Nearing its half-century mark, Norris Square Neighborhood Project maintains its commitment to community strength
The nonprofit was selected earlier this year as a recipient of a Philadelphia Cultural Treasures grant, which will aid its mission to promote community and art.
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In 1973, two educators — one an elementary school teacher, the other a college professor — came to the realization that various improvements could be made to the Norris Square community for its youth.
Historically, the area had been known for its alarming drug culture, high violence, and abandoned properties.
The two teachers collaborated with a group of dedicated volunteer teachers, artists, and a local Puerto Rican women’s group to co-found the Norris Square Neighborhood Project (NSNP).
The organization has strived to change the narrative of the neighborhood. It offers youth and community residents a safe space to explore culture and social justice issues, create art, and develop sustainable agricultural skills.
“Anyone that I’ve ever met whose kids went through the program… what they remember is being outdoors and just having a wonderful outdoor experience,” said Teresa Elliott, executive director of NSNP, in an interview with AL DÍA.
There is also a cultural component of the organization’s programming, as six active community gardens exist as part of the Project.
“They all represent a different part of the Puerto Rican culture,” said Elliott. “And we also have after school programs that focus somewhat on promoting and preserving Puerto Rican culture.”
Over its nearly 50 years of existence, the NSNP has strived to unite and inspire youth and families with the use of community strength by engaging them with the environment and art, while promoting Latinx cultures, through food, history, and artistic expression.
The vision is a world where youth and adults can positively engage one another, promote cultural awareness and preservation, and advocate for a healthier future for all.
Overcoming Pandemic Challenges
Elliott joined NSNP in April 2019, after the organization had spent over a year without an executive director, instead being led exclusively by its board.
“At the time I came, there were about four full-time staff, so things were very precarious financially,” she said.
Upon her appointment as executive director, Elliott set out to pick up the pieces, strengthen its various programs, and re-engage funding agencies.
Less than a year later, however, the pandemic hit.
“It was a tough time,” said Elliott about the onset of the pandemic. “Many of the families of the kids that we serve were affected by job loss and evictions.”
Some of the children were struggling to attend the organization’s virtual programs, and as a result, the organization lost some of its funding.
“Because some of our funding and our contracts were tied to attendance,” Elliott said.
Like many organizations large and small, NSNP was heavily affected by the pandemic. Subsequently, as an organization that promotes diversity and culture, its staff was also impacted by the social unrest that took place in the aftermath of the George Floyd murder.
“It was a tough couple [of] years, I have to say we had a lot of tears in the building,” said Elliott.
Slowly, but surely, however, things started to pick back up again.
Hybrid programming was able to get implemented, and the organization was able to obtain some COVID relief money.
This afforded the NSNP the ability to hire additional staff and use some of the funding for garden assistance.
“We just got stronger and we were able to hire staff that has really had some strong capacities in programming and in grant writing.”
New Funding Breeds New Opportunities
Fast forward to earlier this year, and NSNP was selected as one of 16 local organizations to receive a Philadelphia Cultural Treasures grant.
Launched in December 2021 by the William Penn Foundation, the Philadelphia Cultural Treasures is a multi-year grant program aimed at supporting Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) cultural groups, artists, and organizations that play an exceptional role in the Greater Philadelphia region.
The program aims to create new opportunities for artists, creatives, and culture-bearers of color and recognize their important and enduring contributions to Philadelphia and its residents.
The process of applying for the program — which included explaining why the organization should be classified as a “cultural treasure” — was one that Elliott noted helped the organization “think big.”
“I don’t think we knew how to think big, and so the award that we got was beyond what we would have imagined,” she added.
As Elliott and NSNP look forward to the future of the organization in regard to the new funding, its mission remains front and center.
“Our focus right now keeps going back to our mission, which is to unite and inspire youth and families using the strength of our community,” Elliott said.
The goal is to continue lifting up that mission, and this funding will help NSNP push that endeavor forward.
Physically, that means beautifying its community gardens and infrastructure, but it also means promoting different cultural events and programming, making it more inclusive to the community.
Elliott admits that it has often been difficult for organizations like NSNP to get funding.
However, she notes that this new funding is critical and a great opportunity as the organization approaches its 50th anniversary in 2023.