"Web exclusive: Olgen Williams, deputy mayor of neighborhoods -- the complete interview" 

 

NUVO: First of all, would you describe what the role of deputy mayor for neighborhoods is going to be?

Olgen Williams: Well, under Mayor Ballard, I think, the deputy mayor for neighborhoods should be out there in the neighborhoods. I’m going to listen to neighborhood concerns and issues, and then see how we can deal with those concerns raised with the resources we have available already. It’s about working with them and their plans to control their own destiny; just being a facilitator and a support for them, because those people in the community know best.

NUVO: What would you like to accomplish in the next six months? Are you still at the point of getting to know people around the city?

Williams: Getting to know people, seeing what plans are already out there; I’m quite sure we’re not trying to undo anything or reinvent anything. If it’s working already, we want to keep it working and see how we can improve on it. I know there’s the GINI neighborhoods [Great Indy Neighborhoods] started in the past administration. It’s still out there in the neighborhoods and has done lots of work.

We’ve got six plans on the table right now. We’re going to look at them and see how we can tie the GINI plan into the whole city plans for quality of life issues, hopefully tying in some faith-based stuff and some ex-offender reintegration plans. We’ll see what’s out there and just move forward at that point.

NUVO: Do you have any long-term plans? What do you hope to accomplish by the time you leave here?

Williams: We’d love to see a reduction in crime, see the quality of life improve, self-empowerment of the neighborhood groups getting involved. We’d like to see a cleaner city, with the neighborhoods and residents getting involved, going back to “Don’t be a litterbug”: Everybody is concerned about trash and fixing a broken window in all communities. Other issues are trying to make sure that we can find people jobs; the creation of business coming into the city, make sure it’s attractive so they want to come into Marion County; working with people coming out of arrest or imprisonment, making them a citizen in a community; working on the abandoned housing issue to reduce those numbers of abandoned houses and vacated properties (maybe they could be a homeownership opportunity for someone who has never had a roof over their head permanently); and working with the education system to improve the graduation rate in the county.

NUVO: You’ve already done some work as a community leader, uniting diverse communities — Haughville, Stringtown and Hawthorne, all places with [people of] different backgrounds. How can you bring that to your work to try to unite, in some way, a very diverse city?

Williams: I’ve found out in working with people that we basically all want the same thing. You take a list of basic things: food, clothes, shelter, protection; the other things that we want are clean streets and alleys; we want potholes filled. So we all basically want the same thing. I’ve found out that if you respect people, treat them with respect and civility, give them an opportunity to express themselves, and show them that they are of value and that we’re all in this together, that you can come together. We may have our differences in areas, but differences can strengthen us; we may not even all agree in a room, but the goal is to have a solution when we leave the room.

NUVO: How can you crack down on peoples’ defenses, so that you can show a certain amount of respect if there’s reasons that they don’t trust the city?

Williams: I’ve found that when people work together and accomplish goals, they find out that they can trust one another, and that we’re all in this together as citizens of Indianapolis, and that we cannot, by any means, not work together. The mayor was elected by the citizens; therefore, this administration [is made up of] servants to the city, and they can trust us, because we’re here to serve you. We have no hidden agendas: The mayor is open and honest, the finances will be open, and we’ll be honest about what’s been going and what we’re doing. So there’s nothing to hide. And we’re going to try to take the resources, be good stewards of those resources and give them back to the community.

NUVO: You’re already written about what you see as the keys to successful community organizing. I’m wondering, on the other side of the fence, as someone that now facilitates organizing, how you think you can make that happen.

Williams: We can’t do it by ourselves, and I’m no guru, or magician, or magic person. I realize that there are lots of great people that have great ideas out there, and there are lots of great practitioners out there that do the work already, and have the resources. And what we’ll do is pull from that pile of resources, give people an opportunity to exercise their ideas and their thoughts, and process and bring solutions together. Realize that we’re just servants of the community, and the greatest leader is the greatest servant. So we’re trying to encourage leadership in a way that, if they lead, they’ll begin to see results. That’s when they’ll see that they have to step up and be part of the process; sometimes that [involvement] is appreciated, sometimes it’s not. But you’ll see the results in changes in the neighborhood, in accomplishments that you’ve done. So, I’ve found that when people accomplish things, they feel good, and they want to get more involved.

NUVO: Just in these first few weeks that you’ve been here, what have you been surprised by? What issues have been brought to your attention that you were unfamiliar with?

Williams: Surprised? I don’t know if I’m surprised, but I feel like Mayor Ballard has an awesome vision for the city. He really means it. He’s not trying to do away with old practices, but he’s trying to shift the paradigm somewhat, to allow the city to control its own destiny, and allow the staff to get out and do new things. Surprised? No surprises, but you get a deluge of requests and program ideas right now, which is great; we need those. Just the great surprise is probably the fact that so many people want to get involved; so many people want to be part of building this community up. And they really want to be: People keep on saying, “I want to help. I want to help. I don’t want a job; I want to help. Let me help. If you need volunteers to come and clean the office up, let me help. I have an idea, and when we get time, I want to talk about it.” So it’s kind of surprising that there’s all the people that really want to jump aboard with Mayor Ballard and make this work for the city.

NUVO: Would you dare to compare — in terms of working on community issues — Mayor Ballard and Mayor Goldsmith? I think you described Goldsmith as an “out-of-the-box Republican”; would you say the same of Mayor Ballard?

Williams: Out-of-the-box in the sense that he’s not what people would think he would be. One, he’s not a politician — not that there’s anything bad about being a politician, by any means — but I think he’s in it for real results; he’s in it to see quality of life improve for all citizens of Indianapolis, leaving no one behind. And I can’t compare him 17 or 18 days into the job. Mayor Goldsmith was good to work with; Mayor Peterson was good to work with. My job is just to serve. Mayor Ballard has a vision for the city; our goal, as part of that staff, is to help him complete that vision. It’s yet to be determined what it’s going to look like in four years, but I do know we have four years to do what the vision is calling for: to improve the quality of life for all citizens in Indianapolis in all strata of life, and to deal with some negative elements.

I’m very optimistic, very excited in my first two and a half weeks on the job; I think the whole staff is excited about the leadership that we’re working under; and we’re getting great community support. Everything’s not going to be perfect. We’re probably going to make a few mistakes, maybe lots of mistakes; I don’t know. But the key is trying to pick ourselves up after those mistakes, trying to correct them, and moving on. We can’t do it by ourselves; it takes the whole city and all the citizens of Indianapolis to be concerned about this city. It takes everyone willing to step up to the table. We have a truckload of criticism; there’s no problem finding that. We’ve got the blockers and knockers. What we’re trying to look for is people with solutions: solutions that can be done short-term, mid-term, long-term. And we ask those residents to come to the table. It may be a homeless family that has a solution about homelessness, so we need to listen to that family. It may be a CEO in a corporate office that has a solution about gang violence. So we want to listen to everyone, and we want to see what's doable and what we can implement to improve quality of life.

NUVO: How will you make yourself accessible so that people can get those ideas to you and to your office?

Williams: I will make myself as accessible as possible. There’s 24 hours and seven days a week. I won’t be accessible all those days, not every hour; I’ve got to spend some time with my wife Mary. But most of my time. My phone number is here — my phone number is easy to find. I’ve got an e-mail address, an executive assistant that will help us plan. I cannot be the deputy mayor of neighborhoods on the 25th floor: I have to be the deputy mayor of neighborhoods in the neighborhoods. I have to be out there with the people and listen. They’re going to have to give me some time, though, to help put the work together and put the players into place. We’re going to be out there as much as I can — I have no problem working late at night, my wife is accustomed to that from Christamore House anyways. At Christamore I had to work six days a week anyway, and now I’ll have to work six and a half days a week at this job. But it’s enjoyable; it’s an avocation and vocation for me. I really enjoy and feel really blessed to have this opportunity to work in this administration. No one asked me before to do this type of work for the city. People asked me, “How did you get the job?” I filled an application out and got interviewed. People don’t believe me, they thought I campaigned, did some stuff; no, I didn’t do that.

NUVO: You mentioned one lapse while you were a community organizer, where the city announced a huge program behind your back and you were taken by surprise — I think it was the Youth Fair Chance grant. I’m wondering how you can avoid that in your position, as far as taking some step without community involvement.

Williams: I discussed this with someone yesterday about a program someone sent me. I said, “I want to do it. But does the neighborhood know about it? Have we told the neighborhood about it? It’s not for me to say OK; it’s for them to say OK.” I may think it’s the greatest thing since sliced bread, but if they don’t think it’s the greatest thing, then we have to relook at it, and tell the people or developers that the neighborhood said no. So you’re going to have to go work it out with them. Everything that’s on the table that we’re thinking about doing, I’m going to make sure to bring it to the community and say, “Let’s have this conversation.” If we think we want to go for a grant in a neighborhood, maybe on a short timeline, I’m going to call the neighborhood. I don’t want to call the neighborhood leaders and organization to the table after we put the pins on the map. I want to call them to help put the pins on the map; therefore, that empowers them, they have ownership, and you get a better plan that way.

NUVO: What do you think of the argument that was made about the Front Porch Alliance that city monies or federal monies shouldn’t necessarily be directed towards faith-based organizations for various reasons: separation of church of state … ?

Williams: I don’t think there was any city money, maybe a little …

NUVO: I think there was a balance of …

Williams: Maybe a balance of grants, donations. The faith community is a part of the city of Indianapolis, a big part. The Front Porch Alliance is going to be reformed, but it won’t be … If a person doesn’t have any faith, that doesn’t mean they can’t be part of the Front Porch Alliance. The Front Porch Alliance won’t be a pulpit to preach religious dogma. The Front Porch Alliance is going to be a vehicle to address quality of life, using the faith community as a resource. That doesn’t mean you can’t be a part of it: It’s going to be diverse in its makeup and its structure. It’s going to go out to all communities as a tool to address quality of life. We don’t have a religious dogma to preach in the city; we have an interest in quality of life, and to ignore the faith community is like ignoring the police community or the education community. You’ve got 1,100 churches or more in the area, and that’s a great resource. We’re not trying to get into a synagogue or mosque to tell them how they’re going to do that. We’re saying: You’re in the community, why not be a part of the community and a tool of the community?

One thing we learned in the Westside is that we embraced everybody, no matter what religious belief you had, or if you had any. Because, it you’re an atheist, Muslim, Buddhist, Christian, whatever you may be, you do not want to drive your car across a chuckhole or a pothole. You do not want to live in a community that has trash on the streets. So if you don’t believe in a higher power, believe in a higher power, if you’re just agnostic, we can clean up the alley together, and you’re not going to not use the shovel because the church bought it, are you? It doesn’t matter who bought it, and the goal is to get them to buy it with their money.

The most we are going to try to d

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Scott Shoger

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Scott Shoger staggered up to NUVO's door one summer afternoon, a little drunk, poor and crazy-haired, muttering about future Mayor Ballard. He was taken in, hosed down, given NUVO-emblazoned clothes to wear and allowed to work in exchange for food and bylines. Refusing to leave the premises, he was hired on as... more

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