and to raise money for renovations she cooked and delivered $4.50 dinners every Friday for six years.
She never expected help from the city. “When they found out about it, they sent a representative,” says Thompson, who calls herself an evangelist for the Church of God in Christ. “They really took a great interest.” Front Porch Alliance staff sent her to a warehouse to pick out donated tables, chairs, and bookcases to furnish her fledgling community center. Later, the alliance delivered six donated computers, encyclopedias, dictionaries, and art supplies.
Today, between 15 and 30 kids come here after school, and more than 100 spend their days at Life Line in the summer – all free to the kids. They finish homework, work on art, writing, and drama projects, play computer games, go on field trips and practice for Life Line’s annual spelling bee, where the winner takes home $100. (“I can spell recidivism!” a 10-year-old boasts.) Life Line’s budget is about $30,000 a year, and there is no paid staff.
A few blocks away, some 40 kids play in the gym and finish their homework at the Christamore House, a 95-year-old community center with a $430,000 annual budget. Director Olgen Williams says he’s thankful for Thompson: “At least that’s 30 kids I don’t have to worry about.”
When Goldsmith started the Front Porch Alliance, he was looking for people like Thompson. “The mayor’s intent was to bolster the efforts of what he called value-shaping organizations, under the belief that they are uniquely invested to support children and families and thus strengthen communities,” says Bill Stanczykiewicz, policy director for Community Renewal under Goldsmith, and the person credited with designing, implementing, and directing the Front Porch Alliance. Stanczykiewicz, for years a staffer for Republican officials in Congress and Indiana, is now executive director of the Indiana Youth Institute.
The alliance is essentially an aggressive outreach effort run out of the mayor’s office. Stanczykiewicz and four “community brokers” (front line workers in the neighborhoods) combed Indianapolis (pop. 811,000) to find churches and community organizations already working or interested in working to improve their neighborhoods or offer community services: everything from food pantries to neighborhood clean-ups to after-school programs.
The community brokers offered whatever help an organization seemed to need. They looked for funding opportunities: A community broker gave Thompson applications for government and private grants, and helped her fill them out. They helped groups get through City Hall red tape: Shepherd Community Center, a Christian-based community organization, would have had to get 52 city agencies to sign off on its efforts to convert a crime-ridden alley into a neighborhood park. Instead, alliance staffers worked through the bureaucracy for them. To pool resources, community brokers connected churches, community groups and other organizations that were located within blocks of each other but had never collaborated.
The city encouraged groups to apply for “mini-grants” of between $500 and $5,000. But the alliance, at Goldsmith’s insistence, was not primarily about money. “We didn’t want to give people huge grants that they would become overly dependent on,” says Stanczykiewicz, “but with these mini-grants they could leverage other funds and in-kind donations.” The alliance gave away about $120,000 a year; the funds were drawn from a pool created by fees Goldsmith charged to companies who got tax abatements for locating in Indianapolis.
Goldsmith made clear that he was tremendously invested in the Front Porch Alliance, and he expected the same of his staff. “This wasn’t just the traditional, ‘Well, we get job training money from the feds, so we’ll do an RFP and send out the money,'” says Stanczykiewicz. “It was members of my staff being in the neighborhoods on a consistent basis, going to youth group sites, board meetings, neighborhood association meetings. I would tell my staff, ‘I don’t want to see you here at City Hall.'”
While Goldsmith was aware of church-state issues, “he was willing to move that line toward making sure we include faith-based youth ministries as part of the overall solution within a neighborhood,” says Stanczykiewicz. One day recently, following an opening prayer and dinner at the after-school program at Shepherd Community Center (which has received city grants to support its youth programs), a second-grader reluctantly began copying Galatians 6:2 five times – his punishment for wrestling with another youth. Life Line’s Thompson prays with the young people who attend her after-school program every day. No one’s ever hassled her about it, and she says she’d rather turn down help and city funds than silence the prayers.
The Politics of Picking Preachers
Many of those helped by the Front Porch Alliance say that one key strength was the fact that it was run out of the mayor’s office. “People knew that when they were talking to me or a member of my staff, in effect they were talking to the mayor and things would get done,” Stanczykiewicz says.
But not everyone was enthused about giving churches a direct line to the mayor. “You put a bunch of preachers around the table and you know what you’re gonna get? You’re gonna get an abundance of blessings, aren’t you?” says Marshall Lewis, president of the Northwest Neighborhood Association Cooperatives, an umbrella organization for seven neighborhood associations. “I think the reason why [Goldsmith created the alliance] was so he didn’t have to truly deal with the neighborhood leaders, but he could deal with the churches.” Lewis complains that many church members are not residents of the communities where their churches are located, and don’t know best what the neighborhood’s needs are.
Even though the alliance was supposedly open to faith-based institutions as well as secular community organizations, some say Goldsmith’s emphasis on churches left community centers with the short end of the stick. “Most of the Front Porch Alliance dealt with black churches,” says Robert Burgbacher, executive director of the 20-year-old Mary Rigg Neighborhood Center. “And much of the money that went to them didn’t come to the centers that were already established, and it hurt our programs.”
Burgbacher, who is white, says he’s quickly branded as a racist for making such claims. He likes the idea of incorporating churches into the mix of neighborhood service providers, but says that under the Front Porch Alliance the hunt for city-controlled federal funds – such as community development block grant (CDBG) money – turned into a “free for all,” and he claims little was done to prevent duplication of services or ensure quality programming.
Burgbacher got $4,500 less in city youth money last year than he did in 1998. “They didn’t even look at applications from the established centers,” he says. Why would Goldsmith support churches instead of established social service groups? “Because we didn’t back him for mayor and they did,” says Burgbacher. “He was retaliatory.”
According to Chuck Corbin, recently retired chief operating officer of the Community Centers (CCI) of Indianapolis (a federation of 14 established community centers, including Mary Rigg), the centers were getting about $1 million in CDBG funds when Goldsmith took office in 1992. By the time Goldsmith left at the end of last year, that figure was down to $700,000.
Corbin links the decrease not to the Front Porch Alliance but to Goldsmith’s free-market philosophies. “Goldsmith felt [CCI] was operating as a monopoly,” says Corbin, noting that the bulk of the city’s CDBG funds went to the 14 centers. Private funding sources picked up where the city left off, Corbin says; he calculated that between 1994 and 1998 the United Way increased funding for school-aged childcare in Indianapolis by 83 percent.
He thinks that the Front Porch Alliance strengthened the neighborhoods. “Fourteen community centers cannot take care of the human service needs of the city,” he says.
There’s no question that some savvy church leaders saw Front Porch Alliance as an opportunity to strengthen their own political base. “I like the idea of having the city services more available to us,” says Olgen Williams, executive director of Christamore House, which is also part of CCI. “If I can call you when I need something and get it done within 48 hours, I’ll take that over the $5,000. I get more praises, more attendance, and more willingness to work if I can get a few things done in this neighborhood. People aren’t gonna support somebody that don’t have no clout. Front Porch can do that.”
Mayor Bart Peterson, who took office this year, didn’t like the implications of such a close relationship; he moved the Front Porch Alliance out of the mayor’s office to the Department of Metropolitan Development. “By having this group be able to call the mayor’s office versus these folks having to call the Department of Metropolitan Development, you create some overtones that aren’t healthy in terms of having everybody work together,” says Metropolitan Development Director Carolyn Coleman.
Can It Go National?
A two-year evaluation of the Front Porch Alliance by the Indianapolis-based Polis Center found that organizations that received assistance from the initiative found it helpful, particularly in steering them toward resources and in facilitating collaboration with other groups. The study found that the alliance’s nonprescriptive style created new opportunities for faith-based institutions and community based organizations to undertake their own programs. But it also determined that the program was applied too broadly and was still too new to use data – such as teen pregnancy, dropout and crime rates – to determine what quantitative impact the initiative has had on youth and neighborhoods.
For many, the impact is clear. “We thought it was great that some really needy, worthy programs, faith-based or not, were finally getting some support,” says Indianapolis Star editorial writer Andrea Neal, who has written in support of the alliance: “In the funding world, it’s always the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Things like Boys Clubs and Boy Scouts and Girls Inc. have professionals doing development, and they’re very successful and effective. But some of these organizations that really catch kids falling through the cracks, it’s so hard for them to survive. They don’t have staffs that are very big, they’re poorly paid, they rely heavily on volunteers, they don’t have anyone with any development or fund-raising experience. So for the city to make a commitment to help some of these groups I thought was really remarkable.”
Whether a Front Porch Alliance could work on a national level and what it would look like, is unclear. The only attempt to implement the strategy on a larger scale has been Front Porch Florida, where Bush’s brother, Jeb Bush, is governor. But that initiative looks more like an Enterprise Zone initiative than a Front Porch Alliance. Neighborhoods must apply to be “Front Porch Florida Communities.” Once chosen (just six areas have been designated so far), they get a visit from Gov. Jeb Bush (R) and a $50,000 check to spend on development projects. While religious institutions aren’t excluded, they’re not the focus. And Goldsmith’s attempt to reduce red tape for grassroots groups seem to have been lost on this Bush: Designated neighborhoods must turn in monthly and quarterly progress reports, as does the governor’s outreach staff. Also, the commitment in Indianapolis to let neighborhood groups take the lead may not be as strong in Florida.
“This is not a bottoms-up approach,” wrote one neighborhood leader from a Front Porch Community in St. Petersburg in an open letter in March. “None of these suggestions are coming from the grass-roots people. All these are ideas they’re saying, ‘This is what you need to happen.'”
The difficulty in implementing a Front Porch strategy on a larger scale, Stanczykiewicz says, is staying local. With Goldsmith’s influence, Bush is talking about creating a staff position within the office of the president to oversee outreach and services to faith-based organizations.
Stanczykiewicz says that in a Front Porch U.S.A. scenario, he can envision federal departments such as the Department of Housing and Urban Development hiring “community brokers” in every major city to comb neighborhoods and connect people with services. He can even see churches competing for positions as the brokers; in that case, church volunteers would scour the neighborhoods.
“The challenge,” he says, “will be to get as local and grassroots as the federal government possibly can.”
Bush would love to watch that unfold from Harry Truman’s beloved front porch.