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Commentary By Mike Anft

'Friendship Houses' Build Stronger Community Ties in Shreveport, La.

Culture Civil Society

Editor’s note: Sharpel Welch is a 2019 Civil Society Fellow at the Manhattan Institute. This article was republished with permission from The Chronicle of Philanthropy.

Community Renewal International works to connect residents to improve life in blighted neighborhoods. The group has helped reduce crime rates, but attracting money to expand is a struggle.

To support her family, Kierston Christopher works two jobs, one as a cosmetologist and another as a school-bus driver. But she still needs help from neighbors to ensure that her seven children — four of her own and a nephew and two nieces who have been orphaned — are well cared for.

To keep them safe in their Allendale neighborhood, in the "Bottoms" section of Shreveport, La., Christopher sends them across the street to a house where they spend their afternoons after school. There they get healthy food, help with homework, and learn skills like tying their shoes and counting money. The couple that runs the place, Sharpel and Emmitt Welch, even pick up Christopher’s kids after band practice or games when she can’t.

"Because I work so much, I get in a bind quite often, and they help me out all the time," says Christopher. "They are really good people. My younger niece can even visit them on Saturdays for help with math."

Along with hundreds of her neighbors in Allendale, a working-class African American neighborhood long plagued by drugs, crime, and other urban ills, Christopher has come to rely on the Welches and the "friendship house" where they live and operate.

As community coordinators for Community Renewal International, an organization formed 25 years ago in several downtrodden Shreveport areas, the Welches do more than run an after-care center. They work to fulfill the organization’s primary mission: to connect neighbors in the hope that they will come to care for one another enough to collectively fix the social problems that have threatened their neighborhoods.

Community Renewal has built or converted existing structures into 10 friendship houses in the Shreveport-Bossier City region, making sure they match the aesthetics of homes already in those areas. Each friendship house serves a 30- to 40-block radius.

"It takes a village to raise children, and the village meets right here in our home," says Emmitt Welch, a retired aircraft mechanic who used to run youth-focused nonprofits in Houston. He and Sharpel, a Shreveport native and Army vet, run the group’s outreach for middle- and high-schoolers; a partner in an adjoining house does the same for younger children. "Kids come here when it’s late and their folks haven’t come home yet or their mothers have kicked them out or when there’s been some other disruption in the family."

Regular truants and school underachievers have come to the friendship house and left years later for college, he adds. "Kids are the focus of our work. These are kids who have no standards set in their homes. We provide them with that structure, and they go on to become ambassadors of what we do."

Community Renewal has services for parents, too. In a neighborhood where people too often become trapped in addiction, poverty, and unemployment, its GED and job-training classes offer a way out.

Allendale now has the second-lowest crime rate among Shreveport neighborhoods. Community Renewal leaders take some credit for a 62 percent plummet in local crime in the past two decades, since its work there began to expand and take hold.

Seeing Yourself in Others

The Welches see Community Renewal’s work as a complement to — not a replacement for — the aid government gives to the poor. The first step toward making real and sustainable change involves getting people to see a bit of themselves in the people around them — something government programs don’t try to do.

Once people are linked and relating to one another, the organization gets them working together toward change. Community Renewal’s work played a major role in forming a group called Allendale Strong, which led a fight against a freeway that would have run through town. What’s more, the organization was key in getting residents to pay $100 each to buy a local grocery store that had closed. They turned it into a neighborhood grocery co-op that doesn’t sell alcohol or tobacco.

"Everybody cares about something," says Sharpel Welch, whose work with the organization helped win her a civil-society fellowship at the Manhattan Institute earlier this year. "But caring about things as an individual doesn’t do us much good. If we can find things we care about in common, then we can make a difference."

Most antipoverty programs don’t work as well as they need to because the neighborhoods lack the healthy connections people need to thrive, adds Mack McCarter, the organization’s founder. To strengthen his own connection to his hometown, he began taking strolls along streets in shaky parts of Shreveport just as the 1990s crack epidemic was wrecking households and making streets unsafe.

The onetime pastor says his interest in strengthening ties among people in troubled neighborhoods came not from religion but from the humanities — and specifically from the English historian Arnold Toynbee.

"His idea was that the history of humanity is a history of relationships," says McCarter. "The human race has never grown a society that has survived and gotten better and better. It’s not that societies are murdered; they commit suicide." Societies implode, Toynbee argued, when people stop relating to each other.

The friendship-house concept hearkens back to the days of settlement houses — outposts created around the turn of the 20th century that placed successful people in homes in poorer neighborhoods to help people overcome poverty or adapt to a new country.

McCarter’s philosophy also carries echoes of sociologist Robert Putnam’s 2000 book Bowling Alone, which posited that a loss of social capital in communities was making people less happy and less caring about others.

Boiled down, McCarter’s big idea is that if you want to change the world, start by changing your relationship with your neighbor. Local prosperity will follow.

"People can be texting someone half a world away while not even knowing the person who is living or dying four houses down," says McCarter. "We have to rebuild our relationships so we know the people around us."

Global Expansion

Despite its small-scale approach, Community Renewal has expanded to nine other cities in recent years, as well as to villages in Cameroon. "The idea was to grow a model in Shreveport and then let people come and see it in action," McCarter says. "The people from Cameroon say, ‘I can’t believe we had to come to Shreveport to learn about the village.’ We have proof of concept. Once we’re in a city, it’s over — we make change happen."

Still, only two of those nine sites have been fully implemented. Though interest in getting them started has been considerable, money remains the group’s major concern. Its $2.8 million annual budget isn’t enough to cover its costs. McCarter says he is 12 years behind on his salary, while the Welches routinely pour their own cash into the friendship house to buy food and supplies, as well as help neighbors who need assistance.

Money Woes

Several foundations have shown an interest in the organization. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation helped Community Renewal get started, the Avedis Foundation spurred its expansion to Shawnee, Okla., and a handful of family foundations and individual donors have kept it afloat. Still, it has struggled to increase its fundraising.

"It’s been a tough deal," says McCarter. "The only thing holding us back is money. We work to restore the relational underpinnings of a society so it can heal. That’s about as exciting to foundation people as watching paint dry."

Most grant makers don’t understand Community Renewal’s work, he says: "They look to solve things at the molecular level. But the need is too overwhelming for that. You can have a filthy swimming pool with a filter that scrubs certain molecules, but you’ll still have a dirty pool. My point is that society needs to get fixed — it’s not how many houses you can build."

Often, grant makers look at the friendship-house model, the money woes, and the slow pace of expanding and hedge their bets.

"They tell me, ‘You’re not sustainable,’ " he says. "I tell them they’re doing the equivalent of killing the Revolutionary Army. We talk about the rights of every human being — love, friendship — and we’re seen as antiestablishment because of it. For us to be sustainable in the way they want, we’d have to quit. And we ain’t quittin’."

View this article on The Chronicle of Philanthropy website here.


Sharpel Welch is a 2019 Civil Society Fellow at the Manhattan Institute. An Army veteran and educator, Welch is a youth community coordinator at Community Renewal International, a faith-based nonprofit that brings together caring partners to restore the foundation of safe and caring communities. 

This piece originally appeared in The Chronicle of Philanthropy