Great Neighborhoods’ Folded Map: A Novel Approach to Building Community

The new initiative is bringing church congregations on the opposite sides of town together to discuss what sets them apart and how to find common ground.

Members of Our Savior’s Lutheran Church and Mt. Zion Baptist Church, both in Rockford, have been walking each other’s neighborhoods as part of the Folded Map Project through Great Neighborhoods. (Great Neighborhoods photo)

What is it like to live in a neighborhood that’s different from your own? It’s a question we don’t often stop to think about, but it’s one that can have a profound impact on our ability to connect with others.

In the effort to strategically guide the self-improvement of this region, Great Neighborhoods, an initiative that came from Transform Rockford, is using a novel approach to build unity.

Inspired by the Folded Map Project in Chicago, leaders in Great Neighborhoods are bringing together two church congregations to talk about where they live, where they worship, and what life is like in two very different parts of town.

“We’re always looking for creative ways and ideas to connect neighborhoods together and how we can talk about things that may affect some but not all neighborhoods,” says Cira Richardson, director of Great Neighborhoods.

The Folded Map Project began as a way of matching two homes in Chicago with the same address but on opposite sides of the city. Founder Tonika Johnson started by taking a home on one side of town – for example, 6720 S. Ashland Ave. in Englewood – and matching it with the same address on the other side of town (Rogers Park). She located the residents of both homes and had them meet each other. The conversations were eye-opening.

“They started talking about their lived experiences, what it was like to live in this neighborhood,” says Richardson. “They questioned what it was like to live in the neighborhood, what community assets they had there, and people started to notice, ‘Wow, our neighborhoods are very different, and why is that?’”

Rockford doesn’t lend itself to an easy “map twin” of comparable addresses, and as Richardson looked at matching entire neighborhoods, the process appeared daunting. Then, Johnson’s team in Chicago suggested matching institutions like churches.

“We said that’s the way we should go, because churches have local connections in their neighborhood, they would have a lot of influence, and the pastors know people who are attending church from that neighborhood,” says Richardson.

They found two pastors who quickly jumped onboard: Pastor Rob James of Our Savior’s Lutheran Church, on Rural Street, and the Rev. Marvin Hightower Sr. of Mt. Zion Baptist Church, on Avon Street. Since early this year, a select group of volunteers from each congregation has been meeting together. Their assignment is to walk their own streets and those of the other church’s, all while considering things from a resident’s perspective.

In their own neighborhood, volunteers are asked to think about how long they’ve lived there, why they live there, how close they are to their school and shopping, and what sorts of family-friendly assets are nearby. Then, they’re asked to go to the other neighborhood and consider access to stores and banks, the condition of local parks, the presence of city services, and their feelings walking these streets. The idea is to put themselves in the shoes of a resident. “You are not a tourist,” encourages a workbook from the Folded Maps Project.

“Once they’re done, we will do self-reflections together and hear about their experiences,” says Richardson. “The neat thing about this project is that Great Neighborhoods doesn’t define what the outcome is. It’s the volunteers who participate. They decide what they are going to do next.”

What comes next is an open question. It could lead to service projects or block parties. It could result in new friendships or more. At the very least, Richardson expects it to help people break out of their silos and become champions for each other.

“The most important part is the long-term relationships that can be formed because of this,” she says. “The one thing we don’t want, and we made sure the volunteers understood this, is that it isn’t a project to walk one another’s neighborhoods and think, ‘What can I do to fix something?’ Instead, it’s ‘What can we do with you?’”

So far, Rockford is the only Folded Map community that’s brought together churches, and Richardson says the Chicago team is watching the results closely. If things go well, this could bring grant funding to support more matches in Rockford, perhaps through churches, businesses or schools, she adds.

Already, there’s a sense that people are coming together in a special way.

“The pastors have both been really impressed with the process,” says Richardson. “When I thanked the Rev. Hightower for being one of the first churches to sign up, he said not only was the project intriguing, but it was one of the first projects where people are actually acting instead of just talking about issues,” says Richardson. “Rev. Hightower and his church have been a staple in the community, and I know a lot of people turn to him. So, that’s powerful that he felt this project was worth his time.”

To find out more, visit greatneighborhoods.info or contact Cira Richardson at cira@transformrockford.org.