In a city known for being friendly yet hard to penetrate as an outsider, architect and community advocate Réna Bradley is simultaneously an enigma for old-school residents and a symbol of change for millennials and Gen Zers. Since arriving in 2015, Bradley’s effort as the community development director for the faith-based nonprofit Bridge of Grace Compassionate Ministries Center has attracted attention in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and grant support nationally.
A graduate of Howard University in Washington, D.C., and a former Detroit Revitalization Fellow, Réna Bradley has experience working in the private, nonprofit and public sectors. Doing so has shown her that, as stated in her bio on the Bridge of Grace website, "design is a tool to develop not only places but also a sense of well-being, unity and joy in individuals and communities."
As Bridge of Grace's community development director, Bradley seeks to build thriving and sustainable neighborhoods in southeast Fort Wayne. See the "7 Empowering Principles" box at the end of this article to learn what drives her work.
Working and living in the city’s southeast quadrant, specifically Mount Vernon Park, the 36-year-old Bradley has melded her experience as a trained architect with a higher calling to help revitalize an underserved neighborhood, where the median household income is 60 percent lower than the U.S. average. Her CV is impressive: Howard University architecture degree; project coordinator at HDR, a prestigious design firm; and returning to her hometown to work at the Detroit Land Bank.
Yet, Bradley says she learns as much as she teaches, finding great joy in intergenerational activities that she and her team have facilitated.
AARP: Tell us about Bridge of Grace and what you do as the community development director.
Bradley: Our vision is to build thriving and sustainable neighborhoods with engaged residents. My primary focus is on helping residents create the neighborhoods they want to live in. So, we do work that transforms our community. We renovate houses, we do trash pickup, we do transformations and activations — for example, taking vacant lots and turning them into parklets. I keep saying "our community" because I and well-over half of my coworkers live right here in the neighborhood. When we're looking at concerns facing the community, we're not coming in as outsiders.
AARP: Your work involves activities that are about "placemaking," and you were a panelist at the 2019 AARP Livable Communities Placemaking Workshop [see box]. There’s a complicated relationship between placemaking and gentrification. It’s often misdirected. How do you view this?
Bradley: I understand what it means, but can you tell me someone who doesn't want to live in a beautiful community that's safe and walkable and is a good place for their kids to grow up? We all want those things.
When you think about placemaking, or — more accurately — placekeeping, I feel like the distinction is that the worst charettes, which are community events for designers to meet with stakeholders, produce one-off projects that can potentially alienate a community rather than developing catalytic projects that are part of a larger vision.
In a community development capacity, placekeeping has to be about agency and ownership, so that after the project, or a set of projects is completed, you’ve not only established a vision and momentum, but you've helped to equip and position people in the community to be agents of change within their own space. Bridge of Grace's work involves elevating voices. We’re listening to what people have to say. We dignify people in what is designed and created.
AARP: How can a community make vital improvements without losing its identity?
In November 2019, Réna Bradley was a panelist during a session at the AARP Livable Communities Placemaking Workshop.
Earlier that year, Bridge of Grace received an AARP Community Challenge grant to make the Mount Vernon Park neighborhood in Fort Wayne a more walkable, safe and healthy community by installing improvements in public spaces (community sidewalks and right of ways) that celebrate the diversity, history and culture of the area and by hosting intergenerational events.
Bradley: The best way to make improvements in a community without the community losing its identity is for the community itself to drive the process. Its voices, concerns, successes and vision ought to be the basis for improvement. When that’s the case, improvement will not eclipse the community’s identity. It will strengthen it.
AARP: In 2019, Bridge of Grace received an AARP Community Challenge grant to help fund projects in the Mount Vernon Park neighborhood, such as new landscaping and light pole banners along the park's sidewalks and right-of-way. How did that work advance or address the community and Bridge of Grace’s vision for the park and neighborhood?
Bradley: First, a shout out to AARP. We thank you!
The AARP grant was for a project called Enter. Connect. Fort Wayne. The idea was to create intergenerational public spaces in our neighborhood. Before we received the AARP grant, we received a grant from the Knight Foundation to help us activate some of the vacant lots in our community with low-cost materials. That grant was for Tired-a-Lot, a studio to engage youth in the design process.
One of those vacant lot activations is “The Yard,” which was initially conceived by an 11-year-old camper in our program. I walked the campers through the design process that drives inspiration, ideation, implementation and investigation. Then they would come up with a concept and build a full-scale working prototype of that concept.
What our 11-year-old camper and her team realized was that while there were spaces in the neighborhood for older people, teenagers and younger people, there was no intergenerational space where everybody could come together. They wanted to design an intergenerational space. That was the challenge she identified. And, frankly, I hadn't even recognized the need.
The Enter. Connect. project built upon the idea of making the Mount Vernon Park neighborhood a more walkable, safe and welcoming community for people of all ages. First, by installing improvements — including banners, flowers and porch swings — in neighborhood public spaces that celebrate the diversity, history and culture of our community. Second, by hosting intergenerational story-telling events.
AARP: What are some of the other needs you see being important to residents of Mount Vernon Park? Have they changed over time?
Bradley: When I first moved here, Bridge of Grace's last listening tour had been done in 2007. So, the first thing I did in 2015 was launch a community listening tour. I was planning to redo that listening tour in 2020 — the five-year anniversary of my first listening tour with the community. But in the midst of a pandemic, we didn't feel it was appropriate to go door to door asking people what they think about their community.
Our initial study revealed that our neighbors wanted more beauty within the community. They wanted to feel like there was more of a sense of pride in ownership. They mentioned wanting more spaces to get to know one another. And they were concerned about neighborhood crime.
We’ve addressed a lot of that over the past five years. We have rolled up our sleeves to pray, clean, pull weeds, tutor and testify at public hearings and build parks. Overgrown lots are being maintained. Once-blighted and vacant homes are being restored and occupied. According to the FBI’s uniform crime statistics, the crime rate in the Mount Vernon Park neighborhood has fallen 33 percent since 2013! With that achievement — plus the addition of the Enter. Connect. banners AARP sponsored — community pride is literally on display in our neighborhood!
AARP: In late 2019, the city of Fort Wayne enrolled in the AARP Network of Age-Friendly States and Communities. The city now has an age-friendly advisory committee. What’s currently livable and age-friendly about Fort Wayne? What still needs to be done?
Bradley: The age-friendly advisory committee means the city can get a wider range of community voices to the table and intentionally integrate those voices and thoughts and concerns into our city's planning structure.
I think the same is necessary for youth. That’s why we have things like youth councils. I made sure I took the Tired-a-Lot kids with me to zoning appeals hearings. I was happy to see that the kids actually enjoyed being part of the civic process.
It’s important to create more space for people of all stripes to have a voice. We have to remove the “silos.” Right now, where you see elders, you don’t see a lot of young people. Where you see young people, you don’t typically see elders. Bringing people together — to gain perspective and insight from one another — is massive.
Réna Bradley was interviewed in December 2020 by Fredrick McKissack, a veteran journalist, author of several books for young readers and managing editor of the Fort Wayne Ink Spot, a biweekly newspaper.