Housing Advocacy

The Puzzle of Turning Vision into Action

Articulating a vision from the hopes and dreams of diverse community members is like piecing together a 250 piece jigsaw puzzle. Translating that vision into action steps in the course […]

Articulating a vision from the hopes and dreams of diverse community members is like piecing together a 250 piece jigsaw puzzle. Translating that vision into action steps in the course of a fast-paced development process is like assembling a puzzle when key pieces are missing and need to be created.

Union United—a coalition dedicated to development without displacement in the culturally diverse and rapidly changing Union Square neighborhood of Somerville, Massachusetts—adopted this metaphor to guide its second annual strategic planning retreat. The coalition’s tenants and homeowners, local business owners, and representatives of community and faith based organizations gathered in a church basement to put their community vision jigsaw puzzle together.
Picturing the Puzzle Box: One starts assembling a puzzle by looking at the image on the box. Retreat participants sketched the picture on the “puzzle box” with words expressing their visions for the neighborhood’s future. (See the photo.)

The Corner Pieces: Finding the corner pieces frames the picture so it’s easier to position the puzzle pieces on the board. The Union United coalition itself was the lower right corner of the picture of the future Union Square in the making. At the bottom right corner was the Coalition’s Community Benefits Agreement (CBA), a mechanism for ensuring that the Master Developer hired by the City include ample affordable housing, employment opportunities, open spaces, and other critical amenities to benefit the residents and businesses who currently live and work in the neighborhood. The City’s powerbrokers occupied the top left corner and trends of speculation and displacement formed the top right corner of the landscape.

Actions Make the Picture: The timeline of actions and events since the Coalition’s formation were the puzzle pieces. Members placed photographs representing each action on the puzzle board in relation to the four corners of the landscape. Convening the Coalition and adopting its seven core principles went near the bottom left corner. They put drafting the CBA at the bottom right. Meetings with city administrators and elected officials and the candidates for the Master Developer role fit along the axis between the Coalition and Powerbrokers as did gaining four seats for Union United members on the City appointed Civic Advisory Committee. Near the corner representing speculation and displacement, they placed photos of a demonstration about the precipitously escalating rents already driving out locally owned businesses and a tour that introduced landmarks of community activism to the broader public. 

Puzzle pieces of the Coalition’s successful efforts to enhance accountability to the community traced a diagonal from the CBA corner to the Powerbroker corner. Influencing the commitment to providing multi-lingual interpretation at public meetings, the agreement to plan for the entire neighborhood before finalizing plans for the disposition blocks around the future transit station, and the decision against fast-tracking environmental impact review were among those achievements.

Deciding where to put the pieces sparked discussion about the Coalition’s expanding influence among decision-makers and its growing public presence. And noticing the emptier spaces on the puzzle board exposed where more work needs to be done to realize the vision.

Filling in the Missing Pieces: Brainstorming about those emptier spaces on the puzzle board generated ideas for the Coalition’s next action steps. Suggestions for forging issue-specific alliances with other neighborhood groups and mobilizing residents throughout the broader development corridor filled in the lower left quadrant of the puzzle board, where the Coalition expands its power. Plans for inviting candidates for the upcoming local election to a speak-out on development without displacement fleshed out the axis between the powerbrokers and citywide trends. Ideas about tracking displacement trends and investigating anti-displacement strategies in addition to the CBA helped chart the Coalition’s potential future directions.

Union United is still piecing together the pieces to realize the community’s vision for the neighborhood’s future. Now the process is a lot less puzzling.

(Photo: Union United member Kristen Lucas facilitates strategic visioning

workshop. Photo by Union United member Van Hardy.)

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