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It’s springtime on Lansing’s Eastside, and the neighborhood is booming. Neighbors are awaiting the opening of the outdoor Allen Farmers Market in May. Youth are preparing gardens-in-a-box to deliver to neighbors. Walkers and runners traverse the paths at Hunter Park, now the second most utilized park in Lansing.

The woman behind it all — and so much more — is Executive Director Joan Nelson, one of this year’s Leadership Award honorees. But she’ll be the first to tell you that it isn’t a one-woman operation.

With the help of six other staff members, three AmeriCorps members and over 500 volunteers per year, Nelson has helped build Allen Neighborhood Center (ANC), an organization that promotes neighborhood revitalization and offers activities and resources to improve the health and well-being of Lansing’s Eastside community.

Nelson’s passion for community development and social change began while she was a student at Michigan State University.

“I had an amazing experience in college,” Nelson said. “It was a tumultuous time, and people in the ’60s and ’70s were involved in many different types of activism — anti-war, anti-poverty, civil rights, women’s rights … From then on, I think I was permanently marked to do social change work, and really, that has characterized my life. Although I’ve done different types of work, all involved working to change things for the better.”

After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in multidisciplinary social science, Nelson went right to work at a community organization called Lansing Model Cities, a federally-funded program devoted to addressing urban poverty. Then she returned to school in 1978 to earn her master’s degree in health education and exercise physiology.

Her journey continued with a ten-year stint of operating her own business — a hub for health and movement-related activities like martial arts, yoga, dance, tai chi, meditation and more. She also did consulting and personal safety skills training across the state. She eventually found the Eastside Neighborhood Summit Project, otherwise known as the Eastside Summit, a “healthy communities” initiative launched by Sparrow Health System and Eastside residents in 1996.

“The initiative focused on the engagement of Eastside residents and stakeholders in addressing a range of health-related issues, where health is defined broadly,” Nelson said. “We focused on access to health, food security, affordable housing, youth development and park improvement, among others. It essentially involved addressing the social determinants of health.”

Nelson facilitated the Eastside Summit for a few years until funding was available to take “a neighborhood center without walls” and turn it into a brick and mortar institution. In 1999, Allen Neighborhood Center was born. This year, ANC will celebrate 20 years of operation.

“The organization has grown enormously over the years,” Nelson said. “We had learned the value of working simultaneously in health, food access and housing from our work with the Eastside Summit, so we continued to focus on these issues. We established a health enrollment site and connected people to medical homes, walking programs and exercise classes.”’

Over the years, ANC developed a multitude of programs including The Bread Basket Food Pantry; the year-round Allen Farmers Market, the first market in Michigan to accept EBT/SNAP food assistance; the Hunter Park GardenHouse; incubator kitchens; the Exchange Food Hub, linking mid-Michigan growers to commercial institutions; cooking workshops; youth programs; senior programs; and much more.

Nelson views these programs and the many others ANC offers as a unique and integrative way of effecting change in the community.

“I think the neighborhood arena is really ideal for stimulating social change,” she said. “As communities, we struggle with chronic social issues like nutrition, chronic diseases, poverty and other struggles. Institutional solutions for these challenges usually focus on individuals and individual families. Our job is to ask what the neighborhood piece of the solution is. We can’t do it all, but we can provide a piece of the solution.”

Since many of ANC’s volunteers and staff members live in the neighborhood, they see issues firsthand and gain valuable insight on possible solutions.

“We have a pretty close view of the complexity of these issues and together we are often able to come up with custom-tailored strategies that allow the neighborhood to do its part in improving things,” Nelson said. “Each time we address a new opportunity or new challenge, we start by creating ‘listening opportunities,’ for example, meetings, door-to-door surveys or facilitated conversations at the Market. These opportunities bring neighbors together to assess the issue and come up with neighborhood-driven strategies for responding.”

But Nelson doesn’t think of what she does as giving back. She doesn’t even like that phrase.

“I think we all have a responsibility to build community in whatever way we can,” she said. “For some folks, it may be keeping an eye out for the senior who lives across the street or sharing extra produce from their garden with people on the block. It could be volunteering at the park for a park cleanup. As members of the community, we have an obligation to improve the world around us in whatever way makes sense for us. We get to choose the ways — large or small — that we do that.”

Join us in celebrating Nelson and her fellow honorees at the 23rd Annual Leadership Awards Dinner on May 15 at the Country Club of Lansing. Registration includes a charitable gift to the Olivet Fund, which supports the students of Olivet College. Register today! To learn more about Allen Neighborhood Center, visit www.allenneighborhoodcenter.org.

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