Peer Exchange Network Convenes Leaders from Across the U.S. on Indy’s Near Eastside

In mid-September, 40 key stakeholders from Promise Zones and P3 (Performance Partnership Pilot) communities across the nation gathered at the John Boner Neighborhood Centers in Indianapolis to reflect on the IndyEast Promise Zone’s community-based collaboration and education strategies. Facilitated by the U.S. Department of Education and Jobs for the Future, the convening provided an opportunity for learning and networking between partner communities.

The first day of the convening focused on the history of the Near Eastside, specifically its long-term development of a culture of engagement in which neighbors and organizations regularly depend on each other to improve regional socioeconomic conditions. Participants learned of the years of neighbor and organizational partner engagement and collaboration that led to the conception of the Near Eastside Quality of Life Plan, a document that outlines the goals that Near Eastside neighbors have set in order to address areas of concerns in their communities and which served as a key informant of the IndyEast Promise Zone’s goals. The neighborhood-oriented, community-minded culture of Indianapolis’ Near Eastside is a conspicuous component of the IndyEast Promise Zone, as was evident when it became the first Promise Zone to be housed in a community organization instead of a city agency (followed only by the Evansville Promise Zone). That culture also produced the IndyEast Achievement Zone, whose geographic coverage overlaps with much of the Promise Zone geography, in subsequent years to establish and act upon educational priorities on the Near Eastside.

Mike Bowling, a pastor at Englewood Christian Church and long-time Near Eastside resident, heavily emphasized this as he extolled the importance of trust and collaboration to the success of Near Eastside initiatives. According to Bowling, cultivation of the engagement-based culture of which he spoke came from the strong and flexible leadership of several key figures in the community.


Mike Bowling of Englewood Christian Church explains the history of the “10 year overnight success” of the Near Eastside.


Wilbur Cave, the Special Projects Director for Allendale County Alive in South Carolina, asked how easy it would be to replicate the Near Eastside’s leadership, as its members seem so unique, to which panelists responded that “cultivating innovative and imaginative leadership… [requires] looking for the assets that already exist in the community that reflects a real conviction that they exist…and then employing them well.”

In addition to coalition-building, funding was also a hot topic among many attendees. A panel of grantors gave insight into their selection process, specifically by highlighting desirable qualities of prospective grant recipients and the importance of networking and building relationships. Authentic relationships between grantors and prospective grantees tend to produce goodwill that increases the likelihood of better outcomes for grant applicants, the panelists said. A tour of the IndyEast Promise Zone followed the panel, ending with a networking reception.


Participants boarded the JBNC bus for their tour of the IndyEast Promise Zone. Prominent sites included the Educator’s Village, a project of Near East Area Renewal (NEAR), and the Boner Fitness and Learning Center.


The second day of the PEN Conference featured local elementary students, from whom PEN Conference participants spent the morning learning about Thomas Gregg Neighborhood School (TGNS), an Innovation Network School that opened in 2017, and its instructional model, which emphasizes individualized learning. TGNS was originally a product of community engagement events, where neighbors contributed to a “wish list” for the new school. One of the education panel presenters at the PEN conference, Jamie Vandewalle from Indianapolis Public Schools, cited strong community involvement and dedicated leadership by the John Boner Neighborhood Centers as reasons for the school district’s committed support in TGNS’ transition from a traditional public school to an Innovation school. Vandewalle and her fellow panelists also highlighted the importance of a school administration that truly understands and is informed by student families in its decision-making and resource allocation, can have on the community to which it belongs.

“It’s the best little neighborhood school that the Near Eastside of Indy could ever see,” said the school’s Executive Director, Ross Pippin.


A Thomas Gregg sixth grader explains the “Social Emotional Learning” classroom to participants.


Over the course of the PEN Conference, the presentations, tours, and participant discussions all seemed to return to “trust” and “collaboration,” phenomena that Near Eastside neighbors and partner organizations have consistently exhibited and attributed their successes to. By most accounts, collaboration and trust between lead organizations on the Near Eastside have catalyzed the area’s “10-year overnight success” and contributed to its ability to attract the financial, social, and intellectual capital needed to perpetuate regional growth. By showcasing the Near Eastside’s successes, the PEN Conference sparked ideas and conversations that are likely to shape the perspectives and decisions of hosts and attendees alike going forward.

After all, in the words Beth Bray of the Walton Family Foundation during the funder’s panel, “We need to stop being proud of ourselves just for having a conversation. We need to make those conversations into action.”