Mel King Institute fills gap in community

Sandra Larson | 12/13/2011, 3:49 p.m.
Shirronda Almeida, director of the Mel King Institute for Community Building, a training center and information clearinghouse for...
Shirronda Almeida, director of the Mel King Institute for Community Building, a training center and information clearinghouse for community development practitioners. Sandra Larson

“He’s the grandfather of community development,” said Almeida.

She cited not only King’s legislative influence, but also his leadership in the fight for what became the Tent City mixed-income housing development, and his current work with youth at the South End Technology Center he founded.

Seen through King’s eyes, the vision for the new institute grew larger.

“When Mel heard we were thinking of calling it ‘The Training Institute,’ he said ‘Training is something you do with animals,’ ” Almeida said, flashing a grin at the recollection. “He said this should be broader than that, and he was right. This is really about community building — partnerships, connecting, networking, a broader dialogue.”

King does not work for the Institute, but he makes himself available for advice. “We check in with him often,” Almeida said. “We get a lot of great ideas from him.”

A September all-day introductory community and economic development workshop started out with the basics of what CDCs do, and included exercises such as brainstorming on ways to improve a vacant and litter-filled lot. As the day went on, the topics grew more complex — economic development, political organizing and real estate development.

This last topic drew the most questions from the community development newbies. CDCs offer many services to lift a neighborhood — from small business assistance and job training to foreclosure prevention and first-time homebuyer education — but the development of affordable housing and commercial spaces often plays a significant role, both for serving a neighborhood and generating income for the organization.

One of the Institute’s key funding partners is MassHousing, in part because housing education is such a strong interest. The housing finance organization has provided the Institute $225,000 in funding so far. The most recent grant was $75,000 in June.

“Organizations that are stronger will be better borrowing partners for us, more able to put affordable housing deals together,” said Tom Gleason, MassHousing’s executive director. “It only made sense that an institute focused on strengthening the capacity of these organizations would be logical for us. We felt it really lined up with our mission.”

Upcoming workshop topics at the Mel King Institute include smoke-free housing, group facilitation, popular education, and community organizing basics and strategies. Many of the Institute’s courses are offered at a modest cost; some are free.