Eugene Desyatnik is the president of the Bella Vista Neighbors Association. Desyatnik, a naturalized citizen hailing from the former Soviet Union, has lived in Center City for more than 12 years, recently moving to Bella Vista with his wife and children. The BVNA, a nonprofit organization, helps facilitate various city services to a very diverse community of people, including various immigrant populations. However, engagement with Bella Vista’s various immigrant populations remains minimal, with no clear-cut solution to increasing awareness of BVNA and available civic engagement opportunities among these groups of people.
Why did you decide to run for president of the BVNA?
I took an interest in the group even before I moved down into the neighborhood. I was interested in the spirit of the way things were run, which is actually part of the reason I was attracted to the neighborhood. It was a very egalitarian group of people with an approach to help everybody. I’ve always been somewhat engaged in the community, especially since having kids. It felt like I had a responsibility to do that. I come from a couple of civic roles before this, not nearly this visible. When the position opened up, there were a lot of people that left altogether and retired. The opportunity presented itself sooner than I thought it would, so I consulted with the family and they said, “Sure!”
What are some of the major impacts your association has on the neighborhood?
There’s a lot of things that go on behind the scenes that people don’t realize. There are a lot of beautification efforts that we have. We have a vendor that sweeps the streets every other week, in the major streets, the numbered streets, the cross streets. These efforts are fundraised entirely through neighbor contributions. We have no revenue stream, we don’t charge dues, we don’t have assets, everything we spend we have to rely on the generosity of neighbors for. Or we have volunteers, as we have lots of volunteer efforts. We have spring and fall cleanings, we distribute recycling bins, we retrofit the bins with the lids so they don’t fly away so we don’t have as much trash to clean up.
We don’t have a physical office, we don’t rent; some associations have offices in Queen Village. We just have gatherings, and these gatherings are our chance to tell people what they can do to obtain certain services, answer questions about everything from property taxes to potholes to roads being torn up.
We have a strong crime prevention effort. It’s not to say that we support the police but we partner with the police, we partner with our elected officials, we partner with outreach groups, and all of that is to properly triage the questions that people might have. And to reduce the opportunity for crime to occur, get people the help they need and at the same time, just point people in the right direction.
We deal with construction advice and handle zoning for the city. We don’t have any final overriding decision over zoning decisions. What we do have the power to do is get meetings organized to discuss zoning decisions.
Now that we have a model for these kinds of meetings, there’s other situations that arise that we have meetings over as well. If there’s a controversial topic in the neighborhood, we might be the people that are contacted. If people are seeing a project not being done correctly, they’re seeing glass on the streets, trash being left out, etc. We’re not enforcement, we will direct them to the best of our abilities as we’re not professional, but we guide them the best we can.
We handle transportation, accessibility and walkability. There is s about five or six committees. We have a social committee as well, they like to create events to get neighbors together. We have happy hours, which are a good thing. We’re not physically improving some particular project, but it’s a way to get people together and then they might get involved and move to start tackling an issue in the neighborhood. There’s steps to it.
In what ways does the association interact with Bella Vista’s immigrant communities, and how do you think the association could improve upon those efforts?
We don’t tailor our interactions, but we do have a couple board members that are fluent in Chinese and Spanish. If a situation arises, we have a way to translate. We’ve actually used sign language interpretation as well. We’re not out as much as we’d like to be and part of the reason is that there’s not as much of an awareness. When people first establish residency, they’re focused on setting themselves up, getting their life going, getting a place to stay, finding work. There are organizations that help with that.
But what these communities don’t realize is that while they’re doing these things, there’s an opportunity for them to connect with a lot of city services that we help coordinate and are a conduit for providing that could complement the benefits that they’re receiving from these other organizations. We’d like to serve them more and they need the guidance more than someone who’s lived here for 30 years and has the access to the right officials.
Part of the way that we’d like to approach it is to meet with a few key influencers in those communities because we know it takes a couple of the right people to spread the word. That’s what we’re hoping to try and get to next. We’ve tried traditional approaches with variable success. Some people don’t want to be so visible but they realize we’re a safe space, we don’t check IDs, we’re open to all. Anybody who lives here is automatically a member of the association.
What are some of the services that immigrants don’t realize they have access to?
A lot of the services that I mentioned earlier. They’re being taken advantage of, in a way that they don’t realize, because of lack of awareness of certain laws and things that they’re entitled to. If they have an safety issue, or a landlord-tenant issue… we don’t intervene directly, but we can at least point them in the right direction. They may not know that they can call people out on certain things if they’re having an issue.
We also have quality of life issues. We don’t do work placement but at the same time, if they’re engaging with us, they can list experience with the association for volunteer experience. They can get to know a wide range of professionals in different fields that are in the association that are established. Every once in a while someone will have a lead about some sort of opportunity.
A lot of things happen when someone’s there and they put in the work and they’re talking and explain, “I’ve got this issue I’m trying to solve.” It could be a legal issue, and we have some attorneys that could point them in the right direction of pro bono services that they might be aware of. Whether you’re not getting paid on time or there are landlord-tenant issues, these people may not know their rights. They don’t know the rules. They assume that this is the way that things are and that this is all you get, and that’s how it’s supposed to be. When that happens, you walk away from a situation where you could’ve had more leverage. People with access may know the right people to call and get immediate results but if you’re new to the area, you don’t know the rules, you don’t know the people.
You mentioned some immigrants may not even be aware of the association or that they can attend meetings and even join the association, regardless of their immigration status. What are some ways to go about helping immigrant communities become more aware that they can participate in their own community’s civic engagement?
It’s a lot of knowing what the really active organizations are. We have a general awareness of a couple of them that help with resettlement like SEAMAAC and Juntos. I know they work with people in trying to get established.
There’s also business leaders that a lot of these small family-owned businesses can serve as conduits or gatherings places, and people can look to them. They have worked with the city to follow the rules and open up their own shops; they’ve been around a little longer. Getting them to post something in their shop, in language that both literally and figuratively resonates with people makes sense. Not just translation but a message of why you should care. That’s one approach. With a lot of these businesses, it can be difficult to know where to start, but that’s what I envision.
Tabling as well. I’ve gone to a couple events and cultural events that specialize in certain topics like cuisine, music, etc. These events bring out a lot of people from the community into one place, so we’ll set up a table and be there. We’ve tabled a couple of places. You have to recruit people to table and the tables usually cost money, but that’s a way to reach people.
When people move in, there’s a way to reach them sometimes by fliering. Our newspaper comes out a couple times a year. The email comes out every week, but the print newspaper reaches those people that you don’t normally reach. It’s our newspaper about the neighborhood’s history and our events and it’s in English, but often to them it’s just another flier. Furthermore, some of them are in locations that we haven’t been able to reach physically. They may be in informal housing arrangements which we may not know about. Many neighborhoods have some amount of these and we just aren’t fully aware of them. Also with triplexes, we might flier all three of them but one first person might take them and toss them away and then we might not reach those people. A hand-to-hand interaction is what you want but you need somebody to broker that interaction. I feel like this is one of the missing links that currently exists. Getting somebody that can be an introducer, somebody to put you in touch.
How can or should these people go about getting involved and participating with the association and civic engagement in general?
The Welcoming Pennsylvanian’s article says that civic engagement is a key criteria to success. There’s many civic engagement opportunities, we’re not the only one around. There’s local church groups, faith-based groups, there’s a lot of opportunities. If they want to connect with us, the mailing list is the best way to get information from us on a weekly basis, if they have access to a computer or a smartphone. Also social media, all of our social media is @bvneighbors. You can subscribe to the mailing list at bellavistaneighbors.org.
From there, just keep an eye out for the dates and come out to one of the meetings. They’re usually on a set schedule, but with the holidays things get pushed out by a week. It’s better to be on the list to know when things are. That’s the next step, just look out for the dates, show up, participate. You can just sit back and listen. A lot of the times it’s an opportunity to learn about city services.
One of our core missions is to connect neighbors with city services, agencies, elected officials, programs that they can receive. If they need a discount on their heating bill, we’ve had people from the Philadelphia Water Department come in. Gas, electric, the Department of Revenue, relief programs, how you can get a break on your utility bill, on your property taxes, how to file for a Homestead Exemption if they happen to be at that stage in their life. We tried to mix the topics up and keep things fresh so that in a couple of years you can hear from all different agencies. Another example: we’ve had somebody from the fire department come down and explain how people can get free smoke detectors. They’ll come out and install them in your house.
One of the critical components in all of this is that you can receive many of these services regardless of your documentation.
Absolutely. When they’re coming in to install a fire alarm, they’re not going to check. Even safety issues. If you’re concerned about something, we have ways that you can submit things anonymously. There’s a lot of things people may not be aware of. Our own organization, I myself happen to be an immigrant. I’ve been naturalized. I’m a citizen at this point, but I was not born here and English is my second language. Even if I was not naturalized, you may not be able to vote in general elections but you can come and run and become an officer in our organization. You can have a lot of influence in what goes on in the neighborhood.
-Text and photo by Dylan Long.