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 / Spring 2008 / Issue 50(originally published by Booz & Company)


Convenors of Capability

A community center founded in Hurricane Katrina’s wake shows how megacommunity efforts can bring people the help they need to rebuild.

“A one-stop shop.” That's how Michael Grote refers to the Hope Community Center in Biloxi, Mississippi. Grote is the program manager for Architecture for Humanity, one of the key organizations working out of or with the center. The neighborhood known as East Biloxi was hit hard by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 when it came ahsore on the Gulf Coast.

A two-square-mile section of Biloxi bordered on three sides by water, it was, before the hurricane, a relatively low-income area (40 percent of the people there had annual incomes below US$15,000) with a long history of commercial fishing. Its 8,500 residents were largely African-American and Vietnamese. After Katrina’s devastation, redevelopment moved quickly in the rest of Biloxi — with casinos and condos even more prevalent than they were before the storm — but the city has been slow to reestablish affordable housing in East Biloxi. And yet there is a compelling and widely recognized need in this neighborhood, not only for housing but for a renewed sense of community, and for renewed dignity.

Photographs by Alan Richardson

The rebuilding of East Biloxi is the kind of problem that presents too much complexity for the government sector, the business sector, or civil society to tackle alone. It calls for an entirely different approach. The solution to such problems may well lie in designing and implementing new types of in-depth collaboration among related organizations in all three sectors, or what we call a “megacommunity.” Leaders in a megacommunity cannot hope to control the situation unilaterally; they must learn how to work together.

The Hope Community Center represents an example of this collaborative approach. It is not a stand-alone philanthropic outfit. It is a focal point for all the various organizations — charities, businesses, governments (local, regional, and federal) — that were offering help in the form of funds or knowledge or labor but that did not always know exactly where or how to plug in. Michael Grote’s “one-stop shop” characterization refers to the fact that when people from East Biloxi enter the doors of the Hope Community Center needing to rebuild their homes, they find a battery of consultants, caseworkers, architects, contractors, financial advisors, and construction workers who can help them, and who have all been systematically learning to work together toward a common goal.

Hence our interest in this story. We have been part of a team developing a book called Megacommunities: How Leaders of Government, Business and Non-Profits Can Tackle Today’s Global Challenges Together, by Mark Gerencser, Reginald Van Lee, Fernando Napolitano, and Christopher Kelly (Palgrave, 2008). When we learned about this megacommunity-style practice at work in East Biloxi, we set out to document the efforts, working with photographer Alan Richardson, who had grown up in Biloxi.

Above/Below: Michael Grote, program manager of Architecture for Humanity, in front of the project board, the heart of the center’s design area. Each new home project is tracked in terms of volunteer group assignments, permit and construction status, and funding.

Above: The center’s waiting area.

Above: In the center’s meeting rooms, designers and case managers work out blueprint and funding details with clients.

Above: Executive Director Bill Stallworth attends a Biloxi council meeting and then returns to the center to review construction plans with a GCCDS staffer.

The Hope Center brings together a variety of organizations with different capabilities, forms of authority, and access to expertise. They include, for example, the Gulf Coast Community Design Studio (GCCDS), a not-for-profit organization housed in the center; representatives of the local government; and liaisons with local businesses. Employees based at the center locate grant money to rebuild housing, work with residents to design new homes according to their needs, and coordinate with a variety of volunteer organizations to build those homes. Because the Hope Center has connections to the Biloxi city government, it can help with local building variances and it can clear complex FEMA-related hurdles. For example, it can help people understand the new specifications for “base-flood elevations” that establish how high off the ground a new house must be for protection from flooding. The center employs local contractors (and in the process improves their skills for building storm-resistant housing) and works with retailers such as Home Depot and Lowe’s on programs through which they provide materials in exchange for vouchers. In certain cases, the center asks businesses such as Kohler to donate materials and fixtures.

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  1. Mark Gerencser, Reginald Van Lee, Fernando Napolitano, and Christopher Kelly, Megacommunities: How Leaders of Government, Business and Non-Profits Can Tackle Today’s Global Challenges Together (Palgrave, 2008): Introduction and in-depth guide to the megacommunity phenomenon.
  2. William Henderson, “Oral History with Mr. William F. Stallworth,” Center for Oral History and Cultural Heritage of the University of Southern Mississippi, F341.5.M57, vol. 747, pt. 2, (introduction and transcript): Life story of a megacommunity leader, recorded in 1999.
  3. Douglas Himberger, David Sulek, and Stephen Krill Jr., “When There Is No Cavalry,” s+b, Autumn 2007: Explains that disaster preparedness can be rehearsed, if there is a megacommunity approach in place.
  4. Jim Lewis, “Battle for Biloxi,” New York Times Magazine, May 21, 2006: A report on East Biloxi in the midst of recovery.
  5. Kate Stohr and Cameron Sinclair, “Rebuilding an American City: A Case Study of Biloxi, MS ,” MP3 audio file: Presentation by the Architecture for Humanity cofounders at the 2007 Aspen Institute Ideas Festival. Also see the Web site.
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