Shades of Freedom

Distress Concentrated In Place: NYC Empowers Neighborhoods to Define Safety

Episode Summary

Renita Francois walks us through some innovative approaches to neighborhood safety and justice reform underway in New York City, and the impacts they are seeing in the housing communities where they’ve implemented resident-sourced solutions. Please join us for this exciting look at how engaging communities in defining and solving their own challenges can lead to real change.

Episode Notes

When Renita Francois, Executive Director of the NYC Mayor’s Action Plan for Neighborhood Safety (MAP), asks the residents of the city’s public housing developments how they define neighborhood safety, crime is not at the top of their lists. From going directly to the residents – the people best informed to define safety – Francois’ office can build better responses to community needs within neighborhoods, and also use the resident input to guide city-wide policy improvements.

In this episode of Shades of Freedom, Francois walks us through some innovative approaches to neighborhood safety and justice reform underway in New York City, and the impacts they are seeing in the housing communities where they’ve implemented resident-sourced solutions. Please join us for this exciting look at how engaging communities in defining and solving their own challenges can lead to real change.


Renita Francois is a neighborhood safety and engagement strategist combining lived, front line, and executive experience to support communities and government in building partnership, establishing common goals, and increasing opportunity, well-being, and equity in New York City's most underserved communities. Mrs. Francois is the Executive Director of the Mayor's Action Plan for Neighborhood Safety, a citywide, multi agency, multi-disciplinary community safety intervention that centers public housing resident voices and priorities in the civic process. In this role she serves as a key advisor to the Director of the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice on public safety matters and oversees NeighborhoodStat, a signature initiative of the Office of Neighborhood Safety and an innovative model through which residents define what they need to feel safe and work with their neighbors, community partners and government agencies to achieve it.

Her experience serving as a resource coordinator working directly for the juvenile justice bench at Brooklyn Family Court, and as a frontline staff member for public housing programs in both Los Angeles and Compton, California, give Ms. Francois unique insight into the multilayered challenges facing vulnerable communities. Renita Francois holds a Bachelor of Arts in American Studies from the University of California, Berkeley and an MBA from Cornell University.

Episode Transcription

Shades of Freedom

Episode 10

Distress Concentrated In Place: NYC Empowers Neighborhoods to Define Safety

Guest: Renita Francois

October 19, 2021

Copyright 2021 Aspen Institute Criminal Justice Reform Initiative

Announcer (00:01):

Welcome to Shades of Freedom from the Aspen Institute's Criminal Justice Reform Initiative. This week's guest is Renita Francois, executive director Mayor's Action Plan for Neighborhood Safety in New York City.

Renita Francois (00:16):

When we tell residents we're giving them money to do projects that affect public safety, we don't tell them what the safety issue is. We let them identify what they need, and crime is usually somewhere way down the line. The stuff that they talk about beforehand are more a part of that holistic picture.

Dr. Douglas E. Wood (00:35):

Welcome to Shades of Freedom. My name is Douglas Wood, director of the Aspen Institute's Criminal Justice Reform Initiative. Today's guest is Renita Francois. Renita is the executive director of the Mayor's Action Plan for Neighborhood Safety, or MAP, with the New York City Mayor's Office of Criminal Justice. MAP supports 15 communities in New York City to work collaboratively with government agencies to improve the overall safety and wellbeing of residents. Before being a deputy and then the executive director at MAP, Renita served as a resource coordinator for the juvenile justice bench at Brooklyn Family Court, and as frontline staff member for public housing programs in both Los Angeles and Compton, California. It's an honor to have her as a guest. Renita, welcome to Shades of Freedom.

Renita Francois (01:24):

Thank you for having me.

Dr. Douglas E. Wood (01:27):

Renita, could you explain what the Mayor's Action Plan and NeighborhoodStat are and what's your role within them?

Renita Francois (01:34):

So the Mayor's Action Plan for Neighborhood Safety actually started seven years ago when the de Blasio administration first took office. For those that are familiar, Mayor de Blasio ran on this platform of a tale of two cities. He talks a lot about the two different New Yorks. So of course it was no surprise when he came in that he wanted the administration to focus on communities that have been impacted by violence, by inequity, by social disparities, because we know all of those things really happen. We say a lot on our team that distress is concentrated in place. We know a lot of these things, whether it be crime or a mass incarceration or disparate outcomes across the health sector or educational outcomes, economic opportunity, no matter what it is, they all pop in the same place.

Renita Francois (02:27):

And what MAP is is this acknowledgement that crime is an outcome. It comes somewhere down the line after the disinvestment and after the segregation and after the withdrawal of resources and the fleeing of businesses and economic opportunity from a community. This is what settles in when there's hopelessness and despair and when we see these really deliberate things happen with government and other institutional actors to create the situation that these communities have now found themselves in. And so MAP is an acknowledgement that it's not just about crime. Yes, it's a crime reduction initiative. And yes, we're saying that we want to put all of these intensive resources into doing that, but it's really about how we're doing it, not just what we're doing. And so MAP is this affirmative way of saying we're going to bring these city agencies together. We're going to invest a significant amount of resources.

Renita Francois (03:17):

If you look back, the original announcement for the investment in MAP was $210 million into these 15 communities. And we're going to focus on the crumbling physical infrastructure of NYCHA, the public safety infrastructure around those developments, but also the opportunity resources, where are the opportunities for young people for their development? Where is the focus on wellness? Can we connect residents to economic opportunity? Can we focus on this really holistic picture of health and wellbeing, and really connect them to the resources that are available in this city that has so many robust resources? And then the last and very important piece of that was how do we begin to build trust between communities and the government that's supposed to serve them?

Renita Francois (04:03):

And I know a lot of people when they're in these conversations they like to talk about this rebuilding of trust or this re-something or other with government. But it's never really existed. We went from slavery to Jim Crow to segregation to mass incarceration to where we are now, where we're seeing extra judicial police killings and all of these other things coming to bear that we've seen, especially with the COVID-19 pandemic, we've seen so much of those disparities just laid out for us. And so the last piece, which is the bucket of our work, where Neighborhood Stat falls, is about how do we work together to build that trust, but also how do we center the voices of those who are most impacted in creating these vibrant communities that are so aspirational for us?

Renita Francois (04:50):

So it's really not about how do we from the ivory tower or from City Hall govern, it's about how do we get out in community with people? How do we listen more than we talk, more than we promise, more than we commit? How do we listen to people about how resources should be stored in their community and about what their community needs are? And it's not just about us making the decisions because we are the policy advisers or the policy makers, but it's really about leaning on that lived experience and bringing that to the forefront in our decision-making.

Dr. Douglas E. Wood (05:25):

I was so struck when you said distress is concentrated in place. Wow. Such a powerful phrase. Can you unpack that for us? What does that mean?

Renita Francois (05:39):

When we look at data, whether those are educational outcomes, health indicators, crime data, life expectancy, if we were to map those things on top of each other, and I could actually show you maps of where there's the most propensity for these different things, they all pop in the same places. All of these things happen one on top of the other, because it's by design. You can't expect that we see high median income in places where we have under-resourced schools or low educational attainment. Those things don't go together. So in places where we see high educational attainment, we see high income. We can recognize that those conditions are all weaved together. They all co-exist together. It's like a comorbidity in health.

Renita Francois (06:38):

And we'd really do look at this as a public health sort of issue. We look at crime and violence in that way. It's not just about the fact that cancer exists. We're unpacking all the ways that it arrived and what are the various treatments that we can bring to bear in order to reduce the impacts of it or to eradicate it altogether. And that's how we look at this approach to violence. How creative can we get? How holistic can we get? How many comorbidities can we unweave from this picture in order to get at the root of what is the actual issue? And so when we think about, like I said, distress being concentrated in place, poverty, segregation, these things have always gone hand-in-hand. There was an intentional locking out of an opportunity for upward mobility in this country for people of color, and especially Black people who are the majority of the folks who live in the communities that we work in.

Dr. Douglas E. Wood (07:40):

Mm-hmm (affirmative) Can you tell us a little bit about what exactly is NeighborhoodStat and what is it like participating in a NeighborhoodStat meeting and what kind of solutions emerged from?

Renita Francois (07:51):

So NeighborhoodStat is a multi-step process. It's not just one meeting, there's many layers to this. So there's a resident stakeholder team that's made up of people who live in the communities that we work with. And those teams are facilitated by an organizer. One of the most surprising things that people say about this initiative is that they cannot believe that the city is paying for an organizer. Yes, we do. We often have these expectations of people who live in community, especially in public housing. We tell them they don't own the space that they live in. They have no rights there. It's the property of the state or the city, and they're just a tenant. But then we want them to take ownership and apologize for what happens there. And so it's either they have agency or they don't. It's theirs to own, or it's not. And so in these conversations in NeighborhoodsStat we are operating under the premise that the residents have agency and they have authority in the place that they live. And we promote that authority and that agency.

Renita Francois (08:52):

And so they meet with their organizer and the organizer them become versed in advocacy and place-making and how to organize and how to speak in public and how to go into these meetings and command the room and state their agenda and stay on topic. And that's the challenge as well, because many of these residents are living in conditions that you or I would not. And it's not humane. And we understand the challenges of the New York City Public Housing Authority. They have a $40 billion repair backlog. The conditions are not what they should be. Our initiative is a public safety initiative, our mandate is outside of apartments, not inside of apartments. And so we're asking residents to come to the table and talk about what's happening outside when things are crumbling inside. And so that's very difficult for them to do. But they do it. They go through this training, they verse themselves on policy and how to affect change both big P and small P policy. They learn all these things fully understanding that maybe we won't address the number one concern, which is what's happening in their apartment.

Renita Francois (10:02):

And so in this process, they work with their organizer, they come up with an agenda, not just for themselves, but for their neighborhood. They meet monthly with city agency partners who are assigned to their area. So the local version of the agency that shows up in their neighborhood, they meet with them. They meet with community-based partners. They meet with our staff, and we talk about how to move forward the goals that they've outlined. Some of those things are very local, very hyper-local, very specific. And that's what takes place in the local NeighborhoodStat. So through the local NeighborhoodStat process, those teams meet with their local partners, they're given funding that they can use to dictate how they're spent, towards public safety. We run a full on participatory budgeting style process with the residents of that community. We get community feedback and input. The winning projects are funded. We allow kids to vote. They always come up and say, "I'm not old enough to vote." "Yes, you are. You live here and you have an opinion." And we want to empower that. And so that's what happens in the local process.

Renita Francois (11:03):

But through that, we're able to look across the citywide sites that we have to see what the chronic issues are that are facing these developments. What commonalities do they have? And those are the things that we move to this more central neighborhood step process, where we're really trying to affect the decision-making and the resource dispensation that happens in their neighborhood based on these chronic issues that we see across development. So NeighborhoodStat is really just our way of harnessing the collective power and voices of the resident input that we get across sites, and then moving it through this process of escalation from an idea to something that residents can do as basically a seed or foundation to that issue, elevating it all the way up to this policy or administrative level, where we can think about long-term sustainable solutions to the challenges that they've raised.

Dr. Douglas E. Wood (11:54):

I was really encouraged by the fact that you've been very intentional about involving young people and how you encourage the young person to vote during the NeighborhoodStat process. How has your experience as a resource coordinator for the juvenile justice bench informed your work and the way you take young people's voices into account?

Renita Francois (12:16):

When a child makes a mistake, the worst thing that we can do is throw that child away or make them feel that they're thrown away. And so when I'm on this side of things at MAPJ where I'm responsible for cultivating resources or working in partnership with community for what opportunities are going to be directed towards their young people, I think about those kids all the time. And I'm thinking about the fact that these are the communities where they came from, because all of the impacts are intertwined, as we talked about before.

Dr. Douglas E. Wood (12:50):

You recently wrote a blog on the necessity to center community voices in public safety. And this may seem like an obvious question, but why is listening to residents crucial in helping them determine what safety and justice means to them?

Renita Francois (13:07):

It's extra critical. It's very important. When we look at the problem of crime, for some reason, we are not able to get as creative as the problem demands. And so what do we do? Even in this space that we're in where we've seen crime decline drastically across the United States, we've seen law enforcement budgets balloon. It doesn't make sense because that is not necessarily what is keeping us safe, because most of those institutions are reactionary. They respond once something already happened. And so when we think about residents and what they bring to the table, they're in a community 24/7, they live there. They know what's going on that's good. There's know what's going on that's not so good. They have expertise that we take for granted. And the same thing can be said for safety throughout. I think that we don't look at residents as a part of helping our city run efficiently. They can tell us so much about service delivery and the insights that they have could actually help us save money, because they know how to get people in the seats. They know where the people are.

Renita Francois (14:16):

The suggestions that they make about how we can do our jobs better are so simple yet so practical. And when you hear them you're like, "Oh yeah." Maybe I'm an agency person. And I'm going to do office hours inside of a building, even though I'm in the community. So as a city, we're like, "Yeah, the services are right there in the community. People have ease of access." And residents are like, "You're in this building. Nobody knows that you're there. Why don't you flyer for two hours beforehand so that people know that you're going to be there and then go and do your office hours for the last two hours that you're supposed to be there." It's not rocket science, but those are the insights that they have, that are like, "Okay, if we adopted that, we wouldn't waste four hours of time where only two people came to be seen. Whereas we can do two hours of outreach and have 20 people come and be seen." It's a world of difference. And so, there's the creative ways that they think about safety.

Renita Francois (15:12):

One of the beautiful things about NeighborhoodStat is when we tell residents we're giving them money to do projects that affect public safety, we don't tell them what the safety issue is. We let them identify what they need, and crime is usually somewhere way down the line. The stuff that they talk about beforehand are more a part of that holistic picture. They're like, "We want development opportunities for the youth. We want to talk about reentry support for people who are returning home in our community. We want to talk about how we build connection with people who speak different languages. We have an influx of folks coming from this particular background, and we're not able to connect with them because we don't speak the language. How can we put more resources into just building the fabric of this community that could bring us together to know one another and want to work together and build that trust and all of that."

Renita Francois (16:03):

They come up with very creative ways. Some of them want to focus on healthy food and food access, and they take those demonstrations around healthy food and say, "We're going to do it in this area that we all know is a hotspot, where the unsavory things happen. We're going to go and reclaim that space and do our healthy eating and physical activity workshops. We're going to do them right in that space." And so if they're there activating it for positive, obviously the negative can't exist in the same place. So these are the types of creative things that they do. And the input they have been sitting on, the creativity that they've been sitting on for all of this time that we haven't asked for their input in the governance of the city.

Dr. Douglas E. Wood (16:46):

Can you tell us what kind of results have you seen since the Mayor's Action Plan was implemented?

Renita Francois (16:56):

I think we've seen a lot of impact. I'll get to the scientific version of that, but just from a qualitative standpoint, I think from where we started working with a small number of residents and a small number of agencies who really didn't understand how their work connected to public safety, we have folks that are like, "I work for the Department for the Aging. I have no idea what that has to do with crime." Or like, "I work in the transportation department or sanitation, what does that have to do with what you're doing?" And the team, it's really not me, the team, has done a tremendous job of really educating people across city agencies. There was one year in this that we worked so hard with residents into the night for hours, into the wee hours of the morning, perfecting these policy briefs, these documents that we call policy briefs, that really were just a way for us to level set helping people understand from the resident perspective what the challenges were in their communities and how they arrived at it.

Renita Francois (18:02):

These briefs had data, they had maps, they had anecdotal stories. They had solutions for what residents hoped could come out of it. And we sent those things to anybody in the city who we thought even remotely tangentially touched something that they were talking about. We wanted to get that document into their hands because we wanted them to understand what real life people who live in New York City who live this experience. And so we've seen that small number of people who understood what we were doing. We've taken that number and we've seen it grow tremendously. And then when we talk about the impacts on crime, we had a formal evaluation that was done by the John Jay Research and Evaluation Center that definitely show statistical significance and misdemeanors. A lot of quality of life offenses fall in that category. And of course, a lot of the work that we do is focused on quality of life. But across crime categories, compared to similarly situated developments, the MAP developments outperformed them in every case.

Renita Francois (19:08):

And then we see during the pandemic, of course we saw upticks in violence and shootings across the country. And the MAP developments were not exempt. But what we see now in 2021 is a recovery from what happened in 2020. And you have the MAP developments outpacing the city and the housing authority in decreases in violent crime, decreases in index crime, decreases in shootings and decreasing in murders. And I really believe it's a testament to, yes, the strength of the residents, but also the amount of coordination that we do. People are talking to each other. Agencies are talking to each other. When this started, we had city agency partners who worked in the same neighborhood who had never been in a meeting together, and their work was relevant to one another. Those folks didn't know each other. They were very much focused on, "You guys should call a meeting to bring us together." Even though they all work in the neighborhood. And that has changed over time. Now we see them bringing themselves together and creating their own programming and opportunities for community connection.

Dr. Douglas E. Wood (20:12):

That leads to my next question, which is totally related. And that is what do you think is going to happen to this work under a new administration, which will take office here in New York City in 2022? And also on a personal note, what do you think your work will be in the coming years?

Renita Francois (20:33):

That's a good and loaded question. So I think we're here to stay. It's our vision and our mission to really make sure that we get as much resources and agency and information to the ground as possible because this work should be community led. We've tried the other way. We've tried it. And so we have to give this a chance.

Renita Francois (21:00):

For me personally, I didn't really talk much about myself, but I'm originally from South Central LA, born and raised. LA girl to the core. And I have been here in New York City for the past 12 years. And I lived this experience. I've been the victim of gun violence. My family has been affected by gun violence. My family has been affected by mass incarceration. I have been a beneficiary of public housing programs as a child. We have run the gamut. My life experience touches this in every single way. And it always will. When I thought about what I would be doing with my life, this is what I thought I would be doing. And this is probably what I will be doing forever. How can I use what I know and what I've lived to make decisions that benefit my community, or to bring the voices of people who are like me from communities like mine to the decision-making process of what affects them?

Dr. Douglas E. Wood (22:07):

We always ask our guests the same question at the end of the podcast, which is, when you hear the phrase "Shades of Freedom," what does it mean to you now and into the future?

Renita Francois (22:22):

I feel like you could do a whole podcast just on that. But I think for me, I think that America has a very unique experience with respect to this elusive dream that we call freedom. And I think for many people in our country, even just what we've been through in the past less than a decade, I think we've seen a lot that has probably been just illuminating for so many. But I think that we operate, some of us, on this binary spectrum, it's enslaved or free and that's it. And some people feel like, "Why do you all complain so much? You used to be slaves and now you are free. And for that, you should be grateful." But I think that freedom and the idea of it is subjective.

Renita Francois (23:24):

I think about the fact that we're all in different places on that spectrum, not all Black folks are at the same spot, not all people of color are at the same spot. We're all walking different paths and have different experiences that are framed by our gender, our socioeconomic status, our education, our upbringing. We're in different places. And I think it's hard to say that we'll ever be at this point where it's like, "We've arrived." I can't say when that will be, but I know it's not now. And so when I think about into the future what that means is that this is something that we will be constantly working towards. As long as we are on this earth, I think that there will be those of us who have the important and monumental heavy responsibility of chasing that freedom for all of us, because some of us are ignorant to the fact that we don't all have it. And so that means for those of us who are aware, we have the burden of getting us all to that mark that we are not quite at yet.

Renita Francois (24:37):

So I think Shades of Freedom for me it's about the work that I will be doing for the rest of my life, trying to get it down to as few gradients of shades as possible, if that's possible at all. But I have hope that it is. Otherwise I wouldn't be able to do this work. So I definitely appreciate you having me and for giving me a chance to talk about something that's so important to me.

Dr. Douglas E. Wood (25:05):

Thank you so much, Renita. It's been such a pleasure having you as a guest on Shades of Freedom, and we will be certainly watching all of your work in the future. Thank you so much.

Renita Francois (25:15):

Thank you.

Announcer (25:16):

Thanks for joining us for Shades of Freedom from the Aspen Institute's Criminal Justice Reform Initiative. We'll be back soon with more thought provoking guests, so please subscribe on your favorite podcast app. This podcast was produced by Lynnea Domienik, with research assistance by Willem Patrick. It was edited by Ken Thompson. Special thanks to Christian Devers and Wanda Mann. CJRI's programs are made possible by support from Arnold Ventures, the Bank of America Charitable Foundation, the Arthur M. Blank Foundation, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, and the Ford Foundation.