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Mortar and Hope (Petero Sabune '77)

By Ellen Britz Gerber

WHEN CARLA LERMAN '54 closed the deal transferring ownership of a neglected and rundown Newark brownstone to Episcopal Community Development, Inc., a nonprofit group in northern New Jersey of which she is the executive director, she was aware that she'd have to evict the squatters currently residing there. So she and a Spanish-speaking colleague drove to the building, knocked on the wall (the doors had long ago met their demise), and went inside.

Ms. Lerman recalls: "The place was just incredible. There were five men and two women—I think the women were prostitutes—all seemingly high on something. There was no water or electricity. For warmth, they were using the fireplace to burn sheetrock stripped off the walls. I explained the situation and offered to help them find another place to stay. Then they told me that the only reason they were living as they were was the lack of safety in the homeless shelter and their own inability to find work."

Their lament couldn't have fallen on better ears. Ms. Lerman immediately set about piecing together the puzzle whose intended final form includes the the aid of a community squatters' gainful employment, their eventual long term housing, and the provision of drug and social counseling. Will the puzzle ever completely fit together? It's unlikely. But, as Ms. Lerman states, "If we're able to get just one of these people onto a path of rehabilitation, the effort will have been worth it." Thus began phase two of ECD's largest redevelopment effort to date: the St. James Square Project in Newark, New Jersey. Carla Lerman is the force behind Episcopal Community Development, Inc., an organization dedicated to the business of helping residents reclaim communities that have steadfastly withstood efforts at rejuvenation. ECD works to ensure that those unfortunate enough to be living in depressed neighborhoods of northern New Jersey have the chance to improve their own standards of living-through the provision of decent affordable housing, increased employment opportunities, or better health services. If affordable housing is needed, ECD will assist local groups develop that housing by securing the loans, architects, and buildings that will make those homes a reality. When the need is for jobs, ECD will assemble the businesses and training programs that foster job development. ECD is providing good working models for the development of affordable and transitional housing, job creation, and community organization. Oddly enough, Ms. Lerman isn't the only Vassar graduate to show up on ECD's letterhead. The Reverend Petero Sabune '77, dean of Newark's Trinity and St. Philip's Cathedral, joined the organization as a board member soon after its incorporation in 1990. His interest in ECD goes beyond church-sponsored initiatives. "There's such a sense of weariness in the communities, a sense of giving up," Rev. Sabune says, speaking of the challenges that face community redevelopers. "ECD gives us a chance to show people they can make a difference." Although Ms. Lerman and Rev. Sabune are both now steeped in the work of salvaging neighborhoods given over to crime and despair, they arrived at ECD via very different routes. Following graduation from Vassar, each went on to further studies. Ms. Lerman, in 1955, went to the University of Chicago for a master's degree in community planning; Rev. Sabune, in 1977, to the Union Theological Seminary for a master's in divinity. (His ordination as an Episcopal minister followed immediately.)

After receiving her master's, Ms. Lerman joined Candeub, Fleissig and Associates, a firm that specialized in traditional long-range development and planning for targeted cities. She remained with that company for fifteen years, gaining the experience that would enable her to pursue her later goal of community rehabilitation.

Rev. Sabune, on the other hand, was very much a product of the turbulent 1960s and '70s. Once ordained, he went directly to Grace Church in White Plains, New York, where he immersed himself in a shelter for area homeless. It was through this work that Rev. Sabune's later interests crystallized. As he recently noted, "It dawned on me that by the time these individuals got to the shelter, the community had already failed. These people had fallen through the cracks of society, and until those cracks were repaired, there was little we could do to help them."

Eventually, Ms. Lerman was to reach the same conclusion. After fifteen years in private practice, she left the firm of Candeub, Fleissig and joined a government agency whose purpose was to rehabilitate deteriorated housing of low-income people. "It was very people oriented and hands on," she recalls. Ms. Lerman had found her calling.

Her career quickly progressed. From directing local housing rehabilitation she moved on to directing the construction of local low-cost housing. "I began to actually build homes for the handicapped, elderly, and low-income families. And, because of the type of funding involved, we had extra monies that we could use to fund other types of community development." She used her position to channel the agency's efforts so that it became the resident-sensitive agency she envisioned: "We met with tenants, conducted resident surveys, sent the building managers to relevant seminars—while concurrently developing innovative solutions to the housing problems of the hidden poor in affluent suburbs."

In 1987, Ms. Lerman took on responsibility for directing statewide affordable housing initiatives when she became assistant director of housing programs within the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs. It was while she was in this position that Ms. Lerman gained familiarity with community development organizations—local inner-city groups attempting to salvage their own homes and neighborhoods. When the directorship of ECD was offered in 1991, it was, she says, nothing less than a dream come true, a chance for Ms. Lerman to wed her professional experience and personal goals into one dedicated agency.

Rev. Sabune's interest in community reclamation really became focused when he moved to a Jersey City parish in the mid-1980s. He and his family were greeted by the sight of a neighboring building given over to drugs and crime. "It was a shooting gallery," he recalled recently. "Right across the street from where my kids were going to live. I wasn't about to let my children grow up in that environment. So, with a lot of church guidance, I began to round up banks, council members and church leaders—even the mayor to reclaim this one building. It was an enormous effort, but we were successful and now instead of drugs and guns, there are responsible people of low income occupying twenty-eight units of affordable housing."

The lesson that larger problems can be tackled through smaller, focused initiatives is one that Rev. Sabune says Vassar helped teach him. He came to the college from Uganda, a refugee who had lost several family members to the violent political dominance of dictator Idi Amin. At Vassar, where he majored in political science, he looked to his professors and peers for emotional and moral support. He found it, and in the process discovered the rewards inherent in redirecting his energies away from the futility of change in distant Uganda to the promise of change in his new home of Poughkeepsie. Through his weekly tutoring of inner-city students at the Urban Center near the Vassar campus, Rev. Sabune learned the value of working on smaller projects closer to home.

When Ms. Lerman was asked to describe her Vassar experience in relation to her twenty-five-year-long campaign for improving depressed neighborhoods, her answer was more cautious. Yes, she was influenced by her undergraduate studies in sociology, which had included time spent with the area's inner-city residents. And, yes, many of her current philosophical approaches were first articulated by professors who had hailed from the progressive era of the Roosevelt administration. But only when she recalled a course on community planning did she begin to recognize the seminal worth of her undergraduate years.

"Community planning at that time was a fairly new discipline and generally found in architectural schools," she says. "It involved issues of brick and mortar and architectural aesthetics. At Vassar, community planning was offered under the auspices of the sociology department, a pretty radical approach when you consider the time period. I guess that was my first acquaintance with the field that later dominated my career."

According to both Ms. Lerman and Rev. Sabune, ECD's only obstacle to achieving its goals is the constant battle for financial support. "Investors are sometimes a little wary of the new emphasis on private/public/nonprofit partnerships in community development," explains Ms. Lerman. "So, while we're busy wooing the developers, community leaders, and residents needed to bring the bricks, mortar, and social services to a neighborhood, we're also working to build investor confidence. It's an uphill battle, but I believe ECD offers some of the best ways to make communities really work for the people who live in them."

The energy and dedication needed to fight these battles require something beyond professional commitment. Perhaps Rev. Sabune has said it best: "Reclaiming communities is my passion. It is what I have been called to do."