Q&R: David Sidney, Transform Rockford
by Jim Killam In 2013, Forbes magazine listed Rockford as one of the most miserable communities in the United States. It was the latest in a decades-long series of slams […]
Jim Killam
February 3, 2021
by Jim Killam

In 2013, Forbes magazine listed Rockford as one of the most miserable communities in the United States. It was the latest in a decades-long series of slams by various national media.

Transform Rockford exists to change those perceptions, and to help our region become a Top 25 Community by 2025. By that, they mean as compared to other regions with 100,000 to 500,000 residents.

We spoke recently with David Sidney, executive director of Transform Rockford, about the spiritual components of this effort.

I know you balance being a Christian believer and working in the civic space. What role do you think faith-based groups, including churches and individuals, can play in the vision of Transform Rockford?

I think the common word would be transformation. Of course, that’s a very significant word in our world as Jesus followers. When you look at the community plan, it is way more than physical improvements. It’s looking at people thriving. The physical, social and economic conditions. Core to that is, are people thriving here? And would new residents and new businesses thrive here? And if they’re not, what are those barriers and challenges? How do we align around a common vision and a set of strategies to improve those outcomes?

The faith community is a very important stakeholder. Absent the faith community, things will get done, but it’s very hard. Because the faith community is able to bring a different lens to transformation, and really engage in the hard work.

Can you give an example or two?

When we talk about caring for the most vulnerable in our community, that can take on many different forms. What I like to challenge faith communities on is, not to segment that. For example, if we know that 30 percent of violent crime is caused by domestic violence, and beyond that it is affecting the safety, perception and reality, there’s a whole lot that it’s impacting, then I would say that is a most vulnerable population.

If we know that not all of our students are attaining third-grade reading at third grade … that’s not only social and emotional development, but the condition of the neighborhoods where they are living. What does the family income look like?

All of these different factors affecting growth tie into those metrics that we might see reported out. And we would see that and say, ‘Our kids can’t read.’ Well, no, that’s not true. What are the conditions that are causing a significant amount of our population not to be able to attain third-grade reading or graduate from high school? So that’s where the Ready to Learn initiative, or Career Pathways, are part of helping people thrive.

So when I engage with faith communities and organizations, I like to challenge them to be open to that lens of seeing the connection between what you believe and how that shows up in caring for the community. For Jesus followers, I always lean into Jeremiah 29, where it says seek the shalom, the wellbeing of the place in which God calls you.

What are some on-ramps for churches and individual Christians who want to engage more deeply in these issues?

As a church, I think you look at, what is your vision? You have articulated a mission, and you probably have a set of strategies that you believe will get you there. How do those strategies align to the broader community’s vision of strategies around the Top 25? Finding that commonality is probably the place to start.

As an example, I’ve worked with a couple of churches who really care about early learning. And so when they saw the work around kindergarten readiness, that’s where they wanted to engage—working on the Ready to Learn initiative.

And then the next conversation is helping people understand what the project is, the work to date, and then bringing that stakeholder partner who is leading it and saying, “First Free would love to get behind this project.”

Another area that I think could also be easy onboarding is around neighborhoods. We have an initiative called Great Neighborhoods. … Core to it is asset-based community development … which looks at the strength of neighborhoods and starts there. So it doesn’t see people, places and amenities as liabilities, but it starts to see things through the lens of your strengths. And how can you build on those strengths while you are also trying to tackle the huge barriers for a healthy neighborhood?

We just had a meeting with another church today and they are interested in engaging there, because that’s a very tangible way to start—the neighborhood around you. You’re not trying to start a neighborhood association. You’re not trying to do for the neighborhood. But First Free in that situation could be a convener of multiple stakeholders and residents in the neighborhood, to say, “What’s top of mind for you? What do you love about this place? What would you want to see improved?” That could be the start of some pretty big work.

As an example, the Edgewater neighborhood. That’s exactly what they did. Once they went through the process of asset mapping and really building up their strengths, it was transformational for the residents to say “Wow, we have a story to tell. We have a lot going here.” And they actually produced a branding and marketing video to attract people to their neighborhood. It is one of the neighborhoods in our region that is consistently attracting people cross-generationally and even cross-ethnically. It’s pretty amazing.

So it’s definitely something that First Free could see as grassroots local missions, and then link up with the work that’s happening throughout other neighborhoods.

Please be as candid as you want on this. How do you think the faith community here is doing with engaging in Rockford and the things that you are about?

The faith community was more engaged in the early days. We used to have a clergy unity team and we were developing values and vision. Once the strategies were set and the plan started coming together and moving towards projects, we lost a lot of participation. Not all, but many leaders within the faith community struggled with, “Where do we go from here? Where do we get engaged? How do we get our folks involved?”

I also think about what I see in the churches here—silos and pockets of goodness. And that affects the collaboration. There are good things happening, but it’s very siloed. That being said, in the past 18 months or so I have seen much more collaboration happening between churches. Pastors coming together and saying “Hey, what if we were to tackle this project?” So I am very hopeful that it will just build, build, build.

I think the best thing the church of Rockford could do right now is to say, “We know there’s a place for us. Let’s discern and figure out where that’s at.” And then quickly pivot to, “There are probably others who are also thinking about this, wanting to do this, or doing it.” So you may find yourself linking arms with another initiative or another church or organization, or you may be the genesis. It would just accelerate engagement.

What do you think accounts for the siloing?

I don’t think it’s coming from a place of intending to do that. I think it’s just culturally embedded. We don’t naturally say, “Who else might also be interested in this work?” Those are key questions at the outset—“All right, this is a great idea, but who else could we pivot to join in this work?” Or, “How can we join someone else in this work?”

Instead, there’s usually a pivot toward, “Let’s build the program. Let’s get the volunteers.” It’s very organization-driven and not collaborative network driven, instead of having the mindset that “We are part of an ecosystem. We are part of a community. We are probably not the only ones thinking about this. But we want to be in this space, and we are going to do our best to figure out who else does.”

I also think there’s a spirit of competition, just through decades of church relationships and church splits and church plants.

So it’s about switching some of those mindsets, then?

It’s about starting with a mindset of partner—we have an idea, but we also know that it’s going to be even greater when we partner. History is what it is, but going forward, we feel like God is calling our church to this work. Who can we partner with? I think this is exactly what creates the healthier church environment in our community.

What you described feels like a particular hazard for a large church, because you have so many resources in-house that sometimes you don’t even think about needing to partner.

I agree 100 percent. I find myself, too, leading this large movement of people, you can quickly get to a place where you forget to ask, “Did we scan the whole environment for other stakeholders?”

That’s the power of this. Whether you as a church went down the neighborhoods route or another area, you probably would discover people right around your campus who are thinking about a whole lot of things, and who probably didn’t know First Free was thinking about those, too.

How can we pray for you and for Transform Rockford? 

Pray for the Top 25 vision, that it would continue to be a way to draw us all into a better community, a better future.

As we think about COVID, it has been a significant impact for all of us. Be praying that our community heartbeat is about seeing people thrive, that this is a place of hope and a place where people really feel like they can thrive, grow up, make a difference.

And then pray for increased collaboration. That we continue to collaborate cross-sector, across organizations, across neighborhoods. And across communities, not just the City of Rockford.

This has been so encouraging. Thanks for what you and Transform Rockford are doing.

I’m thankful for this opportunity and would love to see where it goes and how I can be of help to your church finding its way into the community plan. Saying something like, “Hey, we’re thinking about arts and rec,” or “We’re thinking about families in neighborhoods.” Whatever that ends up being. And then let’s have further dialogue. Whether it’s one, two, or a thousand people within your church who are engaged, this work accelerates.

Jim Killam
Jim Killam is a journalist, author, teacher and terminal Cubs fan. He and his wife, Lauren, live in Rockford and work internationally with Wycliffe Bible Translators.

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