Sharswood: Tia Abdulhadi Shares Insight About Community Leadership

Tia Abdulhadi in an interview over Zoom on Tuesday, Oct. 12, 2021.

Tia Abdulhadi is the community coordinator for the Brewerytown-Sharswood Neighborhood Coalition. Abdulhadi works with the neighborhood revitalization department of Habitat For Humanity, a global nonprofit housing organization. Alongside building homes, Habitat partners with the existing Community Development Center (CDC) to facilitate change in a neighborhood. Sharswood lacked a CDC, therefore Habitat agreed to be the co-convener, which led to incorporating Brewerytown to form Brewerytown-Sharswood Neighborhood Coalition. Abdulhadi explains the reality of a leadership role and how it directly affects the community.

What is the Brewerytown-Sharswood Neighborhood Coalition?

The coalition is a network of all the neighborhood stakeholders. Habitat for Humanity, the Brewerytown-Sharswood Community Civic Association (BSCCA), Philadelphia Housing Authority (PHA), and the Neighborhood Advisory Council (NAC) are always checking in with each other. We just update each other on what we’re doing, what’s going on, how we can work together. It’s supposed to be composed of the partners and the people to create more social cohesion. The point of the coalition is for everyone to be involved in the decision-making.

What do you do for the community?

It’s really hard to help people understand the relationship and what it means. People come to me and say, “What are we doing next,” and I tell them I don’t know, what do you want to do next? The point is the residents and neighbors should be autonomous and say, “We care about this, so let’s do this.” Then I just say OK, let me support you. What kind of resources do you need? I can round up volunteers for you, I can coach you on how to approach your neighbors, or I can help make flyers. Do you need a second hand going around with you door-to-door? I’m there for support, they’re in the driver’s seat. A lot of times it doesn’t look like that, hence why I facilitate the meetings. Sometimes there are things people want but aren’t willing to do, so we fill those holes. It’s not so much Habitat doing community things, we’re really listening to what other people want and trying to make it happen. The overarching issue is people don’t associate with ownership in the coalition because Habitat has picked up a lot of slack. The residents have seen how I facilitated trash cleanups and if they really care about it, they need to sustain it.

How do you get more involvement from residents?

We’re struggling with very indirect subliminal issues. Trying to get people to take ownership is not an easy thing to tackle. It’s personal, it’s mental, it’s a mindset. Habitat has raised thousands of dollars for the coalition over the years. We gave money to Peace Park to build their pavilion and nothing has come out of the ground yet. We’re trying to be there to support financially, but people aren’t seeing the money as their own. I don’t think it can be approached head-on. I think you have to go all around every side of it, up, down, left, right, and underneath. You have to talk to people and see where their head space is and try to help them on a personal friend level. What they’re doing matters, they’re impacting other people, and people care about what they’re doing. You have to encourage and motivate them to do it. The whole thing can’t be forced. Everyone has the option to come to the virtual meetings. Anyone can tell us their opinion. They can get the word out through the mass text message service and get support from the neighbors.

Are there other community leaders besides the coalition?

The block captains do a lot of individual leadership. Sometimes they’re successful, sometimes they’re not. Sometimes it stirs up some drama on the block. A lot of older folks who were block captains for 15-20 years have a hard time passing the baton. There are a lot of mindset and mentality things happening. There are a lot of social things happening before we can even get into changing the structure and the fabric of the neighborhood. It’s individuals with individual problems that I’m realizing I need to spend more time on.

Why is it important to have community organizations and leaders?

I think they’re both different and produce different outcomes. Community organizations are great for extending resources. Organizations focus on asset-based community development. They build on the assets already there, such as gifts, dreams, tools, or skills. Organizations are good at pulling out the leadership in people and having it grow into something else. Leaders who are already doing things on their own without organizational help or institutions are also needed because they can reach people on a level where organizations might be limited. For example, if we get a grant for improving the streetscape and one household needs financial help, we might not have the ability to give out the money directly to the household. In those moments you really need community leaders who can act autonomously and produce the outcome they actually need because they’re not restricted to funds or liability. Although, autonomous leaders who aren’t associated with any organization might lose momentum and be less accountable. I think both are needed and both have their pros and cons.