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Southwest Community Center Director Reaches Out to Community

Sharon Owens succeeded Jesse Dowdell in May

A new coat of paint was only the surface indication of the rebranding at the Southwest Community Center being forged by the agency’s new executive director. Distribution of an annual report, and the announcement that it was the first such document produced by the center since its founding in 1975, made clear that business there would be conducted in a very different manner.

After growing up in Geneva and graduating from Syracuse University in 1985, Owens—who succeeded Jesse Dowdell in May—went to work in youth programming at the Dunbar Center. Three years later, she became teen center coordinator at Southwest.

“It felt like I had come full circle,” she says of her new position. “Intelligent Young Minds, established back then, is still a program at the center. Some of the adults I run into now came through that program.”

She also runs into mothers she counseled at Early Head Start, where she did administrative work, as well. Told Walt Dixie needed a consultant at Jubilee Homes, after six months she settled in as deputy director. In 2010, when Mayor Stephanie Miner began forming a new administration, someone—Owens still doesn’t know who—recommended her for deputy commissioner of the newly formed Department of Neighborhood and Business Development. Miner appointed her to the Southwest board of directors.

“Jesse started talking about retirement about two years ago,” Owens recalls. “Of course, nobody believed him. He had been here so long. The job was posted in January of this year. I knew it would be a good fit for me. Through my career I had amassed a global approach to community service. At the city {Miner’s administration}, it was the icing on the cake, because I was able to develop relations citywide and understand government processes.”

Her first priority is an assessment of the role of the center in the immediate neighborhood and the larger community it serves.

When Jesse Dowdell first took the job, he closed the center for an extensive cleanup.

What’s the first thing you did?

The first thing I did was come in here May 1, put my bag down, and started a series of 12-hour days to see all the components of the agency, the traffic flow here, how things run, the relation between programs here and agencies that run them like and Parks and Rec and Onondaga County Library. My commitment to the board was a 100-day assessment: Where we are, what we need to change and what’s working.

Is there any expansion contemplated in that assessment?

It is a community center for multifaceted purposes. My vision—coming from a very different career road, community service—now needs to incorporate the business aspect, as well. We’re gearing up to go to a fast-track summer program, closing the doors for youth programming so we can prepare the staff and orient parents.

You started working with youth here almost three decades ago. How are they different now?

My generation was told it was the worst generation the previous generation had ever seen. Every generation deals with a different dynamic in this society. There’s more violence now, more guns, stronger and more abundant drugs available. So we have to create new approaches, but I think some old-school things still work. If a young person feels protected and cared about, and you build the trust factor, that will always work, like what you do at the Media Unit {writer Walt Shepperd is the executive director of the teen program}, and what Rufus Morris does at the School of the Arts.

Adults sometimes say all the kids want to do is rap and sing and dance. Well, if that’s what they want to do, how do we take that and use it to teach social skills and learning principles? Let’s use what they like to engage as mental health tools. How do you express how you’re feeling? How do you express what’s in your mind without feeling like you’re being psychoanalyzed? For young people, poetry is an amazing way for doing that.

Can the Southwest Community Center work with the gangs?

I have to do it with partners. I have to do it with programs like Truce. Obviously, I have to do it with {Police Chief Frank Fowler}, and I’ve met with the chief. I have to do it by being accountable ourselves for programming here. You have to give out excellence to expect excellence. I can’t do it in isolation. One thing that is my mantra is, we are the experts when it comes to our population and our community. But we are not the experts for every service that we need. So I’ve got to develop those partnerships. In the 1980s, I remember the building being chuck-full of agencies: Huntington, Bishop Foery, PEACE Inc. I want to recapture that.

Whatever happened to the emphasis on AIDS?

We still have the FACES program, but it has taken a financial hit because the funding came from the state. As the state has retrenched and prioritized its funding, we’re still here, we’re still engaged in the community for AIDS. The other thing about the agency is I’m embarking on a rebranding of the organization, the Syracuse Model Neighborhood Facility. We’ve got a $4 million budget, and probably 60 percent of that is the family planning program. We’ve taken severe hits over the last three years. A lot of state money went away. A large majority of our funding was state funding.

I want to begin to emphasize the amazing reproductive health component of the agency, and support it and get that information out. That program operates three clinics, two in the city and one in North Syracuse. The other major aspect of this organization is this facility. I’m beginning to use new language, change of language, change of mind, change of expectations. Really referring to Southwest Community Center as Southwest Community Center campus. The campus. What is a campus? A campus is a community, where you learn, live, work and play.

So what’s the epicenter? What’s going on inside the walls of this building? The outer ring? What’s going on in the footprint of this building? Then bringing in the even larger outer ring of the community surrounding the building, really encompassing the influence of the neighborhood on the center and the influence of the center on the neighborhood.

With such severe funding cuts, and such increasing competition, do you reach a point where traditional foundations and state and county funds are no longer available?

We have to go to private industry. The good-hearted nature of everyday folks who would like to contribute is limited as they are just trying to make it. Looking to my board, bringing on people who can do long-range strategic planning and identify funding sources that are not so dependent on public funds. We have to. The word collaboration has gotten watered down in recent years, but we’re looking at some strategic alliances so that we can survive.

What did Jesse Dowdell leave you with that you are really pleased with?

I’m real pleased with staff here who are really committed. What Jesse has left here is a camaraderie with the community. One of the first things I did was draft a letter for people who live, work or play in the vicinity of this building, saying who I am. I’m looking to be a good neighbor to you, how can you contribute? We’re looking for volunteers, people who have ideas, people who have resources: monetary, in-kind, equipment, supplies.

What connection do you see for Southwest Community Center with the larger Syracuse community?

You have to combat perception.

When I met with the staff I said, “We are combating perception.” When there are 10 young people outside in front of this building, not doing anything other than normal teen stuff, it’s the perception of anyone coming up or down the street. Part of that perception is real. A priority of mine is assuring people that they are safe here.

Reprinted with permission from the Syracuse New Times. Walt Shepperd was named Writer of the Year three times by the New York Press Association.

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