Transform Rockford: Empower People for Greater Neighborhoods

In the mission to strategically improve the Rockford region, our neighborhoods are proving to be ground zero for transformation. One project from Transform Rockford is setting out to equip neighbors to be the change they want to see.

You have the power to improve your neighborhood.

Maybe you’re just one individual picking up trash or you’ve joined an association of like-minded neighbors. Maybe you’re part of a church sending a beacon of hope or one business owner bringing in revenue and attention. No act is too small to make a difference.

In Transform Rockford’s effort to strategically improve the Rockford region, our neighborhoods are ground zero for positive change, and determined neighbors are making things happen in every corner of the community. It all starts at home.

Cira Richardson, director of Transform Rockford’s Great Neighborhoods project, has spent the past two years connecting people across Winnebago and Boone counties. As she meets with neighborhood associations and enthusiastic residents, her work is drawing people together in surprising ways – especially through the group’s quarterly neighborhood summits.

At first, she saw just neighborhood association leaders showing up to these quarterly events. Then, she saw people who weren’t connected to an association but wanted to improve their neighborhoods. Now, neighborhood anchors, including churches, nonprofit groups and businesses, are getting in on the action.

“People are like, ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t believe all of these things are happening,’ and there are all of these organizations that are reaching out together,” Richardson says. “They’ll say to each other, ‘What you’re doing pairs perfectly with what I’m doing,’ and they’re making new connections.”

These summits often revolve around the resources available to neighbors. This might include grants from the Community Foundation of Northern Illinois (CFNIL), projects through the City of Rockford, or assistance from Great Neighborhoods related to marketing and special events.

A summit this March included a conversation with CFNIL, community police officers and the City of Rockford’s neighborhood specialist, who highlighted zoning issues, coding issues and public works.

“At the beginning of the year, we drafted up a survey,” Richardson says. “We tried to keep it as short as possible to get feedback from our neighborhoods. I don’t know that it’s ever been done before, and I know Great Neighborhoods hasn’t had an opportunity before now. All of our topics this year are coming straight from the survey responses.”

Most summits happen on a weeknight, but on June 18, Richardson anticipates a Saturday morning summit with neighborhood tours.

“Our idea is to pick some neighborhoods that people don’t often think about,” she says. “We’ll really highlight the assets and point out the history. People don’t realize that the history of the neighborhood has made it what it is today – good, bad and indifferent. We’ll also have people who are willing to speak from the neighborhood’s perspective.”

Additional summits are scheduled for Sept. 21 and Nov. 9, with topics still to be announced.
Before COVID-19, these regular events brought around 80 people, says Richardson. During the height of the pandemic, they drew perhaps 40. Now, events are livestreamed and shared online, an approach that Richardson finds is reaching an even wider crowd.

“We record all of our summits now, and they end up getting hundreds of views,” she says.

While the quarterly summits are drawing plenty of attention, a new series of monthly lunch-and-learns are helping to increase the number of ways neighbors can connect. April’s event brought experts from Severson Dells Nature Center to talk about simple beautification ideas. An event on May 18 includes Nicholas Conservatory & Gardens.

The growing turnout is encouraging, Richardson says, but it’s the next step that matters most. Great Neighborhoods is focused on a unique philosophy: Rather than doing things for neighbors, the group seeks to empower residents.

“It’s where they live, so all of their activities should be the ideas of the neighborhood,” says Richardson. “We don’t want to fall into the trap of being another organization telling the neighborhood what’s good for them. We’re the organization that comes in and asks, ‘What do you want? What do you need?’”

Individual efforts are just as important to Richardson as collective measures, and she’s preparing to acknowledge some of those efforts with the new Great Neighbor Award. Four community servants have been nominated for their efforts to improve the city. Sponsored by MembersAlliance Credit Union, the award comes with a $25 gift card and a certificate acknowledging the difference these neighbors have made. New winners are selected every three months.

“A lot of them are like, ‘I just feel it’s the right thing to do’ – and that’s awesome – but we feel it’s right to find these individuals and say thank you,” says Richardson.

To learn about upcoming events or to nominate a Great Neighbor, visit